Helping people with Autism Spectrum Disorder

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Health Assured team

08 March 2024

What is Autism Spectrum Disorder?

Autism, or Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), is a developmental disability and it’s estimated that 700,000 people have autism in the UK. Autistic people are considered neurodivergent which means their brain functions differently from those who would be considered neurotypical.

It involves atypical brain organisation that starts from early development. Usually, someone with autism will experience rapid development and growth in the brain during infancy and early childhood. Some people pass autism to their child, but the root cause of autism is not clear.

Symptoms of Autism

No two autistic people are the same, they are all different and have varying strengths and challenges. This is why is it imperative to get to know and understand someone with autism to better support them.

Yet, many autistic people experience similar symptoms which can be split up into three defining categories: social understanding and communication, flexibility and information processing, and sensory processing and integration.

1. Social understanding and communication

Autism affects the way people interact and communicate with others and many autistic people have difficulty socially integrating. Interacting with and responding to others, understanding, or relating to people can all be difficult for autistic people.

People with autism may have difficulty communicating non-verbally, such as eye-contact and facial expressions and find it difficult to respond or initiate interactions.

It is not a diagnostic criterion, but anxiety is common for autistic people because of the exposure to neurotypical social and sensory environments that do not cater for people with autism.

2. Flexibility and information processing

Autism affects attention, so autistic people may find it difficult to learn through standard learning strategies, such as listening to a teacher. Research suggests that autistic children are three times more likely to be excluded from school than their neurotypical peers. However, they often have high levels of concentration, pay close attention to detail, and have an excellent memory.

People with autism tend to have specific learning styles and a concentrated focus on specific interests, such as art, numbers, or music.

They also feel most comfortable with routines and structures and spontaneous experiences can make them feel unsafe and unable to cope.

3. Sensory processing and integration

Sensory processing can vary from person to person with autism. An autistic person may not be able to process a lot of information at once and can lead to physical and emotional shutdowns or meltdowns.

They may also experience hypersensitivity when it comes to sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch and, like other symptoms, these differ from person to person. They could experience under-sensitive, like having a high pain threshold, inability to smell, or their central vision is blurred. Or they could be over-sensitive, such as distorted visions, inability to cut out sounds, or certain textures may cause discomfort.

Coping mechanisms

Many autistic people feel comfortable in repetitive behaviour, such as stimming, which helps them regulate their feelings and emotions. Stimming is an action that can be repeated, such as hand flapping, rocking, and scratching, to alleviate overwhelming feelings and pressures.

As change can be extremely daunting, autistic people usually feel comfortable and safe maintaining routines and habits they can repeat. Routines help relieve some of the anxiousness around change and uncertainty.

Autism is considered a spectrum, so each person is diverse, with different struggles, coping mechanisms, and strengths. If you have an autistic person in your life, it is always best to take the time to fully understand them, recognise what their triggers are, and know how they cope to be able to fully support.

How can leaders support their autistic people?

1. Offer support

Being able to talk about your struggles is immensely liberating. By talking to a professional counsellor, autistic people can discuss their challenges and find helpful solutions and coping mechanisms. Many organisations offer EAPs, where their people can safely, confidentially, and quickly access counselling services without having to pay or wait in long queues.

2. Be flexible

People with autism often require routine. Offering flexible working hours or set working hours could be great in supporting your autistic colleague.

You may also want to ask your autistic colleague if they would like to opt out of team building sessions, brainstorming meetings, social gatherings, and other social events.

3. Understand your autistic colleague

With autism being a spectrum, the scope of challenges autistic people experience is vast. This means the type of support they require will be dependent on them individually. Have an open and honest conversation with your autistic colleague about what they need.

Would they need somewhere quiet to work? Do they need flexible working hours to feel more comfortable? Do they need shorter but more frequent breaks? Do they require ergonomic equipment?

4. Autism awareness training

Autism training allows you and your people to better understand autistic people and their challenges. If you have a good understand of autism, you will be in a better position to support your autistic colleague in the workplace.

Autism awareness training also allows your neurotypical colleagues to have a better understanding of autism, further encouraging support for any autistic colleagues. Through awareness training, autistic colleagues may feel more accepted, understood, and comfortable at work.

Support your employees mental health challenges

With a Health Assured Employee Assistance Programme (EAP), we can offer you practical advice and support when it comes to dealing with suicide, anxiety, and depression, and how to improve your work-life balance.

Our Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) provides guidance and supports your employees with their mental health in the workplace and at home. We can help you create a safe, productive workspace that supports all.

We support your employees' mental wellbeing with any problems they might be facing in their professional or personal lives with our 24-hour counselling helpline.


Find out more about EAPs


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