With autism awareness on the rise, more and more organizations big and small are starting to incorporate it into their plans. While the WHO reports that 1 in 100 children live with autism, underdiagnosis in adults (particularly in women) means that the real number of people who live with ASD remains an open question.
Long story short, what this means is that there are decent odds you may end up employing somebody who lives with autism at your startup.
This isn’t a bad thing at all – people with autism bring a unique set of skills and experiences to the workplace, and are perfectly capable of helping your startup reach dizzying new heights as it grows. However, as with any other disability, people who live with autism often need special accommodations and support to thrive in the workplace.
And that brings us to today’s question: how exactly can you create a more autism-friendly environment at your startup? Luckily for you, that’s exactly what we’re going to go over today. There are many ways to support an employee with autism, many of which you can immediately action with relatively little expense.
Busting Autism Myths: What Is Autism, Exactly?
While autism awareness may be on the rise, unfortunately, it’s hampered by the continuing presence of many autism-related myths. Before moving on to how you can support team members who live with autism, it’s good to start by learning exactly what autism is, and how it affects those who live with it.
Autism is not a single condition. Rather, it is a spectrum of different conditions that an individual’s ability to process information, communicate, build relationships, regulate emotions, and more.
In addition to these more commonly-known effects, however, autism affects almost all brain functions. That’s because autism is a lifelong condition that affects brain development and function, which impacts everything from the way they process information, to how they experience the world, to how they problem-solve.
Important to note is that it does not automatically mean that everyone who lives with autism has an intellectual impairment. It’s important to remember that autism is a spectrum – those who live with ASD can run the gamut of intelligence. Not to mention, people on the spectrum bring plenty of unique skills and experiences to the table, which your startup can benefit from.
How to Support Employees Who Live with Autism: 8 Practical Steps You Can Implement at Your Startup
1) Bust Myths and Get Your Team Onboard
Even the most accessible workplace won’t be very welcoming if the rest of your team isn’t getting with the program. One of the first things you should do when onboarding a team member with autism is building an environment where everyone understands and accepts their condition.
Consider giving a crash course on:
- What autism is exactly
- Accommodations you’re making
- What the rest of your team can do to make them feel more welcome
In particular, it’s important that you try your best to educate the rest of your team about what exactly autism is and how it affects their colleague. Many people still hold on to outdated preconceptions about ASD and those who live with it, so one of the first things you should do is start busting myths. And finally, be sure to quickly stamp out any signs of discrimination you see. Make it clear that it will not be tolerated whatsoever.
Luckily for you, as a startup your organization is young and its corporate culture isn’t set in stone just yet, making this much easier than at a large company.
2) Beware of Burnout
Exhaustion, fatigue, and burnout can affect all of us. As the owner of a startup, you’re no doubt familiar with what this feels like. Plus, why it’s so important to avoid burning yourself out.
People with autism are more susceptible to suffering from burnout. There are two main reasons for this:
1) Many people who live with autism get by using “masking” strategies to navigate a world designed for neurotypical people. This can mean managing emotions, suppressing behaviors, and remembering scripts that mimic neurotypical behavior.
2) Accumulated stress if their daily life doesn’t provide enough support or accommodation for their specific needs.
Both of these can be exhausting on a day-to-day basis and contribute to autistic burnout. If a member of staff lives with autism, one of the best things you can do is be understanding. Talk to them about the most likely triggers for burnout, be generous with time off, and develop coping mechanisms together such as giving them a private space where they can decompress if needed.
3) Be Accommodating of Sensory Issues
One of the most common symptoms of autism is sensory processing. In particular, many people who live with ASD experience heightened sensitivity to light, sound, sensations, and more. Needless to say, these can be extremely disruptive without suitable accommodations in the workplace.
Fortunately, accommodating a sensory sensitivity is relatively straightforward: items like earplugs, noise-canceling headphones, and sunglasses can all go a long way towards making things more bearable.
However, over-sensitivity isn’t the only issue. People with autism may experience under-sensitivity. In some work environments, this can pose a health risk – for example, an employee with autism may not wear hearing protection and damage their hearing as a result.
In both cases, it’s important that you talk with your employee to understand how sensory information affects them, and provide tools to block things out.
4) Rethink Your Approach to Communication
Communication is much more than just verbal – every day, we rely on plenty of other tools without even realizing it:
- Body language
- Facial expressions
- Tone of voice
- Metaphor and abstract language
In many cases, autism can affect an individual’s ability to interpret these parts of communication. While it can be tough to reduce your reliance on these tools, doing so can make things considerably easier for people who live with autism.
As we all know, however, communication is a two-way street. In addition to affecting their ability to understand you, many people who live with autism also communicate differently. They might avoid eye contact, be blunt, or take longer to form a verbal response. This is just how a lot of people with autism communicate, it doesn’t mean they’re trying to be rude.
Of course, all of this is a massive oversimplification. The fact of the matter is that each case is unique, and many autistic people have worked hard to overcome communication challenges. Don’t make assumptions – one of the best things you can do is to sit down with the employee in question and talk to them about how your communication needs to change.
5) Think About Setting Up a Buddy System
Your startup might have a buddy system for onboarding new hires. But what about a buddy system for team members who live with autism?
A buddy or mentor can help a team member with autism work through situations and issues as they arise. Also, they can act as a middleman with other members of staff. They can also help resolve potential misunderstandings and issues before they have the potential to snowball into something much worse.
It’s a little thing, but it can help reduce anxiety, stress, and confusion. It can make working for you a lot more pleasant for team members on the spectrum.
6) Talk to the Professionals
For something as complicated and multifaceted as autism, there are a lot of different considerations to keep in mind. There’s nothing wrong with talking to a professional about it.
There is a huge range of different support services that specialize in autism. For example, occupational therapy for autism focuses on identifying hurdles in the workplace. It provides tools and strategies to overcome them.
Some people who live with autism may have specialists who support them with their condition. For example, occupational therapy for autism provides support by identifying hurdles in everyday life and providing tools to overcome them. Others can include information and advocacy groups, which can provide training to help your team understand how to properly accommodate colleagues on the spectrum.
7) Provide a Routine at Work
Routine is important to people with ASD. Many people who live with autism prefer to have a predictable routine, both at home and in the workplace. Understanding this and taking measures to provide said routine is something any business can do, startup or otherwise, to support employees with autism.
It can be as simple as setting up a timetable and respecting any routine that your employee has set for themselves. For example, if they have a set time for lunch, do your best to respect it. Avoid scheduling meetings or appointments that clash with it when possible.
8) Be a Good Boss
Keep tabs on your team. Make sure they’re holding it all together. Collaborate with them to work through issues. If you want to build a positive corporate culture at your startup, these are the essential building blocks.
Team members who live with autism need this type of support just as much as the more tangible accommodations and accessibility features. In fact, in some cases it’s even more valuable – for example, people with ASD are more vulnerable to certain health problems
Autism is a criminally underdiagnosed condition. However, it doesn’t automatically mean that people living with it aren’t valuable additions to the workplace. On the contrary, people with autism can be valuable additions to your startup. They bring new skills and perspectives that can help you grow.
And all they need in return is a little bit of support to make it possible.