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Autism in the Workplace

by Sally Willbanks
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Autism in the Workplace

Yesterday I asked another question to the autistics on Instagram.  I like asking questions this way, as I get honest answers from #actual autistics, and this is extremely helpful.  So, the question I posed is this:

What are some ways to make the workplace more accommodating?

Here are some of the answers:

 

“Have a really organized, shared method of planning (helps the whole staff too…)”

“Sensory friendly environment, getting to work by yourself/with one person, not a full team”

“Not having hot desking”

“Less harsh lighting”

“Allowing us to wear headphones”

“Stop forcing us to socialize and start seeing their dedication to do good work”

“Get rid of fluorescent lights, and learn that idiosyncrasies are not weird or taboo”

“Micro breaks”

 

Autism in the workplace is a massive topic, but I’ll try to be brief. 

Only 16% of autistic people are employed full time.  Over the next decade, there will be 500,000 autistic people aging out of the support system they have relied upon, and into adulthood.  Autistic people who aren’t employed but would like to be are in the majority, but there are many barriers.  There are also very good reasons to hire autists.

Why hire autistic people?  Studies by Harvard and BIMA show that having a neurodiverse workplace can have huge benefits for a business.  Autistic people think in different ways to allistic people.  They usually have excellent rote memory, are extremely focused, and innovative.  They usually thrive on rules and routines, have great attention to detail, and are very honest and loyal. Autistics can be very reliable employees.  A neurodiverse workplace is more cutting edge, as neurodivergent people are often game-changers.

The first barrier autistic people face in finding employment is the job description.  Many job descriptions say they are looking for ‘team players’ and people with ‘great communication skills’.  This automatically discourages the autistic job seeker.  The interview process itself is the next challenge, with general questions often being quite difficult for the literal-thinking autist to answer.  And do they disclose or not disclose?

If an autistic person actually makes it through the difficult interview process and lands the job, keeping the job is the next massive hurdle.  As you can tell by the answers the Instagram autists gave me, the on-the-job challenges are many.  The socializing aspect of a workplace is extremely difficult for a person on the spectrum.  They may need their break time as a time to regroup rather than socialize.  The sensory overload that comes from work environments can also be very overwhelming.  Group meetings without a written agenda can be a real struggle, as can be any interaction where the communication is not clear.  Many of these challenges are easily fixable if the employer takes the time to understand the autist’s needs.  Here are some suggestions to make the workplace more accessible for autistic people:

 

  • Scrap the CV and interview process, and hire based on competency assessments and trial runs.
  • Talk to the autistic person and find out exactly what they need. Every autist is different and will have different needs.
  • Find a quiet workspace for the autistic person, without fluorescent lighting.
  • Give autistic people time to write down instructions, even simple ones, as some autists have receptive language difficulties.
  • Always have a written agenda for meetings.
  • Be very clear and concise with written job expectations.
  • Get all managers trained in inclusion, and make the culture of inclusion mandatory in the workplace.
  • Provide a routine for the autistic person.
  • Offer flexible hours or work-from-home days.
  • Provide the autistic person with a workplace mentor who can give feedback and reassurance.
  • Regularly review the autist’s performance and provide direct but sensitive feedback.
  • Ensure the workplace is well-structured.
  • Do not judge the autistic person by their lack of workplace socialization and instead focus on their ability to do a great job.

 

As you can see, the above changes are easy to implement, and would actually benefit the entire workplace, both neurotypicals and neurodivergents alike.  Autistic people deserve the right to job satisfaction.  It has been shown that having an accepting workplace environment lessens the needs of autistic people, helping them to be more self-confident.  Autistic people are innovative problem solvers and have low error rates in work, which is a huge benefit to any workplace.  The low employment rate of the autistic population has to change.  It will help the autistic community, as well as bring many benefits to the workforce at large.

by Sally Willbanks

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