In my work in public involvement, I work with a lot of autistic people, both in my team and with members of the public who are involved in our work. We want the NHS to be learning from autistic people to make sure what we do works for them and reduces health inequalities.
It’s important to work with autistic people because we need to understand the barriers that autistic people face, which it is not possible to do as a non-autistic person. We need to work in co-production.
It is also important to be mindful that autistic people are as different from one another as non-autistic people; this diversity means that one autistic person cannot speak for the whole autistic community.
Autistic people should not be limited to doing roles that want this specific lived experience. No matter what your team does, there will be autistic people who could do a role, when the environment is inclusive.
The rest of this blog is about the sort of things we can all do to make the environment right.
There’s a lot we can do to make recruitment more inclusive. Interviews cause a lot of barriers to a lot of people, including autistic people – and it’s rare that you need interview skills once you are in role. My appeal to employers is always to send the interview questions to all interviewees in advance. It reduces anxiety and gives people time to process what you’re asking- so you get the information you really want in the interview.
Some autistic people, particularly when stressed, find it hard to say what they want to say, so it can be good to ask people to demonstrate skills in different ways, e.g. bringing an example of something they’ve done to the interview or setting an exercise that is similar to the work you do. Again, make sure people are able to prepare for this in advance.
How you communicate is important too; being clear about what you need, in simple terms, helps people to understand what you want. Vagueness can cause anxiety. For example, clear job descriptions help people know what you’re looking for.
It’s also important to word questions carefully, in interviews, surveys and meetings, to make sure you get the right answers. I find it helpful to write questions with autistic colleagues to check that other people will interpret questions the way I’d intended.
Once someone is in role, I’m keen to know how people learn, communicate and work best. We each have a different learning style and different ways of processing information. And we’re all human with stuff going on in our lives – we all need support from time to time. I always aim to have open conversations with my team and be flexible around our changing situations. This helps everyone, including autistic colleagues, to be open about how best to work together.
In day-to-day work, things that work well for autistic colleagues are best practice for everyone. Meetings with agendas with clear objectives sent in advance help everyone to prepare and help you get the most out of meetings. Clear briefs for pieces of work help everyone to know what is needed. Last minute changes and ambiguity don’t help anyone. If you want to reduce anxiety about a conversation you want to have, be clear what it will be about: “I want to have a chat with you tomorrow” could be read in lots of different ways.
To help colleagues develop in their jobs and careers ask them to identify areas that they want to develop, either in terms of skills or knowledge, and work with them to develop those areas. Ensure there are opportunities to connect with other colleagues to focus on specific pieces of work (rather than more abstract conversations which can be unhelpful and not a good use of time) e.g. co-work on a document together to show your way of working. Sometimes starting on a piece of work together helps set direction and then checking in on it again later to give feedback can be a great way to help learning.
And finally, a plug for the support from Access to Work for any autistic or disabled colleagues. The independent assessments can really help think of things that can solve issues, from software you’ve never heard of before, to strategy coaching and support workers.