Autism in the Workplace

mins read

Autism is a broad range of cognitive differences that can influence the way a person perceives the world around them and interacts with others. It isn’t an illness or a disease, it’s just part of someone’s make up, much like eye colour or height.

Autism is something you are born with and it’s common. According to the National Autistic Society, around one in 100 people are on the autistic spectrum, that’s approximately 700,000 adults and children in the UK. However, these figures could be much higher.

Researchers at University College London (UCL) estimate that the true figure could be over 1.2 million. Their research suggests that there are between 150,000 and 500,000 people aged 20 to 49 years who could be undiagnosed, while for over 50s these figures could be between 250,000 and 600,000 people. Therefore, the midpoint estimate of this data is that there could be 750,000 undiagnosed autistic people in the UK.

These figures signify that societal changes need to be made to make the world a more autistic friendly place to be. In particular, the workplace has often been a barrier to autism, with less than 30 percent of autistic individuals in work.

Yet many organisations are beginning to realise that the autistic community are an untapped talent pool boasting a unique and highly desired set of skills. For many, inaccessible hiring practices are the first barrier autistic jobseekers face.

So, it is important to raise autism awareness and to champion the endless positive benefits autistic people can bring to the workplace by championing the things they can do, rather than those they can’t.

What is autism?

Autism is a unique array of cognitive differences that can impact social interaction and communication.

Every autistic person’s experience will be unique, so you may hear autism being referred to as a spectrum. It just means that autism can present in a variety of different ways, and like everyone, autistic people will have individual strengths, challenges, characteristics and experiences.

At Cognassist, our cognitive diversity assessment measures several aspects of cognition, called domains, that may be relevant for autism. They are:

  • Numeracy
  • Visual Information Processing Speed

Autism and intelligence are unrelated and being autistic has no bearing on how well an individual will complete their tasks at work, but they may require some extra support which we will explore later in this article.

Dr Stephen Shore explained the experience of autism well when he said, “If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.” The point being that everyone’s experiences will be different, but some typical autistic characteristics include:

  • Hyperfocus, particularly on subjects or hobbies of interest
  • Challenges with reading body language or social cues
  • Extreme anxiety in or about social situations
  • Differences in expressing feelings
  • Taking things literally
  • Avoiding eye contact or avoiding touch e.g. handshakes
  • Repetitive behaviour
  • Sensory differences
  • Preferring to work alone
  • Experiencing meltdowns or shutdowns

(Source: National Autistic Society)

Impact of autism on work

According to the recently published Buckland Review of Autism Employment, of all disabled people, autistic individuals face the biggest employment gap with just 30 percent in work. That’s compared to 50 percent of disabled and 80 percent of non-disabled people.

Autistic graduates are also disadvantaged when it comes to looking for a job because they are twice as likely to remain unemployed after 15 months compared to non-disabled graduates. The report states that just 36 percent of autistic graduates are employed full-time, and they are most likely to be overqualified for their role.

Pay differences are also an issue. On average, autistic employees receive less than a third of the pay non-disabled people receive.

These insights from the Buckland report show that autistic individuals face barriers to work, even at the point of entry. For example, the review found that the application and interview processes rarely accommodate autistic individuals, even though even minor adjustments can help applicants demonstrate their skills.

Autism workplace challenges

Organisation’s must turn their attentions to the strengths, skills and all the positives autism can bring to a business, but true neuro-inclusive employers won’t ignore the challenges autistic employees might face at work.

Recognising the challenges means employers and employees can work together to find suitable adjustments to support autistic employees in the workplace. There is not a one-size-fits-all approach to providing support, so encouraging employees to disclose their cognitive and neuro-differences is an important first step.

Here are some of the common ways autistic challenges can directly impact someone at work:

  • Autistic individuals commonly mask their behaviour or traits during social interaction, often to avoid stigma and to ‘fit in’. However, research shows that autistic adults who regularly mask are at a greater risk of experiencing depression and anxiety.
  • Challenges a lack of routine. Without routine, the environment an autistic person works in can seem unpredictable and confusing. So, many autistic employees prefer to have a daily routine they can stick to and understand what is going to happen each day.
  • Social interaction and communication. Autistic people can find it challenging to form relationships with colleagues because of their social interaction or communication differences. For example, some people may avoid eye contact, some may find it challenging to articulate their point or some can be very direct, which may be misinterpreted as rudeness.
  • Sensory differences. These differences can make autistic individuals sensitive to certain stimuli, such as light, noise, touch and smell.

