The Autistic Employee Part 1: 28 tips for hiring people on the spectrum
Autistic people bring an immense amount of value to the workplace. We’re smart, we talented, we’re dedicated, we rarely lie, we’re not constrained by social expectations, we’re focused and we genuinely care about those around us. We experience the world in a completely different way to our neurotypical colleagues and our unique perspective turns the game on its head.
Some employers get this and some don’t. Some want to understand but they just don’t know how to go about it. They don’t know what to do or they think what they’re doing is right or enough. Sometimes it is and sometimes it isn’t.
Regardless of where an employer sits on this messy and incredibly human scale, the only thing that really matters is a willingness to: listen, learn and act. And then rinse and repeat as needed. It’s that simple and most of the time, accommodating the needs of an autistic person won’t cost you a cent.
Autistic people really just have a differently wired brain. We use different areas of our brain in different ways, we think differently and we experience the world at a heightened level of intensity. You can’t tell if a person is autistic just by looking at them. It’s invisible and autistic people deserve to be treated with the same level of respect, dignity and compassion as everyone else. We’re born this way and no you can’t train it out of us or change us- and you shouldn’t want to! Any efforts to change us are far better spent doing things that will enable you to get the best out of us just as we are. Besides, if we could change, we wouldn’t be autistic!
From the interview process, to getting ready to welcome a new autistic employee, to onboarding them and beyond, it’s easy to deliver a great new employee experience to an autistic person.
First things first: How did we get here and what do we know so far?
Hiring autistic people happens one of two ways: you either sought us out or we fell into your inbox via some happy accident.
If you sought us out, make sure you’re doing it for the right reasons. Ticking a diversity box, satisfying a quota or trying to do the ‘right thing’ aren’t valid reasons for seeking to hire autistic people. Seek us out for what we bring to the company table.
If you came looking for us, you already know about our neurodiversity but if we approached you, you may not know if a person is autistic or not. We don’t actually have to disclose that information. It is our choice and even if you suspect someone is autistic, you really shouldn’t ask. Also, I wasn’t diagnosed until the age of 29 and I haven’t changed jobs since. Therefore, every single job that I have ever applied for has been as an autistic person and no one knew- not even me.
You don’t know what you don’t know, so the following advice applies to situations when you do know that the person is autistic.
The interview process
Interviews are stressful for everyone but even more so for autistic people. We all know how important first impressions are and when you’re autistic, it doesn’t take much to come across in a way that prevents you from getting to the next stage. Some minor tweaks to the interview process on your end will enable us to be at our best, so you can see us for who we are.
1. Rethink and reimagine the interview process. A one on one conversation style interview will give you a much more accurate picture of an autistic person than a multi person panel style interview will. Also, assess from multiple angles through multiple channels eg. use a combination of written tests, face to face interviews, phone interviews etc.
2. I personally enjoy take home tasks that I can bring back at a later date and present in a team environment but not everyone and every role will be suited to this. If you do use a take home task, make sure you provide clear, written instructions and don’t use a current project that you’re trying to figure out for yourself. Use a real project that you’ve already completed or make one up based on a typical task that will be performed in the role by the successful candidate.
3. Always allow extra time for us to think before answering any questions and instead of rephrasing a question, simply wait and repeat the question if we ask you to. Silence doesn’t necessarily mean we didn’t understand you- we just a few extra seconds of space to think it through.
4. Ensure written assessments have clear instructions and allow extra time for reading. It doesn’t have to be much- an extra 15 minutes for a 60 minute test should be enough.
5. Group interviews and activities are definitely an option provided our autistic traits are taken into consideration when assessing our performance in these.
Before the autistic person starts work
Set them up for success before they set foot in the building. The smoother the transition into the new role, the faster they’ll be able to settle in and get on with doing the job.
6. Ensure your workplace culture is ready and willing to accept this kind of invisible diversity. Work with HR and any internal diversity networks or teams to ensure the right supports are in place for everyone.
7. Educate your new employee’s colleagues and managers on what it means to work with an autistic person and provide opportunities for them to ask questions. If you’re not qualified to do this- ask someone who is. It might be someone from HR, someone from an internal Diversity & Inclusion network or a third party provider.
