Supporting Employees with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) 

Two people, seemingly co-workers in a flower shop, joyfully looking at each other and laughing, with flowers in their hands.

Supporting Employees with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) 

Autism is one example of the diverse spectrum of human cognition. In today’s rapidly evolving professional landscape, fostering an environment that supports autistic employees is a strategic advantage. By embracing autistic employees’ neurodiverse thinking, organizations tap into a wealth of potential, unlocking creativity, problem-solving prowess, and innovative thinking. In this post, we explore ways to create an inclusive and supportive atmosphere for autistic employees, ensuring that every individual can thrive and contribute meaningfully to the workplace.

What is autism spectrum disorder?

Autism, or Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), is a distinctive way of experiencing the world that influences how individuals navigate their surroundings. It encompasses a spectrum of strengths and differences in social interaction, communication abilities, and behaviours. Each person’s experience with autism is unique. The term “spectrum” underscores this variety, recognizing that while certain commonalities exist, the degree and nature of these characteristics can vary widely among autistic individuals.

How can I promote a more inclusive workplace?

1. Communication Considerations
Creating an inclusive workplace involves understanding and addressing communication challenges faced by autistic employees. These challenges include differences in social interactions, interpreting nonverbal cues, and grasping language nuances. To foster better communication, consider:

  • Using plain language
    Autistic employees may experience challenges grasping subtle language nuances like sarcasm. Using plain language that is precise and clear prevents misunderstandings and ensures that instructions and information are clearly understood.

    For example, let’s imagine if the following instructions were delivered sarcastically: “Take all the time you need in the world; it’s not like we need the task desperately done by Thursday or anything.” Instead, to convey the urgency of the task and avoid confusion, use straightforward language like: “The deadline for this task is time-sensitive, and meeting the Thursday deadline is crucial.”

  • Implementing structured communication formats and routines
    Estimates of the prevalence of anxiety in autistic adults reach as high as 70%.Often, autistic employees may experience heightened anxiety when changes in routine or unpredictable events occur.Structured communication formats and routines reduce anxiety by providing a predictable and stable environment.

    Some suggestions include: provide meeting agendas, maintain consistent meeting structures, establish standardized email formats, and minimize environmental change. 

    Take Sarah, for example, an autistic employee, that experiences heightened anxiety in the workplace due to uncertainties. To better support Sarah, you could consider establishing a consistent meeting structure. For example, always start with a brief overview, followed by individual updates, and conclude with a Q&A session. This routine can help Sarah navigate the social dynamics of the meeting more comfortably.

  • Provide tangible references
    Autistic employees may find it challenging to process abstract or vague information. Providing tangible references helps with information retention and comprehension, reducing the confusion.

    For example, instead of saying, “We need to increase efficiency,” provide specific, tangible references like, “To enhance efficiency, complete each task within the allocated time, as outlined in the project timeline.” Using concrete examples and references makes the information more accessible and understandable.

  • Provide adequate processing time
    Autistic persons may experience delayed processing speeds. Recognizing these differences is essential in promoting inclusive communication.

    Some suggestions include: providing adequate processing time in conversations, discussions, and decision-making processes. For example, integrate check-ins.Simple and supportive check-ins, such as asking, “Does anyone/do you have any questions?” or “I know that was a lot of information, so please take a few minutes to digest,” in both group and individual meetings create a space where individuals feel encouraged to process information at their own pace.

2. Sensory Considerations

As much as 95% of autistic individuals grapple with sensory processing challenges, encompassing sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste. This can significantly impact their experience in the workplace, necessitating attention to specific sensory needs. Here are some examples of workplace accommodations that may better support sensory needs:

  • Lighting
    o Natural lighting: Autistic persons typically prefer natural lighting as opposed to artificial as it is less stimulating. To accommodate this, workplaces can offer options that maximize access to natural light like seating beside windows.

    o  Adjustable lighting: Autistic persons may exhibit varying tolerances for artificial lighting, which can differ significantly between non-autistic and autistic colleagues. Providing adjustable lighting options, such as desk lamps with variable brightness settings (for example like this lamp on Amazon: Dimmable Lighting Fixture, enables autistic employees the ability to personalize lighting to suit their preferences and sensitivities. 

    o Reduce glares: Strategic placement of light sources to reduce glares can contribute to a visually comfortable workspace for autistic employees as they may be sensitive to intense lighting. Ways to reduce glare include adjusting light fixture angles, using light diffusers or filters (for example, this glare and blue light computer screen filter on Amazon: Computer Screen Filter or employing task lighting rather than overhead lighting).

  • Noise
    o Reduce noise: Consider that up to 70% of autistic people experience a decreased tolerance for noise in comparison to a whoppingly low 17% in the general population. Explore placing desks in quieter areas of the office, such as near colleagues who prefer working in quiet environments or away from high-traffic zones like meeting rooms and washrooms. This arrangement can help mitigate ambient noise, providing a more comfortable and focused work setting.

    o Block noise: Provide cubicle partitions constructed from sound-absorbing materials or noise-cancelling headphones to block distracting sounds. These measures offer autistic employees and those with noise sensitivities the option to control their exposure to ambient noise, enhancing their ability to concentrate and maintain productivity.

    o Flexible hours: Offer flexible work hours which allow employees to choose times when the office is less crowded and noisy, enabling them to work during periods that optimize their focus and comfort levels.

3. Workplace Culture Considerations

Examining the broader aspect of workplace culture, fostering understanding and support is paramount for the success of all employees. By actively promoting a culture of understanding, workplaces enhance the experience of all employees, including neurodiverse employees, so that all can thrive, collaborate, and contribute their strengths to the organization. To foster understanding consider:

  • Encouraging open communication: Create an environment where employees feel comfortable discussing their unique needs and preferences. Providing resources, such as guides and workshops, equips coworkers with effective communication strategies and tips for creating an inclusive environment. Explore the training sessions available through INNoVA here, INNoVA Disability Confidence Training.

  • Celebrate diversity: Celebrating diversity, including neurodiversity, within the organization is more than a symbolic gesture. Recognizing and highlighting the strengths and unique perspectives that all employees, including those on the autism spectrum, bring to the workplace contribute to a positive and supportive culture. 

  • Implement flexible work policies: For example, incorporate alternative communication methods, such as written instructions or preferred digital platforms, to enhance clarity and understanding. Additionally, consider implementing flexible work hour scheduling that accommodates individual preferences and peak productivity times. Remote work options, where feasible, may also help provide a conducive environment for focused work. Critical to this approach is providing sensitivity training for leadership. This ensures that managers are well-equipped to understand and support the unique needs of all employees, including autistic employees, effectively. Tailored training for sensitivity towards autism can encompass strategies for clear communication, establishing environments that minimize sensory challenges, and cultivating a workplace culture that appreciates and values neurodiversity.

  • Create a social support system: Creating social support systems promote workplace inclusion. Establishing a mentorship system can help autistic employees better integrate into the social fabric of the workplace. By providing a support structure that enhances both personal and professional aspects of their work life, employers can drastically improve the well-being of autistic employees. Learn more about INNoVA’s Disabilities Mentoring Experiences, INNoVA Disabilities Mentoring Experiences.

This post explored comprehensive strategies to address communication challenges, sensory considerations, and workplace culture to better support autistic employees. Ultimately, these efforts go beyond meeting specific needs; they contribute to a workplace that values diversity, prioritizes well-being, and ensures the success of every employee.

INNoVA OT Placement Student
Tammy Vo

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