Office Tips

How to Create an Autism Friendly Work Environment [Infographic]

Adults with autism often struggle to get into the workplace, and not just because of their symptoms. Often the greatest roadblock they face is employer bias and inaccessible workplaces. While the push for more work from home positions can help, not every position can be done from home, and not everyone with autism actually wants to work from home. When you make a more inclusive workplace, you open your company up to new ideas, great talent, and most importantly, you help bring independence and career growth to an entire population of people who are often unfairly excluded from the workforce. Check out these tips on how to create an autism friendly work environment so you can help both your company and the neurodivergent community. 

A Quick Overview of Autism in Adults

You may think you know what autism looks like, whether you know someone who has it or from television. Maybe the movie “Rain Man” comes to mind, or you think of Sheldon from the Big Bang Theory (even though he’s not actually autistic.) However, movies and television have a very limited depiction of adults with autism, often only depicting white male savants. The truth is that autism is a spectrum (hence the name autism spectrum disorder) that comes with a wide variety of symptoms that can affect any demographic regardless of gender, ethnicity, or socioeconomic background. 

Some common symptoms can (but don’t always) include anxiety, depression, ADHD, speech disorders, sensory processing disorders, digestion issues, lack of coordination, obesity, migraines, and/or many others. While some conditions associated with autism can make employment difficult, a large number of autistic adults are perfectly capable of holding successful careers but are restricted by employer bias and unnecessarily harsh workplace environments. Just a few minor workplace accommodations for autism can overcome this, like relaxing social expectations and dress codes or creating a calm space for de-stressing. 

A few examples of autistic celebrities with formal autism diagnoses include Temple Grandin, Dan Aykroyd, Susan Boyle, New York assemblywoman Yuh-Line Niou, and Adam Young (Owl City). Many other celebrities are suspected to have autism but were never formally diagnosed, including Tim Burton, Woody Allen, and Bill Gates. Historical figures suspected of having autism also include Mozart, Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein, Emily Dickenson, and more. While you shouldn’t expect every autistic person to be a genius or celebrity in the making, adults with autism have a lot of talent to contribute to any workplace that you could be missing out on. 

How to be Inclusive When Interviewing

While many adults with autism are able to mask their symptoms and “act normal,” just as many, if not more autistic adults are unable to disguise their differences during interviews and other social interactions. This is especially true for those who suffer from social anxiety, which can exaggerate their quirks in a way that many employers see as red flags. For example, eye contact feels uncomfortable and aggressive to many with autism, but hiring managers often won’t even consider a candidate that won’t maintain good eye contact throughout an interview. 

If you want to avoid losing out on great employees, you need to make sure that you and your hiring managers have a more neuro-diverse approach to interviewing. To start, be aware that awkward and anxious behavior is normal during stressful events like interviews and does not necessarily reflect someone’s ability to do a job. In fact, you can often mitigate the stress and awkwardness by allowing virtual interviews.  

If you have concerns, call up their references to find out what their actual workplace behavior is like. Don’t rely on eye contact and handshakes to tell you anything about a person, because despite what the hiring manuals tell you, they tell you very little about a person and their ability to work. 

Adults with autism can also have a late start getting into the workforce, but that doesn’t mean they lack prior experience. Many autistic adults lead rich internal lives that involving self-taught projects and hobbies, and even spend time volunteering. Anything they have accomplished should be considered prior experience and considered as part of an application.  

Finally, check your biases. Many employers see any sort of accommodation as an unnecessary hassle, when really most workplace accommodations for autism are very little trouble and well worth the talent you gain. Also, don’t assume that everyone needs major accommodations. Many autistic adults in the workforce already have coping mechanisms that work well for them, and all they need from their employer is understanding and respect. 

Common Environmental Stressors to Avoid

One of the more common symptoms of autism is sensory processing disorders. Basically, that sounds will feel louder, light feels brighter, smells are smellier, etc. While many of the things on this list may not bother you, it could easily give migraines to someone with autism. Here are some common stressors and the autism accommodations at work you can use.   

