How employers and careers advisors can make group meetings autism-friendly

I know that lots of us think about how to make our workshops & meetings with students as inclusive and accessible as possible. But, sometimes it’s difficult to know what practical steps to take.

The recently published What Happens Next? 2021 report highlights the importance of supporting autistic students and graduates. Indeed, at all qualification levels, graduates with autism are the least likely to be employed on a permanent contract and are most likely to be employed on a fixed term, temporary or voluntary basis.

IMAGE Research Assistant Rachael Maun (r.maun@leedsbeckett.ac.uk) has produced some tips for before, during and after meetings to make them autism-friendly:

About Rachael

I’m a PhD student with the Erasmus+ funded IMAGE project (www.imageautism.com) which is all about supporting autistic university students to develop and demonstrate their strengths to employers. We are currently creating an online employability toolkit and, using a participatory design approach, I directly involve autistic students and graduates in the design process. 

I didn’t know from the outset whether to meet with students and graduates one-to-one or in a group setting, so I did some research on both. I looked into planning a meeting, preparing the environment, how to make it all comfortable, materials to bring, protocols for communication, etc. From all this information I’ve put together a list of tips and recommendations for running group meetings with autistic participants.

As it turned out, when asking prospective participants about the format of the meeting, most expressed a preference for one-to-one meetings. So – where possible, this should be facilitated. However, facilitating group workshops, group meetings or interviews with panels may be unavoidable. The following tips can help employers and careers advisors make group meetings, whatever their purpose, more inclusive for autistic individuals.

Preparing for the group meeting

  • If a group meeting is unavoidable, make sure that your participants know that it will be a group meeting so that they can prepare. Offering insight into how many people, and what type of people (e.g. managers, colleagues, students etc) are expected to attend can also help autistic people prepare for group meetings.
  • Give as much notice as possible before the meeting, participants in IMAGE Autism workshops commented on how it was helpful to be given a good notice period before meetings.
  • When inviting autistic participants to a group meeting in a place they are not familiar with, it can be beneficial to create a visual guide of how to get to the meeting. This can include visual directions from the nearest train/bus station/car park (if it is not in a familiar building), photos of the corridors and rooms (with room numbers if applicable) within the building with directions to the room they are meeting in and photos of the room where the meeting will take place. If the meeting is online, visual instructions on how to access the meeting can be beneficial.
  • If the meeting is being run by someone unfamiliar, it may also be beneficial to include a photograph of the facilitator(s), so that they know who they are meeting.
  • If possible and reasonable, allow autistic people to bring a familiar person with them (e.g. friend or family member).
  • Consider the sensory environment of the meeting. Loud noises, bright lights, smells and lack of windows/ventilation can be overwhelming for autistic people. Try and find a quieter room for meetings where possible.
  • Don’t wear overpowering perfumes or colognes, these can be overwhelming for autistic people.
  • Choose a room with plenty of space.
  • Check whether any fire alarm testing or other distractions (e.g. people walking past) may occur during the meeting and let people know about this.
  • Offer a quiet space (nearby) for autistic people to retreat to if they are overwhelmed.
  • Create a visual plan of the meeting, with approximate timings. Also include break times in this. This can be circulated before the meeting so that participants know what to expect.
  • When offering beverages, consider sweetened and unsweetened options. Ensure they are labelled clearly.
  • When offering food, consider ‘plain’ options i.e. just cheese instead of cheese and pickle and just ham instead of ham and mustard. Ensure they are labelled clearly.
  • Ask participants about any reasonable adjustments that may be required prior to the meeting e.g. note takers and printed meeting slides.
  • If there is a location change for the meeting, inform participants as soon as possible. Also consider attaching a note to the door of where the meeting was originally intended to take place, with directions to the new meeting room and contact details just in case. If it’s possible, having another person there to direct meeting participants to the new room can be beneficial.

During the group meeting

  • Welcome the participants, introduce yourself and explain the purpose of the meeting.
  • Ensure participants are aware of where toilets/water fountains/quiet areas are before the meeting starts.
  • Make it clear that people can leave the room, move about, go to the quiet room, help themselves to refreshments etc. during the meeting.
  • Display a visual plan of the meeting with approximate timings (including breaks).
  • If tasks are to be completed, ensure the explanation is concise but explains the task thoroughly, give participants the option to ask any questions before starting the task.
  • If you specifically want input from a particular person, be sure to address them before asking the question so that they know the question is directed at them.
  • When asking questions, give them time to process the question. Avoid following up with further information or repeating the question unless they have explicitly asked you to do so. Also consider the wording of questions, avoid multiple questions rolled into one. Prompt for further information if it is necessary.
  • Offer breaks for participants to leave the room, move around and unwind. Set a time for people to re-join the meeting.
  • Incorporate ‘check-ins’ where participants are asked questions like ‘does this make sense?’ or ‘does anyone else have anything to add?’.

After the group meeting

  • Explain the next steps now that the meeting has finished and highlight if there will be any future meetings or future input needed from participants.
  • Offer an opportunity for participants to ask any questions.
  • Thank participants for their time.

I’m still planning more meetings throughout spring and summer 2021 and would love to speak to autistic students and graduates. If you know of anyone who would be interested in co-designing the IMAGE toolkit, please pass on my details or the web address www.imageautism.com/get-involved. Many thanks.

About the IMAGE project

IMAGE runs from 2018 until the end of 2021. The project will produce an employability toolkit that autistic students can use independently, create training materials for careers professionals to develop their skills and professional practice and produce good practice guides for careers advisors, academics and employers to increase understanding of autism.

IMAGE is led by Dr Marc Fabri from Leeds Beckett University in collaboration with other academics and practitioners, including Claire Aydogan, Head of Careers and Employability at the University of Huddersfield. International collaborators include the University of Helsinki, Free University Amsterdam, Medical School Berlin and University of Toulouse.

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