Autism spectrum disorder.

What is Autism?

A spectrum condition which includes Asperger’s syndrome, Autism is officially referred to as “Autism spectrum disorder”. It’s a life long condition which effects how people both interpret and interact with the world around them.

It isn’t a disease or illness and can’t be cured. It’s commonly diagnosed alongside specific learning differences or ADHD.

An autistic individual will often see being autistic as a significant part of their identity.

How does it impact people?

Autism impacts everyone differently. Some will have many positive traits with few – if any – negative impacts, while others will have more pronounced difficulties. The negative impacts will nearly always fall into the following areas, though; Difficulty with communication and social skills, sensory processing, highly repetitive behaviours or a need to follow a routine, increased levels of anxiety, highly focused interests and susceptibility to meltdowns/shutdowns in some circumstances.

Everyone on the spectrum will require a different level of support. For some this will be minimal if any, while for others it will be considerable. The level of support required is dependant upon the severity of the condition. Learning differences (dyslexia, dyspraxia, dyscalculia etc) and other mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety are common in those with autism.

High vs low functioning

The distinction between high and low functioning is an important one. The more support someone requires, the lower their function. High functioning individuals are well suited to employment. Asperger’s syndrome is sometimes classified as “very high functioning” as it’s negative impacts are generally milder than autism.

This guide has been written with high functioning Autism / Asperger’s syndrome in mind.

Is Asperger’s syndrome still diagnosed?

Asperger’s syndrome is no longer given as a diagnosis, as it’s no longer considered to be a stand-alone condition. Instead, it has been merged into the wider Autism spectrum in both of the commonly used diagnostic manuals (DSM-V and the ICD-11). This means that someone who would have traditionally been given a diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome will now be diagnosed with an Autism spectrum condition.

If someone has a diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome, their diagnosis remains 100% valid. It is up to them to decide whether they want to continue using “Asperger’s syndrome”, or instead use “Autism spectrum condition” when discussing their diagnosis.

the autistic advantage.

Autism can be the secret weapon for success – Dedicated, driven, highly focused and passionate, those on the spectrum are able to apply their unique differences to achieve levels of productivity that a Neurotypical employee can only dream of. Increased productivity isn’t the only advantage an autistic employee can offer, either.

Other advantages of Autism are often:

  • Technical aptitude,
  • Reliability, diligence and persistence,
  • High levels of company loyalty,
  • Close attention to detail, with an innate ability to identify errors and areas for improvement,
  • High levels of maintained concentration,
  • An ability to work alone and independently from others,
  • Highly detailed, factual knowledge of their area of expertise, and an excellent memory.

Special interests are another key advantage – When applied correctly they can prove to be as valuable to an organisation as entire departments of typical people. Identifying those with special interests is the key to unlocking this hidden potential.

As autism is a spectrum it isn’t possible to provide a full list of suitable roles, however the list below provides some idea:

  • Deck officer, ranks up to and including Master,
  • Engineering officer, ranks up to and including Chief engineer,
  • ETO,
  • Lift supervisor,
  • HSEQ officer,
  • Logistics/planning,
  • Surveyor, including flag state, on/off hire, etc.,
  • Auditor,
  • Project supervisor,
  • ROV operator,
  • Technical superintendent,
  • Naval architect,
  • VTS operator.

For example, those who are high functioning are often able to remain highly focused for extended periods of time. This makes them excellent deck officers, as they are able to focus on the safe navigation of the vessel irrespective of any distraction. Their strong drive to adhere to rules works in tandem with their highly detailed factual knowledge to ensure that any decision taken is an informed, planned, compliant one. A high level of attention to detail has a wide range of benefits, from improving a ships safety culture to cargo operations and reducing losses.

recruiting the talent.

The recruitment process isn’t autism friendly, especially in today’s automated age, which means companies are often excluding much needed talent before they’ve even met face-to-face. Thankfully though, the adaptations and changes needed are small and will have benefits for everyone – not just those on the spectrum.

Advertising the position

Keep adverts and job descriptions concise, easy to read and job specific. Explain what you expect from the candidate in a clear, non-ambiguous way. Phrases like “MUST be an AMAZING communicator” or “a real team player” will often discourage those on the spectrum from applying, as this usually indicates a workplace which is unwilling to accommodate their needs.

Receiving applications

Include a section that allows candidates to highlight any disabilities they may have, and provide a brief explanation of any adaptations they need. Do not assume that because someone has a seafarers medical, they do not require support during the recruitment process. When asking open ended questions (“why are you a good fit for this role?” for example), provide an idea of what information you expect from them in their answer.

