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Autism in the Workplace: Understanding Autism

You’ve seen awareness campaigns, documentaries or you may even know someone on the Spectrum. Autism has certainly made a prevalence, but is it fully understood? As part of Autism Awareness Week, Chloe, (who is on the Spectrum herself), explains what Autism is, why it should be embraced in the workplace, and tips for managing an Autistic employee. This will be a two-part series. In this section, Chloe explores the characteristics of Autism.

(Please note: Not everything mentioned in this article will apply for every person on the spectrum, as Autism affects people differently).

Understanding What Autism Is
Put simply, Autism is a lifelong developmental disability that affects the way we sense the world and how we communicate with others. We see, feel and hear the world differently, meaning that we may be over or undersensitive to sight, sounds, textures, taste and touch.

Known as a ‘spectrum’ condition, although we share certain difficulties, Autism can affect us all differently and at different levels. Some people can lead independent lives, but others may require lifelong support. Some of the common characteristics include:

  1. Difficulties With Processing Language: Some people on the spectrum may have delayed speech, while others may not be able to speak at all. However, some people on the Spectrum may have an especially advanced grasp on language. (This can occur in people with Asperger Syndrome – a form of Autism). On top of this, people on the spectrum may experience difficulties processing body language. Eye contact, reading emotions, and hand gestures can all be confusing and don’t come easily to some people with Autism.
  2. Difficulties With Social Communication: Whether it’s initiating conversation, understanding sarcasm and tone of voice, or knowing when to speak, socialising and communicating with others can be challenging for many people on the spectrum.
  3. Repetitive Behaviours: Some people on the spectrum like going by the same structure, such as walking the same route and can find changes to their routine very distressing.
  4. Longer Processing: As well as difficulties with social communication, Autism can affect the way we process information. As a result, some people on them the Spectrum may experience difficulties understanding instructions, especially if they are verbal or written. This can also make planning and prioritising tasks arduous. To counteract this, Autistic people tend to learn visually, so using an example or showing how a task should be done, can be really beneficial.
  5. Stimming: Just like biting your nails or pacing up and down when you’re anxious, Autistic people respond to their environment and regulate their emotions through stimming, with the most common forms of stimming including rocking back and forth, hand-flapping and humming. This happens for a number of reasons and it can happen when we’re excited, happy, focused, nervous, anxious or responding to sensory input from the environment, (sometimes before or during a meltdown, which happens when we become overloaded with sensory stimuli). Unless it looks like we could be hurting ourselves in any way, stimming is harmless and is a great way of calming ourselves down.

Autism as a ‘Spectrum’
Now you know the basics, how does Autism affect us all differently? To begin with, while many of the above characteristics are shared, we may experience them all differently or some of us may not experience some of the characteristics at all. On top of this, Autism can also range from severe to mild.

For example: Those on the severe end of the spectrum may be highly over or undersensitive to sensory stimuli, have difficulties with social communication and can only communicate in minimal terms, if at all. On the other hand, Autism can look fairly minimal; a person may be able to communicate well and not have as many difficulties processing language, but that doesn’t mean the characteristics aren’t there. Some people on the spectrum may choose to mask their behaviors, and this can sometimes be out of fear that they may be judged by others. Maintaining eye contact, copying others behavior, trying to stay still and forcing ourselves to initiate a conversation, are just some examples of masking behaviors.

Conclusion
With Autism affecting us all differently, being on the spectrum may not be immediately obvious. While we share certain difficulties, it’s vital to note that they can affect us all differently. However, there are also many positives to being on the Spectrum, which can not only been seen individually, but can also be brought into the workplace. In the next section, we’ll look at just some of the many reasons why Autism should be embraced, and tips for managing an Autistic employee.

If you would like to find out more about Autism, be sure to check out these links:

  1. The World Through Lewis’ Eyes
  2. What is Autism? 
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