Dear employers ~ How to work with employees “with” Asperger’s / autism ~ Part 1: Making your office an autism-friendly environment

Companies in various fields are waking up to the realization that we, the people on the Asperger’s/autism spectrum, have various skills and personality traits that often make us pretty darn fine employees.  I may address these characteristics in a future post.

But for now, let’s say you’re one of these companies.  You’ve already seen the light, and you know you’d like to hire more of us…except that you’re not quite sure how we operate, and you’re not quite sure what we need or which accommodations might have to be implemented to make your company an Asperger’s/autism-friendly work environment.

Naturally, when I mention words and phrases such as “accommodations” and “Asperger’s/autism-friendly work environment”, a business owner or manager might get a little nervous.  That’s because those words and phrases tend to cost businesses money, and they begin to wonder how they’re going to figure those new expenses into the budget (do they raise prices?  Try to cut costs in other areas?)  Money is finite for businesses, too; they’re not all rolling in it (I should know; I’m a business owner myself, and even an expense of $100 USD can add stress and strain.  Sometimes we break a sweat over the idea of yet one more regulation/mandate).

Fear not.  The suggestions I have don’t have to cost much.  In fact, the suggestions outlined in this post are probably the most expensive, since they involve making changes to the physical office environment.  Other changes discussed in future posts will likely cost nothing at all to implement.

First, it’s important to try to understand how our brains work.  This isn’t easy, and the learning is a process.  But in a nutshell…

  • We tend to have excellent memories
  • We tend to pay attention to detail
  • We tend to aim to please
  • We tend to be quite logical
  • We often connect unusual “dots”
  • We’re usually good at organizing and systemizing
  • We typically have a strong internal ethical code and insistence upon honesty
  • We can be extremely creative and productive
  • We have a strong sense of justice and fairness
  • Many of us can work long hours
  • Many of us have extra talents or skills in creative and/or scientific fields
  • We can offer excellent ideas and suggestions for additional/improved products and services
  • We often don’t mind “mundane” tasks that others consider boring, exhausting, or trivial (this can range from counting items for inventory purposes to writing software programs in computer language to tallying up expenses, to examining forensic evidence, to noting results in lab research to proofreading written materials…you get the idea)
  • We usually say what we mean, and mean what we say
  • We’re typically very good at hyperfocusing (given the right environment)
  • We tend to abstain from drama, gossip, and time-wasting

But if you’ve already come across the recent news stories (link to Google search string “companies hiring autism”, results filtered through their News tab) and you’re considering hiring us, you’re probably already at least somewhat aware of all of that.

Here’s the catch: those natural talents listed above usually come as a package deal with the list below…

  • We’re usually sensitive – to environmental factors (sounds/noise/chatter, lights, smells, air drafts, textures, work clothing, etc) and other people (their ignorance, insensitivity, “bad vibes”, judgment, criticism, anger, irritation, assumptions, rumors, gossip, bullying, personal attacks, etc)
  • We can be prone to sensory overload
  • We often interpret communication (written and verbal) more literally; sometimes we also don’t understand humor, irony, sarcasm, or hidden/double meanings
  • We internalize criticism and personal attacks
  • If we’re engaged in one task, activity or line of thinking (I personally call these “modes”), we often have trouble stopping and starting another “mode”; our trains of thought can be interrupted fairly easily–even someone coming into our work area to ask us a question might completely break our train of thought (more on that and its effect in this blog post)
  • We can be socially awkward.  That doesn’t mean we’re antisocial; it just means we might act differently than most and we may or may not feel insecure about it; we may or may not be aware of society’s expectations in social settings, or social “rules” when interacting with others
  • We can be anxiety-prone, even in response to (what others may consider to be) minor stressors
  • We can experience “shutdowns” (periods of time where we can’t seem to think or function, during which we need to go somewhere to be alone and “process” our thoughts and emotions) in response to sensory overload, cruelty/personal attacks or harsh criticism, or intense stress/anxiety
  • We need sufficient “downtime” (usually during the evenings and weekends, but may need short breaks periodically during the workday) in order to prevent these shutdowns.  (In short: our evenings and weekends need to be ours.)
  • We often have strong emotional responses to injustice, unfairness, cruelty, aggression, or sensory stimuli
  • We might not always realize when we’re becoming stressed, getting hungry or thirsty, or approaching exhaustion
  • Most of us are incredibly introverted; it’s not that we can’t interact with people, but the more we have to do so, the more exhausted we become, and the more quickly we reach that point of exhaustion

