How can we make workplaces more autism-friendly?

According to the Office of National Statistics, just one in five autistic adults are in a form of paid employment.

With just 21.7% of autistic adults employed, they are the least likely of any disabled group to be in employment.

For the autism employment gap to be this high, something must be going seriously wrong when it comes to autistic people in the workplace.

But it doesn’t have to be this way.

Under the Equality Act (2010), employers have a legal obligation to not only avoid discriminating against disabled employees (both implicitly and explicitly), but also to make reasonable adjustments.

As defined by ACAS on their website, a reasonable adjustment is essentially a ‘change that must be made to remove or reduce a disadvantage related to an employee’s disability when doing their job.’

Autistic people offer several advantages in the workplace: they may have the ability to spot details others can miss, a high level of knowledge about a subject, or the ability to think outside the box.

However, certain aspects of the conventional workplace present barriers to autistic people which makes it difficult for them to work.

By implementing reasonable adjustments, employers will be able to remove the barriers that hold autistic people back in the workplace and enable them to thrive.

Metro.co.uk spoke to a number of autistic people in the workplace about what kind of reasonable adjustments were put in place for them, and what it meant for them.

Regulating sensory triggers

Background chatter and buzz in the office is a thing many people take for granted — but it’s something a lot of autistic people struggle with because their brain isn’t set up in a way to easily process everyday sensory information. This means that background noise can be incredibly disruptive for them and cause them to feel overwhelmed.

This is something Georgie, an engineer, found challenging in her workplace. But small actions by her workplace made all the difference.

‘I get migraines and sensory overload from light, and also have issues with auditory processing,’ she explains. ‘My workplace helped me by turning off these awful LED lights above my head, and also allow me to wear earplugs and listen to music – which helps when the office is super noisy.’

April Lloyd, a journalist, tells Metro.co.uk that these small adjustments can make a big difference for autistic employees.

‘I think one of the major things that we need to bear in mind when it comes to adjustments for people who are on the autistic spectrum is that they don’t necessarily have to be costly,’ she says.

‘For me, I struggle a lot with differentiated noises. So even when I’m working within a newsroom where you expect to kind of hear all that hustle and bustle around, the best newsrooms for me have been the ones that have accounted for this difference by, say, giving me that opportunity to work in a quieter space, being able to wear headphones, and just being able to take that noise out of the equation.’

Flexibility in the workplace

Another important adaptation for autistic people in the workplace is flexibility. This is something that especially helps Ellie Middleton, a personal brand manager who also advocates for autism acceptance.

She tells Metro.co.uk: ‘In the past, I have just forced myself to sit in front of a computer screen even if I was feeling overwhelmed, which is not beneficial for anyone.

‘I have an open and honest line of communication with my boss, so I have the flexibility and agency to work when and how suits me.

‘If I want to work from home instead of coming into the office, that’s fine. If I’m feeling overwhelmed and need to take some time out, that’s fine.’

Maz, who wants to keep her occupation private, tells Metro.co.uk that her workplace has been very supportive in navigating the transition from homeworking to office work.

‘The whole department is returning to full time, in office work, but a gradual return to the office has been agreed for me, with reviews every couple of weeks to assess how I’m doing and decide on the next step,’ she says. ‘I also have a set evening shift when the office is quieter, whereas the rest of the team work various different shifts.’

Without flexibility and reasonable adjustments in the workplace, some autistic employees feel unable to cope and have to resign.

One autistic person, who prefers to remain anonymous, tells us: ‘I left my in-house job in medical education because this stuff kept sending me into meltdown.

‘It’s a shame because in some ways, I was really successful but in others I just couldn’t cope – mostly with internal stuff.’

‘I didn’t really understand my own brain well enough to be able to advocate for myself.’

Limiting surprises and keeping to a routine

Autistic people often thrive with routine. If something unexpected happens, it can cause them to go into a meltdown and lead to distress.

Fortunately, there are many ways for employers to mitigate surprises and routine changes as they come.

‘My manager tries to give me advanced notice of any changes,’ Maz explains. ‘Where possible, she will also include additional information about meetings in invites, or else will message or email with extra information.’

She adds: ‘The team supervisor gets me to look over any new processes as soon as they start being put together, both so I’m able to get used to them, and also because I tend to ask a million questions and spot the holes or flaws in the system. So, it’s good for both me and the team.’

Another autistic employee, who prefers to remain anonymous, works in the pharmaceutical sector. They tell us that their employers’ adjustments related to changes made their life a lot easier.

‘My biggest issue is surprises,’ they say. ‘Adaptations like asking my boss not to email me first thing Monday morning with sudden changes, being given notice of changes and agreeing prep and transition time between tasks were invaluable in enabling me to perform confidently without stress.’

Kindness, reassurance and understanding

Sudden changes to routine may be unavoidable, but a good way to mitigate this, according to Ellie, is by providing reassurance to your autistic employee.

‘A couple of weeks ago, my boss texted me “are you free?” and then followed the message with “(nothing bad)”, which I thought was an amazing example of just how simple adjustments can be,’ she says. ‘Those extra two words were no extra effort from him, but made a huge difference in easing my anxiety about the conversation.’

According to April, ‘understanding, more than anything, is the biggest adjustment that people can make, because there is still quite a lot of stigma regarding autism within the workplace’.

Ellie adds: ‘I think when people think about “adjustments” they think it’s going to be something really hard, complicated or expensive.

‘But for me, 90% of the things that have helped me to be better at my job are so simple, and just rooted in kindness.’

The National Autistic Society, Autism Hampshire, and The Association of Graduate Careers Advisory Services all have more resources on how to make reasonable adjustments for autistic employees.

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