In this guide we explain the benefits of employing an autistic person, offer tips for recruitment and interviewing, and provide advice for managing an autistic employee.
“Autistic people have some very valuable skills which can be applied in the workplace. They might have very good attention to detail, or be really good at sticking to routines and timetables. Therefore, they are likely to be very punctual and reliable. Everyone has different skills but there will always be something." An autistic job seeker
What is autism?
Autism is a lifelong developmental disability that affects how people perceive the world and interact with others.
Autistic people see, hear and feel the world differently to other people. If you are autistic, you are autistic for life; autism is not an illness or disease and cannot be 'cured'. Often people feel being autistic is a fundamental aspect of their identity.
Autism is a spectrum condition. All autistic people share certain difficulties, but being autistic will affect them in different ways. Some autistic people also have learning disabilities, mental health issues or other conditions, meaning people need different levels of support. With the right sort of support, all can be helped to live a more fulfilling life of their own choosing.
You can read more about autism.
Recruiting an autistic employee
As an employer, you may not realise that autistic people can be highly skilled and qualified, and may be extremely employable.
Why employ an autistic person?
Many autistic people have a variety of sometimes exceptional skills, that enable them to thrive in roles ranging from sales assistant to computer programmer, and journalist to statistician, to name just a few.
However, autistic people are often disadvantaged when it comes to getting and keeping a job because of other people's lack of understanding and support.
Autistic employees may need some, often simple, support within the workplace. As well as their individual strengths and talents, autistic candidates often demonstrate above-average skills in some or all of the following areas:
- high levels of concentration
- reliability, conscientiousness and persistence
- accuracy, close attention to detail and the ability to identify errors
- technical ability, such as in IT
- detailed factual knowledge and an excellent memory
This means an autistic person may well be better at a particular job than someone who is not autistic. By gaining an understanding of autism, you can open up new possibilities for your organisation.
Employing an autistic person demonstrates your organisations commitment to equality and diversity and shows a positive attitude to disabled people. Having a diverse workforce brings benefits to staff and business alike, and managers and colleagues often describe working with an autistic colleague as an enriching experience that encourages them to think more carefully about how they communicate, organise and prioritise their work.
“Mark joined Max Fordham’s in March 2002 as a drawing filer, quickly grasping the complex procedure. He applies care and attention to detail, constantly using his initiative to improve efficiency. He regularly attends progress meetings, where his input is invaluable and he supervises temporary cover within his group.” M. Jones, Partner/Head of Administration, Max Fordham LLP
The recruitment process
Recruitment procedures often inadvertently create barriers for autistic people. There are many minor adjustments your organisations can make to your processes that will help autistic candidates to apply for jobs, and enable them to demonstrate their skills as potential employees. Many of these adjustments may also benefit other candidates and enhance overall efficiency in recruitment.
By taking these simple steps, your organisation will be meeting the Equality Act (2010) and Northern Ireland Disability Discrimination Act requirement for employers to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ for people with disabilities.
Job descriptions often include skills that are not essential for the job to be carried out effectively. Qualities such as 'excellent communication skills' or 'good team player' are often included as default skills, even if they are not necessary – and many autistic people will not apply for jobs demanding these attributes. This can mean that suitable applicants may assume themselves to be ineligible for a job even where they have strong skills that are directly relevant to the tasks involved.
It is not always obvious what information the applicant needs to provide on an application form. It is important to provide clear guidance on this, and to make sure that the form includes a space for applicants to highlight any support or adjustments they may need at an interview. If you are asking an applicant to write about their skills or suitability for a role, it can be helpful to include a word count limit.
Job adverts are not always concise and written in plain English. They should list essential skills, and avoid jargon or unnecessary information. The advert should be clearly presented, avoiding complex design. Try to be really objective about what abilities and experiences are genuinely essential for the job to be done well, and leave out any that are not.
Interviews - particularly ‘traditional’ conversational type interviews - rely heavily on social and communication skills, so autistic candidates may well struggle to 'sell themselves' in an interview, even if they have all the right skills. In particular, they may face challenges with:
- understanding body language and maintaining appropriate eye contact
- knowing how to start, maintain and end conversations or answers to questions
- judging how much information to give – especially if questions are open
- thinking in abstract ways, or considering 'what if?' scenarios
- varying their tone of voice and finding the appropriate level of formality.
