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Ask The Expert : How does being on the Autistic Spectrum impact a person’s working life?

I have just started working next to a guy and I am a bit confused by his behaviour.  Although I am a really friendly person, he refuses to share the equipment on his workstation with me and he won’t even look me in the eye when he is talking to me.  He doesn’t come on the team nights out and he is really inflexible.  Someone in the department said he may have autism – but does that mean that he can’t make an effort to get along with his work colleagues?

In short the answer to your question is no.  However, the issue may not be as simple as “making an effort” to get along with his work colleagues, it may be that he is painfully shy and anxious about what to say.  You mention autism, whether or not your colleague is on the autistic spectrum, it might be helpful to understand what this actually means and how it can impact on someone in their working life.  Around 1 in 100 people in the UK have an Autistic Spectrum Disorder.

What is Autism?
Autism is a lifelong developmental disability.  It is part of the autism spectrum and is sometimes referred to as an Autistic Spectrum Disorder, or an ASD.  The word ‘spectrum’ is used because, while all people with autism share three main areas of difficulty, their condition will affect them in very different ways. Some are considered to be ‘high functioning’; others will require a lifetime of specialist support.  Aspergers syndrome is also included on the autistic spectrum and cannot be identified from the person’s outward appearance.  People with Aspergers tend to have fewer problems with communication and learning disabilities. For this reason, those in full-time employment in the workplace tend to lean more towards suffering from Aspergers syndrome than Autistic Spectrum Disorder.

The three main areas of difficulty which all people on the autistic spectrum share are sometimes known as the ‘triad of impairments’. They are:

  1. Difficulty with social communication
  2. Difficulty with social interaction
  3. Difficulty with social imagination


Difficulty with social communication  
Understanding conversation is like trying to understand a foreign language.  People on the autistic spectrum sometimes find it difficult to express themselves emotionally and socially.  For example, they may have difficulty understanding gestures, facial expressions or tone of voice and may not want to make eye contact when speaking.

Difficulty with social interaction
People on the autistic spectrum often want to be sociable but have difficulty with initiating and sustaining social relationships, which can make them very anxious and lead them to become withdrawn and seemingly uninterested in other people, appearing almost aloof.   For example, your colleague may not be keen to attend nights out, but this does not mean that he is not wanting to be sociable.  It could be that he is anxious in social situations because of poor interpersonal skills – it can take a lot of concentration to keep up with a group conversation.  It could also be that he needs time to relax and unwind after work without the pressures of having to socialise.  Perhaps he would be more comfortable attending an event if someone met him in advance and accompanied him to the venue.  Reassuring him that it was fine to leave whenever he wanted to may also help.   Some people on the autistic spectrum find it difficult to show empathy i.e. to identify and understand the emotions of others.  They may rarely show sensitivity and often fail to understand another person’s perspective.

Difficulty with social imagination
People on the autistic spectrum have trouble understanding or interpreting other people’s thoughts, feelings or actions; they tend to find it difficult to imagine alternative outcomes to situations and to predict what will happen next.  They can be imaginative in the conventional use of the word.  For example, many are accomplished writers, artists and musicians.  Some people may have interests or hobbies which they pursue to the point where they could be considered to be an ‘obsession’.

Some suggestions for working with people on the autistic spectrum:

  • Be literal, as an autistic person will interpret language in a literal way misunderstanding metaphors, innuendos, sarcasm and be easily offended by jokes.
  • The person may be obsessed with neatness and rigid routines – so make sure that they are happy for you to use their equipment as they may be anxious that you will not put it back in the correct place or in perfect condition.
  • To build rapport, try to engage in conversation relating to the person’s particular hobbies or interests.
  • Ensure the work environment is well structured and organised.  The person may have sensory sensitivity and could overreact to certain sounds, sights and smells.  Background noise can be particularly distracting (e.g. the whirring of a fan or buzzing of electrical equipment).
  • Use the person’s first name before giving information.
  • Don’t ignore them because they fail to interact – remember that they may be able to improve their social skills given the right encouragement.
  • Give praise for simple social behaviour that we take for granted.
  • Provide reassurance in stressful situations and monitor feelings carefully.
  • Verbal instructions can be difficult, so use written format and perhaps visual prompts.  Most people on the autistic spectrum process visually.  Some people refer to this as “thinking in pictures”.
  • Make sure instructions are concise and specific – check that they understand the details of the instructions and know what to do when they have a problem.  Do not assume that they will know what action to take.
  • Provide accurate information about any changes in routine – increased awareness of what is going to happen will help reduce anxiety.
  • Introduce new tasks gradually, be as consistent as possible.
  • Be aware that the person may have advanced skills in certain areas, for example they may excel in mental arithmetic.

Hopefully this information will help a little regardless of whether your colleague is on the autistic spectrum or not.  Many people in today’s world are challenged by social situations but trying a different approach can be effective.  We all have different skills, ideas and perceptions to contribute and teams benefit from these differences.

For further information about autism, please go to : www.autism.org.uk/

Our Mental Health Awareness training course helps managers to learn the most effective ways of managing someone with either a suspected or diagnosed mental health condition.  Many organisations lose the skills and experience of many capable employees who are managed incorrectly and feel they have no choice but to choose between a deterioration of mental health or leaving their employment.

This article’s expert was Dr Angela Smith.


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