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4 Tips for Helping Employees with Autism Succeed

Posted on April 3, 2019
A heart with the primary colored puzzle pieces signifying autism

April is National Autism month! To help raise awareness and funding to support organizations, including Drexel's A.J. Drexel Autism Institute, the greater Drexel community heavily participates in the annual Eagles Autism Challenge (taking place on May 18th - even President Fry will be participating - riding his bike 30 miles). The A.J. Drexel Autism Institute is one of three autism research centers in our area. To honor the efforts of both the A.J. Drexel Autism Institute and the Eagles Autism Challenge, I thought it would be a great idea to address autism in the workplace. I asked Amy D. Edwards, EdD, the Director of the Drexel Autism Support Program to write a guest blog post this week on this topic.


Anne Converse Willkomm
Assistant Clinical Professor
Department Head of Graduate Studies
Goodwin College
Drexel University

As knowledge and awareness around the autism spectrum increases, it's important for employers to understand how to approach and assist employees who may (or may not) have autism. Here are four tips on how to best support employees that may identify as being autistic.

Don’t ask! Do not single out an employee unless they have disclosed to you first 

Employees are protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act, and must be the first to disclose that they have a disability. Employees under ADAAA are eligible to receive supports – meaning, they have to advocate for themselves to receive accommodations. No one is finding them and offering support – and, remember, they may not want it. Employees must choose to ask for help. Additional support in a job is not automatic, nor should it be, and cannot be offered without disclosure. 

Offer helpful suggestions to all employees – not just one

It’s been a few weeks, and you are beginning to suspect that an employee is struggling with their duties and could use additional support. Rather than address this employee individually, offer the support to everyone. Explain the benefits of asking for help and let your employees know that you are available to assist them. It may improve your team’s productivity – not just the employee’s.

Managing time and expectations within a new job is a huge adjustment for any employee. Without asking an employee to disclose a disability, implement general management strategies for the group. Employers or team members can assist employees in the following ways: 

  • Giving ample time for the employee to adjust their schedule if a due date changes.
  • Breaking tasks into smaller, concrete steps (e.g. actionable items on a checklist).
  • Asking to see an employee after a meeting if they are being inappropriate (making noise, rude remarks, etc.). Clearly explain that their actions are disrupting to the team and are hindering getting the job done. Suggest small breaks if the employee needs it.
  • If an employee isn’t completing their tasks in a team project, pull them aside afterward and say, “Hey – I noticed that you aren’t participating, and this is a really important project. I know that you can contribute (insert task here). Is there anything that I can do to help you get started?”
  • Assign a seasoned buddy or mentor. If a new employee starts, have another co-worker be their point person who they can turn to and ask questions from “what is this task” to “when is the next happy hour?”

Additionally, it is important to note that if an employee – with or without a disability – is violating any employer policy, then it needs to be reported. Not reporting a policy violation because of a suspected disability, does not help the employee or employer in any way. 

Be comfortable in addressing privacy and stigma issues 

You’ve taken all the steps above. You’ve offered resources to the team, you’ve addressed misunderstanding and management concerns, and you’ve made yourself available to employees. Perhaps an employee has even disclosed to you. What now? 

All people with autism are different. Some may take pride in their disability and will take advantage of all accommodations that are available. Others may not want anyone to know that they are “different” and may feel that taking advantage of support will give them an unfair advantage over other employees. Again, it is ultimately up to the employee to choose to seek support. 

Employers, supervisors and/or co-workers can ease employees’ concerns by assuring that they will not disclose their diagnosis to anyone, if that is what the employee wants. They can also let employees know that they are there to help and are available to answer general questions. Employers can also give examples of other employees (with no identifying information!) who have used supports and excelled in their position. Remind employees that accommodations are there to provide equal access and opportunity – not to provide an unfair advantage. 

In short, be patient and kind.

Some helpful web pages are listed below that speak specifically about autism in employment. However, if you re-read the suggestions above, you’ll notice that you could apply them to any employee – autistic or not. Being patient and straight to the point – but not condescending (read: kind), will go a long way in working well with all of your employees.

Amy E. Edwards, EdD
Drexel Autism Support Program
A.J. Drexel Autism Institute
Drexel University

Resources to further help employees and employers assist colleagues with autism succeed:

Posted in leadership-management-skills, interpersonal-communications