The power of neurodiversity in the workplace: what I learned from managing an employee on the autism spectrum

Adapting how we recruit, manage and communicate with staff on the autism spectrum will not only enable more individuals with the condition to work: it will help us tap into a unique talent and skill set that can prove an asset for organizations.

When I received an application from Tim for an entry-level data processing position on my team, his experience and carefully considered responses led me to invite him to interview. It was only when I received his acceptance that I appreciated this would be a slightly different recruitment process to what I was used to. This was because Tim has Asperger Syndrome, a form of autism spectrum disorder.

Over the course of the recruitment, onboarding and integration process, I learned a great deal from Tim about how to adjust and support him as an employee. I’ll admit: I knew very little about the condition before meeting him, and I didn’t always get it right. We made our fair share of mistakes, had occasions of misunderstanding. It was a learning curve for both of us.

What I did ultimately learn, though, was that Tim brought an entirely unique set of skills to the table that made him truly invaluable to the team. Once I had a better understanding of his needs – and particularly how to communicate effectively with him – we both thrived.

I don’t claim to be an expert in any way, but I learned a great deal during my time as Tim’s manager. If what I experienced can help anyone else, that’s worth sharing: and in recognition of World Autism Awareness Day, I’d like to encourage others to understand a bit more about the potential of neurodiversity in the workplace.

What is Autism?

Autism is a spectrum disorder that affects how a person sees, hears and experiences the world around them.

As a spectrum disorder, it affects each individual differently. However, some common characteristics include difficulties with social communication and interaction, and repetitive behaviors, routines and activities. Some individuals may be over or under sensitive to certain stimuli – for example, certain sounds, colors, light, or touch.

Stimulus such as color can prove challenging for some individuals with sensitivity issues

It’s a lifelong condition and affects more people than many realize. In the UK, there are around 700,000 people on the autism spectrum – that’s more than 1 in 100 (Source: National Autism Society). US figures put prevalence at around 1 in 59 children being diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder (Autism Speaks). Boys are four times more likely to be diagnosed with autism than girls, and there is no definitive known cause.

Despite the number of individuals with autism spectrum disorder, the figures for those in employment are poor. Only 16% of autistic adults in the UK are in full-time paid employment, and only 32% are in some kind of paid work.

Why we need neurodiverse individuals in our workplaces

We have to be careful here not to make sweeping statements about individuals with autism spectrum disorder: as the name suggests, this is a hugely diverse condition.

Each individual has their own unique skills, attributes and characteristics. Not every individual with autism will be capable of entering the world of work; those who are able, will have their own unique support needs.

What I came to appreciate working with Tim, however, was the power of his mind and the way in which his neurodiversity enabled him to look at the world differently.

He was highly methodical and analytical. For an individual working with data, these skills were invaluable. His attention to detail and ability to focus on task was incredible; when he got into ‘the zone’, his productivity and output was almost twice the rate of anyone else.

The methodical, analytical and thorough nature of some individuals with autism spectrum disorder means they have the potential to excel in specific roles; the IT industry in particular sees many successes

He had a jaw-dropping ability to absorb and recall facts. As a lover of football, his capacity to recall match facts down to not only the shooter and the assist of each goal scored, but even the time of each goal, was a source of awe for all who worked with him. He also remains incredibly loyal and committed to his role. Years after I moved on from my role as his manager, he remains in post.

These are just some of the skills that make certain individuals with autism spectrum disorder valuable in the world of work. Research suggests other positives these individuals can bring to an organization include:

  • Attention to detail: thoroughness and accuracy in completing a task
  • Astute observational skills
  • Novel approaches: due to their capacity to see things differently, innovation and problem solving are enhanced
  • Tenacity and resilience: bringing a determination and ‘stickability’ to tasks, along with the ability to challenge opinions
  • Integrity: honesty, loyalty and commitment, alongside meaning what they say
  • Deep focus: enhanced concentration and freedom from distraction when engrossed on task
  • Visual skills: a high capacity for visual learning and detail-focused recall
  • Methodical approach: analytical and process-driven, with an ability to spot patterns and repetition

We talk a lot about how diversity can improve our workplaces: bringing together different skills, experiences, and approaches can make us more innovative, competitive and successful as organizations. The case for neurodiversity is no different.

