Written for and published by TotalJobs.com, here.
Work can be an uphill climb for autistic people. Colleague support can smooth out the gradient and make it easier going, explains Janine Booth, co-chair of the TUC Disabled Workers’ Committee.
Each person’s brain is wired differently, but nearly all jobs assume typical brain wiring. Autistic people can find the workplace hostile because we have atypical brain wiring (not faulty, just different).
You may have autistic workmates, whether you (or they) know it or not. If we’re struggling, it’s because workplaces, and the way that work is organised, can be very distressing. This is the main reason why only around 16% of autistic adults are estimated to be in full-time employment.
1. Don’t mock or exclude the ‘workplace weirdo’
Autistic people see, hear and feel the world differently to other people. We can have unusual habits or mannerisms, but that is no excuse for ignoring or humiliating us.
Your autistic colleague might talk a lot about, say, trains – but is that really any less acceptable than going on about your favourite football team or last night’s TV?
We may have rituals that seem odd but actually help us to regulate ourselves and remain calm. So if we rock on our chair, arrange our pens in a particular order, or skip around the car park a couple of times a day – so what?
Challenge people who laugh at or bully us. Invite us to lunch or to after-work drinks, but respect our decision if we say no.
2. Be sensitive to sensory sensitivities
We are often more sensitive than typical people to some sensory inputs and/or less sensitive to others. We are different from each other as well as from you. Don’t expect us to have the same sensitivities as the other autistic person you know.
Your autistic workmate may be more comfortable working away from background noise or strong smells. They might prefer the lights to be turned down or are unable to wear the usual uniform. Accept this and make it happen.
3.Say what you mean
Many workplaces have their own jargon, and people who work together often banter. This can become a problem. Autistic people tend to think literally, so it’s probably best to avoid telling your workmate to ‘break the ice’ (unless you work in a frozen food shop) or that you are ‘pulling their leg’ (unless you’re giving them physiotherapy).
Don’t rely on additional social clues such as gestures or tone of voice to get your message across. Say what you mean, all of what you mean, and nothing but what you mean.
And don’t expect your workmate to use these social cues, or to hold eye contact with you. We aren’t being rude or inattentive, we’re concentrating on what you are saying rather than what you look like.
4. Don’t disrupt your colleague’s routine or ways of working
Disruption is distressing for us. Stick to schedules and give as much notice as possible of any unavoidable changes. If you tell your workmate that you will do something at a particular time then stick to that, or if it becomes impossible, tell us as soon as you can.
Allow us to exercise maximum control over how we work. Don’t rearrange our desk. Let us sit in the same seat at every meeting if we want to. If we have a mentor or support worker, accept this.
5. Show support and solidarity
If your workmate becomes distressed, try to understand why and offer support. Get together with us and other workmates, perhaps through your trade union, and ask your employer to take measures to make the workplace more comfortable and accessible.
These could include introducing a quiet room, letting your colleague work different hours, changing the sensory environment, or reallocating duties among the workforce so you each do what suits you best.