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Autism-inclusive Workplaces: How to create and why they're important

  • Publish Date: Posted about 2 months ago
  • Author:by MERJE
  • Autism currently affects 1 to 2% of the UK population
  • Just 22% of autistic adults are in any kind of employment
  • Neurodiverse workforces can be more productive, in some cases by 30%

World Autism Awareness Day is an internationally recognised event which takes place on April 2 every year. It encourages people to raise awareness about people with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) throughout the world.

As part of our MERJE Together pledge, we believe that it’s vital to give every person the platform to perform to the best of their ability in their working environment.

This, of course, extends beyond our own organisation and into those of our clients and the wider business community, so that everyone is in a position to set the right example.

With this at the forefront of our minds, we’re keen to explore why it’s important to employ people with autism to create a thriving, neurodiverse workplace.

We also wanted to share our tips on how to implement changes to ensure that your working environment is both accessible and inclusive to those with autism.

What exactly is autism?

ASD is a complex, lifelong developmental disability which affects the way individuals interact and communicate with the wider world. Autism is a hidden disability which impacts different individuals to varying degrees. Some may exhibit superior intellect, while others may have additional learning disabilities.

Everybody on the autism spectrum has difficulty with social interaction, engagement and communication to some degree. Aspects like forming relationships can prove difficult for some and others might struggle with abstract thinking, such as organising and planning ahead. It’s common for people with autism to appreciate structure and routine, traits which are valuable in the world of work.

How many people have autism?

Autism currently affects 1 to 2% of the UK population, which equates to one per 100 children and two per 100 adults. Based on the number of referrals in the healthcare system, there are around 100,000 children and 1,000,000 adults in the UK with autism.

Benefits people with autism bring to the workplace

Findings published by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) show that only just over 1 in 5 autistic adults is in work, despite research showing the vast majority want to work. The disability employment gap in the UK is wide, but there are steps businesses can take to include neurodiverse individuals and many benefits that will come as a result.

Individuals with autism can have exceptional talents which are an invaluable asset to any business. While autism affects people to different extents, it’s common for individuals to possess skills that will enable them in a multitude of roles from the analytical to the creative, and some research has shown that neurodiverse teams are 30% more productive than others.

Sadly, because of difficulties with social interaction, alongside a general lack of understanding about the condition, people with Autism are often overlooked as potential candidates.

As well as displaying strong personal traits and characteristics, it’s common for people with autism to exude:

  • High concentration levels

  • Dependability and reliability

  • Attention to detail and accuracy

  • Technical abilities, particularly around coding and programming

  • Excellent memory and factual knowledge

By gaining a better understanding of autism, businesses will be able to attract exceptional talent, while fostering a more diverse, inclusive workplace which has a multitude of benefits.

How to create an autism inclusive workplace

Businesses have much to gain by understanding that making their workplaces suitable for people with autism shouldn’t just be a box-ticking exercise. Instead, it should be about seeking out talented individuals who can get the job done and add value to the business in more ways than just work experience.

Here are some ways to make your workplace more ASD friendly:

  • Set clear and logical rules around expectations, conduct and behaviour

  • Carve out a relaxation space in the workplace, such as a dedicated quiet room

  • Reduce sensory distraction/overload in the workplace, for example by maximising natural light, enabling easy control of light and temperature and eliminating strong smells

  • Provide information about autism and related support services so that all workers can access the help and advice they need

  • Incorporate training for managers and others about autism, including recognising positive assets and skills

  • Clearly and accurately write down and communicate all instructions, objectives, policies and frameworks to assist personal work organisation and allow people to meet their goals

  • Use objective and realistic criteria for assessments, appraisals and promotions

  • Carefully oversee work schedules - but avoid the temptation to micromanage - so that schedules are adhered to

  • Implement an open-door policy so that people know they can talk to you whenever they have any concerns they might wish to raise

  • Book regular one-to-one sessions for those who might lack the confidence to come forward otherwise

  • Include anti-bullying policies, to minimise the risk of harassment of workers with autism and so that managers or employees who bully or discriminate against them are appropriately dealt with.

Reasonable adjustments for individual ASD workers might include:

  • Allowing paid time off when needed

  • Offering fixed hours, rather than variable shifts

  • Locating an individual’s workstation in a less stimulating, quieter or less bright part of the office

  • Changing the work location, for example, to be nearer to home or support facilities, or allowing people to work from home should they need to

  • Implementing a flexible working hours policy

  • Giving extra breaks to enable relaxation

  • Providing a dedicated mentor

  • Introducing individual support where schedules are unavoidably disrupted when changes are introduced

  • Adjusting how assessments are carried out

  • Offering a clear routine and work schedule

  • Providing a personal workstation, rather than sharing a workstation or ‘hot-desking’

  • Relaxing triggers for disciplinary action for matters such as sickness absence or mistakes arising from executive function impairment

  • Adding time off for treatment and appointments as part of a policy for disability leave

  • Re-allocating some work to colleagues, with their agreement.

What you need to know about The Equality Act

This act came into force in 2010 and is designed to improve equality and diversity across UK workplaces. After passing the act, it became illegal for employers to discriminate against individuals based on any kind of disability. The act covers interview arrangements, job offers, employment terms, dismissal and redundancy, to name a few areas.

It also requires employers to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ to the workplace to accommodate people who have a disability, such as by providing special equipment or more flexible working hours. Employers are allowed to ask questions regarding an individual’s disability, but only if it majorly affects their ability to carry out their day-to-day responsibilities.

Cultivating a nurturing environment where individuals with autism feel happy and secure while being offered the platform to display their strengths and talents, can lead to a workplace which is varied, fruitful and brimming with great ideas and positive energy. It also gives people the opportunity to shine in ways they might have once believed to be impossible while bolstering employee loyalty and productivity.

If you would like to discuss this or any of the topics covered in our articles, please get in touch.

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