Ten Barriers Autistic Workers Face and How to Overcome Them

First published as a blog post for the TUC’s ‘Stronger Unions’ on 23 November 2016:


Most autistic people want to work, but often encounter difficulties in the workplace which employers can address better. Author and workplace trade union representative Janine Booth, who is on the spectrum herself, outlines her ten examples of barriers for autistic people at work, and offers advice for removing them.

  1. Getting work

Job adverts often use jargon. Interviews may have sensory distractions, use sloppily-worded questions, and judge applicants on social behaviour such as posture. Employers can remove these barriers by advertising jobs clearly, using practical tests and allowing autistic applicants to have an interview companion. The Government can do more to actively support autistic job-hunters.

  1. Getting on with the job

Once you begin a job, the induction you get may not cover social issues. Training may not recognise autistic learning styles. Employers may not recognise our abilities. To remove these barriers, employers can give information in advance, train managers about autism and provide a support worker or mentor to offer assistance.

  1. Communication

Autistic workers may prefer written or visual communication. We may not speak, may not ask for help, or may ask endless questions. To remove these barriers, employers can make sure their communication is straightforward and given in manageable chunks, does not rely on tone, gestures or facial expression and is in the worker’s preferred format.

  1. Social interaction

Workplaces often demand intense social interaction, which can be difficult if you’re autistic. Employers can provide space to de-stress, and – importantly – they can accept us for who we are: if we skip along the corridor or rock on our chairs, what’s the problem?

  1. Sensory issues

Autistic people’s sensory experiences can be more (or less) intense than those of non-autistic people. To address this, employers can make it possible for each worker to control his or her sensory environment. They can alleviate difficulties with light by using full-spectrum light, sound by using noise-cancelling headphones, smells by shielding work spaces from canteens or food preparation areas, and fabrics by allowing people to wear comfortable clothing.

  1. Organising work

Many workplaces have rigid work schemes, causing autistic workers difficulty managing time or prioritising. To stop this being a barrier to autistic employees, it’s important to offer more control to autistic employees over their work. Offering practical tools such as visual timetable and apps, and allowing staff to explore ideas and go at their own pace, will also help.

  1. The trouble with managers

Managers may know little about autism, show favouritism, communicate inappropriately, or be too bossy. To make sure this isn’t a barrier for autistic people getting on at work, employers can make sure managers understand autism and avoid disabling behaviour – such as not providing enough processing time or giving vague instructions. Going further, we could question assumptions about authority at work, and reorganise work on a democratic, collective basis.

  1. Bullying and harassment

Bullies target people who seem different, whether they know their victim is autistic or not. Bullies often have authority over victims. Employers can adopt an anti-bullying policy which includes designated people to contact if you are being bullied, taking complaints seriously and offering support to the individual from an autism worker and/or union representative.

  1. All change!

Unexpected change is hard to cope with, whether that’s day-to-day disruption or grand reorganisation. To remove barriers to autistic people, employers can keep things the same for that person where practical (for example, parking space allocations and working hours). They can also negotiate, and give notice of, unavoidable changes.

  1. Job insecurity

Recent years have seen cuts to many services that support autistic adults – including some for finding and keeping work. Work can also be less secure, for example with fixed-term or zero-hours contracts. To remove barriers, Government and employers need to work together to expand services, meeting needs and creating jobs. They can keep jobs in the public sector where they are more secure and not push autistic people into unsuitable work, while providing adequate benefits.

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