Making the Workplace Inclusive for People with Autism

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations for applicants and employees who disclose disabilities such as Autism Spectrum Disorder. However, many employers don’t know how.

NYU Steinhardt ASD Nest Project Director Lauren Hough Williams and Professor Kristie Koenig’s whitepaper, Autism in the Workplace: How Occupational Therapy Practitioners Can Support the Neurodiverse Workforce, outlines strategies for occupational therapists (OTs) to help individuals on the spectrum with the following workplace challenges:

1. Interviewing

Discuss with applicants what to expect, trouble-shoot potential conflicts, identify “hidden social rules,” and role-play different scenarios.

2. Lighting

People on the spectrum can be sensitive to distractions such as the buzzing of fluorescent lights. Teach individuals how to advocate for alternative lighting at work or navigate challenging sensory experiences.

3. Self-regulation

The highly attuned sensory systems of those on the spectrum may benefit from brief breaks that encourage movement. These breaks can include taking a quick walk or stretching at their desk. OTs can help those on the spectrum recognize their self-regulatory needs and identify specific strategies to maximize these breaks.

4. Noise

Open offices encourage community and collaboration but this can be overwhelming for neurodiverse employees. Help employees identify the environments in which they work best and provide them with strategies on how to access alternative, quiet workspaces when necessary.

5. Communication

Nonverbal communication (i.e., body language or tone of voice), sarcasm, and abstract language can be challenging for those on the spectrum. Encourage employees to ask for agendas and plans ahead of time to eliminate misunderstandings.

6. Support

Encourage employees to identify a mentor and help them to educate their mentor about autism. This mentor can help navigate social nuances and “office politics” and problem solve challenging situations.

7. Organization

Help individuals to create and sustain both time and material management systems that align with their strengths. These systems are especially important in situations that require multiple multitasking projects.

8. Awareness

Provide corporate training to educate companies about autism. While people may know about autism from the news or pop culture this doesn’t mean they know how to collaborate with individuals on the spectrum in a professional setting. Trainings ensure that employees who are neurotypical benefit from the unique strengths of colleagues with autism and help to avoid misunderstandings.

Source: Hough, L., and Patten Koenig, K. (2014). Autism in the Workplace: How Occupational Therapy Practitioners Can Support the Neurodiverse Workforce. OT Practice 19(2), 14-16.