Making reasonable adjustments during an interview is essential to allowing autistic candidates to portray their skills and competencies fully, so that you can make an informed choice about who to recruit.
If you want to interview the candidate, it is important to realise that asking each applicant exactly the same question does not always equate to equality of opportunity. You could adapt the interview for autistic candidates by:
- providing interview questions in advance - up to two days before the interview
- providing clear and concise written and visual information about the interview, including;
- directions to, or maps of, the location of the interview and photographs of the entrance of the building (such as google street view)
- the procedure for arriving at the interview location (e.g. sign in at front desk where you will be collected by Jane (name of the person) you shortly before your interview)
- the names of the people who will be on the interview panel (with photographs) and information about what their role will be during the interview (e.g., note taking, or asking technical questions)
- a clear timetable of events during the allocated interview time, for example, the first 30 minutes will focus on questions about your CV and experience relating to the role, and the second 30 minutes will be an aptitude test or technical trial
- providing a quiet and calm space for the candidate to wait, prior to their interview, away from other visitors or general staff
- avoiding general questions (e.g. 'Tell me about yourself')
- asking specific questions based on the candidate's real/past experiences, e.g. 'In your last job, did you do any filing or data input?'; 'What processes/procedures did you use to do this effectively?'
- avoiding hypothetical or abstract questions, e.g. 'How do you think you'll cope with working if there are lots of interruptions?' A better question would be 'Think back to your last job. Can you tell us how you coped with your work when people interrupted you?'
- telling the candidate if they are talking too much as they may find it hard to judge how much information you need e.g. 'Thank you, you’ve told us enough about that now, and I’d like to ask you another question'.
- prompting the candidate in order to extract all the relevant information and gather sufficient information
- being aware that the candidate may interpret language literally e.g. asking, 'How did you find your last job?' may result in an answer of 'I looked on the map'
- being aware that eye contact may be fleeting or prolonged, depending on the individual
- providing adequate breaks during long interviews and prompt the interviewee to take a break when needed
- allowing and prompting the candidate to refer, during the interview, to any written notes that they have made
Alternatives to the traditional interview
If adapting your interview skills to the needs of an autistic person sounds daunting, or if you feel that an interview might not be the best way to gauge the person’s suitability for the post, there are other options:
Inviting a supporter to accompany the person
Many autistic people perform much better in interviews if they have a supporter with them. This person can act as a go-between to ease communication between the interviewer and the candidate, rewording any unclear questions for the candidate and helping them understand exactly what the interviewer wants.
The supporter will not answer on behalf of the person, but may help to rephrase unsuitably worded questions (although ideally the employer should do this in preparation for the interview). The supporter can help them to communicate with the interviewees, in order to clarify their relevant knowledge and skills. This does not only benefit the candidate: it can also help employers understand what the candidate has to offer.
Some employers find that a work trial, or a period of work experience, is a better way of assessing skills than a formal interview. This approach may also help if you think that an autistic person is likely to do well in a job but you have concerns about how well they will cope in the workplace. If you would like to take this approach, our Employment Training Service can offer support and advice.
Thomas applied for a position as a filing clerk at Camden Council. He was shortlisted and invited for an interview, which included a short filing test. During the interview, Thomas did not come across well. He tended to take questions very literally and gave 'yes' or 'no' answers to questions rather than elaborating on his experience. However, his prospective employers were extremely impressed when Thomas scored almost 100 per cent in the filing test – significantly higher than other candidates.
Following discussions with our employment service, which was supporting Thomas in his job search, Camden Council agreed to offer Thomas a work trial as an alternative method of assessing his ability to do the job. Thomas completed this with great success and was offered a four-week contract, working ten hours a week.
At the end of this time, his managers were delighted with his accuracy and reliability, and his contract was extended. Three years later, Thomas was still working for Camden as a filing clerk, enjoying and performing consistently well in his job.
Managing an autistic employee
Working with an autistic person can be an enriching experience for managers and colleagues alike, however support is important to make it successful.
Your organisation can avoid and overcome challenges in order to ensure enjoyable and effective working relationships via:
- formal activities - from job coaches to state-funded initiatives to help with extra costs such as adaptations in the workplace
- our Employment Training Service can provide information about state-funded initiatives and the training and consultancy we provide
- Autism at Work programme may be of interest if you are thinking about recruiting autistic people for a new role
- informal activities – such as making sure communication is clear, that the environment takes account of sensory needs, and the necessary support is at hand.
