The necessity of reasonable adjustments for an autism-friendly workplace

Monday, 29 April 2024

Have you ever considered whether there’s something in your workplace environment stopping your team from performing at their best? For many people with autism, these unnecessary barriers can be a daily challenge to employment. 

We live in a world where workplaces are built with neurotypical people in mind, disregarding the 15-20% of the population who are neurodiverse. But as an employer or manager, you have the opportunity to rebuke this tradition and put accessibility first.  

This April is Autism Awareness Month, and we’re taking a moment to spread awareness around autism and the role it plays in the workforce. 

Some people with autism can find it challenging to adapt to change and new environments. That’s where the concept of accessibility comes in. Accessibility is the process of changing an environment so a person can access it, rather than expecting the person to “fix themselves” to fit in with society. 

There are many facets of accessibility, but one simple, yet effective, place to start is with reasonable adjustments. Reasonable adjustments are simple changes and systems that can be put in place to help people with autism reach their potential.  

Reasonable adjustments aren’t complicated, hard, or expensive. In fact, nine times out of ten they’re completely free. So, where do you start? 

Disclaimer: we understand that there is no one right way to refer to autism. Every person has their own personal language preference, and these preferences are valid and should be respected. In this article, we will predominantly use “people with autism.” 

The importance of reasonable adjustments in an autism-friendly workplace 

Reasonable adjustments in the workplace are aids specific to an individual that are put in place to help them do their job. They can help an employee to manage workloads, prevent sensory overload, make sure that all tasks are set out clearly, and make communication with other staff members more comfortable. 

The adjustments will differ for each person, but they are typically small changes that result in a large impact. Despite this, many employees (particularly those with autism) who are in work may not have the confidence to access the reasonable adjustments they need. 

Employers have a duty to make sure all employees are having their needs met. This includes all aspects of the job, whether it be sensory or the actual tasks themselves. The Disability Discrimination Act states that all who are placed at a substantial disadvantage because of your disability are entitled to reasonable adjustments. 

Barriers people with autism might face in the workplace 

  • The lack of a place where they can fully relax. A room or space where they can depend on it being quiet and without sudden noises that disrupt and/or distress. 
  • Overstimulation due to artificial light. Whether it be from the ceiling lights, blue light from a computer/monitor screen, or a mix of the two – it’s a factor that can be distracting and harmful, especially to people with autism. 
  • Lack of information on how to accommodate for their needs. Even if a person with autism discloses their disability prior to hiring, it’s likely that their manager won’t be provided any information about autism or what they can do to assist with their transition into the workplace. 
  • Lack of training about autism to recognise the unique positives and skills people might possess. Too many managers/employers associate the news of an employee with autism as neutral or negative, leading them to underutilising the employee. 
  • Lack of clarity when it comes to instructions and training. People with autism typically digest information in a more visual way, and purely text-based instructions can prove unclear or hard to follow. 
  • Lack of structure and organisation. Systems and patterns typically bring comfort to people with autism and allow them to properly focus on tasks and the day-to-day. Without these systems in place, the lack of focus can mean a lot of wasted time between tasks. 
  • Unfair treatment/comments made because of their autism. Workplace and bullying harassment policies are central to every businesses code of conduct, but most lack strict guidelines on how to treat people with autism. 

Adjustments you can make for your autism-friendly workplace 

Some employers might be thinking to themselves why they should care about this? If there is an employee that is “higher maintenance” than others, why not just fire them and hire someone who requires “less effort” to keep on their team? 

How are problems like sensory overload, and lack of comfort not problems that everyone has to just deal with? Aren’t they all just issues with the person’s lack of tolerance and not the workplace itself? 

First of all, it’s illegal for employers to fire employees due to any struggles with their disability, thanks to the Disability Discrimination Act. But it’s also good practice for employers to always be aware of and prioritise the needs of their employees. Resorting to firing and rehiring should be only considered in extreme cases, and doing so without proper consideration can result in a lack of faith and trust from your remaining employees. It’s bad for morale, productivity, and overall quality of work. 

And second, disregarding the needs of your employees by not making the necessary reasonable adjustments means that these employees won’t be able to perform their tasks effectively. This has a knock-on effect that causes the workplace as a whole to suffer. 

Reasonable adjustments typically do not cost much, and their implementation will directly display to your employees that you’re valuing and prioritising their needs. These adjustments typically result in a knock-on effect of productivity in the workplace. 

Reasonable adjustments that make a big difference 

    • Placing the person with autism’s workstation in a quieter, less bright area to minimise overstimulation and give them a place where they can entirely relax.
    • Rather than having shifts that vary in length and start time from week-to-week, organise structured and regular hours. This allows the person with autism to compartmentalise their week and better prepare themselves to shift into a work mindset and maximise productivity.
    • Ensure the person with autism has their own set work area, as opposed to sharing areas or hot desking. It helps them focus and reinforces how essential their role is to the business they work for.
    • Investing in or allowing the person with autism to wear noise cancelling headphones during periods of concentration. It’s unrealistic to expect the workplace to always remain perfectly quiet, but it’s important to provide the tools for people with autism to maintain focus over extended periods of time.
    • Allot some extra time during/after meetings to make sure that the person with autism has appropriately understood and digested the information presented. Some people with autism won’t speak up in the fear that they’ll be seen as a burden, so take the initiative and do a quick check to make sure that they’re on track and have understood everything mentioned.
    • Put in place some additional training for managers that highlight how to properly manage people with autism, recognising the unique set of skills and strengths they bring to the table and how to best utilise them.
    • Include specific guidelines in the workplace bullying and harassment policy on how to appropriately treat and behave around people with autism.
    • Take the time and work with them to organise a clear routine and work schedule, with regular check-ins to make sure they’re on track. This will provide people with autism additional structure in the workplace and offer them more of a focus on which tasks should be their priority, maximising their performance.

    Making the effort to put these changes in place would mean that any present and/or future employees with autism will feel appropriately welcomed, recognised, and appreciated.

    You don’t need to make reasonable adjustments alone 

    Taking the step to put these changes in place can be a little daunting. Fortunately there are free disability employment specialists that you can partner with to help guide you and provide resources to assist with the process. Working directly with a Disability Employment Services (DES) provider can ensure that the appropriate reasonable adjustments are being made and that your efforts and resources are being allocated correctly. 

    EPIC Assist works with businesses regularly to do just this. We ensure employees with autism feel that their skillsets are both recognised and utilised in their workplace. Their skillsets provide unique benefits to all workspaces, so we go the extra mile to make sure they have the necessary support and an autism-friendly environment that enables them to work at full productivity. 

    If you’re ready to prioritise accessibility this Autism Awareness Month, contact EPIC Assist today. 

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