Adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) have traditionally had a hard time adjusting to typical work environments. Many jobs are short-lived, with various challenges getting in the way of job longevity. Only about one-third of adults with autism have any kind of paid work at all.
There are many variables involved, such as IQ level and how independently the person in question was raised in his or her home environment. Still, many people who have not been encouraged to achieve independence at home have been shown to be adaptable and able to embrace new skills as adults.
Adults with autism may require a more immersive training program than a typically-developed person would need.
Before training can be effective, make sure the job is right for each individual. Placement in the right position is crucial. It is important to consider skills, potential abilities, strengths, workplace environment and employee level of interest. Seeking ‘a good fit’ is the best way to start things off right. An assessment of these considerations can be done formally or informally.
There are agencies that specialize in career placement for people with autism. They are able to develop a close working relationship with employers to put together a good match.
Typical job placement agencies shouldn’t be discounted. They are interested in placing people in jobs and may have unique opportunities also. An advocate or mentor may be needed to help with communication, regardless of how and where the job placement process occurs.
According to the Americans with Disabilities Act, employers are required to make reasonable accommodations for employees with disabilities, as long as the accommodation doesn’t pose an “undue hardship” to the employer.
For a person with autism, it is up to them to decide whether or not to disclose a disability to a new employer and coworkers. There are benefits to relaying this information to others. People tend to be a lot more understanding of differences when they are educated as to why they are occurring.
Ignorance or lack of education breeds distrust and judgments. Unfortunately, human beings tend to be a judgmental lot, but many times can be brought up to speed with simple sensitivity training and thoughtful discussion.
It’s also good to recognize that every person will have some degree of job accommodation during their career, whether it is officially labeled as such, or not. Many accommodations are used for all sorts of employees, from organizational tactics to managing conflict resolution. People use music, fidget toys, modified work schedules and many more personalized approaches to make work more manageable.
Some difficulties that a person on the autism spectrum might experience anywhere, but in particular on the job, are:
- Communicating - understanding others, expressing oneself effectively and appropriately
- Understanding expectations
- Predicting consequences
- Literal understanding
- Social processing - reading faces, understanding humor, understanding emotions of others
- Processing information (written, verbal, auditory, circumstances)
- Sensory issues- noise, lights, smells, people (distractions, disturbances)
- Executive function - understanding priorities, multi-tasking, organization, seeing the big picture
Some organizations pair with job sites to send a job coach out to train one or more people with autism. Some people with autism will want or need the consistent support of a job coach.
Each person who is on the spectrum is different in their needs, strengths, deficits and challenges. There are different levels of fear and tolerance to stimulation. Autism is not a one size fits all situation.
The goal is to make each individual as comfortable and successful as possible. Whether that includes no job coach, a part-time job coach or a full-time job coach is up to each individual and situation.
Natural supports, or resources found in community environments, produce less hardship on an employer than a full-time job coach. Job coaches can produce results for intermittent training and initial acclimation to job duties. For long-term independence, it can be better for the employee to find ways to work without becoming prompt-dependent on a job coach.
Research has shown that higher levels of support can be intrusive. It can be limiting to a person’s potential also. Businesses have shown the ability to be more adaptable and accommodating than originally thought.
Some businesses and the people within them are initially skeptical when hiring someone with a disability. Often times, when a good experience is had they become much more relaxed about the idea of hiring outside the box.
As with anything new, it may take a few months to get used to making accommodations. Once everything becomes routine, their wall of resistance can start to come down.
A smooth transition is ideal with accommodations as well as when integrating other employees with a disabled employee.
In addition to sensitivity training of other employees, it would be good for a supervisor or mentor to educate the other employees. This can be done informally, in a conversational way. Opening up doors to communication brings understanding and patience.
Challenges a person with ASD may face that other employees should be aware of:
- Developing relationships is hard on the new employee. Lack of eye-contact or verbal communication shouldn’t be taken personally.
