Insights & Expertise

Empathy is Key to Building Inclusive Work Environments for People with Autism



In 2018, the CDC reported that 1 in 59 children is diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Despite the prevalence of the disorder, a 2017 study showed that two-thirds of young people with autism had never worked or continued their education beyond high school.

A lack of inclusive work environments could be just one factor at play here. According to Lindsey DelCarlino, associate director of programs at the Kinney Center for Autism Education and Support, there are a number of things employers can do to hire people with autism and encourage them to become successful in the workplace.

“The biggest challenge people with autism face in the workplace, regardless of abilities, is the social aspect. They struggle with understanding social cues, especially non-verbal expressions like body language or facial expressions,” DelCarlino explains. “A general understanding and awareness is the first step employers can take.”

DelCarlino stresses the importance of an inclusive environment at all companies –– regardless of whether or not they know an employee has autism. “The employee might not choose to share their diagnosis, so everyone needs to have an awareness –– especially managers,” she says.

DelCarlino says one thing employers can do is seek out awareness trainings for the company as a whole.

“The Kinney Center has partnered with various companies to give them a general overview of the characteristics of autism and being an advocate. We have a discussion of what that particular company needs, like a social accommodation plan or accommodations for workload.”

But even with certain accommodations, DelCarlino highlights the importance of holding employees with autism accountable.

“They are a part of our world. Everyone is a part of this society. Yes, we can make accommodations where need be, but having those expectations will motivate the individual to be more successful in their workplace to get the job done so they can feel like they’ve accomplished something,” she says.

For managers working one-on-one with employees, DelCarlino says the key is patience. “Use clarification statements to understand what the individual needs –– especially if they’re encountering a problem. Really break down what is expected of the individual.”

But according to DelCarlino, there are also steps employees with autism can take to become more comfortable in the workplace.

“They need to recognize limitations and seek support where need be. If they’re given an assignment they don’t understand, they need to ask for clarification. Social anxiety can get in the way of being successful,“ DelCarlino explains.

Despite the challenges someone with autism might face in the workplace, DelCarlino emphasizes the value they can bring to companies that hire them.

“They bring so much passion and a different sense of communication,” she says. “They might need a little more help to be successful, but they are able and willing to get the job done.”