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How to make charity workplaces more autism-friendly

By Rose Anderson 2 April 2024 5 minute read

Last year, for World Autism Acceptance Week, I and two of my NPC colleagues shared our personal reflections on how autism has shaped our careers. This year, I’m encouraging charities to consider actions to support staff who have autism. Only 29% of autistic people are in any form of employment, and I’d love to see that figure improve. Creating an inclusive workplace is one tool to help bring this about.  

Here are my top tips for a more autism-friendly workplace:  

Tip 1: Make sure the expectations are clear 

This applies to both formal tasks and informal interactions.  

Formally, when setting tasks, it’s better to give clear instructions, rather than assuming that your meaning can be inferred. For example, when I’m writing reports, I find it useful to know the page length or word count that my colleagues are expecting of me.  

Informally, your autistic employees might benefit from you making explicit the workplace conventions that others take for granted. The world is full of unwritten rules and can seem very confusing—especially to autistic people, who typically face challenges with social interaction and communication. Making your workplace etiquette more explicit can alleviate some of this uncertainty and help your autistic employees to feel more comfortable. (It may also give you a chance to examine whether the rules are still fit for purpose or need to be rewritten.)  

The Government Digital Service blog highlights the use of an ‘It’s okay to…’ list to help new starters settle in. According to the list, it’s okay to ask what acronyms mean, to have quiet days, to have loud days, to walk over and have conversations face-to-face, to go somewhere else to concentrate, and even to sing if people want. Could your office space have a similar poster?  

Tip 2: Add structure to the work environment 

As a way of coping with the unpredictability and confusion of life, autistic people often prefer to have routines and to know what is going to happen. For example, I travel the same way to and from work, and I have a detailed weekly food rota.  

In the workplace, there may be ways in which you could provide a bit more structure. Depending on your autistic employee’s specific needs, you could work with them to prioritise tasks, organise timetables, and/or break larger tasks down into smaller steps. Alternatively, your employee may be able to plan their own time, as long as they’re given precise information about start and end times. The ability to focus for long periods of time is a common strength in autistic people, but some people may need prompting to take a break or have lunch.  

Tip 3: Consider sensory distractions 

Many autistic people experience over-sensitivity or under-sensitivity to sound, touch, smell, taste, light, colour, temperature, and pain. For example, I often struggle to follow along with conversations in pubs because the background noise is too loud for me to hear the people next to me.  

There are steps you can take to minimise sensory distractions in your workplace, depending on your office arrangements and on the specific sensory differences of your autistic employees. For example, you might invest in noise-cancelling headphones, or install screens around the desks to block out sunlight. Flexible working arrangements can also help in this area. For example, if there are noisy building works taking place just outside the office, it may be preferable to allow people to work from home.  

Many workplaces are becoming more aware of the need to provide vegan, gluten-free, and allergen-free options when it comes to catering, and the dietary needs of employees with autism are no exception. I am over-sensitive to smell, taste, and texture, which results in me having a very restricted diet of ‘safe foods’, and I bring the same packed lunch to work every day. NPC has been great at accommodating this. When running an event outside the office, someone checks in with the venue to make sure it is fine with me bringing my own food. And at staff socials, there’s always a carton of apple juice on offer, because my colleagues know that’s what I like to drink!  

Tip 4: Support staff when changes happen 

I’ve already talked about how maintaining routines and knowing what is going to happen can be reassuring for autistic people. The flipside of this is that changes to routine can be very distressing. The best way to handle this is to give people information about changes to tasks or changes in the workplace well in advance, as far as you are able. For example, if you’re going to make a visit to another charity or book a place at a conference, giving people plenty of time to research the venue and plan the journey can ease whatever anxiety may arise from the change in routine.  

Tip 5: Provide sensitive feedback 

Anxiety is, sadly, a common difficulty faced by autistic adults. With time, people may learn to spot their triggers and implement coping mechanisms—but it can still be a challenge to recognise and regulate one’s emotions. In extreme situations, when everything becomes too much, there may be a meltdown (a loss of behavioural control) or a shutdown (going quiet or ‘switching off’).  

If your employee has completed a task incorrectly, you should explain tactfully but clearly why it is incorrect, check that they have understood, and set out what should be done instead. You may need to ensure that any criticism is sensitively given, since it is all too common for autistic people to have low self-esteem or a history of being bullied 

Tip 6: Speak to your colleagues and understand what they need 

These tips have come from my own lived experience, but not every autistic person (or every neurodivergent person more generally) is a monolith, as my colleague Alfie Vaughan noted in their contribution to last year’s blog. The tips given here are not the be all and end all of inclusivity. Rather, inclusivity is about understanding what the people you interact with need, and helping to facilitate them. So, I recommend having a quiet conversation with your autistic employees to get a better understanding of what they would find helpful. By all means, come with your own ideas, but also be prepared to listen to them.  

At NPC, we believe in the power of user involvement—working ‘with people’ rather than doing things ‘to people’. Our Centring Lived Experience resource contains step-by-step guidance on how to effectively incorporate insight from lived experience throughout your organisation.  


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