5 ways to help support a colleague with autism

Working with someone on the autism spectrum can be an enriching experience for all involved, but it does present some unique challenges. These challenges can all be overcome with a little awareness and sensitivity however, making work life for everyone more effective and enjoyable. This is by no means an all encompassing list, but here are five ideas that will help you support a colleague with autism.

  1. Be aware of sensory sensitivities 

Many people with autism often have sensory processing differences. This means that they can be either over, or under-sensitive to every day sensory input, or even both. This can have a profound affect on people’s lives, and can often cause stress, anxiety, or even physical pain to the sufferer. Sensory overload often results in withdrawal or even an autism meltdown. To help a colleague with any sensory sensitivities make sure to talk to them about it first. It may be that there are some simple ways that stress due to this can be mitigated, such as working away from background office noise, bright lights or strong smells. Making small changes such as this can drastically improve their day to day.


2) Be Direct: Say what you mean 

People with autism often think literally and as such, don’t always understand sarcasm or a ‘turn of phrase’. Don’t expect them to make inferences about instructions. Telling them how to carry out a task from start to finish, or writing down instructions can help with clarity and make sure confusion is avoided.


3) Clarify expectations 

Leading on from this, it is important that you do not expect your colleague to infer anything about their job role or the etiquette of the office if you have not said it to them. Be explicit about your expectations about the job role and the etiquette of the office. Ie. are there unspoken rules about making teas or what happens on people’s birthdays? The more clear and explicit you are about what is expected from your colleague, and what they can expect from the office, the more comfortable everyone will be and the less room there is for miscommunication.


4) Establish a Routine and try not to break it

Many people find comfort in routine but this is especially common in people with autism. Disruption to established routines can be distressing. If breaking routine is unavoidable, then try and give your colleague as much warning as possible. Sticking to agreed timings is important and presenting your colleague with a meeting agenda ahead of schedule so that they know what to expect often helps to mitigate anxiety.


5) Help them maximise their strengths 

Most important is to help your colleague maximise their strengths, and not make assumptions about any weaknesses based on stereotypes. Every person with autism is different and it affects them in different ways, so it is important not to assume that they will not work well with others, or that they will need hand holding for example. It is best to sit down with your colleague and have an open and frank discussion with them about what they feel their strengths and weaknesses are, and help them to capitalise on those strengths so that they can fulfil their potential.

What it really all comes down to is a) not making assumptions, and b) talking freely with your colleague about how you can best support them.