Understanding your autistic employee
“I have difficulty picking up social cues and difficulty in knowing what to do when I get things wrong.” Autistic person
If an autistic person seems aloof or uninterested in talking to colleagues, or often says the 'wrong' thing, remember (and, where appropriate, remind colleagues) that this is probably unintentional and is likely to be due to communication challenges.
If an autistic person tries too hard to fit in and irritates colleagues by seeming to interrupt a conversation, be patient, and explain the boundaries if necessary. Other staff may also need reminding that their attitudes may have a strong impact on the job performance of their autistic colleague.
If an autistic person becomes anxious for any reason, try to find out what is causing the problem. One-to-one sessions are probably the best situation for doing this. You may need to think laterally. For example, the stress may not be caused by a difficulty in the job but by a colleague not being explicit in their instructions, by things not working efficiently (such as a computer crashing), or by difficulties in getting to their work. Trying to think around the immediate issue may help, as well as supportively asking the employee specific (though not invasive) questions to try to get to the root of the problem.
There may be occasions where problems do arise for an autistic person, particularly in social interactions, where communication can break down. If you become aware of any of these problems, try to deal with them swiftly and tactfully, and make colleagues aware of the potential for misunderstanding.
Your autistic staff member may also have some challenges in adapting their existing skills and knowledge to new tasks or environments. This can make the work environment hard and may cause misunderstandings among other staff, particularly as autism is an invisible condition. They may misconstrue the person’s behaviour as rude, insensitive or unfriendly. However, the good news is that there are plenty of simple ways to make sure that the person has the support they need and to ensure good positive working relationships.
“I have an excellent memory for facts and figures for example, car number plates and timetables. I never have to write down telephone numbers. I have an excellent memory for jokes anecdotes and even whole movie scripts.” Autistic person
Clarify expectations of the job
You may need to be more explicit about your expectations for an autistic member of staff. As well as the job description, you need to explain the etiquette and unwritten rules of the workplace. Make it clear that any adaptations for them in the workplace are there to help them keep doing their job well, not because they are not good enough.
Provide training and monitoring
Clear and structured training is invaluable. This can be provided informally on the job, by a manager, colleagues or a mentor, or may take the form of more formal training. Various organisations and schemes offer job coaches, and funding for this form of training may be available from the Department of Work and Pensions. Our Employment Training Service can provide more information.
Make sure instructions are concise and specific
Try to give your employee clear instructions right from the start about exactly how to carry out each task, from start to finish, as this will lay the foundations for good working practices. Don’t assume the person will infer your meaning from informal instructions – for example, rather than saying 'Give everybody a copy of this', say 'Make three photocopies of this, and give one each to Sam, Mary and Ahmed'. You may also choose to provide written instructions. It can be helpful to ask the person to repeat back instructions so you are sure they have understood.
Ensure the work environment is well-structured
Some autistic people need a fairly structured work environment. You can help by working with them to prioritise activities, organising tasks into a timetable for daily, weekly and monthly activities, and breaking larger tasks into small steps. Some people will appreciate precise information about start and finish times, and help getting into a routine with breaks and lunches.
Regularly review performance
As with any employee, line managers should have regular one-to-one meetings with the person to discuss and review performance and give overall comments and suggestions. For an autistic staff member, brief, frequent reviews may be better than longer sessions at less frequent intervals.
Provide sensitive but direct feedback
Autistic people often find it difficult to pick up on social cues, so make sure your feedback is honest, constructive and consistent. If they complete a task incorrectly, don't allude to, or imply, any problems – instead, explain tactfully but clearly why it is wrong, check that they have understood, and set out exactly what they should do instead. Be aware that some autistic people may have low self-esteem or experience of being bullied, so ensure that any criticism is sensitive, and give positive feedback wherever appropriate.
Provide reassurance in stressful situations
Autistic people can be quite meticulous, and can become anxious if their performance is not perfect. This means they may become stressed in a situation such as an IT failure. You can help by giving concrete solutions to these situations – for example, by explaining "If the photocopier breaks, use the one on the third floor." Similarly, reassure them that if they occasionally arrive late due to transport problems or other unpreventable factors, this is not a problem. Your employee may benefit from having a mentor or buddy in the workplace – an empathetic colleague who they can go to if they are feeling stressed, anxious or confused.
