World Autism Awareness Day

 

Saturday 2nd April 2022 marks World Autism Awareness day. Many people have preconceptions about autism as being a condition that always causes major disability. However, autism is a spectrum that affects people in different ways and to varying degrees. It is, perhaps, more helpful to consider autism as traits that can, in severe cases, cause disability.

Around 1% of people in the UK have some form of autism and increasing numbers of adults are being diagnosed as being on the autistic spectrum, something that may well have made their lives more challenging since they were children. It is likely that more people live with some degree of autism but have never been diagnosed.

National Autistic Society

 

Common traits in autism

Having autism can make some aspects of everyday life more difficult, so a greater awareness of neurodiversity can promote understanding and encourage a culture that breaks down barriers that people with autism face. 

A poster produced by the National Autistic Society shows some of the traits in people with autism, which can be either beneficial or restrictive, depending on the situation. Challenging traits include trouble following instructions or processing requests, difficulty following unwritten rules and reading social situations, and finding workplace culture overwhelming. Having autism can make it hard to meet new people or engage in small talk, making workplace relationships difficult to navigate. These challenges can lead to social exclusion and mental health difficulties.

On the flip side, autism can give people traits that are incredibly useful at work such as focus and concentration on certain tasks, great attention to detail and creativity, and a high degree of honesty and integrity. Indeed, some people see their autism as a gift and a fundamental part of who they are.

 

Workplace challenges

People with autism can have several or few of these traits and to a greater or lesser degree.  It might not be obvious to colleagues when they work with people who have autism. Unfortunately, many societal norms can make life more challenging for people with autism and prevent them reaching their potential. Recruitment and career development are all too often geared to what are seen as ideal career traits, such as being the great team player, with excellent management skills, who can rapidly switch between a range of tasks. 

However, autism can make it difficult to understand people and social situations or quickly adapt to changing tasks or demands, which can limit progression opportunities. Few companies recognise people who are extremely talented workers unless they are able to be people managers, but those that do so are likely to reap the benefits of promoting and developing people as specialists rather than managers. Instead of demanding certain behaviours, the ideal team should include and accept all of its members for who they are.

Not everyone will want to share their diagnosis with co-workers or even know that they could be on the autistic spectrum, but by everyone accepting those traits associated with autism, a more welcoming environment is created. Managers who take time to understand and adapt to the characteristics of their staff help build a positive culture for neurodiversity.

 

Barriers to healthcare

It is unsurprising that some people with autism experience difficulty navigating healthcare systems. One of the biggest challenges is deciding whether or not their symptoms warrant visiting a doctor and if so, then they find it difficult to make the appointment. Communication difficulties and making themselves understood during the consultations were also reported to be problematic and some found the waiting room experience to be very uncomfortable. These barriers were exacerbated during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Specialist training for healthcare staff, appointments at less busy times, and quiet areas in waiting rooms could help people with autism be better connected with healthcare services. Currently, specialist provision for people with autism is rarely available.

 

Mental health, stress and autism

The COVID-19 pandemic caused considerable pressure at work for many people and the toll on mental health has been widely reported. Frontline workers such as those delivering healthcare were put under considerable stress. Research has shown that people with autism have been particularly susceptible to mental health difficulties. Increased stress on healthcare workers with autism was significantly associated with depression, suggesting that appropriate support should be provided.

Improving awareness of neurodiversity helps create a more supportive environment for those with autism. Employers who improve their policies around mental health and inclusivity can provide a much better workplace for employees with autism, and benefit from what these often highly skilled workers can offer.

 

To find out more about neurodiversity in the workplace, World Autism Acceptance Week and Autism Awareness Day, visit the National Autistic Society (www.autism.org.uk) or your national autism organisation.

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