Opinion: On the Spectrum in the Workplace

‘Employees with autism can be successful in any business.’

Share this article!

April is Autism Awareness Month. You might wonder how this is relevant to Oregon business managers. The answer is simple: Most businesses either already employ or will in the future hire people who have autism spectrum disorder.

Some employers fear that hiring people with autism may be risky or burdensome. Or they have watched fictional depictions of people with autism in television programs such as The Big Bang Theory, Boston Legal or Atypical and concluded that persons with autism are too weird, annoying or scary to fit successfully into their work environments.

However, learning about the condition, understanding legal obligations to people with disabilities and identifying a range of possible accommodations should make the prospect much less daunting.

Given the right accommodations, employees with autism can be successful in any business. Their inclusion will enrich the workplace for the employee, the employer and co-workers.

Autism spectrum disorder is an umbrella category describing people with disabilities ranging from severe to mild. It is not rare. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that one of every 67 children experience autism spectrum disorder.

At the most severe end of the spectrum, a person with the condition might be nonverbal, exhibit repetitive physical actions or vocalization, or engage in self-injurious or violent behavior. At the other end of the spectrum, a person with the disorder might have a sky-high IQ and highly honed skills but may also struggle to conform to the norms and expectations of a workplace. Most people with autism fall somewhere between these extremes.

Federal and state laws require public schools to provide appropriate special education or accommodations that enable students with autism to participate in and make progress in their education and to prepare for transition to adult life, including employment.

Many people with autism go on to complete bachelor’s or graduate degrees and offer a wealth of knowledge and skills to employers.

After completing secondary and/or post-secondary education, most people with autism are able and willing to work. Unfortunately, more than half of all adults with autism are unemployed or underemployed. This need not be the case.

Federal and state laws require employers to accommodate people with disabilities — including autism — to enable them to be successful on the job. The obligation to accommodate people with autism may seem onerous to a prospective employer.

An employer who understands the condition and recognizes how autism affects each individual employee can facilitate successful accommodation for an employee with autism and create a successful working environment.

People with the disorder exhibit any number of characteristics that may pose challenges in the workplace. Among the more common are: struggling with reciprocal communication; difficulty recognizing or responding in a typical manner to verbal and/or nonverbal social cues; problems with forming and maintaining personal relationships; hyper-reactivity to sensory stimuli; a tendency to focus on preferred interests or activities; and the need for predictability, order, systems and consistent routines.

Though these traits are common among persons with autism, they do not apply to all, nor are they necessarily disabling or disqualifying from employment. In fact, employers might benefit from workers who are highly focused, detail oriented and happy to follow procedures.

Acceptance of employee diversity and a willingness to match accommodations to the individual need of each employee with autism engenders workplace harmony and productivity.

Accommodations for people experiencing autism may include but are not limited to: work spaces with specialized lighting, noise reduction or perfume restriction; schedule modifications (e.g., part-time, early arrival or departure); alterations in communication modes (e.g., written communication rather than verbal, or vice versa, or via video conference rather than in person); sequential instructions in writing; concrete expectation examples rather than expecting employees to intuit what is required or desired; and break time and space for employees when they feel overstimulated.

The key to appropriate accommodation of employees with the disorder is to recognize their individual differences and identify adjustments to enable them to perform the essential functions of the job. Such accommodations need not pose an undue hardship on the employer. They are often simple, and most adults with autism can explain what they need if asked.

Here are some useful dos and don’ts: Do ask prospective employees about their credentials, experience and knowledge to ensure their ability to perform the essential functions of the job. Do ask employees what accommodations would make it possible or easier for them to perform their job duties.

Do recognize and appreciate the individuality and unique gifts of each employee with autism. They are not unlike your other employees, each of whom may be unique in both positive and challenging ways. Do educate yourself about autism and about the variety of accommodations that an employee with the disorder might need.

Don’t ask prospective employees if they have disabilities. Don’t make assumptions or accept stereotypical ideas about the capabilities of prospective employees with autism. Don’t assume that you know what accommodations an employee needs solely on the basis of an autism label.

Don’t view employees with autism through a stereotypical lens or treat them differently than other employees. That would be unlawful disability-based discrimination.

Diane Wiscarson and Mary-Anne Linden are attorneys with Wiscarson Law.