Autism and the workplace

New research from the College of Science, Health and Engineering has discovered that work stress has a greater impact on the wellbeing of people on the autism spectrum

Around one in 100 Australians are on the autism spectrum. Autism Spectrum Disorder, or ASD, is a condition that impacts how a person thinks, feels, interacts with others and experiences their environment.

New research led by Dr Susan M Hayward from the Olga Tennison Autism Research Centre has discovered that work stress has a greater impact on the wellbeing of people on the autism spectrum.

“Studies show that autistic employees can increase company diversity, innovation, performance and productivity,” says Hayward. “Their attention to detail and excellent problem-solving abilities make them excellent employees.”

“But, for people on the autism spectrum, sustaining employment and maximising productivity can be challenging.”

The research team surveyed 140 people and identified occupational stress – the physical, mental and emotional demands of the work for employees who perceive these demands to exceed their abilities or resources to manage these – as one of the most significant employment barriers for people on the autism spectrum.

“Social communication was identified as a significant stressor,” says Hayward. “Autistic individuals said that making friends, fitting in, conforming to social niceties, lack of social acceptance and understanding, as well as managing complex social interactions are particularly challenging.”

Managing organisational politics or bureaucracy was also reported as a barrier, with non-verbal cues often leading to miscommunication. “Trying to manage all these demands leads to higher levels of emotional labour, stress, fatigue and, ultimately, burnout,” she adds. “This was compounded by the fact that autistic respondents were less likely or able to access workplace resources or ask for help.”

Hayward suggests that relationships with management may be key to helping people on the autism spectrum manage workplace demands.

“Employers could consider adapting positions to better suit individuals, including people on the autism spectrum,” she says. “Employees on the autism spectrum would also benefit from flexible arrangements – such as working from home or varied hours – that offer them control over the types and frequency of social interactions.”

“Simple strategies, and a degree of flexibility from employers, can help create an inclusive workplace that maximises opportunity, productivity and wellbeing for all.”

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