Managing employees on the autistic spectrum in the workforce

The first United Nations autism awareness day was held in 2008, and Mark Haddon’s 2003 novelThe Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, about a boy with Asperger’s syndrome, is now a successful play.

However, while autistic spectrum disorders have become increasingly high profile, businesses may still find it challenging to integrate employees with this and other atypical neurological conditions in to the workforce. Recently an employment tribunal found that Starbucks had failed to make reasonable adjustments for a dyslexic employee disciplined for record-keeping errors. But there are some key steps employers can take to avoid such reputational damage and keep the right side of the law.

Autism syndromes can vary widely from person to person, but typically symptoms can include:

  • difficulty with verbal and non-verbal communication
  • difficulty with social interaction
  • restricted and repetitive behaviours and interests.

Some autistic people also experience sensory sensitivity (for example, finding normal background noise levels unbearably loud or distracting) and some (but not all) have a learning disability or other developmental condition such as dyspraxia or dyslexia.

Whether autistic employees are disabled under the Equality Act 2010, triggering the employer’s duty to make reasonable adjustments, will depend on the severity of their symptoms but it is generally advisable for employers to assume that staff with long-term medical conditions such as autism are disabled, and act accordingly.
Staff may be reluctant to disclose that they are on the autistic spectrum due to the persistent stigma attached to the condition. Employers cannot force a disclosure, but they can encourage it in various ways, such as asking job candidates to identify any adjustments needed at interview and having a policy that emphasises the employer’s commitment to supporting staff with disabilities or medical conditions and to making reasonable adjustments.

Some autistic workers may disclose their condition only when problems arise (for example, performance or conduct issues). If they struggle with social interaction, their condition may manifest itself in the form of difficult relationships with colleagues. When such issues arise, managers should meet with the employee in confidence, highlight the problem and give the employee an opportunity to raise any medical conditions or other factors affecting his or her work. To do this successfully, managers need to have constructive relationships with their reports and be perceived as fair and approachable.

Employers should not rely on stereotypical assumptions (such as ‘all autistic people are maths geniuses’) but instead gain an accurate and full understanding of the employee’s condition so they can assess what adjustments may be needed. To begin with, they should ask the employee directly about his or her symptoms and any appropriate adjustments; but some cases will require a more detailed occupational health report.

It’s important to communicate this approach in a sensitive way. Many people who are on the autistic spectrum see themselves as ‘different’ rather than ‘disabled’ and some will regard their autism as a key part of their identity. Where possible, employers should use neutral language like ‘condition’ and avoid negative terms such as ‘suffers from’. The company may need to emphasise that ‘disabled’ is a legal term in this context and not a judgment.

Employers should discuss with the employee which of their colleagues should be made aware of their condition; some disclosure may be necessary to make the adjustments workable. However, this should be on a need-to-know basis unless the employee is comfortable with their condition being more widely known.

Once an employer knows (or ought reasonably to know) that a worker is disabled, it is obliged to make reasonable adjustments to reduce or eliminate any disadvantage suffered by that individual because of his or her condition. Failing to take their condition into account and make reasonable allowances for it could expose the business to a disability discrimination claim.

Possible adjustments may include allowing the employee to work in a quieter location (or from home), altering workloads or changing the manner in which work is assigned. Although employers are required only to make such adjustments as are reasonable in the circumstances, this may require quite extensive changes, particularly in larger businesses that are more able to absorb additional costs.

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to managing autism in the workplace, but sensitive management will go a long way towards championing inclusivity and maintaining legal compliance.


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