Believe me–as apprehensive as a business owner/manager might feel about that second bulleted list, the first bulleted list more than “makes up” for the second one.  It’s important to know–and to continue to keep in mind–that the impact of the second list, while a fact of life, can be minimized.  Although always in the background (and not to be minimized in terms of importance or validity), it doesn’t always have to surface.

How?  What’s a company owner/manager to do?

It’s important to realize that the two lists (the advantages and the “catches”) oppose each other, meaning that if one list is dominating the situation, many items on the other list are suppressed.  I’ll explain…

It mostly comes down to the working environment and the amount of stress in the Aspergian/autistic person’s life (both within and aside from the workplace).  If the stress-load is minimal, then the talents and advantageous qualities mentioned in the first list will surface, and the potential “negatives” in the second list are suppressed to the point that they’re nearly nonexistent.  If the stress burden is higher, however, then the second list becomes more prominent, and the qualities mentioned in the first list are suppressed.

What follows are some suggestions that are relatively simple and straightforward.  They’re also relatively easy and many are inexpensive to implement.  Of course, when some items call for a potential solution that may require an expense, please know that these suggestions are simply ideal solutions, ideas to consider and implement as much as realistically/financially feasible.  There are multiple ways to implement each suggestion.

In this post, I’ll discuss the office environment itself.  It’s akin to the stage of a theater, and it must be properly set.  The goal here is to minimize any environmental factors that may cause discomfort and distraction.  As mentioned before, I’m a business owner myself; up until eight months ago yesterday, I was completely unaware that I was on the Asperger’s/autism spectrum.  Nevertheless, I was (well) aware of my strong preferences for certain environmental surroundings, so when we underwent the “build-out” process of each of our offices (we’ve had two), we put the suggestions below into place from the start.  It has made all the difference!

Lights – fluorescent lights often flicker; this may be imperceptible to the human eye, but it is definitely detected by the nervous system.  Long hours under these lights may result in fatigue, exhaustion, depression, or irritability.

Possible solutions: At the very least, it’s wise to be sure that the bulbs don’t flicker.  If possible, consider changing the fluorescent light fixtures out for incandescent, halogen (if not too bright), or recent-generation LED lights.  Or, perhaps allow the employee on the spectrum to choose a desk/floor lamp and turn the overhead fluorescent lights off, if they need to.

What we did: we installed incandescent “can” lights, recessed into the ceiling, and we installed a dimmer-wheel, so that they can be set to the brightness I can handle on that particular day.

Sounds/noise – tile or otherwise hard-surface floors tend to echo and amplify sounds, which can also lead to fatigue or irritability (although not usually depression, as is the case with fluorescent lights).  People on the Asperger’s/autism spectrum might also be extra-perceptive of “little” sounds, too, such as high-pitched whines that are subaudible to most people, or perhaps a faucet dripping in the sink in the break room, or a radio playing (even if it’s in another room), or even people talking down the hall.  Open working areas are usually extremely unpopular among Asperger’s/autistic people.

Possible solutions: If possible, please consider low-cost office carpeting or floor rugs, or allow the employee on the spectrum to bring in their own rugs, if needed.  If applicable and feasible, please consider adopting a low-noise environment, where conversation is conducted behind closed doors and trivial/unnecessary conversation takes place within a break room or other designated area (such as a front lobby/reception area, etc).  You might ask your Aspergian/autistic employee if they would prefer a separate area, if one is available.  You might also work together to obtain a white-noise generator, a little trickling waterfall, a fan, or maybe allow them to play music softly (possibly through headphones), if it helps them tune out environmental noise.