Recruiting an employee with an autism spectrum disorder

I actually learnt that Tim had Aspergers Syndrome from a support worker, funded by the Access to Work program, who called me following Tim’s invitation to interview.

Tim had challenges with verbal communication, she explained, which would make the traditional face-to-face interview process more difficult for him. We chatted about how I could adapt the recruitment process and communication in particular, in order to give Tim a real opportunity to sell himself and what he had to offer.

Things such as leading and open questions or answering on the spot would be difficult. Tim needed more time to respond than a neurotypical individual and would take questions very literally: subtleties such as metaphors, sarcasm or even body language are hard for him to understand.

We decided that the best approach would be to give Tim a task in the first instance, which he could complete in his own time. I’d then email Tim the interview questions ahead of meeting him. She advised that I ask those questions with the same wording and in the same order as the list I had emailed, so he would know exactly what to expect. We also modified these slightly, removing the hypothetical “if this happened, what would you do?”-type questions, and instead replacing these with “Think back to your last job. Can you tell us what you did when XXX happened?”

Written tasks or interview questions during the recruitment process can help those who have difficulties with verbal communication

Tim would send over written answers before the interview, which he could take his time considering and answering: this would also help him prepare for meeting me.

On the day, we allowed extra time for the interview and his support worker accompanied him. This wasn’t so she could speak on his behalf, but to guide me as the interviewer where needed. As someone with no previous experience with Aspergers Syndrome, I could easily miss those small, subtle communication cues I do without thinking, that Tim might miss.

When I wasn’t specific enough, she asked me to clarify. When I brushed over a point I thought was obvious, she asked me to explain in more detail. Together we also reviewed the job description for the role, ensuring it was clear, explicit and detailed enough to give Tim a full understanding of what we were looking for.

Tim impressed me with his detailed and methodical approach to answering the questions put to him and showed great problem-solving capabilities in his task. I knew he’d be the right fit for us.

Adapting for neurodiverse employees

The first step to adapting for autism is to understand the individual. There is no single right or wrong process, no one way to do things. So, ask the individual what works for them.

I recently read the fantastic story of Matt Skillings, a web developer at CommissionCrowd who progressed to become chief development officer and now leads a team of four people. Matt has Aspergers and has never spoken over the phone or met the people he manages. His company has adapted to allow him to work from home and communicate exclusively via Skype and Slack. For me, this story demonstrates how powerful flexibility can be for those with an autism spectrum disorder.  

Large, open plan and busy office environments can present challenges for individuals with autism. Making small adjustments to minimize the amount of stimulus, such as letting individuals wear noise-cancelling headphones, can make a huge difference.

Tim felt able to work in the office, but he did have some sensory challenges that we needed to take into consideration. We placed him at a corner desk, facing towards the wall and he used noise-cancelling headphones to help block out some of the background noise of the office. We set about creating a structure for his days, identifying what activities he would need to do daily, weekly or monthly, and almost creating a ‘timetable’ that would give him predictability for his role.

We would meet every Monday morning to set out clear expectations for the week and review progress; but to ensure everything was understood, he did well having a follow-up email to reiterate what was discussed. Written briefs were more effective than spoken; visual instructions or diagrams also helped. For the first three months, his support worker would come in for a monthly check-in to see how we were both adapting.

A management learning curve

Working with Tim was hugely rewarding but I’ll confess, not everything went smoothly.

There was the day our air conditioning broke and the office temperature rose; I didn’t clock onto how this might impact Tim and was taken aback when I looked up to see him peeling off his shirt in the middle of the office, obviously agitated and overwhelmed. When I moved our weekly meeting by half an hour on the calendar, without explaining why, he panicked. And when strikes affected the train timetables, making Tim late for work through no fault of his own, he suffered huge anxiety and distress.

Many individuals with an autism spectrum disorder value routine and had repetitive behaviors: such as arriving, having lunch, and leaving at the same time each day. When circumstances beyond their control disrupt that regularity, it can cause distress.

