Anne Hegarty's appearance on this year's I'm a Celebrity has provided a valuable and sympathetic insight into autism. Like Anne, many people with autism aren't diagnosed until later in life. That means that many have grown up without any understanding of their condition or support on how to manage it. Social isolation and bullying can follow, which may result in difficulties getting, or integrating, into the workplace.
There are 17,000 people diagnosed with autism in Northern Ireland. Chances are, you are already working with, or will work with, an autistic person.
So, what are an employer's obligations if they suspect that an applicant or employee has autism? Under the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, employers must consider whether any reasonable adjustments need to be made to their working environment or practices to remove any substantial disadvantage that the autistic person faces. For example, an autistic employee may struggle with noise in an open plan working environment – so the employer may need to consider whether it can provide aids, such as a quiet corner or noise cancelling headphones.
To establish which reasonable adjustments may be necessary, employers need to understand the nature of individual's autism. Autism is a spectrum disorder. No two autistic people experience autism in the same way. As Dr Stephen Shore put it:"If you've met one person with autism, you've met one person with autism.”
Signs of autism
Autism is often called a "hidden disability" – you can't tell if the person has it by just looking at them. Characteristics can include difficulty with organisation, reading social cues, understanding someone else's perspective and sensory and motor abilities. Autistic people may struggle to make eye contact, have difficulty initiating conversation, make blunt pointed remarks or struggle interpreting facial expressions.
Each autistic person experiences autism in a different way. Take Anne Hegarty again. Most people have the stereotypical assumption that all autistic people have some form of OCD. Yet Anne says she would not invite people into her home because it is so cluttered.
Autism in the workpace
Many autistic people would prefer not to disclose their condition to their employer. Employers can often feel unsure about whether an employee's behaviour is because they are on the autism spectrum or they are just not a team player/ are badly behaved. For example, John works in the IT team. He does not join in with any of the team chat and never looks people in the eye. He speaks loudly over people in meetings. His colleagues think he is rude. In reality his social difficulties are part of his autism.
Employers are usually not medically trained. If you suspect that an applicant for a job or an employee has autism, seek professional help. That may include help with diagnosing the condition and help as to the sorts of reasonable adjustments that you may need to make in your workplace to remove any disadvantage that the autistic person may be faced with.
This duty to make reasonable adjustments exists throughout the employment life cycle. It starts with the application process and can continue even after the person has left their employment when it comes to matters such as references.
What is "reasonable" in terms of adjustments will depend on the particular individual. Factors such as the effectiveness and practicality of the step in removing the disadvantage, the financial cost of the adjustment, the availability of external assistance and the extent of the employer's business and resources can be objectively taken into account.
Many autistic people can bring amazing skills to the workplace. By making small changes in your workplace, employers may be able to help support an autistic person achieve their goals and in turn grow their businesses into a more diverse and innovative place to be.