17 November 2016

How can autism affect someone in the workplace?

Working with autistic people can be an enriching experience for managers and colleagues alike, and we feel passionately that many employers are missing out on an untapped workforce full of talent and potential... and this is exactly what businesses like yours need.

Many autistic individuals have a great deal to offer the world of work and may have unique skills and abilities that will help an organisation thrive. We think an autism-confident business will attract and deliver:

  • the right people 
  • higher productivity at reduced costs
  • innovative products and services 
  • outstanding customer relationships, satisfaction and retention 
  • stronger stakeholder relationships and reputation.

As well as their individual strengths and talents, autistic candidates may demonstrate above-average skills in some or all of the following areas:
  • problem-solving skills and attention to detail
  • high levels of concentration
  • reliability and loyalty
  • technical ability and specialist skills and interests
  • detailed factual knowledge and an excellent memory
  • tenacity
  • resourcefulness.

Despite all of the above, only 16% of autistic individuals are in full-time employment, and those who are will often face difficulties and challenges (many of which are easily removed). Some examples of workplace difficulties are:

Sensory sensitivity

This is when things in the immediate environment become overwhelming and can cause extreme anxiety. For example, harsh overhead lighting, the sound of a printer continually in use or background office chatter could all prove difficult for an autistic employee and can ultimately impact on the person’s productivity levels and well-being in work. Find out more about sensory sensitivity.

Colleague relationships

The ability to develop working relationships relies on being able to build small talk, engage in ‘banter’, accurately interpret non-verbal communication, maintain appropriate eye contact and correctly follow the unwritten rules of the workplace. 

Finding these things difficult can sometimes lead to poor working relationships and the autistic colleague feeling isolated.

Interpreting ambiguous instructions

Autistic people often take language literally and can find it difficult to interpret what is needed from ambiguous phrases. For example ‘can you get this report to me?’ the literal answer is either yes or no, however what you are probably asking is for your employee to complete and submit the report to you by a certain time. 

Lack of autism understanding

Many autistic adults may have learnt coping strategies or avoidant behaviours so it will not be immediately obvious that they have any difficulties.  

While autism understanding is improving, it is important to gain better understanding with specific training and advice in the context of work.

Ensuring your autistic colleague is fully supported does not have to be costly. Don’t lose these amazing strengths by feeling overwhelmed by the things you think you need to do to support your autistic colleague. Some simple adjustments such as a desk in a location that does not create sensory problems, regular meetings with a manager, tasks given in both verbal and written format, agendas and buddy systems can all make the workplace more accessible.


We have many success stories where autistic employees have thrived with the right support from their employers and we would like to inspire you to become autism champions and take the relevant steps forward to becoming autism-friendly employers. If you have an inspirational story you would like to share, please contact Richmal.maybank@nas.org.uk.

Read about other people's positive experiences.

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