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Autism spectrum disorders

Key Facts

Key facts about autism spectrum disorders

  • Autism spectrum disorders are lifelong developmental disabilities, typically appearing during the first three years of life.
  • Covers autistic disorder, Asperger's disorder and atypical autism.
  • More commonly referred to as 'autism', sometimes referred to as 'ASD'.
  • Characterised by difficulties in:
    • social interaction;
    • communication; and
    • restricted and repetitive interests, activities and behaviours.

People with an autism spectrum disorder may also have

  • sensory sensitivities; and
  • intellectual or learning disabilities.

People with an autism spectrum disorder can experience overwhelming anxiety, frustration and confusion when faced with the demands of everyday life. Symptoms and characteristics can present in a wide variety of combinations from mild to severe; hence the 'spectrum'.

People with autistic disorder may also have an intellectual disability, however people with Asperger's disorder tend to have an average or above average intelligence and few language based problems.

Affects and adjustments at work

Common affects of autism spectrum disorders at work

Remember! No two people with the same disability experience the same affects at work!

Employees with disability are not likely to have all the listed disability features OR affects at work! Most people have just a few of those listed; you'll only know by asking the person directly.

Here are some examples of how an employee with an autism spectrum disorder may be affected at work. They may experience difficulties with:

  • Interacting with colleagues, managers and clients
  • Engaging in conversation
  • Understanding abstract concepts, metaphors or sarcasm
  • Interpreting and using non-verbal communication
  • Working with distractions
  • Decision making and problem solving
  • Maintaining concentration and motivation on some tasks
  • Working in unfamiliar environments
  • Time management and organisation
  • Changes to work routine, tasks or workplace arrangements.

Possible workplace adjustments for people with autism spectrum disorders

The following examples of workplace adjustments in the next section are only examples! In each case the best supports in the workplace can only be discovered through conversations between the employer, employee and, if needed, a disability specific employment specialist. These examples will not suit everybody.

Here are some examples of workplace adjustments that have been used for people with an autism spectrum disorder:

  • Reduce new tasks to smaller steps and learn using repetition.
  • Describe new tasks, processes and information clearly and in multiple ways such verbal and written; written and diagram; verbal and demonstration, etc.
  • Facilitate or accommodate the person's need to develop a regular routine with daily repetition of jobs in the same/similar sequence each day.
  • A 'work buddy' system involving a co-worker to support the person during orientation to new job and/or times of high stress.
  • Give as much notice of upcoming workplace changes and provide plenty of detail about how the changes will affect staff.
  • Running meetings or oral presentations using helpful computer software.

For more information and suggestions on making workplace adjustments for employees with specific types of disability visit the government website Job Access.

Tips for communicating with people with an autism spectrum disorder

  • Avoid using humour, sarcasm, figures of speech, jargon or colloquialisms.
  • Use simple and short sentences and closed questions.
  • Be aware that body language may not be understood.
  • Use words that are flexible – 'we may' NOT 'we will'.
  • Check that the person has understood what has been said. Be prepared to repeat what you have said using different words.
  • Present new information in a variety of ways (as above) and in relevant 'blocks' of detail, checking that the person is processing the information ok.
  • Understand that what may appear to be minor changes in routine or in the job specification may be a major hurdle for an employee with an autism spectrum disorder without support, extra time to adjust and reliable information. Someone who has been performing very efficiently may be temporarily affected by such changes.