What is Autism and How Does it Fit in the Workplace? - A Group of men with Pen and notebooks

What is Autism and How Does it Fit in the Workplace?

Ambrosia Greer
November 21, 2022
November 11, 2022

This blog post was written by Ambrosia Greer, at Nivati. You can see more of their content on the Nivati platform and on the Nivati blog. If you want to learn more about Nivati, click here.

Autism Spectrum Disorder, also known as ASD, is a neurodevelopmental disorder that affects how people with ASD interact, communicate, behave, and learn. There are no physical traits that set autistic people apart from anyone else. This diagnosis can be characterized by the presence of repetitive behavior, activities, or interests and deficits in social communication and reciprocity, skills in developing, maintaining, and understanding relationships, as well as nonverbal communication behaviors used in social interaction. It is important to note that people without the diagnosis of ASD may also have some of these behaviors, but those diagnosed with ASD have these behaviors affect their Instrumental Activities of Daily Living (IADL) and Activities of Daily Living (ADL). 

One important thing to note and understand when it comes to disabilities in the workplace is that some disabilities are not obvious. These are often referred to as non-visible or invisible disabilities. Everyone is different. People with the same diagnosis affect and express it differently. It is often said in the autism community that if you know one person with ASD, you know one person with ASD. Not everyone who is acknowledged by law as having a disability will consider themselves to be disabled. 

I will also walk you through what the Americans with Disabilities Act is and what guidelines are to be followed in the workplace when it comes to accommodations for autism at work.

What should employers and employees know about the Americans with Disabilities Act?

The Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA, is a federal civil rights law that was passed in 1990 to protect people with disabilities from discrimination in employment. The ADA “prohibits private employers with 15 or more employees, State and local governments, employment agencies and labor unions from discriminating against qualified individuals with disabilities in job application procedures, hiring, firing, advancement, compensation, job training, and other terms, conditions, and privileges of employment.” For more detailed information regarding ADA and civil rights in the workplace please visit the ADA website. It is employers’ responsibility to know and protect the rights of their employees. 

Autism Spectrum Disorders and the ADA

The ADA does not provide a list of medical conditions that establish a disability. The ADA alternatively provides a general definition of disability and the criteria each person must meet.  To determine whether an employee has a disability under the ADA, see JAN

What is JAN?

JAN is an acronym for Job Accommodation Network. It is the largest and leading resource that offers free, yes, you read that right, free expert and confidential guidance on workplace accommodations and disability employment issues. It is your go-to workplace accommodation toolkit! It provides a complete A to Z of disabilities and the accommodations recommended for each, including ASD in the workplace, along with training resources and videos for your employees. Employers are encouraged to contact JAN to go over specific situations in detail for employees on the autism spectrum. 

Accommodating Employees with ASD 

Employees with ASD may experience diverse types of limitations, just as they have diverse areas of strength. Not all employees with autism will need accommodations to perform their jobs, and many others may only need a few. There are challenges for autism in the workplace but nothing too challenging that does not have a solution. There are numerous solutions out there, and accommodations should be made on a case-by-case basis and tailored to each employee’s individual limitations. There are a few questions to consider before looking into accommodations. 

1. What limitation(s) is the employee experiencing?

2. How do these limitation(s) affect the employee and the employee’s job performance?

3. What specific job tasks are questionable because of the limitation(s)?

Limitations and Accommodations for ASD employees 

The following are some limitations and accommodations to keep in mind as you build out accommodations for autism at work.

1. Attentiveness/concentration- the ability to obtain and sustain appropriate attention to a task

  • Alternate lighting
  • Cubicle doors or dividers. 
  • Noise-canceling headsets/earbuds
  • Fidget devices
  • Sound machines 
  • Modified break schedule 
  • Telework, work from home, work remotely 

2. Photosensitivity-extreme sensitivity to UV rays from the sun or other sources of light

  • Anti-glare filters for computer screens 
  • Blue light filters
  • LED lighting 
  • Window tinting and shades 
  • Florescent light tube covers 
  • Cubicle shields and shades 

3. Stress intolerance -inability to cope with stress and adversity without getting overwhelmed

  • Apps for anxiety and stress 
  • Counseling/therapy 
  • Employee assistance programs, i.e. Nivati
  • Alternative avenues for communication (methods used to supplement or replace speech or writing) i.e. AAC or Augmentative and Alternative Communication 
  • Flexible schedule 
  • Support animal or person
  • Modified schedule 

4. Communication-exchanging and receiving of information 

  • Assistive technology 
  • Low-high tech speech devices 
  • Allow verbal rather than written responses 
  • Assist in learning and using nonverbal skills 

This list is just a few examples of what life is like for autistic workers. Once accommodations are explored and discussed you can then ask yourself if supervisory personnel and/or other employees need training to implement the accommodations. Accommodations are team-based situations in order to have success. More knowledge of “why” and “how” across the company will allow the biggest impact for inclusion to be possible. 

It would then be useful to frequently meet with the employee to evaluate the accommodation given and its effectiveness to determine whether further accommodations are needed. Make sure to check out JAN for more real-life examples of situations and solutions for adults with autism at work.

Benefits of Neurodiversity and ASD in the Workplace 

There is research out there that shows the benefits of hiring employees with autism. ASD represents and demonstrates reliability, impeccable attention to detail, memory capabilities, and adherence to rules. Autism in the workplace offers many strengths and abilities that other employees strive to have. Skills in high demand, like coding that require pattern recognition, strong attention to detail, and very direct communication styles. Neurodiversity increases employee engagement because employees can see that their organization really cares. Better morale increases productivity, and more productivity equals success. Another thing to consider is the tax incentives and funding opportunities that are available to employers who implement accommodations. As you dive deeper into research, you will see many benefits for employers and their companies that hire those diagnosed with ASD and/or other disabilities. 

It does not stop here with this blog post. Improving accessibility and inclusion in the workplace would only benefit you and your company and your employees. Creating that fundamental culture is a win-win for everyone. 

Further resources for ASD 

Autism Society

Autistic Self Advocacy Network

National Institute of Mental Health

American Occupational Therapy Association

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Ambrosia Greer
Ambrosia Greer
Ambrosia has been a Licensed Massage Therapist for over 14 years. She specializes in Thai Yoga and Pediatrics with an emphasis on special needs. Inclusion is her love language and knows everyone can benefit from health and wellness. She is also a certified results coach and personally mentored by immersive experience leader, Heather Hayward, founder of the Guided Meditation Framework. Ambrosia is currently working towards her degree in Occupational Therapy where she will be able to provide and maximize health, well-being, and quality of life for all people, populations, and communities through effective solutions that facilitate participation in everyday living.