Once considered a rare disability, the Centers for Disease Control now documents the prevalence of Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) at 1 in 54. This means businesses, corporations, organizations, and universities will likely employ or interact with someone on the autism spectrum. This article focuses on defining some common characteristics of those on the autism spectrum, suggesting questions to ask, and identifying modifications that may be helpful.
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a neurological disorder. This means that how the individual interacts and interprets the world may differ from how others typically respond. This is referred to as neurodiversity. Individuals may experience challenges in social communication and social interaction, including in making and maintaining friendships. Many also have a hard time understanding nonverbal cues, and so may misread situations. Some have an intellectual disability, while others are gifted. Many experience sensory challenges as well making it necessary to assess demands of the environment. Conversely, it is important to realize that many bring strengths to a work situation, including trustworthiness, strong memory, adherence to rules, attention to detail, diversity in thinking, systematic information processing ability and ability to focus for an extended period of time.
While those on the autism spectrum share common characteristics, how these characteristics are manifested differ greatly making it hard to make generalizations about support needs. Some will need accommodations to perform their job, and others will not. Your first step should always be to ask the person or their job advocate about support needs. Once accommodations are in place, meet with the employee to evaluate the effectiveness of the accommodations and to determine whether additional accommodations are needed. For more information about how to determine whether a person has a disability under the ADA, see How to Determine Whether a Person Has a Disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act (ADAAA).
- What specific work challenges or limitations is the employee experiencing?
- Are there specific tasks that are more or less problematic?
- What accommodations are needed and available to reduce or eliminate these problems?
- What are strengths of the employee that can be capitalized upon for this or other potential jobs?
- Is this a good job match for the person?
- Have colleagues or supervisory staff been provided with training about how the disability may impact the individual and recommendations for support?
Below are a few suggesions. Again, your best approach is to ask the person him or herself about specific accommodation needs.
• Many individuals struggle with job interviews. How they perform in this social situation with unknown potential employers will most likely not be a good indicator of their potential for success. Ask to see examples of their work, including portfolios, resumes, or even videos made by the employee.
• Once employed, examine the physical environment to ensure that sensory needs are being met, including type of lighting (fluorescent lights are challenging for many), and strategies to filter noises (e.g., headsets, white noise machines). Check to make sure the chair is comfortable, and that excessive smells are not present. Natural lighting or special covers on fluorescents are helpful for some.
• Some individuals on the autism spectrum will need to take breaks throughout the day and may need to walk around. If breaks are needed, work with the individual/job coach on where and how the break can be taken. Others will benefit from having fidgets available at their desk or in meetings. Individuals should be able to provide these for themselves.
• If the individual is unable to perform a certain task or follow directions, consider how information is being delivered. Most on the autism spectrum do best with concrete directions that do not include sarcasm, innuendos, abstract ideas, or double meanings. Rote and direct information is best. And they may need information presented in smaller chunks or presented visually.
• Individuals on the autism spectrum are mainly visual learners. This means that written schedules, directions, checklists, and memos will work better then information presented verbally. Providing them with a written agenda prior to a meeting will also help prepare them to meet expectations.
• Some individuals will come with a job coach. Their job is to facilitate the person’s performance and not do the job for them. In some cases, the job coach may need to be the “interpreter” or advocate for the person with others.
• Develop a calendar with vacation or other interruptions in work clearly delineated. Preparing individuals for changes in their routine will help to minimize anxiety.
• Some individuals will require more than simply additional trainings. Some may need coaching at various times to ensure the job is truly understood. Performance may be impacted when the person is under stress or experiencing anxiety. Again, present information in a written/visual format as much as possible. This allows the person to rehearse when no one is present.
• Some individuals on the autism spectrum do not speak. However, they all communicate in some fashion. Some may come to the work environment with an alternative communication system. Be sure to acknowledge the messages they provide using their communication device.
• Work tasks may need to be broken into smaller steps/tasks or clear sequences. Multi-tasking is difficult for many, so some will do best with one task at a time. Look to see what organizational support needs the person has.
• If there is a problem, your employee with autism should know who to go to, and clearly understand the chain of command. It may even be helpful to assign, appoint, or ask someone to be a mentor for the employee.
• Every work environment has policies and rules. Make sure the individual and/or their job coach are aware of these rules. Most workplaces also have “unwritten rules” (e.g., use of a refrigerator, not touching the desk of others, not hovering over the desks of others, how and where to interact with during breaks, etc.). Make sure the individual knows and understands both formal and informal rules and exceptions to rules.
• Provide written and verbal feedback often to let the person know they are performing the job as expected. Providing positive feedback will help establish a relationship with the employee. That relationship is the most important tool in a successful experience.
• Staff training will be vital. Work with your employee on the autism spectrum about how they wish to disclose their disability and to whom. While being respectful of personal wishes, it is also important to set the person up for success by letting their colleagues better understand both their support needs and their challenges.
These are just a few recommendations. For more suggestions or ideas, visit the following website at: JAN – Job Accommodation Network (askjan.org).
Developed by the Indiana Resource Center for Autism (IRCA) at the Indiana Institute on Disability and Community and the Neurodiversity Coalition at IU. Please do not hesitate to reach out to Dr. Cathy Pratt at firstname.lastname@example.org with any additional questions. Or you may reach out to the Neurodiversity Coalition through Cecilia Buckley, Faculty Advisor, at email@example.com.
Pratt, C. (2021). Supporting and accommodating employees on the autism spectrum. Retrieved from https://www.iidc.indiana.edu/irca/articles/supporting-and-accommodating-employees.html.