As well as poor employment rates, job instability is also high amongst the autistic community. Research investigating the reasons why autistic employees had been let go from their job, found the following to be common themes:

  • Work performance (18 percent)
  • Social challenges (16 percent)
  • Attendance (10 percent)
  • Mental health (9 percent)
  • Discrimination (5 percent)
  • Lack of support (3 percent)

Yet, many of the reasons given for employer-initiated terminations, and indeed the workplace challenges mentioned previously, could be mitigated with the provision of adequate and appropriate support.

Autism workplace adjustments

Under the definition set out in the Equality Act 2010, autism can be classified as a disability, even if an employee does not consider themselves to be disabled. For this reason, employers have a legal (and moral) responsibility to protect prospective and current autistic employees from discrimination, harassment and victimisation. Employers also have a duty to provide reasonable adjustments to autistic individuals throughout the employee lifecycle.

When organisations provide appropriate support for all neurotypes, individuals will flourish and perform at their best.

What are autism workplace accommodations?

Workplace accommodations ensure employees are not disadvantaged in the workplace. They are also referred to as reasonable or workplace adjustments and are changes or adaptations that employers can make to remove barriers to employment because of disability, in this case autism.

However, autistic adults are not always adequately supported in the workplace. A study by Scott et al., (2015) found that employers lacked confidence implementing workplace adjustments for autistic employees without the help of disability employment organisations.

Furthermore, research published in PLoS One in 2022 analysing the perceptions of 181 autistic adults towards requesting and receiving adjustments in the UK, found that almost 84 percent of participants felt that workplace adjustments were important, and over half (58.6 percent) had requested them.

Yet, 27 participants noted their reasonable adjustment requests had been refused, or in the case of 14 participants, poorly implemented. Research also shows that 43 percent of adults state they have left or lost a job because of their autism.

In the year leading up to October 2023, 102 neurodiversity-related employment tribunals occurred with 25 specifically related to autism.

Without proper and appropriate support in place, employers’ risk legal action but also missing out on valuable and highly skilled individuals.

Examples of workplace reasonable adjustments for autism

Here are some examples of our top autism workplace adjustments. You can either implement these to mitigate any barriers you face, or an autistic employee may experience.

These have been taken from our wider collection of Personalised Workplace Adjustments. These strategies are carefully curated based on an individual’s cognitive profile, neuro-difference disclosure and job role, provide a bespoke support mechanism according to an individual’s needs.

Chunking information

Chunking or breaking down information into more manageable segments is particularly helpful when addressing complex topics and tasks. It can be used to break down larger tasks into smaller, bite sized chunks or can be a good strategy for arranging presentations to ensure clarity and comprehension.

Stick to a daily routine

Scheduling the workday to outline the employee’s start and finish times, as well as designated breaks, meetings and focus time is beneficial for autistic individuals. Routines are an important and powerful tool for reinforcing good employee well-being, stability and consistency.

Provide extra resources to explain concepts

Meeting new people, finding new places or learning something new can be daunting for autistic people. Providing extra resources, such as showing them a photograph of the person they are going to meet, a map with clear directions to a new destination or a glossary of terms from a recent course can help to reduce anxiety.

Provide or suggest noise cancelling headphones

Research shows that noise cancelling headphones can reduce the levels of sympathetic nervous system reactivity known to cause noise sensitivity. These can be valuable tools for blocking out overwhelming sensory stimuli and help promote calmness and focus.

How to create sensory-friendly work environments

Sensory differences are common traits in autistic people, some estimates suggest 94 percent of autistic adults experience sensory reactivity differences. It is important that organisations recognise these differences and ensure the work environment is as autism friendly as possible.

Some accommodations to consider include:

  • Provide individual workspaces. Co-working spaces can be challenging for autistic individuals as they may be unaware of the associated boundaries of shared desks and spaces. Personal workspaces can also aid an individuals need for routine and limit the changes that may occur when you share a work area, such as tools and equipment being moved.
  • Offer quiet rooms. Some autistic people can be hypersensitive to environmental stimuli, such as noise and smell. Overcrowded or noisy areas can be overwhelming and distracting, so offering alternative quiet spaces can provide a haven for autistic employees to complete their work or take some time out.
  • Consider adjustable lighting. Lighting can affect our mood and behaviour, and for autistic individuals it can have a big impact on their work experiences. Where possible, maximise the use of natural light because artificial light can affect melatonin production and even cause poor sleep. Fluorescent lights can be too bright, give off high levels of blue light and flicker which can be distracting and triggering for autistic employees. Consider using LED lights, which are easily controllable, and natural light as much as possible.
  • Use moveable furniture. Moveable items like desks and chairs are often preferable for accommodating autistic employees because they can be easily adapted or moved to suit a person’s needs or preferences.

Communication and social interaction

With autism diagnoses and awareness on the rise, it is vital that managers and employees have the skills necessary to manage and work within cognitively diverse teams and can accommodate all neurodifferences.

