group of adults sitting in chairs in business office training

Business Etiquette with Autism: Or, How to Be Professional Without Exhausting Yourself

Two people facing each other across conference table, engaged in a practice job interview.

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April is Autism Acceptance Month.

Employers value “soft skills”: problem-solving, team-based collaboration, clear communications, time management, flexibility, self-control. Which is why the majority of U.S. adults with autism are unemployed: autistic brains have limited executive-function capacities, which regulate soft skills. However capable any autistic individual may be, they frequently are judged as loud, thoughtless, stubborn, and a poor fit for the work environment.

Greater understanding of autism helps, as do reasonable accommodations. But it’s hardly reasonable to claim unlimited rights to vent unfiltered feelings in public. If your meltdown point is low, pressuring it to bear up like “everyone else” is not the answer either. Your best accommodations begin with recognizing and minimizing frustration triggers.   

young man sitting at laptop on zoom call with 4 other business people

Finding a Job, Doing a Job: Tips from the Transition Department

At Easter Seals Greater Houston, clients can access Transition Services for work-readiness training, job placement, and on-the-job coaching. Robert Williams, longtime Program Manager of Transition Services, shares further details:

“We spend a lot of time practicing social skills. We help clients identify topics they can safely discuss with others, and topics to avoid unless someone brings them up first.

“For persons with behavior problems, we work out a checklist to identify feelings and actions that precede a meltdown. Meltdowns and outbursts generally happen when someone is overwhelmed, so we try to arrange work areas and schedules to minimize things that might set a person off. We also try to find jobs where a person can work on the periphery or in a quiet, low-light area, where there will be less need to explain their discomfort around groups of people.

“Since fewer people to interact with means less chance for problems, we identify a single primary workplace contact where our client can always go for instructions and assistance. In settings where most employees are social with each other, we speak with the supervisor to help them understand that the autistic worker isn’t unfriendly, and how they can explain it to the rest of their staff.

“[Autism means sensitivity to physical sensations, so] if someone simply cannot wear a dress shirt and tie, we identify companies where the dress code is informal. This hasn’t really been an issue with our clients, though: if they’re uncomfortable wearing formal clothes, it usually works to break them in by having them wear more formal clothing during meetings with our staff.

“For issues with maintaining eye contact or shaking hands, we work up a script for clients to use in explaining their challenges—and in suggesting alternatives, such as a fist bump instead of a handshake. We develop a script the client can use to explain their comfort zones, and we help them practice using it until it sounds natural.

“We use a couple of websites to help clients create social stories [written and/or visual aids for remembering what to expect and do in social situations]: the Nebraska Autism Spectrum Disorders Network and Autism Behavior Services Inc. For scheduling [another common challenge for workers with autism], we use the Visual Schedules guide from the University of Utah, also a visual calendar from”

Additional Tips for Autistic Job Hunters and Employees

Office break room with tables and vending machines.

Other hints to minimize stress and maximize effectiveness:

  • Don’t waste energy bemoaning your limitations. Focus on what you have to offer, such as an eye for detail, outside-the-box thinking, reliability, and natural stick-to-itiveness.
  • Early on, let your supervisors know your preferred communications method (text, visual, at certain hours?) to ensure maximum efficiency when exchanging questions and instructions.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask about workplace expectations for everyday behavior: the people already immersed in it often provide more accurate information than you’ll find in the employee manual. Ideally, learn all you can in your first two or three weeks—the typical time window before neurotypical coworkers start thinking you should have absorbed more by osmosis.
  • Experienced coworkers who also have autism themselves can be your best sources of advice. Just be doubly careful about interrupting or asking endless questions: autism can make a person seriously uncomfortable with other people’s autistic behavior.
  • Break complicated tasks into smaller, more manageable items. Better yet, delegate the breaking-down to someone with a gift for prioritizing and long-term planning.
  • Be diligent about self-care. A fit, well-rested, well-nourished body makes for a resilient mental–emotional system, with or without autism.

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