What we did: we selected office-grade carpet and installed it throughout the entire office suite with the exception of the front lobby (which is a realistic-looking faux “wood) and the break room (which is linoleum, since it has a sink, and the break room is separated from the rest of the office by a door that remains closed).  After my meetings, I often turn on a mellow internet radio station at very low volume and close my office door.

Smells – Asperger’s/autistic people are usually extra-sensitive to smells of any kind.  These include perfumes, cleaning chemicals, scented sprays/deodorizers, microwaved or takeout food, bug killers, mold/mould, sewer inefficiency, nail polish, paint, new carpet, floor polish…you get the idea.  Not only can these create distraction, but they can also interfere with mood, causing irritability or even anxiety.  They can also cause physical symptoms such as lightheadedness/dizziness, skin itching, headache, nausea, sinus problems, vision issues, and general malaise.

Possible solutions: Wherever possible, you can minimize food smells by confining odorous food to the break room, removing the microwave (so that the smell of microwaved food doesn’t float down the hall and permeate the office suite), and restricting other food to designated areas, or requiring lunch to be consumed off-site.  Perfumes and other body product-related scents are easy to eliminate–they can simply be banned.  Harsh cleaning chemicals may be swapped out for non-scented/fragrance-free varieties.  Deodorizing sprays generally shouldn’t be necessary, if the room is properly ventilated and there’s no persistent root cause of undesirable odor.  (If there is, do look for the root cause.)  New carpet/furniture/wall paint should always be properly ventilated immediately.

Textures – the way I consider this is usually within the context of clothing.  Office attire can be fraught with issues for many people on the spectrum.  Scratchy tags, rough/scratchy/irritating material, confining sensation or restricted movement, failure to let the body “breathe” such that humidity or smells accumulate, etc.  Here, again, even though these issues may not be noticeable to other people, they certainly can be for people on the spectrum.

Possible solutions: If possible, please consider allowing “dressy casual”, in which there can be more opportunities for comfort.  If the employee on the spectrum won’t be interacting with or visible to anyone outside of the office staff, please consider allowing complete-casual attire.

What we did: Since my office is medical-based, I tend to wear a white coat and “scrubs” underneath.  They’re usually made of 100% cotton (thus letting by body “breathe”), they allow for extensive movement, and they don’t require dry-cleaning.  When not wearing scrubs, I’ll usually choose predominantly-cotton dress-casual pants and a “female” button-down shirt.  Shoes are always comfortable and never confining.  Socks are also always comfortable, and also cotton.

Air environment – this not only includes temperature, but also humidity levels and air movement.  People on the Asperger’s/autism spectrum, like those off the spectrum, vary widely in their preferences.  Some like it warmer, while others like it cooler.  Some need more dryness; others need more moisture.  Some need more intensely-moving air, while others prefer more mildly-moving air, and still others like “still” air (no draft).

Possible solutions: ask the employee him/herself, for their own preferences – I wouldn’t try to guess on this one, and there doesn’t seem to be any one “typical” preference.

What we did: I need drier air, so I have a dehumidifier.  I also have a thermostat that lets me set maximum and minimum temperatures, and it will activate either the heat/furnace or the air conditioning unit, depending on what is called for at that time to maintain temperature within those parameters.

Office equipment – uncomfortable chairs (especially with arms), desks with roller-platforms for computer keyboards, etc, can all interfere with concentration.  Many of us can be (legitimately) extra-sensitive to aches and pains; many of us have co-existing conditions, the effects of many of which may include body pain and/or physical “deformity” (even though it may not be visible).  (Personally, I was born with a club foot, I have joint hypermobility, and at times I’m prone to cervicogenic migraines, other types of headaches, and other body pain.  These are all completely invisible, and to any observer, I appear “normal” – but I’m not.  Please take the person seriously if they disclose information of this type to you; they’re not trying to pull one over on you – they’re more than likely completely legitimate.)

Possible solutions: If possible, please consider taking the employee on the spectrum to pick out their own office chair.  If and when the times comes that you change out other furniture like desks or tables (or anything else), please make every attempt to seek suggestions from the employee.  Please try to check in with the employee about furniture placement/arrangement, ergonomics and comfort, and any other feedback they may have for you.

