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Why Autism Workplace Accommodations Need to Be Fluid

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Imagine that you are an employer of a young adult with an autism profile. You are proud of your employee’s progress in the time he has worked at your company, and his attention to detail and quality of work is impeccable. Your other employees should take note. However, you occasionally have concerns, and it all started when he disclosed to you that he has autism.

At first, you were not completely surprised, as you had noticed small inklings of the traits you have learned about and observed from others in your education and career. Nevertheless, you wish you had known this when you had first hired him, so you could at least have offered accommodations from the beginning. These supports can include additional supervision when needed, clear, easy to understand instructions, and not piling on too many tasks at once when he first started on the job.

Once you have provided him with all of this assistance, it can be puzzling — even frustrating — when some tasks are not completed during periods of downtime. You find it irritating that your employee participated in a four-day crash course to learn a new software that the entire company will be using for billing purposes, and he struggled to implement it within the first two weeks of using it. You feel he had ample time to adjust to the new system, extra opportunities to ask questions, and received answers to many of them. You value and respect your employee as a professional, even more as a person, and you do not want to set him up for failure.

Now imagine that you are the young employee with autism. You have worked extremely hard to get where you are at this moment. You’ve spent almost four years putting your life aside to get your advanced degree, spending all of your free time writing research papers and making PowerPoint presentations, because it takes you a long time to complete these tasks. Nevertheless, they got done and here you are in your first professional job. So far you are finding it to be challenging, but it’s “a good challenge.” What’s more, you are defying the sad statistic that more than 20% of young adults on the spectrum are unemployed.

Recently, you have finally figured out how to implement the company’s billing software on your own, which is good because you work remotely half of the time. Now, just as you feel like you have mastered a good “work rhythm,” you have to learn an entirely new and more nuanced system. You have spent almost a lifetime training yourself to adjust to unpredictable occurrences, so you keep an open mind, you don’t make a fuss, and you try to imagine that it will be more streamlined than the previous software, based on what your colleagues say. You’re just rolling with the tides. Sure enough, it is more complicated than you had imagined, and as usual, you are the one who is going around interrupting people from their work to help you figure it out. It is embarrassing, and it takes all of your mental strength to “step outside of yourself” and communicate with a co-worker.

You are expected to have it figured out when a question gets answered for you by the presenter of the aforementioned training. Yet, more than half of the time, it is explained to you at a fast pace, in wording that you would not prefer, and worst of all, the pressure is on you to acknowledge the time they put aside to explain it to you in detail. You still don’t understand it, so you just nod and say “thank you, I get it now.” Is it true? No, but it is easier and far less complicated than pushing the envelope even further. Every time you decide to keep the peace and play it safe, a little piece of you slips through the floorboards, and you feel yourself slowly losing control.

Many autistics describe “masking” their autism in order to fit in with the neuro-typical crowd. They carry proverbial masquerade masks on sticks with them whenever they leave the house, and if they feel disapproval and puzzlement from their neurotypical peers, the masks draw closer to their faces.

The truth is that for your entire life you have had to do things on other people’s time, not your own. Your executive functioning skills and ability to react take a hit when a situation arises that is so out of left field, you are left stammering your words, tensing up and stimming. You have difficulty processing verbal instructions at times, and the workplace is not designed to have employers hold your hand and repeat themselves multiple times. At least that is what you were told over and over again growing up.

Your supervisors, professors and colleagues have always told you to “speak up” when you need help, and not suffer in silence, but speaking up always elicits a sense of mild exasperation from your employer and colleagues. You feel like a pest, and you question whether or not you are really making an effort to pay attention at all, even though you are. After many years, you finally understand that you are essentially taking on two full-time jobs, and that one job lasts 24-hours, seven days a week, and is a permanent position.

So, what can employers and their institutions do to improve these circumstances? Ask questions, listen and be patient. Let the deadlines for tasks be known and understood and make allowances for your employee that are within company guidelines. It does not have to be an added burden but rather, an advantage and an investment in a remarkably gifted employee. Autistic individuals are often like refugees on a foreign continent. They do not know the language or the cultural norms instinctively but the longer they are on that continent, the more they learn through trial and error. As time goes on, they increasingly proceed to not only adapt, but thrive and dazzle with their unique perspectives and attention to detail that make them the ideal employees in any field.

Adults with autism profiles — primarily young adults — do not receive adequate enough attention or resources both in academic institutions and in the workplace, period. Once these individuals complete secondary school, they are tossed into open waters with few life preservers. A sizable portion of the attention we do pay to adults with autism is negative; for instance, we dwell on the unemployed rate and the number of adults on the spectrum who are still dependent on their parents or caregivers. What about the percentage of adults with autism who are gainfully employed? You could say that these individuals are defying the odds, but in reality, they are skilled and driven individuals who are looking to better themselves in this world, and they deserve support — as do their employers, who are giving them the opportunity to succeed.

As an autistic man, the above story reflects my own past experience in employment, as well as that of countless others with autism. It is important to point out that while I have not had all positive experiences as a professional, I have had the pleasure of working for certain companies under supervisors who have taken eclectic approaches to managing me, including a desire to learn from me, in order to better understand my unique work approach.

As fate would have it, I am putting the finishing touches on this piece just as a global pandemic is putting our nation’s healthcare system, economy, and psyche in a vise-grip. For months, millions of Americans have been forced to work from home and some, unfortunately, remain unemployed. Those of us with autism who are transitioning to new ways of working will need additional support, guidance, and reassurance from our employers. In turn, our employers are learning alongside their employers about how to conduct business-as-usual during very unusual times. This was never in the playbook. We were never given a truncated timeline with which to adjust our workload and productivity. It is touch-and-go to say the least, but we are all in the same boat together paddling along, rolling with the tides.

Getty image by Gorodenkoff.

Originally published: March 29, 2023
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