Tips for Managing an Employee With Autism in the Workplace

Managers May Need to Consider Disability Accommodation in the Workplace

Thomas Barwick / Getty Images

When you talk about autism, it is often spoken about in a school context, but every child with autism becomes an adult with autism. Consequently, you need to discuss autism in the context of the workplace. Managing employees with autism can pose challenges and require that managers understand and react appropriately to the display of characteristics by an autistic employee.

Autism is a disability that is covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and, therefore, you need to make reasonable accommodations for an employee or candidate with autism.

What Does Autism in the Workplace Look Like?

“If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.” This statement, attributed to Dr. Stephen Shore, is commonly repeated in the autism community.

Because autism is a spectrum disorder, people with autism range from being slightly different than a neurotypical person, one who does not display autistic or other neurologically atypical patterns of thought or behavior, to someone who will never be able to live an independent life.

However, there are characteristics that are quite common in individuals with autism. WebMD compiled a list of symptoms related to autism. Here are four that may impact your workplace. They are examples of what managers need to think about when managing employees and candidates with autism in the workplace.

Difficulty With Interpersonal Skills

People with autism may have “significant problems developing nonverbal communication skills, such as eye-to-eye gazing, facial expression, and body posture.”

Read that sentence and think about how you judge a candidate in a job interview. “He looked uncomfortable,” or “she wouldn’t look me in the eyes; she must be lying.” A lot of judgments are made based on a candidate’s body language, but a job seeker on the autism spectrum may not be capable of making these judgments or holding her own body in a way that neurotypical people would expect.

You need to stop and consider if having a candidate look you directly in the eye is an essential function of the job. If it’s not (and it probably isn’t), then you need to make sure that you’re not rejecting a candidate because of such behavior. 

The same is true in the workplace. Managing an employee with autism requires that you help bridge the gap between your expected interpersonal interaction and that of the employee with autism.

Acting Like a Team Player

Another symptom that a person with autism can exhibit is a “lack of interest in sharing enjoyment, interests, or achievements with other people.” In business speak, managers might say that this person isn’t a team player. Teamwork is important, but is it an essential function of a job? Does congratulating a coworker on a big achievement make the difference between a positive or negative performance review?

Additionally, an autistic employee may have “difficulty understanding another person’s feelings.” What an autistic person sees as straightforward, may be received by another person as rude and inappropriate. This can boil down to what looks like a cultural difference, and it can be cultural, but it can also be related to how your brain processes information.

A manager may say, “I want to thank you for all of your hard work on that project, but I was hoping that next time you could think about doing that in another way.” She’s trying to speak nicely, but some autistic employees aren’t going to get the message that the boss wants a change.

When managing employees with autism, try the direct approach. “Good job. Next time, do this instead of that.”

Lack of Humor

You can’t get through the workday without a good sense of humor, right? Well, an employee with autism may have difficulty understanding humor. She may take something you say as an instruction rather than what you perceive as an obvious joke.

The result can result in confusion. You’ll need to speak straightforwardly and save your jokes for times when you’re not discussing jokes directly when managing an employee with autism.

Additionally, it can sometimes be difficult to explain what is and what is not appropriate workplace behavior. Imaginary lines exist about what constitutes a funny joke and what constitutes an inappropriate comment. An employee with autism may have difficulty with this line and say something that you and HR would consider inappropriate

But the appropriate response when managing an employee with autism is different than you would say to a neurotypical employee. No, you don’t have to excuse bad behavior in the workplace, but yes, you may have to spend additional time explaining the lines not to cross to an employee with autism.

The Need for a Strict Schedule

Some people with autism can hyperfocus which is the ability to focus very intently on a subject, topic, or task that interests them while others need a strict schedule that you cannot change without serious consequences. You may think that you are elbows deep in a project when your autistic coworker suddenly gets up and goes and gets her lunch and starts eating.

You may perceive that as a sign that she’s not invested in the project and is willing to let you do the work yourself. But in reality, it’s simply that she always eats lunch at 12:15 and it’s 12:15 right now.

In the case of hyperfocusing, if the employee with autism's hyperfocus is on the work that you are doing, that’s great, but it will make for boring breakroom conversations. If the focus is on something else, you may spend a lot of your life hearing about your autistic coworker's current hobby.

Again, when managing an employee with autism, you need to determine whether or not accommodating these characteristics is reasonable. Having lunch at precisely the same time every day seems like a reasonable accommodation for an employee with autism. If the hyperfocus prevents the employee from doing her actual work, however, a reasonable accommodation might not exist.

Determining a Reasonable Accommodation

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires an interactive process. This means that you and your employee with autism need to discuss what the employee needs and come to an agreement on a reasonable solution.

When managing an employee with autism, you do not have to just accept what the employee says she needs, but you do need to negotiate in good faith. What is reasonable for one company may not be reasonable for another.

If an autistic employee says she needs to work without distraction, you may allow her to wear headphones when you wouldn’t otherwise allow employees to do so. This accommodation is reasonable. But, if her job involves working with customers, allowing her to wear headphones may not serve the interests of providing excellent customer service, this is not reasonable.

It’s critical that your job descriptions cover all of the key functions of the employees' jobs. That way you and an autistic job candidate can determine whether or not the candidate can perform the key functions. If she can perform the key functions, you then need to decide whether she’s the best candidate based on skills, experience, and other factors you'd normally use in candidate selection.

Rejecting a candidate because she doesn’t look you in the eyes when she speaks when the job mostly consists of working independently on a computer is likely to violate the law.

Autism in the workplace is something that all HR departments need to think about and consider ways in which they can accommodate current and potential employees who are somewhere on this spectrum. You can definitely benefit your company when you hire the most highly qualified employee, even when this will require making a few accommodations when managing an employee with autism.