Here are some of the adjustments and accommodations that may be suitable for autistic employees:

Direct communication

When communicating with autistic employees avoid sarcasm, irony and euphemisms which may cause confusion. Be direct and to the point with your communication or instructions and avoiding flowery language or technical jargon.

You can check understanding by following up face-to-face conversations with an email. Bullet point lists are advisable for multiple items.

Direct communication should extend across all organisation communication. For example, emails, company codes of conduct, signage and avoiding ambiguous language.


When working with autistic employees, it is important to try and keep a consistent routine and to avoid, where possible, any last-minute changes to a person’s daily routine.

Collaborate with autistic employees to schedule in designated breaks from work and ensure their colleagues are aware that they are taking a break. Scheduling breaks and sharing work calendars means everyone has visibility on their teams daily routine.

Share meeting notes and slides in advance

Sharing notes, slides and agendas in advance of meetings can help autistic employees to think about the questions they may have and help them to prepare their input. This can help reduce anxiety and help employees feel they are ready to attend the meeting.

Allow employees to contribute in different ways

There is no one way to communicate, so be clear and encourage everyone to share their thoughts and ideas in the ways they feel most comfortable. For example, encourage employees to:

  • Add comments to meeting notes
  • Communicate through the chat function for online meetings as well as verbally
  • Use collaborative meeting agendas
  • Share their thoughts after meetings either face-to-face or via chat functions or emails

Avoid asking open questions

Open questions can be ambiguous, cause confusion and you’re unlikely to get the answer you intended. When asking questions, try to prepare them in stages. For example, if you wanted to ask an autistic employee about their strengths, it would be advisable to avoid asking, “What are your strengths?” and instead adopt an approach like this:

  • Let the individual know you are going to ask them about their strengths and pause to allow them to gather their thoughts
  • Ask closed questions, such as, “What do you think are your three main strengths?”
  • Then continue with more focused questions, like “Can you give me an example of when you have used each of these strengths at work?”

You can find out more about how to support autistic colleagues, and how to promote neuro-inclusion at work, with our accredited ‘Neuro-inclusion: Employee Awareness’ training.

Autism and working from home

These workplace adjustments can be explored with autistic employees whether they work on-site, from home or hybrid.

Some of the reported advantages of working from home for autistic employees include:

  • Reduced sensory overload
  • Reduced interpersonal contact
  • Flexible work hours
  • Eliminating the need to travel to a physical workplace

However, some people report that remote work also presents challenges, such as:

  • Limiting helpful social contact
  • Reducing the opportunity to learn from colleagues
  • Promoting the use of direct electronic communication which can be overwhelming
  • Managing work-life balance

Remote working tips for autistic employees:

  • Stay in touch with your colleagues throughout the day to help combat feelings of isolation
  • Set up your office separately from your living space, if possible
  • Schedule a daily routine with start and finish times, and breaks or periods of focus, and share your calendar with your colleagues, so they can have visibility and avoid disturbing you during important times
  • Set allocated break times away from your desk to help maintain focus and productivity and reduce tiredness
  • If you have any concerns about working from home, reach out to your manager for support

Benefits of autism in the workplace

Implementing reasonable adjustments are one way organisations can support autistic employees, but we mustn’t forget the valuable strengths autism can bring to a workplace, such as:

  • Hyperfocus
  • Heightened attention to detail
  • Memory and recall skills
  • Analytical and innovative thinking
  • Spotting errors
  • Technical ability
  • Structure
  • Creativity
  • Honesty
  • Loyalty
  • Empathy

Fully neuro-inclusive workplaces will understand these strengths and empower their staff to pull on them to benefit productivity and help employees mitigate any barriers.

Here’s how some of these strengths can be used to your advantage at work.

  1. You may have noticed that your approach to problem solving is different to your colleagues or that you offer imaginative or creative solutions. If you do, you could be an innovative thinker which is a highly desired skill at work. Don’t be afraid to share your thought and ideas with your team because innovative thinking can help you stand out and help your team become more productive.
  2. Use your hyperfocus skills to complete more difficult tasks or those that your colleagues enjoy less than you. Channelling your ability to focus is a useful skill, but be sure to take regular breaks to reduce the risk of burnout and fatigue.
  3. For some autistic people, a visual eye for detail or spotting mistakes others might have missed, can make them ideal candidates for quality control or assurance. If you feel this is one of your strengths, speak to your manager to find out how you can incorporate them into your role.
  4. Autism can be associated with a direct, open and honest communication style. Although it can take some of your colleagues some time to get used to this style, it has benefits within an organisation. That’s because you are less likely to be swayed by other people’s opinions and more likely to give honest feedback. Use this to your advantage in the workplace, especially for problem solving or ideation tasks.
  5. If you love structure and routine, think about how this can be incorporated into the wider business. For example, you may excel in creating workflows, procedures or documentation or you could use these skills to help you take on a more planning-focused role.

