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5 ways to embrace autism in the workplace


As our society becomes more aware of autism, and the different ways it manifests in different people, we also must become more cognizant of the fact that autism in the workplace could be a reality for many businesses.

And the number of autistic employees in the workforce will likely continue to grow.

In fact, the CDC estimates that about 1 in 59 children has been identified with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), according to estimates from the Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring Network.

Many prominent companies nationwide are starting to actively recruit people who have autism spectrum disorder. What do these companies know that your company doesn’t about hiring people with ASD?

The following tips provide insight into the unique strengths of autistic workers and may help your company successfully hire employees with autism.

1. Focus on can, not can’t

Hiring someone on the autistic spectrum should be much like hiring anyone to work for your company. Your focus should be on whether the person can do the job, not on their disability.

It’s the same thought process you would use if you interviewed someone with an identifiable or obvious disability (e.g., blind, deaf or wheelchair-bound). Don’t make assumptions and decide the person can or can’t perform some function of the job because of his or her disabilities.

Instead, focus on each person’s abilities.

If the candidate identifies the need for an accommodation, engage in conversation with them to focus on their abilities and let them tell you what’s possible. This engaging conversation is referred to as the “interactive process” and is key to an organization’s defense against allegations of discrimination based on disability or failure to accommodate.

People with ASD exhibit a wide range of behaviors, many mild enough that you may never realize the candidate is diagnosed as autistic. What’s important is that the person meets the essential functions of the job. Each person will have individual abilities to perform certain jobs – with or without a reasonable accommodation.

In some instances, jobs may be ideal for employees who enjoy repetition. Tasks that others might find monotonous, some people may find comforting, including those with ASD.

The benefits of fostering and managing diversity in the workplace are well documented and extend to employees with ASD. It’s a strategy that can open your company up to the creativity and innovative approaches of talented individuals of varied abilities and skills.

2. Consider essential functions

What can business leaders do to accommodate employees at various levels of the autistic spectrum?

In any instance of hiring and managing employees with disabilities, a well-defined job description can help both your managers and your employees understand the essential functions of a job and the standards for those functions. You should always:

  • Consult with your trusted HR or legal professional.
  • Engage in the interactive process.
  • Evaluate the need for accommodating individuals with any form of disability on a case-by-case basis.

The essential functions of each job, and the candidate you are considering for that role, should be individually considered. For instance, it’s probably an essential function that your web developer meet deadlines for launching new apps and microsites.

However, it’s probably not necessary that this person also contribute new ideas and solutions verbally during staff meetings. Allowing them to write their ideas in an email or memo, and share them with the team later, may work just as well.

When considering essential functions, it’s vital you check your own prejudices and preconceptions at the door. Just because someone doesn’t look you in the eye or laugh at your jokes doesn’t mean they can’t be a dedicated, successful team player or perform the essential functions of the job.

Take a good look at the job description and keep an open mind. Is making direct eye contact truly necessary for the person to perform well? If it’s a sales job, maybe so. If it’s an assembly line worker, probably not. For the assembly line worker, an employee who excels in an environment with structure and repetition may be a significant asset.

Don’t let certain personality traits that may be common to the person’s autism affect your ability to determine whether the person can actually do the job.

3. Be open to reasonable accommodations

The words “reasonable accommodations” can often cause discomfort for managers who automatically assume this term requires them to turn their business inside out to adapt to an employee’s needs.

However, accommodating an employee with ASD (or, really, any disability) is probably similar to changes you may already be making for other employees, such as providing standing desks for those with back problems. Common alterations that may be requested by those with ASD include:

  • Allowing the person to wear noise-reducing headphones (in the case of noise sensitivity)
  • Swapping desks with a coworker and turning off an overhead light (to help with light sensitivity)
  • Permitting them to take lunch at exactly 12:15 p.m. each day (to provide needed structure)
  • Outlining the day’s priorities (to help with time management)
  • Letting the person work from home (to accommodate the need to hyper-focus)
  • Providing advance notice of meeting agendas (to help facilitate communication)

As with any employee who requests an accommodation, you should have a discussion with the employee and include your HR team or legal advisor to determine whether the request is practical (and how it will impact other employees and overall productivity). In addition, there may be a need to ask the employee to provide a doctor’s note that articulates the needs of the employee.

Unfortunately, there’s no easy formula to be followed when it comes to reasonable accommodation. What’s considered reasonable is as varied as individuals with autism and the companies where they work. This is true for any person with a disability.

The Job Accommodation Network provides an excellent resource for some typical accommodations.

4. Promote kindness

A key component to building diversity into your company culture is encouraging an environment of respect. This requires that your leadership proactively address any issues between employees, especially those that may be an indicator (or predictor) of workplace bullying.

People with disabilities such as ASD can be perceived as easy targets by bullies, so extra vigilance may be needed to ensure your work environment is friendly and inclusive.

In less extreme forms of exclusion, it may become necessary to remind employees to invite everyone out for team lunches or after-hours company-sponsored events, even if they think the person may be uncomfortable. That way, at least they know they were invited – even if they choose not to participate.

Sensitivity training may also be helpful for your whole team. Such training can help ensure everyone understands how to work most effectively with coworkers who may require accommodations in the workplace. It can also be helpful in demonstrating what it means to treat everyone with professionalism and respect.

For instance, some people with autism in the workplace have trouble understanding coworkers jokes, sarcasm or hyperbole.

Educate your team members on when and how to use them appropriately in the workplace, and remind them to speak in direct, concise and specific terms. Doing so will help autistic employees with this particular symptom, while also helping your employees understand what you require of them.

If you hire a person with ASD, it may be helpful to assign them an office buddy. This person can act as their mentor, quietly offering helpful tips and guidance that help the new employee acclimate and get the support they need to succeed in their job.

The intent of an office buddy should never be to perform some or all of the job for the person with a disability. But instead, it should ensure they have the support to be successful.

5. Make compliance a priority

Accommodating autism in the workplace doesn’t have to be a daunting endeavor. A professional employer organization (PEO) can help you navigate the complexities of employer-employee relationships, helping you take the steps needed to remain compliant while enriching your company’s culture and knowledge base.

Want more insight into HR best practices? Sometimes knowing what not to do is as important as knowing what you should do. Learn more by downloading our free e-book: 7 most frequent HR mistakes and how to avoid them.