Creating an Autism-Friendly Environment in the Workplace
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, autism spectrum disorder is a developmental disability that can cause significant deficits in communication, social interaction, and behavior. The term spectrum means that every individual is different. They are more sensitive to sensory stimuli such as light, noise, and smells and have coping skills that are different from the norm.
These challenges vary according to the individual from gifted to severely impaired. Neurodiversity, a general term for a range of differences in how people behave and their brain function, sometimes is sometimes used to replace the term autism.
The brains of autistic people are different from neurotypical individuals, however, enabling them to think outside the box. Many have other characteristics that make them excellent employees such as enjoying repetitive tasks, being intensely focused on their work, and being creative thinkers. Many appreciate having a job, are honest, and are loyal to their employers.
One example of the success of a person on the spectrum is Dr. Temple Grandin. She is a professor of animal science at Colorado State University, a consultant to the livestock industry, author of several books, and a famous autism advocate. She invented the "Hug Box" device to calm those on the autism spectrum and developed systems that provided more humane ways of handling and transporting livestock.
There are simple and inexpensive accommodations in the workplace that will help people with autism thrive and succeed.
The SAP Autism At Work Program
One example of a work program specifically for people on the spectrum is the Autism at Work program at SAP, a global software company. The Telegraph reports that SAP decided to recruit people with autism in 2013 to become more creative in providing better services and solutions. The US branch of the company also offers high-school mentorships and internships to train potential candidates in work skills and etiquette over a six-month period.
The SAP Autism at work program sets up in teams with:
- A manager who has had autism awareness training
- A "buddy" who educates autistic people on the requirements of their positions
- An Autism at Work mentor who helps the employees to develop social and networking skills
- An external life and job skills coach who specializes in disability employment and integration who is a resource for the autistic employee and the team and can also support the worker outside the workplace
Many companies have approached SAP for advice on how to implement similar programs in their work environments.
Tips for Creating an Autism-Friendly Environment
Here some tips to help employees with autism be more comfortable and function well in the workplace.
Educate co-workers and managers about autism
Workers and supervisors should see people with disabilities as capable equals and not as objects of pity. Unfortunately, autistic people often face barriers such as ignorance, stigma, and discrimination. Characteristics such as stimming (repetitive movements and behaviors to cope with anxiety) or a lack of eye contact may bother other workers who do not understand them.
Local autism-related organizations may be able to provide support and training. Some specialize in assisting people with autism in finding employment and may have job-related programs available. NGOs in some countries offer free services, help in exploring options, or information on government funding options to employers planning to hire disabled jobseekers.
Provide alternate recruitment and training methods
A study at La Trobe University found that job applicants benefited from recruitment methods that are more geared to their unique characteristics. Shortlisted candidates attended a half-day workshop and underwent a paid three-week training and assessment program. This practice enabled participants to learn more about the organization and the job requirements.
The candidates were able to show their skills to their potential supervisors rather than talk about them in a traditional job interview. Managers and supervisors increased their knowledge about autism and the individuals and were able to adapt their positions to their unique needs. Accommodations needed for these employees were often minimal.
Create a Sensory-Friendly Environment
There are several ways that employers can reduce sensory stimulation in the workplace such as managing light levels, smells, and noise levels. According to Saint Joseph's University, fluorescent lights can bother people with sensory challenges. Instead, they should have access to natural light or the ability to turn light levels down with a dimmer switch.
Autistic people are more sensitive to noise and may become distracted. Employees on the spectrum should be seated away from crowded areas. Rooms designated as quiet rooms where employees can work, take a break, or take a phone call are also helpful.
Autistic people are sensitive to harsh smells from sources such as cleaning products or office supplies. These items should be kept on a supply closet or in an open area away from their work stations.
People with autism require clear communication and detailed feedback. They may need time to process input before responding to questions or requests. Work information should be presented in a positive way rather than as "do not" rules. Job descriptions, checklists, color-coded systems, and additional signage can also help provide needed information.
Accept communication and other differences
Many people with autism learn and react to things differently. Some common behaviors are:
- Having difficulties relating to other people
- Do not show interest in people
- Do not point at things to show interest or look at objects when other people point at them
- Avoid eye contact
- Struggle to express their needs
- Have trouble relating to how other people feel
- May use fidgeting or repetitive behaviors such as rocking back and forth to soothe their anxiety
Be flexible when the person makes requests
The people with autism may ask for accommodations such as a seating location or prefer to wear specific types of clothing at work. Some may prefer instructions in writing. These things help them to feel comfortable while dealing with social situations and should be accepted by co-workers and managers. They also prefer set routines, repetitive behaviors, and may not want to make changes such as interrupting a project to take on a new task.
Provide support personnel
People with autism benefit from support from managers and co-workers who have had autism awareness training. Mentors and life coaches are also helpful. Autism-related consultants, organizations, and specialized employment agencies can also offer assistance.
Each person with autism has challenges that are unique to them, but their deficits can be managed or overcome. Employees with autism can make valuable contributions to their workplaces because they have unique strengths and perspectives on the world.
What is Autism Spectrum Disorder?, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Data & Statistics on Autism Spectrum Disorder, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Supporting Individuals With Autism in the Workplace, Saint Joseph's University
Workforce success for autistic employees, La Trobe University
How companies are embracing autistic employees, World Economic Forum
Autism at work: why it works for SAP, Telegraph (UK), Siân Phillips