Business Etiquette and Autistic Employees

A nod to National Business Etiquette Week, the first full week in June.

Most workers who succeed in their professions are experts in the rules of business etiquette:

  • Dress for the job.
  • Listen attentively.
  • Answer promptly, but be discreet in what you say.
  • Look people in the eye.
  • Shake hands firmly.
  • Wait for a go-ahead before you speak/stand up/rush to the snack table.
  • Participate in happy hours and icebreaker sessions.
  • Show initiative: do what needs doing before being asked.

If you’re on the autism spectrum or have an adult child who is, you may be muttering at this point, “The trouble with etiquette rules is, they’re made by neurotypical people for neurotypical people.” No question, many of the above “rules” go against everything that comes naturally if you have autism. Even when autistic employees learn to conform (which itself goes beyond the abilities of many on the spectrum), the effort drains energy and enthusiasm—other key factors in professional advancement.

Small wonder that unemployment rates run high in the autism demographic, even for people with above-average skills.

It helps to:

  • Stay physically and mentally healthy;
  • Pace yourself;
  • Get extra-clear on what’s expected;
  • Limit your time in settings that push your sensory-overload buttons.

(For help with specifics, check our apps database for tools relevant to autism in adulthood, transition to adulthood, employment, social stories, and independent living.)

There’s no substitute, however, for a field you love; a work environment you’re comfortable with; and employers/coworkers who accommodate and respect your individual needs. To help clients find work fitting that description, Easter Seals Greater Houston provides job coaching and other transition services.

Here’s what Robert Williams, our transition-program director, has to say about autism and employment.

Q: Many job-search-training programs rely heavily on mock interviews; but the majority of people with autism take poorly to that approach. What alternatives do you suggest?

Williams: We use social stories that cover a typical day at work and how clients would react to certain situations. We repeat these stories several times, over the course of several days, before new jobs begin. And we provide ongoing job coaching, with story updates as new situations arise.

Q: How would you advise job seekers who need autism accommodations, but are nervous about sharing details on their condition?

Williams: We work with clients to find out as much as possible about companies where they are applying, so we can help them plan just what they will tell employers. We also focus on ways to emphasize positive qualities of autism, such as ability to remain focused on a task or look at problems from a unique viewpoint.

Q: What are some common workplace accommodations for autism?

Williams: Generally, the best-fit environments are quiet with low lighting, and easy to navigate. Our clients also prefer jobs where most of their work is done alone. Some can be in larger, more crowded areas if they have well-ordered personal work stations and ample space between coworkers.

In grocery stores or other work settings that can get very busy, an isolated place to take breaks helps a great deal. Other ways to keep distractions to a minimum: using earplugs; wearing a cap that shields the eyes from bright lights; having a quieter and more secluded work station.  

Q: What about remote meetings: how do autistic brains handle the unique requirements of a virtual setting?

Williams: Most of our clients do well virtually: being physically in their own space helps them stay comfortable, focused, and calm. Many say that in-person meetings make them nervous because of proximity to other person(s), while virtual meetings allow them to see other attendees more dispassionately.

Of course, some have problems with their attention drifting, usually toward something physically close to them. It helps to have someone with them in the same physical room—this doesn’t have to be anyone directly involved in the meeting.

The following section is the writer’s own addition, drawing on personal experience attending virtual meetings with autism.

Most meeting platforms have distractions of their own, from incoming Chat messages to buzzes from presenters’ personal devices. Know how to block whatever you find hardest to deal with: for example, a Zoom presentation on speaker view gives you only a couple of images instead of 10–20.

With autism, it’s also easy to forget that others may be uncomfortable with your personal stimming habits: pacing, drumming fingers near a microphone, etc. While many meetings automatically turn off participant input, that can’t always be taken for granted; so pay special attention to your own settings. It’s standard etiquette to keep your mike off unless you’re speaking, and your camera if you’re prone to restlessness. (If you’re on a mobile device, triple-check your settings before carrying it with you on a bathroom break!!)


Finally, don’t obsess about making the “perfect impression.” Once you’ve done all you can, rest assured that even the most neurotypical worker makes mistakes—and that mistakes are forgiven and forgotten.

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