How to Create an Autism-Friendly Workplace

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Autism (formally known as autism spectrum disorder) is a clinically diagnosed condition mainly characterised by deficits in social communication, although there are other symptoms. This may manifest itself in poor ability to maintain eye contact; difficulty inferring emotions or ambiguous communication or reduced sharing of interests (the list is illustrative and not exhaustive). Employment, being a social domain, posits huge challenges for those on the spectrum. What can we do to help?

What is an Autism-Friendly Workplace?

An autism-friendly workplace, in its essence, is one that understands the unique difficulties faced by autistic individuals in the workplace and caters to them. A company or institution can cater for these individuals through mitigating the negative effectives of any stressors autistic people are facing or eradicating the stressors altogether where possible. Mitigation need not be costly; I have attempted to provide solutions that are low cost to no-cost.

How Can you Create an Autism-Friendly Workplace?

The most effective strategy to accomplish this workplace is to do the groundwork: speak to autistic employees or co-workers and attempt to understand what directly affects their well-being at work. In doing so, it gives you an opportunity to intimately empathise with their troubles which will incentivize you to act. Nonetheless, below is an illustrative, not exhaustive list of actionable steps that can be taken to create this type of workplace.

Create an Inclusive Interview Process

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There are various ways in which this can be achieved ranging from easy to those relatively harder. One actionable step an interviewer can take is to be very precise when asking any questions; inference can be a difficult task for those with the condition. In addition, reducing waiting times, where possible, is an extremely effective method as susceptibility to anxiety is a common trait in the condition. Asking potential candidates or prompting them to voice any adjustments they feel will be of benefit to them is a technique I see commonly employed in the job market.

Reduce Sensory Input Where Possible

Autism is a spectrum, therefore not every autistic person is alike. Some are hypersensitive to sensory input. For example, they may experience peak distress at hearing high-pitch or loud noises; they may experience distress smelling pungent foods or they may find the rough material of their seat uncomfortable. Simple things such as placing their workstation away from any stressors are feasible resolutions. Regarding rough seating materials, enabling employees to bring in their own blanket to cover their chair is a low-cost alternative. If you have the wherewithal, I can’t imagine employees declining comfortable new chairs to work from either. Allowing employees to wear sunglasses could help those who suffer with light-sensitivity too!

Provide a Quiet Space Within the Office

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As gleaned above sensory overload can be an acutely distressing problem for those on the spectrum, audio-sensitivity is no different. Providing a quiet area would make a world of difference; whenever sounds exceed a threshold one can enter a quiet place and relax. Relieving any pressures, they may have experienced. Personally, I know of those on the spectrum who are completely unable to work in loud conditions: the sounds make it impossible to focus. If, due to financial constraints, a quiet space isn’t feasible, simply things such as providing someone with noise-cancelling headphones are effective. In addition to this, situating employees in the quietest part of the office is also a viable no-cost alternative.

Avoid Spontaneous Meetings

Although the dictates of business are unpredictable and may sometimes require spontaneous meetings, they can be very anxiety-inducing. Having a rigid adherence to routine is listed as part of the DSM-5 criteria for autism, and so many on the spectrum find spontaneity to be the bane of their lives. Now, consider that you don’t like surprises and socialising makes you somewhat anxious… a spontaneous meeting is going to be your worst nightmare- where possible they should be avoided. Alternatively, you could try to reduce the number of spontaneous meetings by only having ones that are absolutely essential. If the meeting is essential, consider whether the person in question’s presence is essential. If a message needs to be voiced to employees, consider whether a PowerPoint presentation could offer the same effectiveness. Speaking to someone face-to-face is another viable alternative which at least allows you to relieve some of the social pressure that would otherwise be present in a larger group.

Have a Buddy or Line-Management System in Place

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In my humble opinion, this protocol is going to give you by far the best results in engendering a workplace that is autism friendly. Having an appointed superior in the company to listen to your needs and gain an intimate understanding enables you to be cognizant of any difficulties present. Furthermore, knowing that should any problems arise an autistic person has an appointed individual to confide in provides relief in and of itself. It is an imperative that the appointed staff member needs to be open and extremely understanding otherwise their presence is going to be an otiose tick-boxing exercise.

Don’t Make Social Events Mandatory

Social settings pose a myriad of difficulties. If the event doesn’t require each and every staff member’s presence, consider making the event optional for those on the spectrum. In fact, I’d advocate making social events optional for staff as a whole; you don’t need to be diagnosed with autism to experience discomfort socially. A case could be put forward, and quite successfully, that social events improve social bonds within the workplace. In fact, I agree. Nonetheless, we shouldn’t make attendance obligatory where possible. I’m sure some polite nudging would be effective.

Create a Culture of Clear Communication

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Ambiguous communication where the recipient is expected to infer specific details can be difficult for those on the spectrum. Ensure when communicating that you are being as specific as you possibly can be. I appreciate this can be an overwhelming task. In such a case, opt for going up to an employee privately to ascertain whether they have correctly interpreted you. Also, ensuring that they’re comfortable coming to you to resolve any ambiguities is another alternative that doesn’t require much energy at all.

From a human perspective ensuring everyone feels welcome in the workplace is an imperative if we are to call ourselves empathetic employers. No one should feel as though they aren’t being catered to- within reason obviously. From a productivity perspective, the chances that employees in general are going to be optimally productive whilst they are unnecessarily uncomfortable is low. Erecting specific structures in place for comfortability increases the probability that your employees will be more productive.

Useful links

How to interview someone who is neurodivergent

Am I autistic quiz

How autism affects communication

How to create inclusive workspaces

Autism Workplace Needs Assessment

Blog Author

Nathan Brown