- It will take a while for this person to feel comfortable. It will take longer than for a typical employee. Supervisors should be advised to be role models in social interactions.
- Don’t assume the employee will communicate what they need to know. It is okay to ask questions to find out what information the new employee needs, but it is best not to overload the new employee all at once.
- It may take the new employee time to process information, particularly verbal conversations.
- Consistency and routine are probably important to them.
- The employee may need space to be alone several times a day.
There will need to be accommodations to level the playing field.
Accommodations to consider:
- Communication. Employers can allow more written communication instead of verbal. Email, instant messaging and texting can increase an employee’s understanding, clarity, productivity, and comfort level, as well as resonance of information.
- Written instructions instead of verbal can ensure understanding and allow time to process and go over the content.
- Recorded verbal instructions can be helpful. Allow use of voice activated recorder for recording verbal instructions.
- Take into account specific learning and memory enhancing styles. Experiment when the best method has yet to be determined.
- Digital devices such as tablets have beneficial means of enhancing communication. Digital devices also can bridge a social gap, creating a commonality with other employees who are also interested in digital advancements. Tablets can be used for meetings as a comfort device, a way to keep nervous hands busy and a way to keep necessary information at hand.
- Communication between supervisor and employee may need to be more detailed. Advance notice of meetings, meeting topics and events could provide a sense of security. Lack of surprise and ability to mentally prepare could be a worthwhile and minimally intrusive assistance.
- Stress management. Allow an option to go to a quiet place a few times a day (or as needed). Not every job has a cubicle. Allow noise-reducing or eliminating headphones.
- Relocation of workspace where possible. Reduction or elimination of loud noises, fluorescent lights or a hectic, highly trafficked area. Reduction of stress is important.
- Short breaks as needed or in timed increments, say 5 minutes every hour to refocus and recharge.
- Atypical body movements. Use of a job coach (on the job or off) to review what body gestures are appropriate and which ones aren’t. Use of videos on YouTube or other sources to train socially appropriate body language and responses.
- Job restructuring. Allow for longer training time to absorb new material, and to mentally cement concepts and tasks. Set aside time for periodic review of training materials.
- Give more social distance at times by allowing electronic communication or allow work from home part-time.
- Modify schedule to make it more predictable, more in tune with preferred hours, or with reduced hours.
- Reevaluate schedule, task expectations and methods of completion from time to time.
- Assignment of projects in a systematic and predictable manner. More communication (perhaps written) from supervisor relating priority of tasks.
- Organization. Organization is difficult for many people. Some people are very skilled at it, but many struggle with it. It can be particularly difficult for someone with ASD. Provide a skilled mentor to initially set up a system of organization, as well as check in periodically to modify and give reminders. Use of color-coded calendars to keep track of tasks, due dates, appointments and meetings.
- Social assistance. Social assistance will help with social acceptance at work.
- Use of a mediator/counselor to help employee express feelings appropriately when needed. Can review misunderstandings or conflict.
- Provide initial social training on expectations by short-term job coach with videos and role-play. Revisit as needed.
- Time management. Time management can be difficult for an adult with autism. Since productivity is tied to time management, it is crucial to develop a streamlined system. Use of large desk calendars, timers for task management and digital reminders can keep an employee on track.
According to the Journal of Applied Rehabilitation Counseling, studies have shown that digital apps can make a world of difference to adults with autism in the workplace. Allow for training on the use of such applications.
This list of accommodations is not exhaustive. The sheer number of options can seem overwhelming. Highlight most pertinent possibilities and see what works. An employee may require an option in each category. Some categories may require no accommodations or many.
Accommodations will not only be an individualized process, but based on specific job requirements. Levels of intrusiveness upon the work environment can be assessed and revisited during the course of the job.
While a new employee with autism may have a fear of the unknown or a fear of independence, workplace challenges and obstacles can be overcome in many cases.