Autism, Change, and COVID19

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Autism, Change and Covid-19

Jen Blacow Operations Manager, Aspiedent CIC

26th June 2020

I never thought I would be saying that a worldwide Pandemic was the thing that came along and made traditional workplaces potentially easier to handle for autistic people. The downside is that it may make it less suitable for many non-autistic folks. Of course, it really depends on individual employees. But consider this…

Autism is described as a social communication disability. Generally, people with autism struggle with other people in some way, shape or form. The government guidelines for employers to make workplaces ‘safe’ are basically about social distancing and include

No Hot desking! Everyone to have their own workstation.

Aspiedent once worked with an autistic employee who had difficulties because at his new job, his office had adopted ‘hot-desking’ practice. He was upset to find that in reality, there were  ‘unwritten rules’ as to who’s (hot)desk belonged to whom. Naturally, this type of thing can be really confusing to an autistic person who struggles with nuance, sticks to rules rigidly and takes things literally, as some (but not all) do.

So, I suppose hooray for him, no more confusion!

Staggering when people come and go into the workplace

Leaving aside new changes such as homeworking, better mental health support and one-way systems (hence, no more unpredictable movement), there are now calls to stagger work start times. Another autistic employee we once helped had major sensory issues (hypersensitivity to movement and noise). It was so severe that after his train journey into Leeds Centre to come to work, he often had to be treated for physical shock due to the impact of being confined on a busy train during rush hour for half an hour.

But no more busy trains, stations, and pavements for him now… bonus!

Use of screens and barriers - avoid sitting people face to face

Sometimes, the reasonable adjustments that we recommend employers make for autistic people due to difficulties with sound, noise, and information overload, are to install barriers and screens between them and others. This can minimise the noise and disruption to the person. However occasionally the employer gives us the impression that this might be a challenging and/or expensive adjustment to implement.

…But wait, now this is seen as standard?!

Well, it has been a pleasure, but Aspiedent might as well pack up and go home now.

Well, not quite.

‘Change’ is well known to be a challenge in the workplace for many. Indeed, there is a whole academic domain on change management (my master’s degree in Human Resource Management revealed this rather surprising fact to me).

Basically, aside from extreme difficulties with change being a common problem for people with autism, nearly everybody, autistic or not autistic, struggles with change!

Forgetting the fact that the workplace guidelines are health and safety overload (viruses are so tiny that they tend to hang about in the air for you to bump into and are quite partial to sticking to plastic screens rendering social distancing a bit pointless) how will these changes affect neurodiverse employees (and actually most employees, we suspect) who dislike change? This a key concern for us.

How So?

Well, for example, you may have autistic (or just otherwise minded) employees who can analyse complex data with ease. Those who are able to look at the actual government data and, who based on their analysis of this data, see the whole public panic is an overaction.

It will be difficult to convince these types of people that the changes are actually necessary: they may be genuinely upset by the illogicality of the measures being put in place to stay ‘safe’. Indeed, they may argue that it is not possible to ‘stay safe’.

Indeed, workplaces may also insist that people wear masks. But that will be difficult for some employees, for example those hard of hearing and who rely on seeing the mouth to help them understand what is being said. Other employees may have read up on the actual evidence and concluded that masks are likely to do more harm than good.

Other employees (perhaps those with ‘contamination OCD’) may have become so scared by the government and the media that they will be extremely anxious about coming back to work. For them, no measures will be enough! They literally fear they are going to die and marching them back to the workplace to them feels equivalent to asking them to walk the plank!

Changes in staff who are physically there may also cause problems. And of course, the threat of redundancies or reduced hours will create a lot of general anxiety.

On the Flip Side

Nonetheless, most people will welcome having their own workstation, including those autistic people with sensory issues. You may have always had employees who have forever resented being crammed close together, and who will welcome having to sit further apart.

We have met a few people, including our autistic Director, who would quite like it if they had the kind of job where they could just turn up and get on with it. Those who have always socially distanced themselves to an extent.

Some people are hyper-sensitive to other people’s emotions which increases stress. Emotion does not go through screens, either! Another Bonus!

Autism, People and Covid-19 Changes

To put it simply, we doubt autistic people will have a harder time with the changes than anyone else. This is going to be tough for everyone. For example, everyone is going to struggle with the lack of social interaction and inability to have impromptu, private conversations.

Covid-19 has inadvertently made workplaces more autism friendly for some and potentially harder for some non-autistic people. The new guidelines will potentially take away all the joy of being at work for some people, while others will welcome the idea of just coming to work, doing their work with minimal interaction, and going home.

The latter will want to come to work because it separates work and home.

In summary, anyone who dislikes change (which is most people) will struggle

The points made in this article are no way near exhaustive.

But if you would like to know more about what you can do to look after the mental health of your employees as best as you can, including employees on the autistic spectrum (you may have many and you will likely have some), get in touch and we will be happy to discuss how we can help.

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