1. Autism is a Spectrum

Autism, also known as Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) has a wide range of symptoms. Not all individuals with an ASD diagnosis share the same challenges or unique quirks, so do not assume that one person’s needs and experiences will apply to everyone on the Autism spectrum.

  1. What is Autism, Exactly?

ASD is a complex, pervasive developmental disorder which stems from a neuro-development malfunction which affects “normal” or neuro-typical functioning. This means individuals who are diagnosed with Autism often face challenges socially, communicatively, and behaviorally, unlike other commonly known disabilities such as dyslexia or ADHD which impact specific functions.

Although Autism is often diagnosed in earlier ages (approximately 2 years of age) it is not diagnosed through traditional medical testing like a blood test. Instead, ASD is based on a series of observations and diagnoses.

  1. Language

When speaking about an individual with a disability (most disabilities - both visible and invisible) there are two ways you can address the individual: individual first or disability first.

Some people prefer the person first approach. This looks like using language that identifies the individual as a person who has a disability which could sound like “person X, who has Autism.” However, there are some individuals who identify with their disability and prefer language that is disability first which could sound like “person X, who is Autistic.”

If someone discloses to you that they have a disability (in a professional or personal environment) and if you are not sure how they prefer to be identified, ask as you would their pronouns and name!

You may want to say something like “thank you for sharing this with me, I heard you say you were diagnosed with X, if we are talking about it, is there any specific language you would like me to use?”

  1. Autism in the Workforce

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the national unemployment rate for 2021 is 5.2%. In comparison, according to Forbes, the underemployment rate for individuals on the Autism spectrum in 2021 is almost 85%. This disproportion comes from a variety of factors including but not limited to: the traditional workplace not being conducive to an individual on the Autism spectrum and COVID-19 throwing a wrench into life (routines, work environments, forms of communication, and more). However, it is possible for employers to make the workplace accessible to those on the ASD spectrum. This can include: flexible work from home policies, reducing overwhelming stimuli (noise or light), and providing employees with information in various forms (verbal and written, and more!)

  1. ‘Right Brain Disability’

ASD is often thought of as a ‘right brain’ disability. Since the right side of the human brain controls attention, memory, reasoning, problem solving, and creativity, individuals with ASD may face challenges with responding to demonstrated instructions (i.e. hands on demonstrations), problem solving, being fluid or spontaneous, ambiguous information, open ended questions, and sometimes expressing emotions.

  1. Key to Effective Communication

In order to communicate effectively, try to incorporate the 4 C’s into your communication.

Be concrete, instead of requesting a task “get done sometime today” you may want to say “I need you to complete X by 1:00PM today, and it should take you about 30 minutes,” that way the individual knows what to expect and can plan accordingly to get the job done.

You want to be clear (with all employees) and an example of this could the use of ‘ASAP’ for some ‘As Soon As Possible’ may mean drop everything you are doing and work on this task instead, for others, this may literally mean, do it as soon as you can, but there is no real rush to complete it.

Additionally, it’s important to be concise. An example of this are college essays and job applications where you have to answer in 50 words or less. Think of that and avoid the unnecessary fluff and fillers which may over-complicate a situation, especially in spoken language which may be more difficult to follow.

Lastly, be consistent, when delivering a message multiple times, make sure to use the same language like titles or phrases. For example, if you request an individual work on project X, the next day do not follow up and ask if they completed project Y, switching the names may be confusing.

  1. ASD Do’s

Do be direct and concrete, allow for developmental processing delays (especially with verbal communication) which can look like taking a brief pause between sentences, provide warning for changes such as new task responsibilities or a change in work environment, break projects into smaller tasks, set boundaries, provide fewer choices, and avoid open ended questions.

  1. ASD Don’ts

When working with an individual with Autism, you may want to avoid creating long strings of verbal instructions as it may be difficult to follow or remember, take ‘rude’ behavior personally (i.e. lack of water cooler talk - remember individuals with ASD are often direct), using sarcasm, and using optional language like “could you please do…” or “do you want to…”

  1. Ask Questions & Continue to Learn

Don’t be afraid to ask questions! Building equitable spaces for all individuals is crucial to employee and organizational success and the only way to continue to enhance the spaces we already have is to recognize there is always room for growth. Utilize your networks, employees, and reliable sources to continue to gather information to transform the virtual and physical spaces your organizations operate in. Just remember to respect boundaries!