If he got drawn into a conversation, he could over-talk and become disruptive to others; occasionally he could speak inappropriately, or his lack of understanding of social etiquette would mean others perceived him as rude. He said what he thought: an attribute that could prove valuable when challenging the status quo or putting ideas forward, but could also occasionally get him into trouble (for example, when telling a colleague they ‘look dirty’, or me that I ‘don’t have any idea what you’re talking about’).

We also had a highly social work environment, with regular events, drinks after work, charity days. While Tim would occasionally enjoy these, he could become overwhelmed quickly.

I learned to recognize the early cues when Tim was feeling stressed and take him somewhere quiet to reassure and ground him. I also had to learn to give more direct feedback and instruction: a challenge for someone who traditionally avoids confrontation or conflict and tends to give more subtle or implied negative feedback. Where it might have been rude to say to anyone else, “Thank you, you’ve talked enough about this subject, I’d like you to start on task A now”, this gave Tim much-needed and clear direction.

However, it took me a while to get the right balance between being direct, and still being sensitive. Being good at his job was really important to Tim: criticism could be hugely upsetting. I’m not sure if I ever completely mastered that one, but I definitely became more aware of the words I used and their potential impact.

When we were out at a social event, I would need to tell Tim when it was time to go home if he showed signs of becoming agitated: and reassure him that it was OK to decline invitations. If we organized a team lunch or group activity, I learned to book a private meeting room for him to work in after, incase he became overloaded.  

Sometimes situations can overload someone with an autism spectrum disorder; they may need some space or time to ground themselves after.

Change was difficult and Tim needed more time to adapt than neurotypical staff. A desk change to anyone else could be given as an instruction and acted upon immediately. For Tim, I would need to give advance warning, explain clearly why the move was taking place, show him where he would be sat and give him time to adjust.

None of this came instantly or easily. It was a case of trial and error, learning on the job, and I slipped up many times. When this happened, I made a point of saying so to Tim and acknowledging what had gone wrong, before asking how to improve. Together, we established an open dialogue that meant we could learn from one another. It took patience, but we reaped the rewards.

Ultimately, our greatest challenges came down to communication. Based on my experience supporting Tim, I found the following tips most useful:

  • Ask the individual what works well for them
  • Even if it seems obvious to you, explain it
  • Be specific and clear. ‘Print this and give a copy to everyone’ should be, ‘print three copies of this and give one each to Emma, James, and Louise.’
  • Avoid metaphors or ambiguous or hypothetical questions
  • Consider the words you use, as they can be taken very literally. ‘How did you find that?’ may result in an answer like, ‘I went onto Google, and typed in XXX, and found an article which I read…’ Instead, it could be ‘was that task easy or difficult for you to do?’
  • Don’t expect eye contact; this can be difficult for some individuals but doesn’t mean they aren’t listening
  • Explain the ‘unsaid’ elements: things like social etiquette or unwritten ‘rules’ which individuals may find hard to understand otherwise
  • Follow up verbal communication with a written version; visuals are also helpful to improve understanding
  • Make use of technology: email, Slack, Skype all prove more effective than a phone call or verbal instruction
  • Give individuals extra time to answer; avoid interrupting or finishing sentences for them

I have a great deal to thank Tim for. He turned out to be a tremendous asset to the team and business overall, but he also made me a better manager.

His way of perceiving the world forced me to challenge my own; as someone specializing now in comms, it also helped me understand those elements of communication many of us take for granted. He made me evaluate my own management style, tested my capacity for empathy and understanding, and challenged me to be thorough and creative in devising solutions.

Recruiting an individual with Aspergers wasn’t just beneficial for him and the business: from a personal perspective, I gained so much from the experience. I hope it’s made me a better manager and person as a result.

I appreciate now first-hand just how much value these individuals can bring, if only we can be open to making the adjustments needed. Support for these individuals to perform jobs that encourage independence can reduce autism symptoms and increase daily living skills.

For advice or support on encouraging individuals with autism spectrum disorder into the workplace, please visit National Autistic Society (UK) or Autism Society (US).

Shared with the kind blessing of my former colleague, Tim.