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Supporting autism at work: Don’t wait for diagnosis experts advice


Experts tell employers not to wait for diagnosis when supporting staff with autism. Workplace health experts are calling for employers to take ‘stepped approach’ to supporting staff with autism rather than waiting for formal diagnosis.

In a report launched by the Society of Occupational Medicine, which coincides with World Autism Awareness Week, (28 March – 3 April 2023), experts have recommended an initial screening conversation to determine the need for adjustments such as remote working, technology and coaching.

What steps to take to support neurodifferences including autism at work

If these initial steps don’t improve workplace performance, escalated options include a specialist review and a workplace needs assessment, with a formal diagnosis only prioritised if those options prove inadequate. A stepped approach is also appropriate in employment because equality legislation isn’t predicated on diagnostic status.

Guiding steps for employers are outlined in SOM’s new report for employers, HR professionals and workplace health experts titled ‘Evaluating and supporting Neurodifferences at work’.

Nick Pahl, CEO of the Society of Occupational Medicine, said: “We are proud to have launched a practical and evidence-based guide for employers during World Autism Awareness Week”

“Our message to employers is: don’t wait for a formal diagnosis to support your staff who may have autism. There are plenty of steps you can take right away.

“We hope the report will help de-mystify neurodifference in the workplace, and lead to confidence in raising what can be a tricky and emotional topic.”

Experts urge employers to make the most of the strengths of neurodiverse staff. For employees with autism, these could be memory ability, specialist individual skills, innovative thinking and detail observation. Between 15 and 20% of the workforce is estimated to be in a “neurominority” – people whose thinking skills and behaviours are not like the neurotypical norm.

Autism often manifests in inconsistency in performance

The hallmark of neurodifference in an employee is often an inconsistency in work performance, known as the ‘spiky profile’. This is when an employee excels at some aspects of their work, but struggles in others, or can work brilliantly for a time, but who has persistent periods of productivity loss.

This is a flag for an employer that an individual may have a health or neurodevelopmental condition and may prompt a referral to occupational health (OH) for support recommendations.

Ask occupational health experts to help

Professional OH specialists are an ideal starting point for employers as they are members of regulated bodies, avoiding the risk of employers using unregulated suppliers.

Co-author of the report Dr Nancy Doyle, Occupational Health Psychologist and member of SOM Occupational Health Psychology Special Interest Group, said:

“Navigating services for neurodiversity, including autism. can be confusing .

“There are many options for support and it’s hard to pinpoint which you need at which point.

“Occupational health specialists are an excellent resource for businesses and employers in terms of ensuring that the right help and support is found.”

OH professionals can provide guidance on how to seek specialist support from a credible registered provider to provide a clinical assessment, in line with evidence based practice and reliable peer-reviewed tools