Dealing with autism

People with autism have a different way of information processing and therefore contribute positively to a healthy and diverse society. This requires a climate in which each individual has and sees the opportunity and possibilities to develop within his/her capacities and dreams. When it comes to autism, there is still a lot of ground to be gained here. Everyone can contribute to this.

At your place of work

An open attitude and direct contact forms the basis for strengthening mutual understanding. This will break your shyness of action. Because that is what many managers themselves experience when confronted with an employee with autism.

It is not strange if you do not immediately know what to do, this also sometimes applies to your employee with autism and the employees without autism. As a manager, you can break this 'circle of ignorance and detachment' on the shop floor. This will prevent the other person from feeling unaccepted, which will stand in the way of cooperation.

What do you need to know about autism in the workplace?

  • People with autism often present their surroundings with surprises, giving them a different (distorted) image of themselves. Underestimation often plays a role in the field of learning skills and intelligence. Overestimation is often about taking on tasks, planning, dealing with deadlines and pressure. It is precisely the inability to meet the expectations of the environment that makes someone with autism feel ashamed and stressful. Or colleagues experience them - from their perspective - as stubborn, reckless or impulsive.

  • People with autism, who themselves do not yet know that they have autism, run up against disappointments time and again, without understanding where this comes from, let alone the environment. This causes misunderstood behaviour both among people with autism and others in the work environment. If this vicious circle is not broken, it can cause bitterness, anger and suspicion.

  • Moreover, very relevant in autism is fear of the unpredictable. When it becomes known that autism is involved, people with autism can understand what is going on and develop within their possibilities. Together with you as a manager, they can inform their colleagues about what is going on, so that they can take this into account. So it starts with mutual trust and openness.

What can you do if you suspect that there may be autism

As a manager, what do you do if you suspect that an employee might have autism? How do you make this discussable in a respectful way? It's a dilemma. An executive is not a psychiatrist.

If you mention autism, it may be that someone does not recognize themselves in it and it may also be that someone has no autism at all. This often harms trust and can lead to a deterioration of the relationship. However, you can discuss concrete behaviour or the functioning and possible problems without linking a 'label' to it. You can also check whether there is willingness to find out what may be going on. Via a general practitioner or company doctor. If necessary, you can confidentially report your suspicion of autism in an employee to the company doctor.

What can you do when you know there's autism

Every individual has his or her own strengths, talents and things he or she is less strong in. Showing interest in your employee and engaging in dialogue can help you better understand what autism means to your colleague. This can help us work better together. Building the right conversation skills and actions (how long can a meeting take, how do we prepare, how do we reduce) to work together effectively is a learning process, from both sides. Don't avoid the conversation. The points you can discuss will be different for each person with autism. It strongly depends on the character and characteristics of the individual.

Examples of discussion topics may be (the importance of):

  • Making and keeping appointments
  • Setting priorities and explaining them
  • Actual communication in the mail
  • Announce changes in a timely manner, explain them and allow time to get used to them.
  • Agree on evaluation moments to discuss the quality of the mutual cooperation
  • Discuss his/her autism and the help you would like to offer.
  • For example:
    • Is there a need for a fixed point of contact on the shop floor?
    • Does the employee want to work with a fixed set of tasks?
    • Does the employee need to work in a planned manner (divide up tasks, work with a time schedule, determine the sequence of work)?
    • Is it necessary to visually create appointments and messages (diagrams, icons, lists on large planning board, for example)?
    • Are adjustments needed in the workplace?

And further...

  • Be open to practical solutions and small adjustments. A precondition for this is that the corporate culture in which people with autism work is open to change and diversity.
  • Provide guidance. This is best done in the form of natural support structures, such as parents, colleagues, the manager, a buddy or friends. Only deploy professional support from the GGZ or a reintegration agency when necessary, but as quickly as possible.
  • Create the preconditions so that people with autism can solve as much as possible themselves instead of taking all the responsibility out of their hands. Temporary extra guidance by someone with knowledge of and experience with autism can help to make better use of your employee's talents, identify and develop weaknesses and organise integration into the work organisation.
  • Evaluate regularly. People with autism are helped when they identify what is good and what is less good, as well as what they need. These points can be discussed in regular evaluation interviews with colleagues, supervisor and manager. Plan these conversations at regular intervals.
  • People with autism run the risk of being structurally insufficiently assessed in the standard assessment system. Especially on competences such as cooperation, flexibility, adaptability, planning and prioritisation. Have an eye for the limits that autism brings with it and agree with your employee appropriate development goals.
  • Personal development: Standard training offerings aimed at increasing personal effectiveness and leadership are often ineffective. Consider specific trainings focused on autism & communication or temporary personal coaching from an expert . Investing in your employee so that he can better cope with his autism at work contributes to self-confidence and improves performance and working atmosphere.
  • In consultation with your employees with autism, explore whether an Autism Embassy could also be established within your organisation. Autism ambassadors are open about their autism and disseminate knowledge about autism in the organization where they work. In larger organisations, they receive support from a network: colleagues who ensure that the person concerned can fulfil his ambassadorial role and that it is linked to other activities within the framework of diversity policy in the organisation. The network functions as an embassy. It helps to make contacts, organise meetings and shows that the organisation is open to diversity.

More information

  • Want to know more about the Autism Embassy? Send an e-mail to: [email protected] (link sends an e-mail)
  • Employer checklist: With this checklist you can check whether your organization is also open to employees with invisible disabilities, taking autism as a yardstick.
  • Brochure Work by Viewed from Autism
  • (external link) - Examples and tips to encourage openness about autism in the workplace.
  • (external link) - A network of SME entrepreneurs and large employers who consider it 'the most normal thing' for everyone to have the opportunity to participate in the labour market to the best of their ability.
  • (external link) - Targets employers and employees and aims to break the taboo on mental illness in the workplace.
  • (external link) - Provides information (leaflets and films) about autism and work. For employers and employees.