By Leia Weathington, on Mar 13, 2020

How to Make Accommodations for Autism in the Workplace

Traditionally most of the research on autism spectrum disorder has been geared towards understanding the condition in children, but the challenges for individuals with ASD don’t end there. Due to limited resources available to help adults with ASD transition into the workforce and the struggles neurodiverse individuals face in coping with a world geared towards the neurotypical, the estimated unemployment numbers for these individuals remains high at around 80%-90%.

If you want to encourage neurodiversity and make your workplace comfortable and safe for your neurodiverse employees, there are accommodations for autism in the workplace you can and should make. Below are some of the basics of providing accommodations for your neurodiverse employees.

Reasonable Accommodations

If you have decided to hire an individual who disclosed their status as someone with autism spectrum disorder and requested accommodations for their job duties, you should be prepared to meet those requests. ASD and other forms of neurodiversity are covered under Title 1 of the Americans With Disabilities Act.

The employment aspects of Title 1 require you to make reasonable accommodations for an employee as long as said accommodations do not pose an undue hardship to your business. When considering what is a reasonable accommodation, take into account the nature and cost of the accommodation, the size of your business and the resources at your disposal, and the type of impact it will have on your day to day workings. A request for reasonable accommodations never requires the lowering of performance standards or the removal of essential functions of the job. They are to be considered in the light of allowing the employee to meet or exceed those standards with a little added support.

Employer & Employee Responsibilities

It is the responsibility of the employee themselves to consider their needs and access what their resources are both inside and outside of the job and make their requests based on them.  

As an example, your employee might be working in a busy and bright office setting, but have difficulty coping with the overhead lights and can experience disruptive sensory overload after being exposed to them for hours at a time. It might be reasonable for them to ask that they wear sunglasses indoors to cut the invasive glare and maintain their focus, or to request a work station away from the main artery of activity in the office. This costs the company nothing and is not disruptive to the day to day flow of the workplace.

An example of a request that might not be feasible is the following: A prospective employee has applied to be the receptionist for your company, however maintaining eye contact is distressing for them and they request to only deal with clients through email and the phone. Since this is likely considered an “essential job function” for the receptionist role, it is unlikely to be an accommodation that you can make without lowering the standards of the role.

It is worth bearing in mind that even though an employer may be legally in the right in certain situations, thinking about how to accommodate the needs of neurodiverse employees can make your office feel more inclusive and open you up to forms of creativity and innovation that you might otherwise overlook.

Communication Around Accommodations

When addressing the issue of accommodations for autism in the workplace, be clear with your employee or employees about what is essential to their job performance and work to communicate with them what is actually feasible when it comes to their requests.

Inquire if and how additional instructions could help the individual’s job performance. Are company goals, deadlines, and expectations being communicated clearly? Is it helpful to record meetings that cover changes in policy so that they can be reviewed when the employee needs it? How quickly could a drastic change in the workplace be adjusted to and how much advance notice is ideal for those changes?

Remember, your employee does not (and should not) need to use medical terminology or specific language to request an accommodation — “plain English” is just fine. They should specify that it is related to a disability but need not reference the ADA specifically.

Implementing Accommodations for Autism in the Workplace

Accomodations specifically for individuals with ASD can be more and less complicated than for other forms of disability recognized by the ADA. Depending on the needs of the employee in question, this might be as simple as making alternative seating arrangements or providing additional thorough instructions regarding certain tasks. Both employees with ASD and their employers should make sure to maintain open communication about potential accommodations.
Remember, your employee is a partner and key resource in the operation of your business, and you should want to give them all of the necessary tools to succeed. Open communication, compromise, and willingness to experiment with solutions to help your neurodiverse employee are key to success for your company. Keep the above questions in mind when hiring an individual with ASD or working with one of your existing employees to find a satisfactory plan for any necessary accommodations.

Opinions expressed by Daivergent contributors are their own.