As autism diagnosis rates continue to rise, so will the number of autistic employees in the workforce. Here is how to support autism in the workplace.
Every parent is concerned about their child’s future. But for parents of neurodivergent and autistic chidren, concerns for the future are often amplified. My autistic son is only 11 years old, but I often think of how he will adjust to the real world when he is older. Granted, if you ask him about his future, he’ll tell you that he is quite happy to stay at home. With me. Forever.
Me: You do realize that one day you will need to cook and clean for yourself. And get a JOB.
Steven: Um, nope. I’m just going to live with you forever…
Me: But don’t you want to earn money?
Steven: I do like the idea of money, but I don’t like the idea of getting a job. I think you should just take care of me forever.
Me: Well what if something happens to me?
Steven: (turns towards his 9-year-old sister and gives her a great big toothy grin)
Olivia: I’m not paying for you, Steven, get your own job. And I’m not doing your laundry either.
We kid around about these types of things often in our household. But as a neurodivergent individual, I know firsthand how difficult and challenging and exhausting the workplace can be in this world built for neurotypical people. It is not uncommon to experience sudden changes to job duties, lack of structure or predictability, social pressure, and overstimulation in the workplace. These things happen all the time. But if too much happens, neurodivergent individuals can face autistic burnout, causing them to shut down or feel fatigued. They no longer work efficiently or function properly. And while this is frustrating for employers, it is also frustrating for the person on the spectrum. Believe me, I’ve been there.
Increase in Autism Diagnoses will Require Businesses to Adapt
Since the CDC began collecting data on autism in 2000, the frequency of autism diagnoses has increased – and continues to do so. The most recent data (2018) show that 1 in 44 children have been identified as autistic. This reflects an increase in autism prevalence of 100% iover the past decade, and an increase of over 300% since 2000. In addition, the percentage of children aged 3-17 years who were diagnosed with a developmental disability has also increased – from 16.2% in 2009-2011 to 17.8% from 2015-2017.
The upwards trend in autism diagnoses is, in part, the result of a much broader set of diagnostic criteria that was introduced in 2013 (American Psychiatric Association’s DSM-5). Instead of including only severly disabled individuals, the autism spectrum includes individuals with high intelligence and skill sets (formerly known as Asperger’s Syndrome) as a result of the new criteria. In addition, there has been an improvement in autism awareness over the past 20+ years, which has led to an increase in screening, and service accessibility. In fact, a recent study in the UK showed that autism diagnoses have increased 787% over the past 20 years, with the greatest increases among adults. As more individuals identify as autistic, businesses will need to adapt and provide support – not only for the next generation of employees, but individuals in today’s workforce.
Leading Companies Have Started Taking a Proactive Approach to Hiring Autistic People
For the 3.5 million autistic individuals in the US, good jobs are hard to come by. According to a 2019 study from the US Beureau of Labor and Statistics, 19.3% of individuals with a disability were employed, compared with 66.3% of those without a disability. The data also show that between 80 and 90% of autistic adults are underemployed or unemployed. A number of barriers contribute to these alarming statistics, including shortage of job training programs, inadequate support for job placement, and lack of accommodations in the workplace.
It’s not all bad news though. Many leading companies have shifted towards the belief that hiring a neurodiverse workforce is a good business strategy and actively support autism in the workplace. Neurodivergent individuals, especially autistics, often provide many benefits to businesses, including exemplary focus, observation skills, superior attention to detail, in-depth knowledge about their area of interest, integrity, and respect for rules. As a result, forward-thinking companies are taking a proactive approach to harnessing the competitive advantage that a neurodivergent person can provide. For example, Microsoft, SAP, Dell, Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan have programs in place for hiring autistic individuals.
What can we do to support autism in the workplace?
Here are five ways to support autistic people in the workplace:
1. Practice predictbility and provide clear expectations
Autistic individuals often thrive most when they stick to predictable routines. Sudden changes in tasks or procedures can be stressful. Provide steps to make your workday more predictable. Give your autistic employees a comprehensive list of job duties before they start a new position. When they understand the dspecific expectations of they job, they are less likely to encounter surprises. Give as much of an advanced warning as possible for changes in schedules and procedures.
2. Provide sensory accomodations
Many adults with autism struggle with sensory issues from environmental stimuli. Certain types of sights, sounds, and smells can be overwhelming, which can cause autistic individuals discomfort and distract them from tasks. Encourage autistic workers to communicate their needs and request reasonable changes to their work environment, such as removing fluorescent lighting from the office, seating the individual far away from the smells of the lunchroom, or using noise-canceling headphones to manage auditory distractions.
3. Consider delays in auditory processing and give more time to respond
Many autistic individuals experience delays in auditory processing. Because of this, they many need more time to respond verbally during a conversation. Allow at least 5 seconds before repeating instructions or questions to an autistic individual. If they are repeated too soon, the autistic person may need to start processing from the beginning of the instructions again. In addition, consider providing visual reminders of tasks breakdowns, procedures, and rules, and teaching new skills via video modeling.
4. Consider differences in communication style/speech
Austistic individuals often have problems understanding metaphors and idiomatic language (or language that uses figures of speech). For example, if you say that you are feeling “under the weather,” you don’t literally mean that you’re standing underneath the rain. Autistic individuals also often have trouble understanding jokes and humor, or conversation that is conveyed with a sarcastic tone. Many autistic people communicate by focusing on the key words of a sentence. One of the best ways to accomodate these individuals is by speaking in simple, plain sentences without using figures of speech. Try to be direct with the true message that you are trying to convey.
5. Recognize anxiety and mitigate burnout
This may be the most important way to support autism in the workplace. It is important to understand the signs of anxiety.
Signs of anxiety in an autistic person may include (but are not limited to):
- · Reduced eye contact.
· Appearing to be ‘zoning out.’
· Sensory seeking behaviors.
· Sensory avoidance (closing eyes, hands on ears, etc.).
· May want to retreat and leave the area.
· Increase in stimming behaviors.
Ignoring these signs could result in meltdowns, conflict, or burnout. However, there are very effective calming strategies that can be performed in the workplace. These strategies include (but are not limited to):
- · Allowing the individual to take a break that involves movement, such as taking a walk around the building.
· Providing personal space or a quiet space to retreat to for several minutes.
· Listening to what is bothering them.
· Distracting them by talking about an interest or a favorite thing.
· Encouraging them to practice deep breathing techniques.
Businesses that provide support for autism in the workplace will benefit from the competitve advantage these individuals can provide. This support is essential to autistic employees and greatly contribute to employee retention. Accomodations for autistic employees will make all the difference – not just for today’s workforce, but for the workforce of the upcoming generation.