Screening candidates

Don’t put autistic candidates through psychometric testing – It unfairly disadvantages them. This cannot be seen as a level playing field approach and this stage is best avoided with more focus on interview. While you can still require candidates to sit job-specific exams, the standard “finish X in Y” time can still disadvantage them. If you need to use job-specific exams use an alternative, stress free format.

The interview process – An alternative approach

Interviews are great for typical candidates, but they’re not the only approach to take – Especially if you’re trying to recruit Neurodivergent talent. A workplace trial will allow your Neurodivergent candidates to truly shine, helping you to see first hand the talents and abilities they’re able to bring to the field.

This is even more true in the marine industry. If someone holds a certificate of competency there’s very few reasons not to give a candidate a single trip SEA and review their performance, instead of going through the usually lengthy and time consuming process of interviewing.

Avoid points based interview approaches. Preventing Neurodivergent talent from showing through, they introduce negative bias – especially in the post interview selection stage. Skills based approaches are a much better alternative that will help guard against this, helping you secure a candidate that has the right qualities for the position.

The interview process – Prior to interview

Give candidates as much notice as possible for their interview. Not only can this reduce stress but also gives you as much time as possible to make any adaptations that are needed.

Providing a “rider” document to candidates will help reduce stress and anxiety. Make sure it contains; the names and roles of those who will be attending the interview, what will happen during the interview and what it will cover, and where the interview will take place. Include a picture of the building and interview room, along with what to expect when they arrive (“Sign in at the main reception when you arrive, where you will be met by Frank”, for example).

The more information you provide the candidate, the less stressful the experience will be. The less stressful the experience is, the greater the chance that you will be able to secure the talent.

Checking-in with the candidate approximately a week before the interview can also be helpful, as this provides both you and the candidate an opportunity to ask any questions and clarify that all the appropriate adjustments have been made.

It may be help to provide the candidates with a list of interview questions up to two days prior to the interview. If you do this, don’t provide them to Neurotypical candidates. The idea is to lift the autistic candidate up to the same starting point as everyone else, not lift everyone up uniformly.

If your interview process involves a test or exam on job specific information, such as maritime law or regulations, it is important to ensure the questions are easy to understand. They shouldn’t be open ended or ambiguous. Some candidates may require extra time or other adaptations.

The interview process – During the interview

It is important to remember that while everyone finds an interview stressful, those on the spectrum will find them especially challenging. After all, differences with social skills are one of the main hallmarks of Autism. It isn’t difficult to make things easier for those on the spectrum though – Every step you take towards a fairer interview, is a step towards feeling the autistic advantage.

When interviewing candidates on the spectrum, keep the below in mind:

  • Provide the candidate with a calm, quiet place to wait before the interview starts,
  • Introduce everyone on the panel, and give the candidate a reason why they’re there – For example “I’m Mx Johnson, and I’ll be asking most of the questions today. Next to me is Mr Bloggs, who will be taking notes for us”,
  • Allow extra time for the interview. This enables the candidate to process questions and information without feeling rushed,
  • In some cases, allowing an advocate to attend the interview with the candidate can be helpful. They won’t answer questions for the candidate, but can act as a useful mediator, able to help everyone understand questions and answers,
  • Talk the candidate through how the interview will be conducted and the schedule before the interview starts. Where possible, provide times or durations for different sections of the interview,
  • Keep questions specific and directed. Avoid asking open ended or hypothetical questions like “We’re a fast paced company. How would this effect you?” or “where do you see yourself in ten years?”. Instead, ask the candidate to recall instances where they’ve had to adjust to the plan changing at short notice, for example,
  • Some candidates may have difficulty judging how much information you need from them. This will result in them either over or under answering questions. Where the candidate over answers, it is good practice to politely inform them that they have told you all you needed to know, and that you’d like to ask them something else. Where the candidate under answers, prompting will be required,
  • Understand that during long or intensive interviews, candidates may require breaks. Ensure the candidate knows that it’s okay to ask for a break and what to expect when they ask,
  • Those on the spectrum will sometimes interpret language literally. This means they may struggle with idioms or abstract language like “toot your own horn”, “ballpark figure” or “under the pump”. Avoid the use of this type of language wherever possible,
  • The candidate may not act as you expect during the interview, using too much or too little eye contact, or a different vocal tone. They may also fidget, such as playing with a pen or doodling on a piece of paper. It is vital that everyone in the room understands that this isn’t the candidates fault, nor is it a sign that they are aloof, dishonest or disinterested. It is merely a part of their condition and coping strategy and steps should be taken to ensure it does not effect their chances of employment in any way,
  • At the end of the interview, ensure the candidate knows when they can expect to hear from you regarding their application.

Compassion and understanding are key – Interviews aren’t fun for anyone, but they can be hell for those on the spectrum.

