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Awareness dates

Developing autism aware communication

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Sarah Bartlett, Business Disability Forum

Autism Awareness Month is a good time to review your communication plans and to consider whether they meet the needs of colleagues and clients with disabilities and neurodiverse conditions, such as autism.

selective focus photography of person using smartphone

The events of the last year have affected how we all communicate. Lockdown and social distancing measures have limited face to face communication and made us more reliant on online forms of communication.

For some, communicating more online will have brought benefits. For others, it will have presented challenges. For people with conditions, such as autism, being offered only limited communication options will have been a particular challenge.

Understanding autism

1 in 100 people in the UK have autism. This means that you may work with or know someone who has autism, and it is very likely that your organisation has clients or customers with autism.

Autism is a spectrum condition. This means that it affects each person differently, but it often impacts how a person understands and processes information about their surroundings. It can also affect how a person communicates and their social interactions.

Many people with autism have learnt ways to adapt to the world around them. This may include developing standard responses to questions that they may find confusing. This includes open-ended pleasantries, such as ‘how are you?’ Or they may simply put up with stressful interruptions in their workday, which could be avoided if colleagues just understood their preference for email communication rather than an unplanned phone call.

Why it is important

But having your communication preferences ignored does not make for effective communication, nor should it be up to the person with autism to adapt to the communication preferences of non-autistic people. Under the Equality Act (2010), there is a duty on all organisations to make reasonable adjustments for disabled people. This includes adjustments around communication and information.

But the legal duty aside, accessible, and inclusive communication simply makes good sense, resulting in greater productivity and better engagement with customers and colleagues.

In 2020, Business Disability Forum launched two toolkits on neurodiversity and on inclusive communication. The toolkits are aimed at helping businesses, which are Business Disability Forum Members, meet the needs of disabled and neurodiverse employees and customers, including people with autism. There has been a lot of interest in the topic and Business Disability Forum has since launched a dedicated network for communication professionals to share best practice and to encourage debate around accessible and inclusive communication.

Developing autism aware communication

Where to start is a question that is often asked. So, here are some points to consider when reviewing your own communications. These have been adapted from Business Disability Forum’s toolkits.

  • Never assume

We all have preferred ways that we like to communicate. For some people, having a disability or a neurodiverse condition may affect the way that they communicate, receive and process information. It is always best to ask, if you are unsure about a customer or colleague’s particular communication needs. Remember that the responsibility is on you to make sure the information you provide can be understood. Thinking about the diverse ways people communicate, receive and process information, early on, will save you time and

resources later.

  • Communication channels

Make sure that you always offer people a choice in how they receive information and communicate with you and your organisation. Written information can be useful as it allows people to digest and respond at their own pace. But blocks of dense text can be overwhelming for people with communication disabilities and neurodiverse conditions. Think about how you can use visuals to support your message and offer information in other formats, such as video.

  • Language

Metaphorical or idiomatic phrases, such as ‘piece of cake’ or ‘the ship has sailed’ can be confusing for people with autism who may interpret them literally. If you are communicating with an international audience then these sort of phrases present additional language and cultural barriers.

Ambiguity should also be avoided. If you are non-autistic person, communicating in a direct way may seem rude. It is tempting to add in extra words to appear polite. I have a habit of using ‘perhaps’, for example, when I want to suggest something but don’t want to come across as pushy. My use of ‘perhaps’, however, creates a sense of uncertainty, which can be confusing for colleagues with autism. Removing vague terms like ‘perhaps’, ‘maybe’, or ‘sometime’ makes your communication easier to understand and more effective.

  • Verbal communication

Some people with autism find verbal communication, whether face-to-face or over the telephone, stressful. Meetings, where several people are talking, can be particularly difficult for people to follow and to participate in.

Make sure you offer different ways for people to communicate information and to express their opinion. If it is an online meeting, for example, someone may prefer to participate with their camera off or to post their views via a chat function, rather than verbally.

Having a clear agenda will help participants to know what to expect. But it is important that you stick to the timings in the agenda and schedule in breaks if it is a longer meeting. Asking people to contribute in turn allows everyone to take part and will help people know when they are expected to speak. But never force someone to participate.

Send out the agenda and any supporting documents in advance to allow everyone time to prepare. Offer other ways for people to feedback. Some people may prefer to listen to a recording of the meeting and send in their comments via email, after the meeting, for example.

  • Social ‘rules’

People with autism can find social situations confusing. They may find it difficult to pick up on non-verbal social cues or to maintain eye contact during a conversation. In a work situation, a person may not be aware of unwritten workplace ‘rules’ such as offering your co-workers a cup of tea when going to the kitchen or saying goodbye at the end of the day. People can be made to feel rude or unwelcome if they don’t adhere to such ‘rules’, even though this was never their intention.

It some situations it may be appropriate to explain certain social constructs if it is causing the person concern. But often it is better to consider adapting your own response rather than insisting that someone else adapts theirs.

Finding out more

Sarah Bartlett is a freelance media and communication specialist. She recently worked with Business Disability Forum to research and write their Inclusive Communication Toolkit. She has worked in the disability sector for over 15 years.

Originally in Autism Aware Communication | IABC UK & I (

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