Published on in Responsible Business

Autism is far more common than people think.

Around 700,000 people in the UK are on the autism spectrum. That amounts to more than one in every hundred people.

Yet only 16% of autistic adults in the UK are in full-time paid employment and only 32% are in some kind of paid work, according to the National Autistic Society.

The government is currently working towards a manifesto pledge to halve the disability employment gap. But there is still some way to go when it comes to autism, particularly since more than three quarters of those with autism who are unemployed say they would like to be in work.

But this challenge should not be about ticking boxes. It’s important that people with autism continue to receive the support they need once they enter the workplace.

So what can be done to help?

My Fujitsu colleagues and I firmly believe that a problem shared is a problem halved, and that joining forces in co-creation can help force a shift in the status quo.

With that in mind we embarked last month on a five-day hackathon, with the aim of developing a solution to help people with autism entering the workplace.

To partner in this endeavour we joined forces with Nodes. Nodes brought a passionate sprint team to lead on taking our concepts into a validated mobile App prototype that demonstrated great user experience.  Nodes showed energy, commitment and excellent agile sprint management to deliver us a better understanding of how to execute our idea.

Following the Sprint methodology starting first thing on Monday morning we launched into a week of brainstorming: mapping, framing, designing, prototyping and ultimately testing a concrete solution.

With the help of Fujitsu SEED Autism Champion Paul Crayson, Fujitsu SEED Accessibility Champion Rob Loseby and David Fry of Brain in Hand, the team worked through a number of initial ideas.

Paul was able to steer the initial fact-finding session by describing what a neurodiverse employee might need to support them day-to-day. He shared his invaluable perspective on some of the challenges neurotypical people might not always consider.

A simple technological solution, he explained, can be used to help people with autism “plan and manage the issues their autism may present in the workplace, providing easy access to information that will help them and to connecting them with additional support if and when they need it.”

Plenty of ideas found their way onto the table, but ultimately we settled on a mobile app that could extend the support offered by Fujitsu’s current ‘buddy’ programme.

Help is at hand

From speaking with current employees it became clear that having someone to help answer basic questions when you start a job can be a blessing. Simple things like “Where’s the bathroom?” or “How do you work the coffee machine?”.

For an employee with autism, these needs can be more acute. Our solution would need to offer more than a simple FAQ function.

As well as linking all Fujitsu employees with an at-work buddy, the app we designed, called Buddy Connect, includes a number of other support features.

Key to BuddyConnect is a colour-coded wellbeing tracker allowing users to record how they’re feeling: green for great, amber for not-so-great and red for when you’re, as Paul put it, “having a bit of a meltdown.”

Each option triggers an action depending on the situation, from a quick chat with your buddy over the app’s instant messenger service to putting in a call to a dedicated Employee Support Line

Elsewhere in the app there’s a day planner to keep track of what you’ve got on your plate each day, and you can set reminders (or remind your buddy) to take a break for lunch or to clear your head from time to time.

An interactive office map shows where all your essential facilities are and the names and nicknames for various meeting rooms and catch-up spots.

The My Buddy feature includes information you’d like to share with your buddy and could be handy for putting a name to a face when memory fails.

Photo of young woman testing the prototype app

Trying out the prototype version of the Buddy Connect app.

Just the beginning

Paul said employees with autism would appreciate the app’s clear layout and structure, but he added that some thought should be given to privacy and the process for assigning buddies. Something which was discussed extensively in the week, which concluded with the thought that the buddy providing the support would benefit from training and a pool of resources to better support new employees as part of a successful human centric on-boarding process.

Brain in Hand’s David said people with autism “may have a tendency to take things literally and wish to avoid social interaction, so clarity and the ability to only interact with others when they choose are important.”

Paul also explained that some people might feel ill-equipped to support a fellow employee with autism – perhaps the app could provide resources for this.

With just five days to turn around this first prototype there’s still plenty of work to be done on BuddyConnect. But after our initial feedback sessions we’re confident we’re on the right track.

Nodes Client Service Director Christian Nielsen believes that “BuddyConnect can make a significant difference, because it is made to facilitate the creation of a natural relationship between likeminded individuals. According to our findings that’s all people need. A trusting relationship to another human being. Nothing more, nothing less.”

Ultimately, we hope initiatives like this and the wider work of Fujitsu’s SEED network will continue to make our workplace feel welcoming to all. We hope to set an example to others in doing so.

Our philosophy of co-creation is rooted in the idea that diversity of thought and approach is what’s needed for a prosperous future.

It’s our responsibility, then, to ensure our workplaces offer the right environment for diverse teams to thrive.

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