The interview process – After the interview

Inform the candidate of the interview outcome, providing as much feedback as possible. Invite them to discuss any feedback or highlight any concerns they might have with the interview. Remember, an interview is a learning tool for everyone.

Unleashing the potential.

An employee can only reach their full potential if you give them the tools they need. Someone on the spectrum is no different – Only the benefits can be far greater for everyone than your typical employee. Before making any adjustments for an autistic employee, talk to them. They’ll often be able to tell you exactly what they need and how best to implement it. We’ve included some lists below to service as a starting point – Remember though, everyone on the spectrum is different and will need different adjustments.

Adjustments that apply to both shorebased and seagoing careers
  • Assign a dedicated advocate to the employee. The advocate can act as a point of contact for any issues the employee is having within the company, being able to offer advice and support where necessary. They should have a rapport with the employee, be empathetic towards the issues the employee may have and ideally have some neurodiversity training. They should also be aware of company policy & procedures and know what action to take if the employee reports bullying or harassment,
  • Be clear about what your expectations are for the employee,
  • Check in with the employee regularly. This allows issues to be identified and resolved quickly before they become large or difficult. Feedback should be thoughtful, honest and not assign any wrongdoing. Instead, explain what is wrong and how it can be done differently in the future. Those on the spectrum have often experienced considerable amounts of bullying, and may be more sensitive to criticism than the average person,
  • Understand that the employee is a human being – the same as everyone else – and deserves to be treated as such. Your team should also be aware of this fact. You must not disclose the employees condition to others without their express consent, however,
  • Provide training on a one-to-one basis instead of in a group, where possible,
  • Provide written and oral instructions where possible. This allows the employee to reference these instructions for clarification if needed,
  • Do not make assumptions,
  • Allow autistic employees to start/end earlier/later, so they can avoid a rush-hour commute,
  • The employee may struggle to attend team building events for a variety of reasons. Be understanding of this, inviting them to attend but not making it mandatory.
Adjustments for seagoing careers
  • Assign the seafarer to a single ship within the fleet. This prevents the stress and anxiety associated with joining a new vessel with a new crew. If this isn’t possible, or where they need to be assigned to a different vessel, provide as much notice as possible to allow them to adjust to the change,
  • Provide extra baggage allowances to seafarers on the spectrum to allow them to take some precious comforts with them, like a weighted blanket (helps reduce anxiety, fatigue and sensory overload),
  • In some cases, it may be appropriate to consider whether the ships crew are suitable to work with an autistic crewmember. Where there is any doubt, the crew should be given Neurodiversity training, and made aware that the company expects them to be supportive and understanding, and that failure to do so will result in disciplinary action. Discrimination in any form has no place at sea, and it is important that this message is conveyed to vessel crew,
  • To help reduce anxiety, provide the seafarer with as much information about the ship they will be joining. This can include watchkeeping schedule, cabin arrangements, where they will join and how to reach the ship and agent.
Adjustments for shore based careers
  • Allow the employee to wear noise cancelling headphones, ear buds etc. where appropriate. This helps reduce both sensory overload and fatigue,
  • If possible, locate the employee in a quieter part of the office. This reduces both the amount of distraction and sensory overload, reducing fatigue and increasing productivity,
  • Allow the employee to take a break in a quiet, relaxing place when needed,
  • Understand that those on the spectrum may become anxious, agitated or upset if they aren’t able to perform to their full potential, particularly due to outside circumstances. Typical examples of this include IT or equipment failure. In situations like this, provide clear instructions to the employee on how to overcome the problem. For example, “If the printer is broken, use the one located in room XYZ”,
  • In some circumstances, it may be better to allow the employee to work from home on particularly busy days in the office.

Common myths, busted.

Autism only affects men.

Wrong! This is a common misconception. Due to the pressures society places on women, particularly the need to be social, their symptoms are often less pronounced or better disguised than those in men. This has caused an under-diagnosis of autism amongst women.

High functioning autistics are great at maths.

False – While some of those on the spectrum excel at maths, physics or other STEM subjects, others have talents in linguistics, art, other humanities. Everyone on the spectrum is an individual, and therefore has their own set of strengths and weaknesses.

Those on the spectrum can’t get seafaring medicals.

This is incorrect. High functioning individuals are able to get seafaring medicals, provided their condition does not significantly impair their ability to do their job.

If they’re autistic, they can’t have friendships or relationships.

Incorrect – People on the spectrum are able to form friendships and relationships, although may require support to do so.

Autistic people can’t make decisions or hold positions of command.

False – Many high-functioning autistic people are very well suited to command, able to make objective and logical decisions.

Those on the spectrum can’t follow orders.

Incorrect. Those on the spectrum are just as capable of following orders as anyone else. The only difference is they’re more likely to speak up if that order is dangerous or unsafe.