Employing people with autism: What to be aware of

Rebecca James, head of academy living at Orbis Education and Care, gives small business owners some insight into how employing someone with autism can help their business.

Did you know that 700 000 people in the UK are autistic? And according to statistics from the National Autistic Society, only 16 per cent of autistic adults are in full-time paid employment?

Here, Rebecca James, head of academy living at Orbis Education and Care, gives small business owners some insights into how employing someone with autism can help their business, and how to help and support people with autism get into the world of work.

What is autism?

Autism is a spectrum developmental disability which affects how autistic people form relationships and communicate with others. While there are some common traits, autism also affects those with the condition in different ways.

For example, some may have sensory issues and react to loud noises or bright lights. Others may have learning disabilities. Autistic people experience the world differently to non-autistic people. A number see the world ‘in pictures’ and respond well to visual communication. Others are readers. Often, they feel overwhelmed and anxious, and wonder why people don’t understand them.

Helping autistic people get into work

Many autistic people have skills that are highly sought after in the workplace. They are often experts in specific topics, as they are passionate about subjects that interest them. They are methodical, brilliant researchers, pay considerable attention to detail and are highly productive. So, why aren’t more autistic people in paid employment?

It may be that employers lack awareness about what autistic people can offer. Or they may not have the right support network in place for autistic employees. It’s something Orbis, an autism education and care company based in Wales is working hard to address.

Gaining practical skills through work experience placements

Orbis has established a centre to help autistic people into work, by providing them with work experience placements to help prepare them for the workplace. ‘The Orb’ offers young people and adults on the autism spectrum the opportunity to develop their life and work skills in a unique working environment.
The centre comprises a cafe, office, laundry and kitchen. Here they gain valuable practical experience of a range of work skills, from preparing for the workplace to timekeeping and health and safety at work.

Adapting working practices

At The Orb, there have been a number of changes to normal working practices which benefit their autistic learners. For example:

  • They have adapted their paperwork to suit more communication needs
  • They use an iPad as a till in the cafe which shows pictures of the items for sale to support visual learners
  • They have implemented a fire evacuation role play using visual evacuation strips to help learners understand the evacuation process
  • They use QR codes to help learners understand how to use some machinery. When they scan the codes, they see a video which shows them step by step how to use the equipment.

What can employers do to help?

Employing someone with autism should not be seen as being charitable, instead a good business decision to take on someone with the relevant skills and mindset for the job. Here are some ways an employer can ensure they give an autistic person the support they need to enter the workforce and employ the best person for the job.

The recruitment process

Job advertisement

Start with the job advert. Make it as simple as possible. No jargon and remove any skills that are not specific to the role. For example, does everyone have to be a team player if they spend their time writing code for a website?

Application form

Put an ‘additional support during interview’ section on the application form so the job applicant can let you know what they need.

The interview

Interviews are not usually an enjoyable experience for anyone. For an autistic person, the interview process is likely to make them anxious so rather than conducting an interview, let someone demonstrate they have the skills for the job.

You’re hired!

Once the decision has been made to employ someone, there are some adjustments you can make to the working environment, so it becomes autism-friendly.

Getting to know you

As with all employees, it’s essential to find out what makes someone tick if you want them to perform well in their job. Things like the best way to motivate someone, what their preferred learning style is, and what they enjoy doing.


Have clear lines and methods of communication which suit the person’s needs. Just like you do with employees who don’t have autism.

Assign a mentor or coach

A one to one relationship with a mentor or job coach will go a long way towards helping an autistic person learn about their new working environment.


It takes some people longer than others to learn how to do things or digest new procedures. Autism causes people to process information differently, so you may have to clarify instructions or show them how to do things a number of times. Be patient.

Give on the job training

Hands-on training is important, showing someone what to do rather than just explaining it may help. Providing documentation an autistic employee can refer back to is also useful.

Provide structure and support for your employee

This will help someone with autism to feel secure and give them confidence in their ability to do their job effectively.

Training for all employees

Providing autism awareness training for staff will help develop good relationships between an autistic person and their colleagues. It can help reduce misunderstandings and improve communication. Employees will also be able to provide support when needed and adjust their behaviour if necessary.

Treat people as individuals

Don’t assume because someone has autism they are going to react in a certain way or exhibit behaviours commonly associated with autism. Everyone is different and autistic people are no exception.

Temple Grandin, author and prominent autism spokesperson says, ‘People on the autism spectrum don’t think the same way you do. In my life, people who made a difference were those who didn’t see labels, who believed in building on what was there. These were people who didn’t try to drag me into their world, but came into mine instead.’

If you would like more advice or guidance on working with autistic people, you can find it here and if you’d like to learn more about the schools, residential homes and work that Orbis Education and Care does, visit www.orbis-group.co.uk.

Further reading on autism

Ben Lobel

Ben Lobel

Ben Lobel was the editor of SmallBusiness.co.uk from 2010 to 2018. He specialises in writing for start-up and scale-up companies in the areas of finance, marketing and HR.

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