Let’s clear one issue up before we begin – Autism is NOT a mental health issue. It’s a ‘lifelong, developmental disability that affects how a person communicates with and relates to other people, and how they experience the world around them.’ (National Autistic Society). See, no mention of mental health at all.
So why are you reading an article about Autism on a blog that is almost exclusively about mental health issues?
The answer is that mental health disorders such as anxiety, stress and depression are especially common amongst people on the Autistic Spectrum. For example, about 40% of Autistic people have experienced an anxiety disorder, that’s well over twice the amount within the general population (15%).
There are many reasons for this anomaly, including biological differences in the brains of Autistic people, the social difficulties they have experienced and the problems they have in communication.
You might be surprised to learn that 1 in every hundred people in the UK have Autism. So think about all the people you encounter in the workplace over the course of the year (not to mention the people you encounter outside of work) and suddenly it seems extremely likely that you will encounter at least person with Autism at least once a year.
It’s important to understand how best to communicate with Autistic people in the workplace. That will help make the experience far more comfortable for all parties.
1. Speak clearly
Autistic people are easily susceptible to mental overloads and meltdowns. You can help avoid causing this by talking clearly, calmly, concisely and slowly, especially when giving instructions. Try to cut down on non-verbal forms of communication such as gesturing, impersonating and body language.
2. Cut down on the questions
Environments such as meetings, interviews and shops necessitate plenty of questions, but where possible try to make these short and specific. Open-ended questions can cause difficulties. Also, consider whether your questions are completely necessary. And remember to allow plenty of time for an answer.
3. Speak literally
Sarcasm, irony, metaphors and rhetoric can be confusing for Autistic people. They quite often have a tendency to take things very literally, so try to speak literally.
4. Be personal
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is very common for people on the Autistic spectrum. This means that they have problems relating to hyperactivity, inattentiveness and impulsiveness. You can help minimise the problems this causes by trying to ensure that they are paying attention before you start talking. Using their name is an effective tool in doing this. What’s more, try to use their name each time you speak directly to them. This will help hold their attention throughout.
5. Don’t be put off
Many Autistic people act in a way that you may think odd. They can often be fidgety or use repetitive movements (‘stims’) such as rocking or biting their nails. Try not to be unsettled or concerned by this. It’s just a coping mechanism neurodiverse people use to make them more comfortable and to stimulate their senses. Carry on talking and acting as normal and it will help them stay calm.
6. Be nice
The best way to be nice is to not question the intellect or understanding of the recipient. Remember that Autism isn’t a mental health issue; many Autistic people are extremely intelligent. Sure, adapt your communication as per the above points, but don’t talk down or make negative assumptions about their mental capabilities. That only leads to resentment, embarrassment and a breakdown in communication.
Overall, it’s important to remember that all autistic people are different. They have different behaviours and needs. You should try and adapt your communication accordingly.
I write articles for AUM Consultancy as well as my own personal blog on Autism.