Answers from the Spectrum, How to Create an Autism Friendly Workplace ?

nuage mots mains merci

This has been sent in by many educators and employers, so I would like to open up the discussion to anyone on the Spectrum of all ages, from school/university to being employed. We would love your thoughts on everything from the interview process to how are instructions best given? Mentors, support, the architecture, space to chill if needed, lighting, room layout, materials used, noise levels ?

Answers From the Spectrum:

I’m 25, diagnosed as high-functioning/Asperger’s at 20. I don’t know how representative I am, but physical space is pretty important in a lot of ways. I don’t like having other people in my personal space, and I really don’t like having other people positioned where they can see my face while I work – I always feel like they’re watching my facial expressions while I work. And I like to have a space that’s mine – even if it’s just a space twice as wide as my laptop where I can keep office stuff without worrying about other people cluttering it with their paperwork.

So traditional lecture hall/classroom arrangements are very comfortable for me, especially if it’s a large enough space where we can all spread out. Being in a group of desks arranged for group activity while not actually engaging in group activity feels awkward to me. And working in a traditional cubicle would be just about perfect.

LIghting shouldn’t be too bright, and I personally hate overhead fluorescents. But it can’t be too dim, either – although my eyes are very light sensitive, so indirect sunlight is often enough to light a whole room brightly enough for reading. And a quieter workplace is more comfortable than a louder one, although quiet instrumental music is nice for making the noise of other people working less distracting. And workplaces where everyone wears earbuds all day long bug me, especially since the earbuds seem to be used as a substitute for physical separation or proper sound insulation.

In terms of instruction, you need to be absolutely clear. Don’t make assumptions about what I know or how I’m going to do something. And if you need to make a point, even if it’s critical, just say it straight out and be specific. You can be direct without being mean.

Workplace standards and expectations need to be clearly established; don’t ever assume that someone will just pick up on everyone else’s behavior and conform accordingly. In a lot of ways, the more institutionalized these things are – from rules and expectations to mentorships – the better, especially if it’s all written down so I can check the document when I’m uncertain instead of needing to ask for clarification.

And this might go without saying, but in the classroom, group projects are difficult on a couple of different levels. When told we were doing a group project, nothing relieved me more than being told that we’re being assigned to those groups. On an academic and social level, I think it’s better for students to have to interact with people outside of their social circle, and personally I never know what to do. I feel like it draws attention to my difficulties socializing to have to figure out which group I’m supposed to join. (I actually substitute teach, and if the lesson plan is nonspecific I always count the kids off by the number of groups I need and all the 1s are a group and all the 2s are a group and so on.)

And then there are the spontaneous “projects” that aren’t really projects, but just an in-class assignment that no one else feels like doing on their own. Think lists of math problems. I’d honestly rather work them all on my own instead of be forced to work in a group – and I’d rather you not draw attention to the fact that I’m working on my own instead of in a group.

Answer from an 48 year old male, diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome 2 years ago.
Regarding Interviews:
Aspies are always honest. So interview questions like “Why are you the best person for this job?” are impossible to answer: I don’t know the other ca
ndidates, how can I possibly answer this question? Honesty can result in modesty, which is not a good quality when applying for a job. To open up an Aspie, ask for his/her special interests.
Regarding work environment:
Distraction = stress. Noise = stress. The current trend of large, open office areas is not good for Aspies. Private offices are the best.
Contact by phone = stress. Aspies prefer to make contact by media such as e-mail.
Don’t expect Aspies to show up voluntarily at informal get togethers. This is not ill will, such a get together is simply not an environment where an Aspie wants to be. Similarly, asking an Aspie to work on his/her network during such meetings is not productive. It will only result in stress.
Assigning some kind of mentor during an Aspies first weeks at a new job is good. The Aspie him/herself will have trouble making contacts, so a first solid contact would be beneficial.
Vague assignments = stress. Unambiguous, clear assignments are preferable. Sending an Aspie into a meeting where political games are played is asking for trouble. Don’t let an Aspie deal with people who have hidden agendas.
Structure = good. It helps the Aspie getting things done.

From a young Lady with Aspergers – I am a teaching assistant, so I suppose it’s quite interesting dealing with children, including those on the spectrum themselves (and I naturally find I get along with them better). Ive not told my workplace as I wanted to see how well I could manage, so I haven’t had any adjustments made. When I was interviewed, I had practised what I was going to say so much, and answered their questions from the script I had memorised in my head. When it comes to working, I can get overwhelmed by noise and I tire easily. They have noticed this and met my needs by giving me less duties so I can break more, and I know how to calm myself either by changing what I’m doing or moving around a bit, or find a job to do that takes me out the room briefly. I have my routines that I follow and they know this and it works well with the school environment. I suppose I’m lucky that I work in a place that understands the spectrum, and naturally apply any assistance to anyone whether they are or are not autistic.

