Resources for Autistic Employees and Their Employers: Reasonable Adjustments.
14th August 2020
Sitting down to write this, I was going to start with the sentence.
“Despite any employers best intentions, ‘Autism friendly’ workplaces are not actually possible to achieve”
But then I remembered what my LinkedIn tagline said.
It said that I ‘help make workplaces autism and neurodiversity friendly’. Embarrassing. But yes, even I get confused about this.
So I will try and break it down. An ‘Autism Friendly’ environment is a term widely used to communicate that something is ‘accommodating’ for autism, for example environments can also be described as dementia-friendly, dog-friendly, child-friendly etcetera.
So you (I) are forgiven for using the term ‘autism-friendly’.
But in the true sense of the phrase, it is actually impossible to have an ‘autism-friendly’ environment, especially in a working environment.
Now Janine Booth, who is an autistic trade unionist, is likely to disagree. In section 7 of her TUC document which is entitled ‘Making Workplaces Autism Friendly’, she provides a long list of ‘reasonable adjustments’ that can be made for autistic employees.
Presumably, as she says, to make workplaces autism friendly.
Written Resources for Employers Managing Autistic Staff
This blog is the last in a series of blogs about resources for employees with autism and their managers, and is centred around the topic of making reasonable adjustments for employees with autism.
So it is important to note there are resources in the form of books for employers who find themselves managing somebody with autism or Asperger’s syndrome. Here are two:
Autism and Equality in the Workplace by Janine Booth &
An Employer’s Guide to Managing Professionals on the Autism Spectrum by Marcia Scheiner
Both are quite insightful books, and certainly useful in different ways. But neither are perfect. But before returning to these, why is it not possible to have an autism friendly workplace?
‘Autism-Friendly’ = Impossible
First and foremost, everybody with autism is different. It would be very possible to make a reasonable adjustment for somebody with autism that would directly contradict another person’s needs.
What if you only had one medium sized office to house your staff. And what would you do if you had one employee in there who was ‘hypersensitive’ to noise, due to a diagnosis of autism, and that meant they could not work with background noise?
But then you had another autistic member of staff who had a ‘hypo’ sensitivity to noise, which meant in order for them to even dream of concentrating at work, they needed noise stimuli from various places.
What would you do?
Now a reasonable adjustment in this scenario, based on the content of Janine Booth’s book, would be to adapt the workplace for the person with hypersensitivity so that it is a quiet environment, or to provide them with noise cancelling headphones.
It may then be suggested to provide the person with hypo sensitivity to noise with a noisy environment or provide them with something like a white noise machine.
But is this really practical or realistic for the same small office? Can you reasonably cater for one person while not inadvertently discriminating against the other? Probably not.
And what about people without autism who might not be able to work in an environment of such extremes because they have a ‘normal’ level of sensitivity to noise?
Sensory Issues – We all have them
In fact, people who are not autistic can have problems with noise sensitivities (hyper and hypo). Autism does not have a monopoly on sensory issues, something autistic activists often forget. Similar issues happen with temperature; some people sense the cold more than others and vice versa, therefore arguments about office temperature regulation can happen. Effectively, it is the same thing happening as in the example above – sensory issues!
Emotions are senses as well. There are differing levels of ability within both autistic and non-autistic populations regarding sharing and receiving of emotions when interacting with others (social chit chat). It can be particularly difficult for autistic people.
But it would be entirely unreasonable to ban all social chit chat at work because one person struggled severely with this. That person may have to find a job where they could work alone.
Back to the Books
Janine Booth’s book, ‘Autism and Equality in the Workplace’, is more about removing barriers and accommodating an autistic employee with the assumption that autistic people’s problems are caused by how non-autistic society functions.
In contrast the other book, ‘An Employer’s Guide to Managing Professionals on the Autism Spectrum’ by Marica Scheiner, is more about supporting an autistic employee to do their job better. It provides suggestions as to how an autistic employee could help themselves and is about strategies for helping autistic people.
However, this book talks a lot about autistic people lacking ‘theory of mind’ which is guaranteed to wind up autistic people! Theory of mind is a term used to describe somebody’s ability to understand what another person might be thinking or feeling and the motivations behind their behaviour.
Theory of Mind
Autistic people are unfairly accused of lacking ‘theory of mind’. But in fact, it works both ways.
It is not so much about autistic people lacking theory of mind as about autistic people and non-autistic people not understanding each other because they think in such different ways.
It is common for a non-autistic person to jump to false conclusions about the behaviour of an autistic person and ascribe motives that are just not there, which is of course unfair.
So apart from assuming that autistic people are the only ones that lack theory of mind (rather than non-autistic people lacking theory of autistic mind, too) which is problematic, this book is recommended in that it provides a more balanced and realistic approach to the issues of autism in the workplace.
In summary, the problem is that autism is an umbrella term for a range of symptoms underpinned by a range of different underlying difficulties. Aspiedent has actually been categorising these underlying difficulties and has catalogued at least 50 different possible underlying difficulties!
The issue is to figure out which underlying difficulties the person has and work from there. That is the only way to work out what reasonable adjustments might be helpful for an autistic employee and to decipher whether they are suited to a particular role.
There is no standard set of reasonable adjustments for autism. Reasonable adjustments need to be tailored to both the autistic employee and the workplace. It should not be assumed that it is always possible to accommodate all the difficulties and in some cases the person will just not be suited to the job.
Needless to say, I have now changed my LinkedIn tagline to something a bit different!