How accommodating workers with autism benefits employers—and everyone else

July 15, 2019

How accommodating workers with autism benefits employers—and everyone else
Providing workers who have autism with a quiet workspace and detailed instructions on tasks are among several accommodation strategies for employers. Credit: Crew/Unsplash

Companies seek a competitive edge by hiring talented people, yet many capable workers are overlooked because they have autism.

So why is it happening? Largely because autism is poorly understood and managers are ill-informed about how to accommodate affected workers.

Fortunately, recent research has provided us with many strategies to make workplaces more inclusive.

The diverse ways autism presents

Autism is a developmental disorder that people are born with. It is a spectrum disorder since it encompasses a wide range of symptoms and abilities. Each individual with autism is unique, and the way their condition presents itself varies.

Common symptoms include trouble "reading" social/emotional cues and difficulties with conventional language and . Some autistic people are non-verbal and use assistive technologies, making it important to remember that being non-verbal does not mean being incapable.

Another common symptom is repetitive thoughts or behaviors, including "stimming." Stimming may include hand flapping, rocking, etc. It's a reaction to being overwhelmed by a situation or by everyday stimuli.

Stimming helps people cope by focusing intensely on a specific sensation or behavior. People who stim report that they find it embarrassing but critical in order to calm themselves. As such, the lack of social acceptability of stimming can be a greater workplace problem than the activity itself.

Lack of empathy is frequently cited as an autistic trait. This characterization is disputed by the autism community and by evidence from psychologists.

Both suggest that some people with autism may suffer from excessive levels of empathy that overwhelm, but the way they express it is not well-recognized. Other traits associated with autism include the ability to focus intensively, persistence and high detail orientation.

Unspoken social etiquette can be a mystery

Many barriers experienced by workers with autism relate to social/communication difficulties and are affected by how they behave but also how others perceive them.

For example, people with autism are often accused of lacking in emotion. They do experience emotions, but tend to express them in ways that are not readily recognized. Socially, they may dominate conversations while focusing on narrow interests, have difficulty understanding variations in tone and reading body language and facial expressions, and they may take things inappropriately literally.

Many find eye contact overwhelming, leading to avoidance that is mistaken for being anti-social.

Norms can be difficult for people with autism to perceive. The unspoken social etiquette that everyone is expected to instinctively know may be a mystery, negatively impacting job performance when expectations are not clearly communicated.

Change can also be anxiety-inducing and lead to challenging behaviors if it happens unexpectedly. Heightened sensitivity to stimuli such as smells and sounds can lead to reactions that seem extreme. A lack of understanding of those reactions often leads to those with autism being labeled "difficult," and those labels create additional problems.

Accommodation strategies for employers

Many people with autism are able to focus intensively. If a topic interests them, they will spent large amounts of time developing expertise. Attention to detail, combined with heightened pattern recognition skills, are also common traits, leading many autistic people to become technical experts in their fields.

Some people with autism enjoy repetitive routines and can tolerate work that others find monotonous. Others are creative, able to visualize solutions to complex problems and develop unique insights. People with autism are also known for being forthright and are less likely to engage in toxic political behaviors.

There are many accommodation strategies workplaces can adopt for employees with autism. Here are some:

1. Reduce workplace stimuli

There are many ways to reduce unnecessary stimuli at work. I'm providing some examples but this should not be considered an exhaustive list. Solutions are limited only by one's creativity.

Physical blocking of work spaces can reduce distractions. Examples include providing private offices or cubicles that face a corner. Whenever possible, LEDs should replace noisy and intense fluorescent lights. Noise-cancelling headphones can also be used, although some people will not be able to tolerate the sensation.

Similarly, uniforms can be a problem if the fabric is itchy, collars are tight or there are tags that irritate. Wardrobe flexibility may be needed.

Moving beyond the physical, minimizing interruptions can also help. You could encourage the use of e-mail instead of phone calls and ask people to use meeting rooms instead of hallways for conversations lasting more than a couple of minutes. Co-workers could be asked to schedule chats instead of "popping in."

Regardless of your efforts, workplaces may still overwhelm sometimes. A "quiet room can be very beneficial." They are darkened rooms in a low-traffic places containing comfortable furniture and a minimum of other sources of stimulation. Spending time in a quiet room helps people with autism cope when overwhelmed, and non-autistic workers also report psychological benefits from quiet spaces.

2. Create a culture of clear communication

The communication and social difficulties experienced by people with autism are heavily intertwined. And so resolving communication issues will also help with social difficulties.

First, make unspoken norms explicit. Managers should be trained to provide detailed instructions in writing and avoid ambiguity in task assignments. Things that may seem obvious, such as how to prioritize assignments, should be explicitly explained.

Performance criteria should be clearly outlined and employees should be capable of monitoring their progress. It is worth noting that these steps help all workers, and represent documented best workplace practices.

Workers with autism report that their ability to communicate is increased when they are able to see questions in advance, when people avoid jumping between multiple topics and when their intent is not judged by eye contact or having the "right" facial expression.

3. Offer social and emotional coaching

Even with the supports already outlined, workers with autism may find the social and emotional behaviors of others mystifying. A coach can be helpful. That mentor could be a trained co-worker or an outside expert. Co-workers may also benefit from receiving information to increase understanding.

These are all simple steps that can help employers leverage the large group of under-utilized workers with autism in the labor pool.

Many of these accommodations could help all workers and represent good business practice. Accommodating autism, therefore, has the potential to make our workplaces more just and productive for all.

Success Magazine – A Moment with Russell Lehmann

Success Magazine Russell Lehmann 2019 www.russell-lehmann.com

If it is one thing all of humankind has in common, it’s that we all struggle. Within this profound commonality of the human race lies the key to personal growth and development.

Diagnosed with autism at 12, I have been admitted to 3 different psychiatric wards at the ages of 11, 21 and 25. I dropped out of public school in the 5th grade and subsequently became somewhat of societal recluse for the next decade. I have battled incapacitating OCD, tumultuous panic attacks, severe depressive episodes and almost lost my life to anorexia.

Now? I am 28 and an award-winning and internationally recognized motivational speaker, author, poet and advocate. My story is archived in the Library of Congress.

Through my strife I have learned to run towards, and not away, from my obstacles. To not turn my back on my challenges, but rather to stare back at them. To kiss the feet of adversity, for it has given me the opportunity to learn my most cherished lessons and gain my greatest insights.

I am strong because I have been weak. I’m fearless because I’ve been afraid and I succeed because I have failed.

A large portion of life’s struggles are unfortunately exacerbated by societal conditions such as judgement, expectations, prejudices and biases, comparisons, peer pressure, so on and so forth. To protect ourselves from this, each of us has a mask we wear in certain situations to protect the fragility of our true selves.

It is behind our masks where we find the true essence of life and where we can experience the totality of what it means to be human. What Novalis stated centuries ago turns out to be true: “The path of mystery leads inward”.

I used to shun my trials and tribulations. Now, however, I embrace them with open arms. I have found my success through my struggle. You can, too.