How Managers and Colleagues Can Support the Mental Health of Autistic Employees
For the second post in our Mental Health Awareness Month Series, auticon US Lead Job Coach Reshma Dhawan shares her expertise on supporting the mental health of autistic employees on an individual basis.
As Lead Job Coach at auticon, how do you support the mental health of individual autistic colleagues?
As lead job coach, I support the mental health of autistic colleagues by doing just that and taking an individual approach. The job coach position has always had an element of well-being worked into it, and that includes mental health. Being available, being a listener, and just the act of asking someone how they are can play a huge part in someone feeling like they matter and are valued in the workplace—and in creating an environment where people can feel comfortable advocating for their mental health needs.
How can a manager or colleague best support somebody who is autistic and is experiencing anxiety in the workplace?
The number one thing they can do is to create a supportive environment where someone can be open about how they are feeling at any time without feeling worried to express concerns or feeling they will be judged. This creates a work environment for all employees to thrive, feel safe, and feel heard. To this end, managers should strive to be understanding, compassionate, and flexible. Along with that, encouraging people to take days off for their mental health and creating an environment where work-life balance is celebrated.
How do you talk to your autistic teammate about avoiding burnout?
I have frequent conversations about self-care. This can be as simple as reminding someone to take a few minutes and rest their eyes or get fresh air. I also talk about overall health habits such as meal prep, working out, making time for friends/family, hobbies, and planning things for after work that are enjoyable. Along with that, I find helping a teammate with to-do lists, time management, and other executive functioning tasks can support them to be productive without over working/burning out.
How can you help a colleague who you think may be autistic and is showing signs of anxiety or burnout, but hasn’t disclosed their autism at work?
Just like you would with any employee who is struggling in the workplace, the first thing I would do is have an open, honest, and direct conversation. Use supportive language and ask how you can help. Encourage putting their health first, which includes both their physical and mental health. Then help come up with a solution such as scheduling an afternoon break to get fresh air, extending a deadline, pairing up with someone who can support with a difficult task, or skipping optional meetings.
Can you share some real-life examples of reasonable supports related to mental health/anxiety?
Flexible work hours, time for appointments related to health/mental health, working with a teammate who can support tasks, extra job coach time, 1:1 meetings with supervisor to stay on track with tasks, time off, help with to-do lists to manage anxiety, scheduling in breaks during the work day, flexibility to send things in writing instead of verbal updates, constructive and consistent feedback that is clear, expectations in writing, and support with presentations.
Do you have any other tips for creating a supportive work environment for autistic colleagues?
Make supports available for everyone to destigmatize supporting mental health in the workplace. Have open, healthy conversations regarding autism, mental health, the importance of self-care, and taking care of yourself.
To learn more about how employers can make company-level changes to support the mental health of autistic employees, read our previous Mental Health Awareness Month post by job coach Larry Ross.
About the Author
Reshma Dhawan is the Lead Job Coach at auticon US. She previously had a long career as a special education teacher with a passion for Community Based Instruction and how it could lead to better career outcomes for adults on the autism spectrum. Her interest in this area led her to join auticon in 2020 as a job coach, working with the company’s clients, autistic consulting teams, and technology managers to better support one another and achieve their goals. In her current role as Lead Job Coach, Reshma leads the company’s U.S. job coaching team as well as neurodiversity training for its clients.