What we did: we avoided desks with roller-platforms underneath the main desk surface, because I tend to bang my knees into them.  We have each employee (on the spectrum or not) pick out their own chair after their 90-day probationary period ends.  We placed furniture as spaciously-but-conveniently as possible, so as not to be cramped enough to provide a claustrophobic-like distraction, but also for furniture contents (like books, etc) to be within easy reach.

An excellent accommodation option – If possible, you might consider allowing the employee to work different hours.  Many of us have different day-night sleep-cycle rhythms, and thus we might not perform at our best at conventionally-traditional times of day.  Some of us do our best work in the afternoon, others in the evening, others overnight, and still others in the wee hours of the morning, before everyone else gets up.  This may not work for all positions in all fields, but it works more often than might be originally realized, and it can alleviate multiple aspects of everyday work-life that can be challenging for us, such as sensory overload, excess light, excess people, interruptions, customer/client visibility, etc.  This accommodation can be a win-win in multiple ways!

Final Thoughts:

This post was originally intended to be an all-encompassing, stand-alone post, but it got much longer than I had anticipated, so it has become the first part of a short series.  This series will be tagged “Hiring and Working With People on the Asperger’s/Autism Spectrum“.  In the following post (or posts?) of the mini-series, I’ll address the day-to-day nuances, such as policies, conduct, etc; these will generally be FREE (i.e. no-cost) strategies that businesses can quickly and easily implement into their everyday operations – the “little things” that can make a huge difference in morale, fulfillment, happiness, and job satisfaction for people on the Asperger’s/autism spectrum, which, of course, leads to higher productivity and lower turnover. 🙂

Of course, if you’re a business owner, manager, supervisor, consultant, or another type of decision-maker, and you’re reading this, you’re already ahead of the curve, and I thank you kindly on behalf of not only myself, but others within our amazing community with whom you may cross paths 🙂

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6 Comments

  1. Interestingly enough, I am a truck mechanic and my work environment should be hell on earth for any one with autism. BUT. Having done the academia, teaching, office, using just my brain sort of work for the first 20yrs of my work life, I can say that my current work environment is the best for me.

    I find a lot of it out of my control, yet I’d rather the benefits I get over the controllable office situation.

    Benefits are:
    – I get fresh air everyday
    – I get to move around as I need
    – I can make noise
    – I don’t have to care how I look (no make up or office clothes!)
    – I work alone in my area, mostly
    – I get sunlight on my skin if I choose to workoutside

    Cons are:
    – I cannot control others making noises, such as sledge hammers, air rattle guns
    – I cannot control the revolting smells from the food factory next door
    – I HATE the texture of dirt (flour, powder too, so I wear gloves)
    – I have to wear overalls, the collar of which irritates my skin

    I found that by choosing the sort of work I wanted, including factors such as the type of environment I wanted to be in, I am happier in what I do. I had to think outside the limited square I’d been shuttled to (good girl with brain = academia), but I found an unorthodox career that fits me. It took a good 23 yrs to find it, but it has been worth it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I love it! Thank you for sharing this! 😊😊

      I totally agree; a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, I worked indoor construction, helping a carpenter install kitchen cabinets. It was one of the most fun jobs I’ve ever had! I’d meet him at the job site, he’d bring the boom box (stereo) and I would unbox all the newly delivered cabinets and put them in their respective places (bathroom, kitchen, etc). I’d take out my drill and put the screws into the shelves so they’d stay in place inside the cabinet. Then, my work was done for the day! The carpenter and I got along very well and neither of us needed to talk much, and we were both pretty easygoing, so it was one of the lowest-stress jobs I’d ever had! I look back on those days fondly. So cool to know there are other people like us out there! *High-fives* 💜💙

      Like

    1. Hey girl! ❤️ I know I’m almost a month late (my deepest apologies! 😳), but I wanted to thank you so much for the reblog! 💜💖

      Liked by 1 person

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