We have developed this fact sheet to provide information and direction on supporting people with an autism spectrum disorder. It is a starting point for a range of matters you may wish to consider when offering employment related support to this group of job seekers.
Note: Autism spectrum disorders will be referred to as autism throughout this document.
Understanding autism and its impact on job performance
People with disability are usually experts in their own needs, and will understand the impact of their disability on work performance and what workplace adjustments they may need at interviews, while training or on the job. However people with autism may not necessarily have a great level of self awareness in these areas and may require additional assistance with these matters in order to find and keep a job.
Autism is a developmental disability that impacts on key areas including social interaction with others, communication, information processing and the need for sameness (structure and routine). The degree of difficulty will naturally vary from person to person.
Social skill difficulties stem from an inability to read others and can include:
aloofness (this is as perceived by others and is not necessarily true)
- one way interaction (difficulty with turn taking) or one sided conversation often related to a strong area of interest
- avoiding eye contact
- inability to read body language
- inability to understand notions of personal space, for example, a person with autism may stand too close for others’ comfort due to an impaired understanding of the unwritten rules of social engagement that we all take for granted.
Communication impairments might involve limited speech or no speech, difficulty initiating conversation with others and a repetitive use of language. For some people with good verbal skills, their language can still be very concrete with a failure to understand abstract concepts.
People with autism require structure and routine in order to learn new skills and to perform well at work. When overwhelmed or stressed a person with autism may demonstrate repetitive behaviours, for example, become preoccupied with particular narrow subjects, unusual objects or engage in stereotyped or repetitive movements such as hand flapping. This is observed as a means of coping with their difficulties.
Autism is also strongly associated with intellectual disability though people with Asperger’s syndrome, commonly referred to as higher functioning autism, often have normal intelligence levels and the ability to undertake tertiary education. They may also exhibit exceptional knowledge or talent in specific areas, while remaining impaired in all key areas of development including social skill difficulties and the need for sameness and routine.
Areas of functioning important to employment may be affected and include:
- literacy and numeracy
- comprehension of information and instructions, people with autism often need to be trained about the order of a task
- problem solving and decision making skills due to a focus on the detail rather than the big picture
- time telling, time management and organisation
- ability to travel or live independently
- appropriate behaviours and social skills
- grooming and self care.
People with autism are capable of learning although it will often take longer than others. People with autism often require alternative teaching methods and extra assistance. Be aware that some people with autism struggle to cope with loud and busy environments so reducing distractions, relocating the work to a quieter space or a noise reducing head phone may assist with learning. Some skills or knowledge may be too demanding or complex, or may require constant reinforcement.
Some people with autism live independently in the community but many live with family or in supported accommodation facilities. It is therefore very important to establish contact with family or carers, and if you have permission to talk to them, communicate with them to help you build an accurate picture of the work related abilities and limitations of any job seekers with autism on your caseload. The support of significant others is a very important element in gaining a successful employment outcome for your job seeker.
The Workplace Adjustment Tool contains further information on autism. The Workplace Adjustment Tool is a searchable database that allows you to search for ideas for workplace adjustments and solutions based on a particular disability and the type of job being undertaken.
- Asperger's syndrome
- Cognitive impairment
- Pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified
Put the person first
When developing a job search plan or offering post-employment support, it is necessary to be flexible and treat each person with autism individually. Tailor your approach to individual needs and capacities and focus clearly on each person’s goals and abilities. This should also entail reassessing and adapting plans and support as necessary, linking people with relevant specialist services.
Tapping into existing support networks may also assist in realising vocational ambitions. Use current and valid assessments and reports (school, medical, rehabilitation and work capacity) to help you gain a full understanding of the person’s strengths, barriers and any assistance they will require along the road to employment.
You can assist job seekers with autism to find suitable and sustainable employment by developing, with the person and significant others, an individualised pre-employment plan that incorporates a discussion of the following:
- an exploration of realistic job options
- a job development strategy covering resumes, interviews and job search techniques, including the job seeker’s role and your role in these activities
- consideration of disability disclosure
- requirements for workplace adjustments or modifications
- consideration on post-placement support needs
Sometimes people with autism may express strong views about jobs in which they could succeed. These ideas arise from their limited understanding of options or what is involved in a particular job. Consequently, it is crucial to carefully explore each job seeker’s work skills and interests through personal discussion, checking any previous employment referees or talking frankly to work experience teachers.
For those with limited or no recent work experience, it may be beneficial to arrange work experience or voluntary work to assist in determining future job choices.
This process of exploration may also help determine whether a person will be able to work for full wages or be paid productivity-based sub-minimum wages through access to the Supported Wage System.
Most job seekers will benefit from personal involvement in preparing suitable resumes, and using a range of jobsearch methods. However, most people with autism will need assistance to write resumes, arrange interviews and to contact employers. Reverse marketing, consisting of job creation or redesign approaches prior to advertising, may be the best method to use with many in this group. A good rule of thumb is to involve a person to the maximum level of their abilities in the whole job search experience.
