Autism Acceptance Week

 

What is Autism?

Autism is a lifelong developmental disability which affects how people communicate and interact with the world. There are around 700,000 autistic adults and children in the UK.

 

Is Autism the same as Asperger’s Syndrome?

Asperger syndrome is part of the autism spectrum and is no longer considered its own distinct condition. However, some people who were diagnosed with Asperger’s (like me) continue to use this terminology. Some autistic people choose to distance themselves from the term Asperger’s due to the controversary around its namesake.

 

How does Autism manifest?

Autism is a spectrum condition and affects people in different ways. The old adage in the autistic community says that “if you have met one autistic person. You have met one autistic person.” With that said there are some difficulties which autistic people tend to share.

Social communication

  • Some autistic people may have difficulty with verbal and non-verbal communication, like gestures and tone of voice. As such people on the spectrum can appear monitored or “flat” when speaking. They may also develop an unusual dialect or accent (I have been told I sound Irish/scouse and/or American). Autistic people may also take things literally or have difficulty understanding metaphor. Autistic people may also need extra time to process information and repeat what others say to them (echolalia). Sadly, some autistic people are unable to speak whatsoever.

Social interaction

  • Autistic people often have difficulty reading other people, recognising or understanding other people’s feelings, expressing and managing their emotions. We can present as insensitive or weird and as such can have difficulty forming friendships.

Repetitive and Restrictive behaviour

  • The world is a confusing and unpredictable place, as such autistic people sometimes find comfort in repetitive action and routine like hand flapping, foot tapping, or rocking back and forth. These behaviours may be used to soothe anxiety and/ or aid in concentration. For example, I tend to rock back and forth and tap my foot when working to improve focus release built up nervous energy.

Sensitivity to light, sound, touch and taste

  • Some autistic people cannot block out or ignore background noise. For example, they may find background conversations, unbearably loud or distracting. The reactions to these stimuli can range from low level anxiety to physical pain and meltdowns. I would recommend watching the linked video for an accurate portrayal of sensory processing difficulties.

Highly focused interests

  • Many autistic people have intense, highly focused interests which can become obsessions unless managed appropriately. However, this high focus can also lead to a lot of academic success.

Extreme anxiety

  • Many autistic people have difficulty recognising and regulating their feelings and emotional triggers. However common triggers can include social interactions, making mistakes, sensory overload, and fatigue.

Meltdowns

  • A meltdown happens when someone becomes completely overwhelmed and temporarily loses behavioural control. Meltdowns in autistic children are sometimes mischaracterised as simply temper tantrums. During a meltdown, an autistic person may shout, swear, cry or may become physically aggressive. The best way to deal with an autistic person who is experiencing a meltdown is to give them time and space to recover from the sensory overload. You can also assist them by removing sources of sensory information by turning down lights, switching off music and removing other people from the vicinity.

Shutdowns

  • Shutdowns, like meltdowns are a response to being overwhelmed. However, unlike meltdowns, shutdowns may appear less distressing but can be just as intense. Instead of being physically or verbally aggressive, an autistic person will appear to switch off. From personal experience, a shutdown makes you feel completely numb. Your brain cannot process any new information and you feel incapable of speaking or engaging in any form of activity. It almost feels like the thoughts are rocks you are trying to filter through a Siv.

Both meltdowns and shutdowns are extremely intense and exhausting. Triggers include stress, exhaustion, overstimulation or a change of routine.

 

Autism in the workplace

Many autistic people have skills which can make them a valuable asset to any organisations, such as high levels of concentration, accuracy, close attention to detail or detailed factual knowledge and an excellent memory.

 

However, the workplace can provide its own unique challenges for those on the spectrum, which can make some tasks harder, or even impossible unless appropriate support is put in place. Some challenges can include:

  • Atypical communication style, which can lead to misunderstandings between themselves and colleagues.
  • Difficulty with following instructions, particularly if given multiple, broad oral instructions.
  • Difficulty with time management
  • Sensory issues, such as finding the office environment too overstimulating due to excess noise or lighting.
  • Anxiety linked to job performance or social interaction.
  • Desire for a consistent schedule
  • Inflexibility, particularly in how and when to perform tasks.
  • Difficulty with handling criticism

Lack of understanding around ASD can lead to many autistic people leaving the work force entirely. This is particularly worrying when viewed against the most recent ONS data which shows that only 21.7% of Autistic Adults are in paid work.

 

How can I help (colleague)

  • If your colleague is open about their condition, then ask how their diagnosis effects them and if there is anything you can do to support them, particularly if they are struggling with the work environment.
  • Be understanding, try to put yourself in their shoes and think about what it would be like to experience a sensory overload.
  • Try to be sensitive when giving constructive criticism but always be clear and unambiguous. It may assist to give written advice instead of verbal.
  •  If an autistic colleague says something which offends you, it may be due to their communication and social difficulties. Try explaining the reason why their conduct was offensive in a sensitive but direct way.
  • Use resources like the National Autistic society to learn more about autism.

 

How can I help (employer)

  • Some autistic people may find the interview process difficult and as such you may want to alter the traditional interview format when interviewing autistic people. Some easy changes include given the interviewee the interview questions in advance or a timetable as to how the interview with proceed. Alternatively, you may want to consider forgoing the interview all together and instead propose a work trial instead.
  • Have conversations with your employee to find out whether they will need adjustment to their working day or practices. Adjustments could include allowing employees to wear headphones, take movement breaks or work in a separate quieter room.
  • Consider joining the Autism at Work Programme.

 

I hope you have found this article useful. If you have any further questions around autism, then I would highly recommend visiting the national autistic society website. Alternatively, feel free to reach out to myself and I will do my best to answer any questions you may have.

 

Article by Jarrad Williams