8. Organise equipment and set up their workstation. Activity Based Work (ABW) environments do not work for autistic people- believe me I gave it a red hot go and ended up requesting a fixed workstation after about 8 months of trying to settle in a different spot each day. The time and productivity gains alone should justify the minor effort required to choose a desk and put a sign on it. Other employees will learn quite quickly to avoid it. I’ve never had an issue with mine and everyone knows where to find me!
Make their first few weeks a positive experience!
9. Ask if there’s anything you can do to make their work environment more comfortable. Sensory overload is very real and very serious. Lighting, sounds, textures, proximity to kitchens and more can have a massive impact on our ability to function. My current desk is in a section of the office that has purple walls, no morning sun, is next to a window and the ideal distance away from the printer and main traffic ways. It’s perfect my sensory differences.
10. Follow through. If you say you’re going to do something to support or help your new autistic employee- do it or assign it to someone else who can and tell your new employee.
11. Lose the personality/working style quizzes. It’s not helpful and those quizzes don’t always account for neurodiversity. Frankly, I think you can find a better way to spend that time. While you’re at it, ditch the group activity where we have to choose who gets to go on the last ship off the planet before it explodes as well.
12. Allow extra time for us to settle in and complete any induction training. If you generally give new employees a week to settle in, add on an extra day or two for autistic people.
13. Pair up your autistic new starter with a buddy to help them navigate their first few weeks in the organisation and ensure the buddy has capacity to focus on supporting them.
Beyond the first week
Think ahead, iterate and refine.
14. Continue to evaluate whether your workplace culture is as accepting as it could be and refine as needed. It’s an iterative process- you might not get it right first go and that’s ok but you need to commit to trying.
15. Continue to educate your autistic employee’s team and managers
16. Educate new employees as they join the workplace.
17. Continue to ask if your autistic employee has all the support they need. Needs change over time and also recognise that they may not have an answer for you right away, so give them time to think.
18. Have a plan for this person’s professional development and career progression. Autistic people are just like everyone else when it comes to career growth and skills development but we don’t always fit progression models. A little flexibility and planning will go a long way.
General things to remember when hiring autistic people
19. Our facial expressions don’t match how we feel so that stressed/puzzled/confused look on our faces might mean something else entirely. Just ask us how we’re feeling- we’ll tell you.
20. Understand that small talk doesn’t come easily to us. Talking about the weather etc to kill time in the elevator on the way to the interview room won’t put us at ease. In some cases, it actually might make the person more nervous because it’s an additional interaction that requires our attention and we’re focusing on the task ahead- nailing the interview.
21. Autistic people have trouble following the flow of a conversation. I struggle to know how to start or end a conversation and tend to interrupt because I don’t know when it’s my turn to talk. It’s not something I can just learn and it helps to either just keep talking or politely tell them you’re not finished.
22. Don’t tell us ‘don’t stress’ or anything even remotely similar. That will only make us even more anxious. We’re stressing because we care and we want to make a good first impression on you and we’re terrified we won’t measure up. Telling us not to stress only fuels those worries. Instead, address the cause of the stress, empathise and help us to resolve the issue.
23. Self-diagnosis is valid. I do have a formal diagnosis but it doesn’t come cheap and there can be long waiting times to see a specialist. Also, not everyone feels the need to obtain a formal diagnosis and that is perfectly fine too. It’s a personal choice. I chose to get mine because I felt I needed that level of certainty but not everyone does.
24. Recognise that most autistic adults prefer identity first language (‘autistic person’ instead of ‘person with autism’). For many autistic people, autism lies at the very heart of their identity- it’s a state of being rather than a state of having. Saying I have autism makes it sound like I carry it around in my purse with me. I am autistic. It’s what makes me, me.
25. No two autistic people are exactly the same. The spectrum is a collection of traits and each individual has their own unique configuration of those traits. Support needs are very much an individual thing.
26. Don’t focus on severity of symptoms and avoid telling us that you think it’s ‘mild’ or that we’re ‘not that autistic’. Autism is autism and mild is a word that never comes to mind when describing the intense way I experience the world!
27. Lose the stereotypes. I am really bad at maths! I’m not a genius, I really do have a husband and I am capable of living independently.
28. Let autistic people be their authentic selves at work and you will reap the rewards for quite some time. Autistic people are loyal, have a strong work ethic and don’t tend to change jobs often.
Remember, all you have to do is: listen, learn and act.
This article is the first in a four part series around supporting autistic people in the workplace to not only deliver great outcomes for the business, but also help us to grow as professionals and reach our full potential.