Supporting Autistic People in the Workplace
Having a secure job improves a person’s quality of life, self-esteem, and well-being. Employment can add meaning and focus to the day, build skills, create a wider circle of support, the opportunity for human connections and friendships, and feeling a part of something.
The reality is that the ASD population continues to be chronically underemployed or not employed at all. In 2019, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, 19.3 percent of persons with a disability were employed, compared with 66.3 percent of those without a disability. The unemployment rate for people with ASD continues to hover at around 80%. The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives in 2018 stated that Canadians with “mild” disabilities are most likely to find employment, and their unemployment rate is 35%. For those with “severe” disabilities, the rate jumps to 74%. According to the 2017 Canadian Survey on Disability, the employment rate for autistic adults is 33 per cent, compared to 79 per cent for the general population.
The United Nations marks April 2nd as World Autism Awareness Day. Every year, they devote the day to a topic that concerns autistic people. In 2015, the United Nations website stated that approximately 80% of autistic adults are unemployed. There are a number of barriers that keep this statistic so high such as a shortage of job training programs, inadequate support for job placement, a lack of supports/accommodations in the workplace, and pervasive discrimination.
This past April 2021, the UN’s focus of this day was inclusion in the workplace. They also spoke about the impact COVID-19 has had on employment for autistic people:
“The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed and heightened glaring inequalities around the world, especially when it comes to income and wealth distribution, access to health care, protection under the law, and political inclusion. Persons with autism have long faced many of these inequalities, which have only been further exacerbated by the pandemic. It’s a problem made worse by long recognized discriminatory hiring practices and workplace environments that present major obstacles for persons with autism; all of which contribute to the unemployment or severe underemployment of a large majority of adults on the autism spectrum.”
But – a positive thing has happened too in that new ways of working, including remote working and the use of new technologies, have created opportunities for autistic employees that previously found it difficult to thrive in traditional workplace environments. However, as we move back to in-person physical workspaces, there will be a period of anxious transition and adjustment after having worked from home for almost two years.
Autistic individuals can bring a lot to a job such as dependability, reliability, concentration, memory skills, attention to detail and accuracy, and factual knowledge, just to name a few. Every person is unique with their own talents, abilities, and interests. We need to find the right supports and a structured environment to nurture these capabilities. They also tend to stay in the same area and not move once they have established themselves.
What can we do to support autistic people in the workplace?
1. Predictability – Knowing what’s going to happen lessens anxiety; the autistic brain is not a predictive one. Give the agenda ahead of time, the plan for the day, the plan for the week.
2. Establish Routines – Routines provides structure, order, time management and concept of time.
3. Visual Supports – Provide visual reminders of task breakdown, procedures, rules, and policies.
4. Sensory Accommodations – Examples of sensory accommodations are soft lighting, quiet spaces, a scent free environment. Blocking out background noise can be difficult (background music playing while someone is talking, people talking in groups so a person can’t focus on a solo speaker, noisy workspaces). A person in sensory overload can end up melting down, tuning out, or shutting down. Movement/body breaks are really important throughout the day.
5. Clear Expectations – Autistic people will not pick up on hidden meanings/curriculum, read between the lines, may not see the next steps in a task that you may think is obvious, may not know how to start a task especially if it is new, may not understand idiomatic expressions and may take what is said literally.
6. Auditory Processing – Auditory processing tends to be weaker than visual processing hence the need for visual supports. If instructions are given verbally, the first part may be retained or only the last part of what was said.
7. More Response Time is Needed – Because of the delays in auditory processing, a person may need more time to respond verbally. Allow 5 seconds or more before repeating instructions because if a person jumps in too soon, the autistic person has to start processing from the beginning again.
8. Communication Style/Speech – This will vary for individuals – eye contact may be difficult, processing time slower (this has nothing to do with intelligence), may interrupt, differences with voice prosody (inflection/tone), and there may be pronoun confusion or verb tense errors. A person may not have good social filters and comment inappropriately. Small talk is often challenging.
9. Novelty is Anxiety Provoking. Experiencing a new situation, learning a new task, or adjusting to changes in the workplace is anxiety provoking. Changes will happen, but the more preparation that can be given, the better. If several new things are going to happen, try introducing them in small increments.
10. Teach New Skills Using Video Modeling. Using video technology for modeling takes visuals to the next level by combining the visual supports strategy with technology to create an even more effective teaching tool. Video technology is readily accessible through iPhones and iPads, easy to use, and inexpensive. Videos can also provide predictability and give the viewer control over the speed, repetition and volume of what they’re watching. More about this here.
Recognizing Anxiety is #1!
Understanding signs of anxiety is the most important thing in the workplace because if left unchecked, it can result in meltdowns, conflict, shutdowns, or outbursts.
Signs of Anxiety
- Reduced eye contact
- Can’t sit still
- Appearing zoned out
- May become echolalic (repeating what you are saying)
- May snap at something small
- May need more reassurance
- May want to leave early or leave the area
- Physical signs like stomach ache, rapid breathing, sweating, increased heart rate
- Increase in stimming behaviors such as fast, intense rocking, pacing, self-talk, hair twirling, hand flapping.
- Sensory avoidance (hand on ears, closing eyes, retreating somewhere)
- Sensory seeking behavior (bumping into furniture, getting into a small, tight space)
- Increase in repetitive behaviors such as touching the same objects over and over
- Self-injurious behaviors like head banging, skin picking or pinching.
Some of these behaviors may be an attempt at self-calming while others may be signs of anxiousness or feeling upset.
What are some calming strategies in the workplace?
- Offer an escape plan – a quiet space to retreat to for a few minutes.
- Do some deep breathing – A new anxiety study showed we are less aware of our breathing as anxiety increases.
- Take a little walk around the building – a movement break.
- Distract – sometimes talking about an interest or favorite thing can be calming.
- Stop talking.
- Allow for personal space – minimum distance of 3 ft.
- If the person is upset, remove the other people around them if possible.
- Listen to what is bothering them. What might not be a big deal to us is huge to them.
Supports and accommodations in the workplace can make all the different in an autistic person being able to retain their job. With employment being an important part of well-being and adding to quality of life, employers need to be part of the movement to change the current unemployment statistic for this population.
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