Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) Overview

ASD (autism spectrum disorder) Is a condition which affects someone’s behaviour and interactions with others. Everyone with autism is different, as it is a spectrum and behaviours can vary in their severity. It includes Asperger syndrome which is a name used by some people to refer to people on the autism spectrum with high levels of intelligence. ASD affects over 700,000 people in the UK, with the majority being male.

What are the signs of ASD?

People with ASD display different signs of their condition and these may change from childhood into adulthood to some degree. Some examples of signs of ASD in an individual may include:

  • Difficulty understanding what others are thinking or feeling
  • Anxiety in social situations
  • Difficulty making friends
  • Struggling to understand figurative meanings and taking things literally
  • Fixation with routine and difficulty dealing with changes in routine
  • Seeming rude or blunt unintentionally
  • Avoiding eye contact
  • Noticing small details that others might not pick up on.

Some people with ASD may also experience anxietysleeping difficulties and depression. People often have ASD alongside other conditions such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and dyslexia.

Women can appear quieter and therefore appear to struggle less in social situations compared to men with autism.

How does ASD get diagnosed and treated?

Fewer people are diagnosed with ASD in adulthood as symptoms change or seem less obvious. It can also be difficult getting diagnosed at any age because of long waiting lists for assessment.

An assessment involves going to speak to a specialist about the difficulties you are having, particularly when interacting with others, such as at work. The specialist can then help the person understand why they see the world differently to others.

A diagnosis can also entitle someone to financial benefits in some cases.

It is not possible to prevent ASD, as it is thought to be in large part genetic or linked to epilepsy and premature birth.

Medication to reduce some of the effects of autism, such as irritability, can help some people.

Therapy is also available and it can also help with related anxiety or sleep problems that someone with ASD may be experiencing alongside. Parents are often offered therapy too to help educate them on the best way to cope with their child’s ASD.

There are a few ways to determine whether an employee with ASD might require reasonable adjustments:

The employee may or may not wish to disclose their ASD, as many people have developed strategies for ‘masking’ their ASD by the time they reach adulthood. Regardless, questions regarding the nature of any additional needs and what extra support may be required can be broached sensitively. For example:

  • Have they required adjustments in the past? It is important that an employer does not jump to conclusions or assumptions based on their existing understanding of ASD, which is often misunderstood by people who do not have the condition.
  • Diagnostic reports can be provided by a specialist as proof of requirement for reasonable adjustments. Reports from the person’s time at school such as Education Health and Care Plans (ECHPs) can also fulfil this function.

What reasonable adjustments are possible for employees with ASD?

Employers have a legal duty to make reasonable adjustments for employees with ASD if they know, are aware of, or could ‘reasonably be expected to know’ that the employee has ASD. Most employees will tell their employer what reasonable adjustments they need. They often involve simple changes in the way an employer might usually do things.

If the employee does not disclose a health issue or disability which may affect their performance upfront, an employer should broach the subject sensitively if they suspect that there may be a disability behind the employee’s reduced performance. Reasonable adjustments can then be made in accordance with the employee’s needs, including, in the case of ASD:

  • Extra time to complete tasks to accommodate difficulties the person may have with planning, organising or writing, if they also have dyslexia.
  • A structured working day to allow the employee to concentrate more easily and to allow them to feel more comfortable, as people on the autism spectrum often flourish with some sort of routine in place.
  • Providing regular, sensitive feedback and reassurance, so that an employee with ASD who may come across particularly vulnerable to criticism, or stressed in a work environment, can stay abreast of what they are doing well, or what they could improve on.
  • Sensory adjustments, for example, reducing background noise to aid with concentration or providing noise-cancelling headphones.
  • Raising awareness so that colleagues understand the employee’s ASD and can help ensure the employee feels comfortable at work. This might involve learning more about the condition to gain a better understanding of what the employee might be facing day-to-day.

ASD Signposting

National Autistic Society – charity supporting people on the autism spectrum, campaigning for improved services, attitudes towards autism and opportunities for those on the autism spectrum to help create an autism-friendly society (0808 800 4104).

Autism Alliance – network of 17 autism charities with coverage across the UK, helping people on the autism spectrum achieve their full potential and receive the support they need.

Mind – mental health charity with resources and advice to support someone with ASD and the impact this may have on their mental health (0300 123 3393).

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