This information is for employers. It aims to help you understand the range of challenges that autistic employees and job seekers may be facing during the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.
If you are autistic you may find this guide for coping with uncertainty and anxiety more useful.
Why might autistic people be particularly vulnerable now?
As employers we want to give you the best evidence-based information about the impact of COVID-19 on autistic people. While people with pre-existing health conditions are at risk from COVID-19, autistic people are additionally vulnerable for social, psychological and economic reasons.
Factors related to employment
The economic impact of COVID-19 will be unprecedented. Restrictions on travel and contact are likely to remain in place in some form or another for an extended period of time. This means that particular sectors that hire many young workers such as travel, hospitality and catering will face critical challenges going forward. This could adversely impact young autistic people who already find the transition from school to employment extremely difficult.
Autistic people are also often working in precarious jobs with fixed-term contracts or in the gig economy, both of which are likely to be severely impacted by COVID-19. Due to concerns about health or OCD, autistic people may feel particularly conflicted about the desire to self-isolate versus the desire to be economically independent. A significant economic downturn could therefore disrupt the stability of the small percentage of autistic people who have secured employment.
Autistic people already face challenges in being recruited, because typically candidates who have better social presentation skills have an advantage. With an increase in unemployment, it may be even hard for autistic talent to be recognised among job-seekers.
Change of structure and routine
Structure and routine are essential for many autistic people. It can create organisation and predictability in a world that can sometimes be overwhelming and confusing. The necessary government restrictions on travel and social gatherings have meant that many businesses, institutions (e.g. schools and other education settings) and recreational spaces have had to close, which will alter daily routines. For autistic people who have learning difficulties in particular, the sudden change over a very short period of time will be very difficult to understand and manage. More broadly, maintaining a healthy work-life balance will be severely disrupted during this period of social distancing measures which could impact long-term mental and physical wellbeing.
Communication and regular feedback
For those who are in work, changes to working patterns and communication may also adversely affect job experience. Regular meetings with line-managers to keep track of progress, establish goals and respond to any potential challenges early are essential for autistic employees. Managers will need to make alternative arrangements to stay up to date with employees.
Working at home has inevitably led to an increase in the use of alternative communication systems. However, using new modes of communication could be a potential challenge for some autistic employees. Organisations need to be proactive in supporting the transition to platforms such as Microsoft Teams and regularly schedule check-ins between line managers and their autistic employees.
Another challenge is that autistic people present and express medical symptoms in a different way than typically expected. For example, autistic employees may struggle with understanding their own emotions and feelings and linking it to COVID-19. Employees may also work while sick to avoid routine change and they may not communicate their symptoms if communication around sick pay is not clear. Again, organisations need to be proactive in providing clear guidelines around the status of sick pay and access to advice such as this resource from Public Health England.
Autistic people already experience challenges in accessing adjustments within the workplace. Adjustments allow people to work safely and productively and are really important for wellbeing. Autistic people may need further support to identify how they can apply adjustments to working from home. Our recent report about workplace adjustments for neurodivergent employees may help to generate ideas about what can be possible.
While working from home may be advantageous for some autistic people, the fact that everyone in a family might now be working from home presents extra challenges. These include the proximity of other people also working in the home, the impact of noise and the lack of dedicated desk space.
Those with Access to Work adjustments may also not be able to access adjustments at home, for example if they use display screen equipment in the workplace but are unable to transfer such equipment home. It may be possible for some employers to courier such equipment to employee’s’ homes, but this may become difficult if offices remain locked during the implementation of social distancing measures. It should also be kept in mind that a push to working exclusively on digital platforms may also not work for everyone - employers should check what communication methods may suit employees rather than assuming.
Factors related to mental health
Anxiety and other mental health challenges
Autistic people are highly likely to experience mental health challenges including anxiety and depression. Autistic people are also more likely to think about or attempt suicide than the general population. The constant negative news, which is likely to intensify in the coming weeks, will possibly exacerbate mental health issues and the potential for becoming overwhelmed. You may find this resource for managing anxiety and uncertainty useful.
Some studies have shown that autistic people respond to bereavement in ways that are different from non-autistic people. While the majority of people diagnosed with COVID-19 do make a recovery, this is not always the case. This means that there is the potential that some people will experience a bereavement within their social networks. Autistic people are likely to need increased support for adapting to sudden and overwhelming experiences of loss, so employers should provide updated information about access to mental health support.
The consequences of social distancing and self-isolation measures are also likely to impact mental health, particularly if people live in domestic situations that can be challenging. Autistic people may be particularly susceptible to domestic abuse, and the increased pressure of social isolation and financial insecurity that many families experience could exacerbate these underlying challenges.
OCD and advice about hand washing
Many autistic people experience OCD, which involves obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviours. OCD thoughts and behaviours may be driven by a desire to exert control or suppress negative tendencies, which can result in a negative spiral where people focus attention on aggravating issues.
The impact of COVID-19 and the potential for diseases to spread rapidly and uncontrollably will likely serve to heighten underlying anxieties about cleanliness and lack of control. While government advice on washing hands is essential for preventing the spread of the virus, there are also knock-on effects for those who have underlying OCD tendencies whereby general anxieties are significantly increased. There should be considerations about how such anxieties may become residual after COVID-19 has passed.
Wider impacts on wellbeing
Availability of specific foods or brands
There has been a large increase in panic-buying which has meant that usual stocks of food and other daily items are limited in availability. It could severely impact autistic people that have restrictive diets, dietary requirements or have eating disorders such as anorexia. If employees have to shop during working hours then employers should understand the potential reasons behind this.
Food also has an important sensory aspect and many autistic people have sensory sensitivities that can impact food choices. With restricted food choices and reduced capacity for delivering foods by some suppliers because of demand many autistic people may be facing changing diets that will exacerbate sensitive health issues and significantly disrupt what can be fragile comfort zones around eating practices.
- Read the Autistica guide to coping with uncertainty and anxiety
- Read the DARE toolkit of adjustments for autistic staff
- Read tips from DARE's Sarah O'Brien on dealing with anxiety
- For the latest government advice visit the COVID-19 page on Gov.UK
- Read the latest government COVID-19 information for employees
This post will be updated as new information becomes available.
Right now, our community needs our advice and your help. Many autistic people were vulnerable before Coronavirus hit - their needs are even greater now.
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