I’m looking for work at the moment so it’s a bit of an obsession)
I’m mostly talking about an office admin job because it’s what I see myself in, I don’t know enough about other kinds of work to comment.
I agree that
an interview is not a good way to recruit a person on the spectrum. I’m not going to use the social skills in the job – I wouldn’t go for such a job as I know it wouldn’t suit me! A work trial or a non-timed or generously timed test would work better. Although it would be cool if they could invent a type of interview where you talk like a normal person so they know what your actual personality is.
I’ve had huge problems in a workplace with people assuming things about me from the way I act. I was sent away by an agency because I look like I really dislike the job and am struggling. I can’t control my body language at all. I can’t hide that I look stressed, where others would be able to, so people assume it’s because I’m unusually stressed rather than just being unusually honest about it. The stress often has nothing to do with the job, I have lots of intrusive thoughts and I can’t block out everyday worries when working. I’m used to just working in spite of the background stress. For instance, my body clock is not suited to office work, so I will be constantly battling falling asleep and dealing with waking dreams until I fall into the rhythm. It helps me to have music, which I can listen to quietly. I can’t stay awake in a meeting. I don’t really want to chat with people while working, most random people I meet scare me unless they have the same interests as me. For the same reason, I also don’t want to go to work socials. If I get used to the other people and they’re nice, I will open up to them in time.
I don’t find a normal office environment sensorily disturbing but I need to be allowed to behave more as I normally would when working at home. I can’t answer a telephone and I can’t go on a reception desk. I need lots of bathroom breaks. I need help getting out of a building if there is a fire alarm, I need to block out the sound so I don’t freeze up, but this means I can’t use my arms and so can’t open doors. I just can’t wear certain items of formal clothing, particularly uncomfortable shoes or trousers without pockets. My clothes need to tuck in tightly to each other or I can’t wear them. I don’t have the motor skills to stop my clothes getting messy.
In terms of actual work, I work best when I’m given a daily routine with specific tasks that have a clear start and end. Small tasks that I can realistically finish in a day will be most manageable, even if they’re obviously just the bigger task divided into smaller chunks. I also need indications of how urgent each task is. I need a period of time to memorise the job and someone around to ask for help if I don’t understand something or forget what I’m doing. I am very sensitive to feedback so it’s important to praise me for things you want me to keep doing, and be careful with negative feedback as I will obsess over it.
In my ideal role, I would train in more advanced systems over time and take on more responsible roles, which I would expect better pay for, but I wouldn’t be expected to go up in leadership ranks.

Wow, most of what has been written in the comments overlaps with what an introvert and a highly-perceptive person needs to make the workplace more friendly or even bearable.

Background: I’ve been working in the same position at the same multinational corporation for the last 18 years. I was not interviewed; I was called by the temp agency the autumn after I graduated college and asked if I was still looking for work (“yes”) and did I want a job “um, sure?”.  What I’ve observed in working for a company that is _not_ autism (or disability) friendly beyond that required by law: A company that wants to be autism friendly should think about “sound, sight, scent.” Put sound-deadening panels on the walls of places like breakrooms in order to mute the echoing of many people talking at once. Provide a breakroom without a tv, or, if that’s not possible, permanently mute the tv and turn on the close-caption for those people who want to watch it. Don’t use scent-coverups in the bathroom that any worker can access, because most people think if one “squirt” is good, 10 is even better. Ban perfumes/colognes/scented hand lotions. A lot of companies are already doing this due to allergies, but it would really help autistic people. It’s very difficult when my boss leans over to get a file from in front of me and I choke on her perfume. And she doesn’t actually wear an inappropriate amount like some people do.

As far as locations: an office with a door is ideal–it doesn’t have to have a window; we just need a space that’s ours. A cubicle is next desirable, followed by a desk. But even a desk is more desirable than sharing an office. We need an area that is ours, a place that’s “homebase” where we can retreat to. Noisy environments aren’t good, but if they are steady noise and not random, a lot of us can get used to that.

Rules and regulations should not only be clearly written and stated, but they should apply to everyone equally. If that means you have to write a different handbook for each department, so be it. It’s incredibly difficult to pick up on the unwritten rules that govern most workplaces. For instance, officially we are supposed to clock out for 30 minutes for lunch. Now that in and of itself is a problem even if you enforce it equally–how do you manage to never do 29 or 31 minutes? But the unwritten rule is, you can clock out for less than that as long as you don’t make a point of it or allow the people from manufacturing to notice, because they will complain and then HR will demand we all clock out for 30 minutes … for a few weeks and then it goes back to normal. The underlying problem there is that the company is trying to make one rule apply to many different situations.

Having a mentor, someone who knows the other coworkers and is willing to help you along, and someone to whom you can come with social problems (“this is happening, what do I do”) would be excellent. Unfortunately such mentors are usually unofficial and you have to find them the hard way.

But the biggest problem companies have with regard to becoming autism friendly is the attitude of the people in charge. This isn’t something you can regulate. Believe it or not, there is a prevalent, unspoken attitude especially among the older people that autism is a children’s disease and you magically get fixed when you become an adult, and anyone who can hold down a steady job and interact with people is just using the diagnosis as an excuse for bad behavior. “You should know better by now.” It’s an insidious belief that no one will admit to having but I’m coming to realize spreads through most of the 30 or older people at my work. Perhaps my job is unusual … I don’t think so.

One thing my coworkers and supervisors did do for me with regards to accomodating my autism is grudgingly, reluctantly, accepting my request to stop touching me. The men didn’t have a problem since the spectre of “sexual harrasment” lies over a male-female physical contact of anything beyond hand-shakes, and you don’t normally shake hands with your coworkers. It was the women who had this bizarre belief that it was a violation of their rights for me to refuse to allow them to touch me. I’m talking the arm-clutch during a dramatic re-telling of an incident; a shoulder tap to get my attention; a pat on the back that is literal. I _hate_ being touched, even through clothing. I almost got fired over it because my boss really got her feelings hurt when I was having a very difficult functioning day and she clapped me on the shoulder and I winced back and said “don’t touch me.” (This was not the first time I had requested that.) I finally figured out that people responded much better to “I don’t like having humans touch me” than “please don’t touch me,” no matter that the latter phrase seems more polite and to the point.

So companies who _want_ to be autism friendly need to understand that we all have different quirks, and usually if you can just work with that one main quirk, we can handle the rest. (By the way, the no-touching thing has become self-perpetuating. I believe my coworkers take a new coworker aside and tell them “don’t touch Josie” because I haven’t had to tell a new person for ages, yet no one even tries any more. It’s nice. But it took over a decade.)


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