Building Empathy

Autism and the workplace

How can we enable colleagues and employers to better understand the physical and social challenges that autistic people experience in the workplace?

Autism Spectrum Condition
Autism is typically defined as a ‘neurodevelopmental condition’ – that is, a condition that specifically manifests itself early on during a child’s developmental period. As a lifelong condition that affects the way a person interacts with and perceives the world around them, autism is understood by many to be a condition that places a person on the ‘spectrum’. But even so, the idea of being ‘somewhere on the spectrum’ is often confused with the idea that a person with autism is on a linear scale ranging from ‘not very’ to ‘extremely’. In April 2016, comic artist Rebecca Burgess published a strip to coincide with Autism Acceptance Week, showing the spectrum to be circular; the comic strip explained that each individual is likely to have different combinations of experiences – and that it is not as simple as being ‘a little bit’ autistic.

The use of the term ‘disability’ might also be construed as an inaccurate definition because, in actual fact, autism itself can be compounded by other health problems including ADHD, severe learning difficulties or epilepsy – all of which, to varying degrees are disabling conditions. A more positive and productive way of understanding autism is to accept it as a neurodiverse way of thinking – a human variation that doesn’t follow or conform to the normative patterns of thinking about and processing the world, but which can also mean that autistic people can be highly skilled at specific things.

Workplace Activity Box
These insights have led to the design of an ‘Activity Box’ which includes three activities aimed at addressing the key areas of concern: the first, People and Things, is a set of cards which helps autistic people to create a personalised wish-list of their own social and physical requirements in the workplace, the second, a communication tool called ‘Disc-it’ which enables an autistic person to nonverbally communicate to others about how much social interaction they feel comfortable with, and the third activity involves mapping the sensory patterns of an autistic person, which should allow them to have some influence over their working environment.

By inviting autistic and non autistic people, their co-workers and managers/employers, to take part in these activities, the idea is that as well as developing a better understanding of themselves and their peers, the activities will highlight differences and commonalities between them – enabling them to celebrate a more neurodiverse workplace and, most importantly, build a greater sense of empathy.

 Building Empathy
Building Empathy is a body of active research that forms the sixth instalment in a series of research projects conducted by senior research associate Dr Katie Gaudion, who worked with autism charity The Kingwood Trust since 2012. Whilst previous projects have concentrated on domestic contexts (living independently at home, with family, or in a care facility), Building Empathy focuses on the more unpredictable environment of the workplace. The project has taken a holistic approach to develop better methods of communication and understanding between people with autism, their colleagues and senior managers, by encouraging empathy in the workplace.

A series of interviews and co-creation workshops that included activities for both autistic and non-autistic people, revealed six insights into the challenges faced by autistic people in the workplace. These include: social and sensory challenges, where interaction with co-workers can be difficult to navigate and where the sensory elements of an environment can be confusing; a lack of understanding between autistic people, their co-workers and employers; difficulty in communicating needs; a lack of personalisation in the working environment; information and support available for autistic people at work shouldn’t be segregated from their co-workers – the sharing of information would help to bring acceptance of neurodiversity into the workplace culture.  

See Building Empathy: Autism and the Workplace here  

See previous projects with the Kingwood Trust: 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011 and 2010

Senior Research Associate:
Dr Katie Gaudion

Age & Diversity Research Leader:
Dr Chris McGinley

Research Partner: 
The Kingwood Trust