Managing volunteers with autism spectrum disorders

Sophie Cummings, 31.01.2013
Benefits for volunteers and museums
"If you could finish filling in those catalogue cards, pop them next door and then you can go when you are ready..."

An awful lot of communication relies on an implied meaning, subtle emphasis and body language. Even when we give instructions, they can be vague or confusing – particularly for individuals with autism spectrum disorders (ASD).

I have managed a number of volunteers with ASD, and it hasn't always been easy.

Giving an instruction like the one above left the volunteer confused about what they were doing, where to put the cards and when to finish for the day. What seemed obvious to me was unclear and baffling to my volunteer.

When I started managing volunteers with ASD, I had great intentions but struggled as I didn't really understand the condition.

After several crossed wires, I searched the internet in search of information and advice. How could I communicate better? What could I ask the volunteer about their condition? Could I tell other members of the team?

I found the Autism UK website an excellent resource. It outlines what ASD is, and how it covers a range of conditions including autism and Asperger's syndrome. It explained the many challenges facing those with ASD entering the workplace. It also offered training for volunteer managers. I signed up immediately.

The training brought together volunteer managers from charities across the south west. The trainer did a great job at putting us at ease, challenging misconceptions and giving us new skills.

Since then, I have managed other volunteers with ASD, and now feel more confident doing so. Communication is the key. I'm less vague when giving instructions and more specific about timings, locations, and amounts.

I make more effort to treat each volunteer as an individual, with their own motivations and strengths. And I outline expectations around start and end times, dress codes and breaks.

The volunteers have contributed a great deal to the museum, and demonstrated accuracy, diligence and a strong work ethic. In return, I hope I have become more understanding and more supportive.

It can still be challenging to manage volunteers with ASD, but it is also extremely rewarding.

Top tips when managing volunteers with ASD

  • Be supportive and understanding. Individuals with ASD often struggle to find employment and may need additional encouragement to help build their self-esteem.
  • Don't assume! Every individual is different. The better you understand your volunteer, the better you can involve them in the museum.
  • Be clear. Individuals with ASD may struggle with indirect or implied messages. Give instructions clearly and precisely and reinforce them with written task sheets.
  • Be clear about social rules in your workplace such as start times, dress codes, phone usage and breaks. Again, don't rely on unspoken expectations.
  • Be aware of team relationships. Some individuals with ASD may be looking to work closely with others and to build on their social skills. Others may want an opportunity to work alone.

Sophie Cummings is the collections manager at Swindon Borough Council.


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Patrick Steel
MA Member
Website Editor, Museums Association
18.02.2013, 14:56
This US website looks like another useful resource: