In today's work environment, particular focus is placed on people skills and how employees communicate and interact with each other. Good social skills are therefore particularly important. One particular characteristic of autism is difficulty with social interaction. This may be due to sensory issues or the fact that the person is unaware of social etiquette, but is to a great extent due to issues with communication.
As social interaction and communication are so interlinked, some aspects below have been mentioned in the section Communication. Following on, this section focuses on characteristics of autism which may impact interaction within the team and also suggests strategies on how to most effectively deal with issues.
Issues around the topic of social interaction within the team may include:
Body language/tone of voice
Just as non-verbal communication may be misinterpreted by someone with autism, the body language of autistic individuals may be misinterpreted by others. Losing eye contact in order to focus more easily on a conversation may be interpreted by others as a lack of interest in the conversation. Speaking in a loud voice may make the other person feel uncomfortable to the extent that they may want to cut the conversation short.
Being specific/talking too much or too little
Difficulties of an autistic individual to be specific or to come to the point may be frustrating for other people who may need to be patient whilst the person organizes their thoughts. Talking too much about their topic of interest or interrupting others whilst speaking may come across as arrogant or rude. The fact that autistic individuals may not speak during a meeting or a group discussion may be interpreted as a lack of interest in the conversation or not having anything meaningful to say.
Communication style / honesty
The direct, matter-of-fact and sometimes candid communication style of autistic individuals may appear tactless or rude to others who may become offended. However, being able to judge a situation objectively or to make tough decisions without becoming emotional, may be a particular asset to a team. In time, the team may come to appreciate this neutral and honest communication style and the autistic individual may take on the role of mediator or problem-solver within the team.
Autistic individuals are often perfectionists, with a keen eye for detail. As a result, they can be highly critical or judgemental. Due to their honesty, they may point out, comment on, or complain about things that appear less than perfect to them. This may come across to others as arrogant. Furthermore, due to a keen sense of integrity and justice, autistic individuals may have very strong beliefs and principles which they communicate openly. This may make them appear opinionated and unwilling to accept other points of view.
Socializing / social etiquette
Due to issues with communication, autistic individuals may not know how to start up a conversation or may only feel comfortable discussing their own topic of interest. This may be frustrating for the other person who may find the conversation one-sided and boring. Also, some people with AS may have little understanding of, or interest in, social etiquette. They may not know what to wear for a particular occasion or, due to sensory issues, may choose to wear comfortable clothing and trainers rather than suits or smart shoes. This may come across to others as if the autistic individual lacks respect or is not taking the situation seriously.
Many autistic individuals are quite content being by themselves, and making friends may not appear to be of particular importance to them. Some may want to make friends but may not know how to go about doing so. Furthermore, autistic individuals tend to be very focused on their work and this may be misinterpreted by others as a reluctance to make friends. Due to sensory issues, some autistic individuals may prefer not to go to lunch with work colleagues and this may give the impression that they are reluctant to interact or to be part of the team.
Organise a workplace buddy
A workplace buddy is a peer who establishes a trustful relationship with a new employee. They can help them to find their way around, to understand the local culture and the set-up of the organisation, to explain workplace rules, to introduce the person to key stakeholders and useful contacts, and is available for general questions. A buddy can also communicate to the person if their body language, tone of voice, direct manner of speech etc. may be causing issues within the team.
Educate the team
Having an autistic individual in the team may present issues if the team members do not understand or appreciate why the person is acting is a way that may be different from them. Invite the team members to a training session on autism so they gain a better understanding of what autism is and how they can best support and work with that person.
Adapt the job requirements
If the autistic individual has difficulties with communication or social interaction, the job description could be adapted to limit the amount of time the person spends in direct contact with others. If the individual has sensory issues, such as oversensitivity to sound or light, working from home or taking regular breaks may help them to cope better with sensory overload.
Focus on the person's strengths
Autistic individuals have a number of attributes which can be particularly valuable when working as part of a team. Rather than focusing on possible issues involved, focus on the person's unique skills and abilities. Although some workplace adjustments may be necessary, if workplace stress is reduced to a tolerable level and the person is given the opportunity to thrive in their particular area of interest, the other employees will soon appreciate the many benefits of having an autistic individual in the team.