Macmillan Learning recently partnered with the Rutgers Center for Adult Autism Services (RCAAS) to learn more about supporting employees and coworkers with autism in the workplace. The presentation was led by Giulietta Flaherty, a third year School Psychology doctoral student, and Jane Matto, a senior at Rutgers University and member of the College Support Program who has spoken at various events to discuss her experiences with Autism Spectrum Disorder. They were joined by Courtney Butler, M.S., BCBA, the Program Coordinator of the College Support Program (CSP) for students on the autism spectrum at Rutgers.
During the presentation, Giulietta and Jane discussed what autism is, provided strategies to best support employees and coworkers with autism, and emphasized autism as something to be acknowledged and celebrated. The event was organized and facilitated by Macmillan Learning’s employee resource group, AVID (Awareness of Visible and Invisible Disabilities). Here are the key takeaways from their presentation:
What is autism?
According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5, 2013), autism is defined as a neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by deficits in social communication and restricted and repetitive patterns of behavior, interest, and activities.
What is the importance of language when considering people with autism?
Diagnostic labels can be important, but sometimes carry a stigma. What should one say when talking about a fellow employee: employee with autism or autistic employee? There is no wrong answer here because it depends on personal preference. In the past, clinicians used identity-first language (autistic employee), but members of the autism community then felt that they wanted to be identified as a person first and preferred person-first language (employee with autism). Thereafter, members of the autism community began to reclaim identity-first language, so it’s important to ask what different people prefer.
Why is understanding of autism important?
More people with autism are attending college and entering the workforce. Companies want to hire these individuals and just like other people, people with autism bring their own unique strengths and talents.
How can one best support autistic employees?
Employees with autism should be treated the same way that all employees are treated, though additional understanding of people with autism will create a more inclusive workplace. People with autism typically experience social situations differently or have social difficulties. For example, people with autism might struggle with:
Interacting with new people or places. If they’re a new employee, they may find it difficult to find their way around the office or fear asking for help.
Maintaining eye contact. For some people with autism, maintaining eye contact feels as intimate as kissing another person.
Demonstrating emotions with facial expressions. A person with autism may be happy but not actively smiling. Similarly, they may not readily recognize other peoples’ facial expressions.
Understanding differences in tone of voice. People with autism might also speak regularly with a neutral tone of voice.
Understanding sarcasm or exaggeration. This can include verbal and visual communication or messages via email.
Intensive pervasive interests. People with autism often have an interest or activity, which they can fixate their energy on.
Following social norms. A person with autism may not always say hello when entering a room or thank someone who has offered help or assistance.
All people with autism are different, and it’s important to remember that just because they don’t follow the exact social norms you may be accustomed to (like maintaining eye contact or greeting you), it does not mean that they are intentionally being rude.
Knowing that people with autism might have these social difficulties, employers and colleagues can make social interactions easier. The following can benefit all employees, not just those with autism:
Allowing time for breaks in social environments.
Being literal. Remember that autistic people may not always understand sarcasm or exaggeration. Provide concrete deadlines and clear expectations.
Avoiding physical touch. People with autism may experience something such as a high five as being too intimate.
Being considerate when giving constructive criticism.
Not taking their behavior personally. As mentioned above, autistic people may not always follow social norms, so their response may not be directed at you personally.
In addition to social differences, people with autism also experience sensory differences. One difference in autistic people is what’s known as stereotypy, which is the persistent repetition of an act for no obvious purpose. This can be vocal stereotypy: humming, laughing, shrieking, or talking to oneself; or it can be motor stereotypy: hand flapping or a tic in the neck. It’s important to remember that everyone engages in stereotypy–things like cracking one’s knuckles or tapping their foot–but people with autism are typically more stigmatized for this type of behavior.
People with autism might also experience executive functioning difficulties. Executive functioning skills are the mental processes that people use to plan, focus attention, self-regulate, remember instructions, and juggle multiple tasks successfully. So, when giving directions, it’s important to:
Write out explicit steps and give these written instructions to your employees.
Assign tasks in order of most important to least important.
Check for understanding and clarity.
Provide visual examples and use modeling.
Many of the strategies for working with autistic employees are generally good management tips and advice for working with all types of employees. Managers should provide one-on-one support to employees who may be struggling, whether that be in social situations or with a specific work task; they should speak privately with employees about performance issues; and they should provide validation and encouragement.