Autism Awareness Month: The Power of Inclusivity

Did you know that April is Autism Awareness Month? Autism, or Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), describes a wide range of behaviors, interests, activities, and often, challenges regarding social skills, speech and nonverbal communication, and a variety of strengths and weaknesses. Autism is often referred to as being a ‘spectrum’ -each case is unique, with a variety of challenges and strengths present with each person.

More than 3.5 million Americans live with ASD, in all racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic groups. Since the 1970s, autism has become more frequently presented in a variety of media outlets, including fictional portrayals in books, films, and television. A majority of these representations often lead to pity from the public, rather than an understanding or knowledge of autism. Autism is also commonly misinterpreted in media due to depictions of high-functioning ‘savants,’ such as in Rainman, leading to a variety of challenges for people with autism who are entering the workforce. Employees on the Autism spectrum are often perceived as ‘different,’ as they are unfamiliar with social norms and regulations. Those on the spectrum may have difficulty understanding and communicating sarcasm, facial expressions, and body language, making the ability to create and maintain relationships a challenge. They may also say the ‘wrong thing,’ without realizing it, leading to conflict with others as it may seem insensitive or rude.

Working with someone on the spectrum definitely has its challenges, but it is important to listen to your coworker and try to observe their behaviors and habits so you can interact with them without making them uncomfortable. Those on the spectrum often do not understand the general ‘rules’ of communication, so some of their behaviors may seem odd or even rude to you. Try not to get frustrated; simply listen and try to be as understanding as you can. Pay attention if they make eye contact or not; if they do not make eye contact, you should avoid eye contact too as it likely makes them uncomfortable. People with ASD also thrive in structured environments. Perhaps create a list outlining certain workplaces guidelines, such as expectations sending and receiving emails and appropriate responses, what is considered inappropriate comments, etc. These documents will likely benefit everyone in the office, not just employees with ASD, so do not single them out! Another consideration to make for these employees is to give alternate meeting options, such as a call-in or skype meeting, which allow the opportunity to avoid the unnecessary distractions that come with an in-person meeting.

Now that we know how we can be more inclusive as coworkers, how can managers make those on the spectrum feel more included at work as well?

For example, in recent years, open workplaces have become popular, yet they offer an incredible amount of distractions that make work a more negative and less-productive environment for ASD employees. In attempting to include all with open space, some may be excluded. So employers are encouraged to offer different workstations where employees can choose what works best for them. Some other suggestions include:

  • using specialist employment agencies to assist employers and applicants;

  • having clear unambiguous codes of conduct, job descriptions and competency frameworks;

  • using direct and unambiguous communications; and

  • creating documents including agendas containing standard and specific points for discussion, timescales (Hagner and Cooney, 2003).

Adjustments or adaptations that could be made for an employee with an ASD include

  • a defined set of job responsibilities;

  • use of organizers to structure jobs;

  • a reduction of idle or unstructured time;

  • clear reminders;

  • feedback and reassurances;

  • assistance from a CM/VR specialist where appropriate;

  • working arrangements and responsibilities of OH, line managers, HR; and

  • positive behavior support (Schall, 2010).

Working with ASD definitely has its difficulties. As coworkers and managers, it is our duty to make every employee comfortable in their work environment, and ASD employees are certainly included in that. Every person learns and interacts differently. By simply listening and trying to understand those around us, we can create optimal work environments for everyone. So be open-minded, listen, and learn.

Hagner D, Cooney B (2003). Building Employer Capacity To Support Employees With Severe Disabilities In The Workplace. Work: A Journal of Prevention, Assessment and Rehabilitation; vol.21; Number 1/2003, IOS Press.

Taylor B, Jick H, Schall CM (2010). Positive Behavior Support: Supporting Adults With Autism Spectrum Disorders In The Workplace, First Ed. Journal of Vocational Rehabilitation 32, pp.109-115.

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