Not sure what your strengths are? You can learn more about your own cognition using Cognitive Mapping from Cognassist. Develop a deeper understanding of your cognitive strengths and receive specialist curated strategies to help you with your daily challenges.

Supporting autistic colleagues at work

Colleagues and managers have important roles in building a neuro-inclusive workplace culture where all neurotypes feel psychologically safe and empowered to be their true selves.

By raising awareness of neuro-differences we can collectively break down barriers and remove stigma. You can contribute to an inclusive and supportive work environment for autistic colleagues by:

Asking questions

Showing interest in your colleagues’ neuro-differences shows you recognise the potential challenges they face and want to learn how you can best support them. If an autistic colleague has disclosed a diagnosis to you or you want to find out how you can help, you could ask:

  • Do you have a preferred communication method?
  • What sort of environment do you work best in?
  • Do you have any special interests?
  • How can I help you?

Keep an open mind

Regardless of neurotypes, you and your colleagues are not always going to agree on certain topics and issues. However, some autistic colleagues may have a more direct communication style, and you should never take this personally, it’s just the way they are. Try to appreciate their honesty and keep in mind that their response is likely to be well-intentioned.

Provide guidance about company culture

Many organisations have ‘unwritten rules’ or codes of conduct which some autistic people may find challenging to interpret. Some examples include:

  • Free for all staff buffet
  • Unlimited holiday or annual leave

It is also possible that some autistic colleagues may not be aware of the inappropriate topics to discuss at work. So, it may be useful to explain any unwritten rules or etiquette to help autistic employees get the most out of their work experience.

Consider alternative social events

When it comes to socialising or face-to-face meet ups if you are a remote worker, it’s important to remember that some autistic people can find certain social situations challenging. That’s because some environments can be overwhelming, so you might consider:

  • Meeting at off-peak or quieter times of the day
  • Choosing meeting places that have soft furnishing to absorb noise
  • Asking autistic colleagues if they have a preferred venue

You also shouldn’t assume that your colleagues do or do not want to attend a social or work gathering. You should ask them how they feel about meeting up before booking.

For some further guidance on supporting neuro-differences like autism in the workplace, take a look at our article and handbook.

Disclosing autism at work

Deciding whether to disclose your autism is a very personal choice and is a decision you should never be forced in to. Some people find it very easy to tell others about their diagnosis and some feel it is personal information that they don’t want to share.

Although autism awareness is improving and 42% of employees reported receiving a good response when they disclosed their neurodifferences, some myths still exist. Some common autism misconceptions include:

  • Autism only affects children
  • Only boys are autistic
  • All autistic people have learning difficulties
  • Autism means people are anti-social

These myths can be harmful and can contribute to stigma. Research by Birkbeck, University of London found that almost 65 percent of employees were fearful of stigma and discrimination from management and 55 percent were worried about stigma from colleagues.

It is natural to feel apprehensive about disclosing that you are autistic but sharing our neuro-differences and experiences, is one of the ways we can break down barriers and foster a neuro-inclusive work culture.

There are many benefits linked to disclosure, such as:

  • Sharing our neuro-differences with our manager and colleagues helps to raise awareness and contribute to an open and inclusive culture. It should initiate changes to make the workplace autism friendly and could encourage others to open up about their differences.
  • Telling your manager you are autistic means they can provide tailored support to help you navigate any challenges you face. Without disclosure, the support your manager can provide may be limited and more generic. Your employer has a duty to provide reasonable adjustments and legally must support you.
  • It will raise awareness amongst your colleagues, and they will have a better understanding about how you work best. They will also be more aware of how they can support you.
  • You can be your true and authentic self at work without masking your differences or behaviour.

[H2] Autism awareness and manager training

Birkbeck’s research shows that 65 percent of employers stated a lack of neurodiversity understanding by managers and decision makers was a barrier to implementing reasonable adjustments.

To build fully neuro-inclusive workplaces, where every employee feels confident to be themselves, this must change.

One way to do this is through the provision of neuro-inclusion training for managers and employees, so that everyone has a foundation level of neurodiversity knowledge.

Dedicated manager training is paramount to ensure all neurotypes, including autistic employees, are appropriately supported. Autism-aware managers understand the strengths employees can offer their team and the areas where they may need to provide support.

The Cognassist Neuro-inclusion Awareness training, accredited by City & Guilds and ILM, provides comprehensive courses for the whole organisation, from employee and manager awareness to Neuro-inclusion Champion training.

For more information, contact our team today.

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