Square pegs, round holes

The following blog has been written for us as part of World Autism Awareness Week by a member of our coordinator team

A phrase parents of autistic children often hear is that the education system doesn’t always work for those on the autistic spectrum. It’s like pushing a square peg into a round hole: pushing a young person in a particular way to conform with what is expected, to learn in a particular way, rather than look at how an individual can thrive, even if it means doing things differently by means of a reasonable adjustment.

One thing which needs to be kept in mind – and I feel it’s something that can be lost sight of – is that autistic kids grow into adults and these issues don’t go away, especially in the world of work.

You don’t grow out of autism
You don’t reach the age of 21 and suddenly lose autistic traits. Many autistic people find they need to ‘mask’ or ‘camouflage’ their autistic traits to ‘fit in’. This can impact massively on individuals and can lead to issues relating to their mental health, resulting in burnout and/or breakdowns. This is something everyone needs to understand, be aware of, and learn how autistic colleagues can be supported. Autistic people may think, behave and act in different ways from non-autistic colleagues (neurotypical, NT) and employers need to accept this. Each autistic person is an individual. The difficulty is that recruiters often look for people similar to themselves, which may make it more difficult for autistic people to get into the workplace.

For those autistic people who do find work, they may not feel comfortable in sharing their diagnosis through fear of being treated unfavourably. They may feel different to colleagues and find communication a struggle, as the world can be full of unwritten rules which they may feel they never received the briefing note.

Line managers and colleagues have an important role to play in ensuring colleagues are able to perform their role to the best of their abilities, so be supportive. If a colleague has told you they find sitting in a particular location is difficult then work out what the problem may be and see if a solution can be found. For example, if a ticking clock is highly distracting to that individual then can it be replaced with a battery operated digital one?

Workplace adjustments need to fair to the individual and look at their particular set of circumstances. If you were a parent and one of your children wanted a games console for Christmas and the other wanted a mobile phone, would you buy both of them a phone? Look at the needs of the individual, not what’s easiest for you.

Some people need to have a clear distinction between work and home
Not everyone is comfortable in large social gatherings, so don’t be offended or upset if you have colleagues who don’t go to pubs or restaurants after work.

Don’t make people feel uncomfortable for not ‘joining in’. Respect those who don’t participate in Christmas jumper day and definitely don’t send emails to those who don’t get involved saying they are spoiling it for others.

Remember, not everyone would want to go abseiling! So why should people be made to feel they have to join in an activity which can cause unnecessary stress and anxiety? Just because it’s an activity you enjoy, not everyone else will.

For further reading, see the Business Disability Forum’s report on autism in the workplace, Square Holes for Square Pegs