Support your staff member to prepare for changes
Give information about changes to the workplace or tasks well in advance.
Ask about sensory distractions
Autistic employees sometimes benefit from things like screens around their desk, noise-cancelling headphones, or their desk being in the corner.
Help other staff to be more aware
If your autistic employee consents to their condition being disclosed, then providing colleagues with information and guidance on autism can benefit everyone. Sometimes the employee may find it helpful to write a document for other staff explaining what their colleagues can do to support them. You could consider staff training, or our online modules.
David and Jacqui’s story
"David already worked in my team as a Customer Sales Assistant when I became his line manager in 2002. I had no previous experience of working with people with autism, so I did some reading around the subject and David’s NAS support worker popped in and introduced herself early on, which was really helpful.
"David is very good with customers and has excellent interpersonal skills. In the time I've worked with him we haven't really had any particular challenges to overcome, mainly because Prospects has shown us how to prevent any difficulties from arising in the first place. But it's good to know that they are always there to provide back up if we need it. I feel I’m very fortunate to have someone like David in my team.
“Managing him has taught me that everyone is different, with their own individual strengths. Everyone in the team values David as a member of our working family.” Jacqui Copas, Customer Reception Supervisor at First Great Western Railways
Our Autism at Work Programme
Through this programme, we support employers across a wide range of industries to create accessible job opportunities and to support candidates to access those opportunities. These opportunities could be in the form of:
- paid internships
- paid roles (standard roles within the business)
We also support candidates to prepare for, and succeed in their employment.
Why should my organisation join?
We have a proven track record of working with employers as well as:
- national reach
- 2000+ employees trained from a variety of sectors in 2018
- working with prestigious organisations such as Virgin Loyalty, BT, Lloyds Banking Group, HMRC and Forever Beta
- 116 volunteer-run branches, 80 social care services and our schools (reach people in every county)
We campaign to improve public understanding, develop professional practices, and shaping government policies benefits a huge amount of autistic people and their families.
To find out about how your organisation can benefit from our programme and help bridge the gap between skills shortages and talented autistic candidates, please contact us.
Our hospitality work experience programme
HelmsBriscoe (HBcares) is our hospitality employment programme offering autistic people the opportunity to gain work experience opportunities within the hotel hospitality industry.
The programme comprises of:
- an eight-week work experience placement for autistic adults (comprising of two days or 16 hours per week)
- free autism awareness training for your staff from our team
- free in-work support from one of our Job Coaches for your organisation and the work experience candidate
If your organisation would be interested in our programme, please contact us.
Further links and resources
- Sign-up for our half-day Recruiting Autistic Employees training course that aims to provide managers and HR professionals with the knowledge and skills they need to confidently recruit and support autistic employees into the workplace.
- Complete our online training modules, developed by autistic people and autism specialists, and have been created to enhance your autism knowledge and fit into your busy schedule.
Find out more about our Employment training and consultancy services that include:
- virtual workplace assessments to help support your organisation to identify the best ways to support autistic employees to achieve their full potential in their role
- our Understanding Autism in the Workplace training course that provides an introduction to autism, aiming to enable managers and colleagues to understand and support autistic people within the workplace
- our bespoke Virtual Consultancy Support tailored to suit the specific needs of your organisation
- Read our Top Autism Tips for Employment article
- Read our Top 5 Autism Tips for Professionals: supporting an autistic person in employment article
- Read an interview with Janine Booth about the importance of unions for employees with autism and how improved communication and understanding of autism by employers can benefit all workers.
- Read Autism and employment: an interview with Richard Ibbotson that offers advice on how employers can make small adjustments to help autistic employees succeed and widen the range of employment opportunities for autistic people.
- Read about Supporting the Recruitment of Autistic Employees, an article by Dr. Beatriz Lopez, Reader in Developmental Psychology, and Ms. Kim Ruefenacht, Doctoral Researcher, both from the University of Portsmouth
- Read about the key principles that should be considered when setting up apprenticeships for autistic people
- Read about Deutsche Bank UK’s internship programme aimed specifically at autistic graduates
- Read about how to support autistic employees with managing their anxiety in the workplace
- Autism Equality in the Workplace by Janine Booth. Removing Barriers and Challenging Discrimination.