  • Harsh and unnatural lighting: Reduce the headache of florescent lights with light covers that distribute your lighting more naturally.
  • Loud and crowded work areas: Please, please forget this whole open office nonsense. Studies say it’s bad for everyone’s productivity, and it’s especially awful for adults with autism.
  • Lack of privacy at workstations: Again, open office layouts are the worst, and nobody wants to have to worry about social anxiety while trying to focus on their work.
  • Strong smells, including air fresheners: Lots of people are sensitive to smells, even good ones, and they can cause migraines and unnecessary distraction. Ventilate your workspaces well and use scentless air fresheners and cleaners.
  • Unnecessarily strict dress codes: Sensory processing disorders make pencil skirts or stiff shoes a nightmare, and most dress codes can easily be adapted to be more comfortable while staying professional.

Common Mistakes When Working With Autistic Adults

Even well-meaning employers can make critical mistakes when working with their autistic employees, and most of it stems from unconscious bias. People who don’t work with neurodiversity regularly can become rigid in what they see as normal and abnormal behavior. When employers are unaware of this internal bias, they often are excessively strict or harsh with rules that restrict autistic adults. For example, you may get upset when employees step out of the office to handle feelings of anxiety, believing they are acting lazy, and require them to ask permission every time, when allowing them to manage themselves will result in greater productivity and reduced overall anxiety. 

On the other hand, those who are aware of the struggles that can come with autism can overcorrect and develop a sort of “doting parent” mentality, infantilizing employees in a way that hurts their career growth and feelings of respect in the workplace. Employers who do this are more likely to discuss private information with other employees to help them “be more prepared” or push them to take part time roles out of concern for their mental health, despite what the employee can actually handle. Most autism accommodations at work should be implemented on a case-by-case basis, not forced upon employees based on what you think they need. 

The best thing to do is to treat all of your employees, autistic or otherwise, as individuals with their own unique challenges. Every human has areas where they struggle and areas where they excel, and adapting work conditions according to individual needs will help all of your employees feel more comfortable and be more productive in the workplace. Some steps that can benefit all sorts of neurodivergent employees include creating a quiet, private place to go when feeling anxious or overwhelmed (after all, you don’t need a disorder to feel that way sometimes) and encourage open communication with your employees regarding anything they need to make the workplace more comfortable. 

Reducing Stress with Good Management

While it’s not their intention, many employers and managers end up causing more stress than necessary because of their management practices. Here are a few ways you can avoid major management mistakes that cause problems for autistic and other employees. 

  • Schedule meetings well in advance: Last minute schedule changes can throw off an entire day for anyone, and most people with autism prefer a predictable work schedule and get stressed when they regularly have last-minute changes.
  • Don’t require overtime, especially unexpectedly: Again, last minute schedule changes are stressful, and requiring someone to stay late is rude and often not even necessary if you schedule things properly beforehand.
  • Don’t make social events mandatory: This often gets done in the name of “company culture” but not everyone likes social events. This is also rude to anyone with children, pets, or other responsibilities outside of work.
  • Encourage regular breaks: This is healthy for everyone and reduces stress. With regular breaks, the time spent working becomes more productive. This also helps prevent burnout in all of your employees.
  • Be transparent about expectations: If there’s something non-negotiable you need as part of the job, tell your employees. Put it in the job description, make it known during meetings, just don’t expect your employees to read between the lines to figure it out. Autistic adults struggle with vague instructions and nobody likes passive-aggressive management.
  • Ask how they prefer to ask for help (in-person or email): Not everyone feels up to going into your office to ask questions. Ask your employees directly what their preferred method is to ask for help. Not only does this help them feel more comfortable approaching you, it also lets them know that you expect them to speak up when they need help.

Don’t wait until you have an autistic employee to learn more about neurodivergence. Just as you wouldn’t want to exclude a talented person in a wheelchair or someone with hearing loss, you don’t want to lose out on exceptional employees just because they think or behave differently than others. As you take the time to learn how to create an autism friendly environment, learn how to be inclusive to all sorts of differently-abled people and what roadblocks are keeping them out of your workplace. 

Want to learn more? Check out these great resources for employers who want to learn more about autism and helping autistic employees:  

Katie Yelisetti

From marketing tips to product recommendations, I’m here to help small businesses be their best.

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