Job interviews—support and interview tips
When it comes to actual job interviews or face to face meetings with employers, many people with autism will often struggle to compete for jobs with other candidates. Consequently they may benefit from advocacy support at interviews or meetings to fully understand the job requirements and sell themselves to a prospective employer. This may include help with explaining individual training and support needs or employer incentives that may be available (for example, wage subsidies, supported wages).
Importantly, as an interview support you can also encourage an employer to avoid complex or ambiguous language, to rephrase questions if they are not initially understood, or to compensate for possible information processing difficulties while also allowing enough time for responses to interview questions.
All job candidates, whatever their interview skills, can benefit from interview practice opportunities and from understanding what job interviews entail from start to finish. Also make sure the job seeker has a good understanding of what are acceptable and legally permissible interview questions in relation to their disability.
There is no single answer to the question of disability disclosure for people with autism.
For some this may not be a critical issue as their disability will be obvious. In this case it may be a matter of working out a way of discussing a person’s disability and abilities with prospective employers in a manner with which they are comfortable.
For a small number of higher functioning people with autism or Asperger’s syndrome, disclosure can become a real issue that warrants careful consideration. Sometimes the disability may not be initially apparent in an interview or on the job and may even be perceived as odd behaviour or eccentricity. This can often lead to labelling by co-workers. While it is always the person’s choice to disclose, in this case appropriate disclosure strategies may be vital to ensure that the job seeker receives the support and training they need to make the job placement succeed.
Job commencement—on site training techniques and tips
Starting a job can be a testing time for any new employee but for many with autism, given their particular difficulties, there may be the need for extra training assistance and support in addition to any employer incentives you may arrange. This will vary depending on the employee, the severity of the disability, the complexity of the job and the nature of the workplace. Such training could include:
- job analysis and systematic practical ‘show and tell’ instruction by an external or internal job coach to achieve task competence
- performance monitoring and the introduction of aids to foster independence and productivity, such as:
- self monitoring production charts
- visual or written checklists and schedules
- models or work samples
- memory prompts
- concrete instructions (rules) regarding work culture with a view to social competence and inclusion, including:
- customs concerning breaks, celebrations and pace of work
- acceptable dress and grooming
- power relationships
- cliques and sub-groups
- humour and ‘horseplay’
- a train the trainer approach involving:
- a more formal process of instructing a designated co-worker or supervisor in more appropriate specialist training and performance monitoring techniques
- the development of an informal buddy system where a co-worker is willing to keep an eye on the employee’s progress and assist with learning new tasks and dealing with work-related problems as required
- proactive education of the employer and co-workers on the impact of autism with the aim of avoiding misunderstandings on the job—this may involve full or partial disclosure.
The ideal situation is when the employer takes ownership of employee induction and training, but for new employees with autism they may need your advice and assistance to get it right. The following is a series of tips on effective training for such employees, though keep in mind that every person is unique with their own capabilities, limitations and learning styles:
- training should be conducted in the context of a predictable routine
- teach new tasks sequentially by practical demonstration (the show and tell method):
- demonstrate or model the task yourself and then get the person to do it, explaining and correcting any mistakes as you go along
- provide visual cues to aid learning, for example, models, a set of written instructions, a template, a job set up as a sequence to make visual sense of it
- break down more complex tasks and show the person step by step, especially for tasks with which a person is having trouble mastering
- do not chatter while training and keep language focused on the task at hand
- be open to different ways of completing tasks as long as the end result is the same
- concentrate first on quality rather than quantity, ensuring a person is undertaking the task correctly before focusing on speed or productivity
- give lots of positive feedback though never neglect to correct mistakes, unacceptable behaviours or unsafe working methods and stress why this is important
- avoid immediate job rotation or introducing too much variety from day one, though remember that many people with autism will be able to multi-skill and it often helps the learning process (repetition being the key) if they can master one, two or a few tasks before moving on to learn new duties
- be clear in your instructions and don’t flood the person with a lot of new information at once:
- avoid difficult language or complex directions
- give one instruction at a time
- if memory is an issue make up a list of jobs for the day
- make it clear that it is okay to ask questions when unsure about a task or what to do next, though also encourage and praise initiative
- be aware that some people do need to operate within set structures and routines to be effective and do not respond well to constant change or variety.
For higher functioning people with autism or Asperger’s syndrome more of an emphasis should be placed on initial social skills and behavioural training appropriate to the particular workplace and the various co-workers with whom they will interact and communicate with on a regular basis.
Once an employee with autism has commenced work and been given all the necessary initial assistance and training, you can increase their chances of maintaining this employment by providing ongoing support as it is required. Ongoing support requirements and the way this support is delivered should be discussed with the employee. Ongoing support may include:
- visits or phone calls to monitor performance
- assistance with resolution of work related problems
- ongoing coaching of employers and co-workers on relevant disability issues or training techniques
- advice on job redesign (tasks, processes, hours) or workplace adjustments (structural modifications, special aids and equipment, communication strategies)
- provision or arrangement of ergonomic or workplace assessments
- off site or on site counselling or performance feedback
- referral to external services or linkage into internal support mechanisms
- assistance with training and expansion of duties, including regular performance reviews/appraisals
For information and step by step instructions on the financial help available to employers of people with disability, including the application process, visit:
The following fact sheets, developed for service providers, are also a useful resource: