How to Support Employees With Autism in the Workplace

An empty office.

The autistic community is an untapped talent pool, made up of job seekers with a wide range of expertise. Autism in the workplace can be an advantage, as autistic employees often tend to work more proficiently and remain more loyal to their employers than neurotypical employees.

Yet, for many autistic individuals obtaining a position is more difficult than excelling at it. With unemployment rates as high as 80 percent for the autistic population as a whole, and 85 percent for autistic people with college degrees, this often overlooked segment of the workforce may provide the talent you are seeking.

So, how do employers support autism in the workplace and tap into the talents this diverse population can bring to the labor force? Effective neurodiversity recruitment begins with understanding what autism is and how to support workers who are affected by it.

What Is Autism?

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a form of neurodiversity that affects sensory integration, social interaction, and communication. It is estimated that at least 2.3 percent of the population has ASD. Autism is not a form of intellectual or mental disability; rather, those with ASD experience the world differently than neurotypical individuals do.

Individuals with ASD often succeed in roles that require:

  • Attention to detail
  • Understanding of complex processes
  • Working independently
  • Creative, innovative thinking

Autistic workers may have difficulty reading social cues or transitioning from one activity to another, though this is not always the case. No two people experience ASD exactly the same way. For example, ASD presents differently in men and boys than it does in women and girls.

Myths About Autism in the Workplace

Many of the assumptions neurotypical people have about ASD are stereotypes that do not apply to all, or even most, autistic people. For example, many autistic individuals try to limit the amount of sensory stimulation they are exposed to and avoid large crowds and social gatherings. But many people with ASD welcome social interaction and intense sensory experiences.

One of the most unfair generalizations faced by people with autism at work is that they are not caring or naturally empathetic. Even more benign stereotypes—for example, that people with ASD tend to be loners or excel only at jobs with little personal interaction—are false and may lead you to underutilize your autistic employees.

Though many people with ASD may struggle with social expectations, such as looking people in the eye when they speak, this doesn’t mean they can’t excel in roles that rely on interpersonal skills. In fact, many people with ASD are intuitive listeners who do quite well in roles that require this skill.

Don’t assume that providing accommodations for workers with ASD will distract from your company’s core mission and undermine your success. In fact, research shows workplaces with high rates of neurodiversity, including autistic team members, tend to out-perform those that lack diversity.

Promote Neurodiversity in Hiring and Onboarding

To attract ASD candidates, make it clear in your job descriptions and on your company web site recruiting page that you welcome neurodiverse candidates, and that applicants can request interview and skills testing accommodations. Because autistic people tend to be much better when it comes to on-the-job performance than they are at talking about themselves or endearing themselves to strangers, interviews can be especially challenging for them.

Unless you have a hiring program designed for neurodiverse candidates, applicants with ASD are not likely to disclose early on in the recruiting process. However, implementing hiring best practices across the board should make it easier for autistic job seekers to spotlight their qualifications:

  • Conduct better interviews. Share questions with applicants ahead of time and avoid chit chat during interviews. Stay friendly and welcoming but focused on the job.
  • Focus on substance. Preference skills assessment and experience over style. Try not to focus on inconsequential issues that have no bearing on aptitude, such as eye contact or confident body language, behaviors that can be challenging for many autistic people.
  • Forget about “cultural fit.” Don’t rely on arbitrary, hard-to-define concepts like “company culture” to make hiring decisions. Focusing on skills and aptitude as the main criteria for selecting candidates will likely increase the presence of autism in the workplace.

During and after onboarding, make sure meeting agendas are detailed and that team leaders adhere to them. If autistic participants will be called upon to make reports or answer key questions as part of a meeting or presentation, make sure you let them know ahead of time. Create a gradual onboarding process that includes pairing new hires with a mentor, and for autistic hires, when possible, try to make their mentor another employee with autism.

How to Support Autistic Workers

Once autistic workers come on board, they tend to have higher retention rates than other workers. But that doesn’t mean the workplace is always a welcoming space for these workers. Autistic workers are more likely to face bullying and other forms of harassment and discrimination from coworkers and managers than neurotypical workers.

The following practices can help support autism in the workplace:

  • Educate your workforce about neurodiversity, preferably by reaching out to nonprofit organizations that are run by autistic self-advocates.
  • Don’t underestimate your autistic workers. Even when autistic job seekers do find employment, many work at jobs for which they are overqualified. Make sure you are optimizing the talents of your team members with ASD.
  • Implement a zero-tolerance policy toward any form of harassment and communicate the consequences of bullying clearly.
  • Be aware that workplace socializing isn’t for everyone. Never push someone to attend a social function that is not related to their workload or make social interaction an aspect of performance assessment. Autistic employees may find group social activities, such as lunch outings or company picnics, emotionally taxing and stressful.

This does not mean that autistic workers do not welcome or need to establish connections with coworkers. Many do. It’s just that the ways they make those connections may not be through large company-wide gatherings. Consider working with autistic workers to create a variety of opportunities for interaction, such as taking part in volunteer hours in the community or monthly lunch with a designated mentor, that they can opt in or out of.

Providing Accommodations  

People with ASD are protected under the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), which means that employers need to provide reasonable accommodation to help them succeed at their job. This might mean:

  • Finding a dark, quiet space where they can work free of distraction.
  • Accompanying written instructions with visual ones whenever possible.
  • Pairing spoken communication with written instructions.

Since no two people experience ASD the same way, the best way to promote autism in the workplace is to ask autistic team members about their preferred work conditions. Many of the most useful accommodations—such as allowing for remote or hybrid work options or keeping workdays short enough to allow people to recharge—will likely benefit your entire workforce and increase productivity across your organization.

Learn More About How to Support Diversity in the Workplace

Now that you know how to recruit and support autism in the workplace, learn more about the benefits of neurodiversity, DEI best practices, and other way to attract top talent.