How to create an autism friendly workplace

Featured Articles

How to create an autism friendly workplace Person with green/black Afro hair and red lipstick poses in front of the Autism rainbow infinity symbol.Image for an article on how to create an autism friendly workplace.

Companies want to be competitive by hiring talented people, yet many Autistic workers are overlooked because managers don't know how to accommodate their needs. | ©nadia_snopek / Adobe Stock

How can companies create an autism friendly workplace?

It is essential to support your autistic employees in the workplace by providing them with an autism friendly workplace that allows all employees to succeed and thrive.

Companies seek a competitive edge by hiring talented people, yet many capable workers are overlooked because they are Autistic.

Autistic people are unemployed at disproportionate levels. As a result, companies are missing out on employees able to make valuable contributions. And society at large is affected since the situation creates inequities and financial dependence.

So why is it happening? Largely because autism is poorly understood and managers are ill-informed about how to accommodate Autistic workers and how to create an autism friendly workplace.

Fortunately, recent research has provided us with many strategies to make workplaces more inclusive as well as create autism friendly workplaces.

The diverse ways autism presents in the workplace

Autism encompasses a wide range of traits and abilities. Each Autistic individual is unique, and the way their autism presents itself varies in the workplace.

Common traits include trouble “reading” social/emotional cues and difficulties with conventional language and communication skills. Some Autistic people are non-verbal and use assistive technologies, making it important to remember that being non-verbal does not mean being incapable.

Another common trait is repetitive thoughts or behaviors, including “stimming.” Stimming may include hand flapping, rocking, etc. It’s a reaction to being overwhelmed by a situation or by everyday stimuli.

Stimming helps people cope by focusing intensely on specific sensations or behavior. People who stim report that they find it embarrassing but critical in order to calm themselves. As such, the lack of social acceptability of stimming can be a greater workplace problem than the activity itself. It is important to keep in mind that not all Autistic people stim.

Lack of empathy is frequently cited as an Autistic trait. This characterization is disputed by the Autistic community and by evidence from psychologists.

Both suggest that some Autistic people may suffer from excessive levels of empathy that overwhelm them, but the way they express it is not well-recognized. Other traits associated with autism include the ability to focus on intensively, persistence, and high detail orientation.

Unspoken social etiquette in the workplace can be a mystery to Autistic people

Many barriers experienced by Autistic people in the workplace relate to social/communication difficulties and are affected by how they behave but also how others perceive them.

For example, Autistic people are often accused of lacking in emotion. They do experience emotions but tend to express them in ways that are not readily recognized. Socially, they may dominate conversations while focusing on narrow interests, have difficulty understanding variations in tone and reading body language and facial expressions, and may take things inappropriately literally.

Many find eye contact overwhelming, leading to avoidance that is mistaken for being anti-social.

Norms can be difficult for Autistic people to perceive. The unspoken social etiquette that everyone is expected to instinctively know may be a mystery, negatively impacting job performance in the workplace when expectations are not clearly communicated.

Change can also be anxiety-inducing and lead to challenging behaviors if it happens unexpectedly. Heightened sensitivity to stimuli such as smells and sounds can lead to reactions that seem extreme. A lack of understanding of those reactions often leads to Autistic people being labeled “difficult,” and those labels create additional problems.

How to create an autism friendly workplace

Autistic people are able to focus intensively. If a topic interests them, they will spend large amounts of time developing expertise. Attention to detail, combined with heightened pattern recognition skills, are also common traits, leading many Autistic people to become technical experts in their fields.

Some Autistic people enjoy repetitive routines and can tolerate work that others find monotonous. Others are creative, able to visualize solutions to complex problems, and develop unique insights. Autistic people are also known for being forthright and are less likely to engage in toxic political behaviors.

Autism Acceptance Not Awareness

Graphic collage of a person with black curly hair tossing the autistic infinity symbol. Image for an article on how to create an autism friendly workplace.
Caption: Resolving communication issues within teams will help create an autism friendly workplace and improve productivity for all.  Credit:  ​​©Carlos David / Adobe Stock

1. Reduce workplace stimuli

There are many ways to reduce unnecessary stimuli at work in order to create an autism friendly workplace. I’m providing some examples but this should not be considered an exhaustive list. Solutions are limited only by one’s creativity.

Physical blocking of workspaces can reduce distractions. Examples include providing private offices or cubicles that face a corner. Whenever possible, LEDs should replace noisy and intense fluorescent lights. Noise-canceling headphones can also be used, although some people will not be able to tolerate the sensation.

Similarly, uniforms can be a problem if the fabric is itchy, collars are tight, or there are tags that irritate. Wardrobe flexibility may be needed. Moving beyond the physical, minimizing interruptions can also help. You could encourage the use of e-mail instead of phone calls and ask people to use meeting rooms instead of hallways for conversations lasting more than a couple of minutes. 

Co-workers could be asked to schedule chats instead of “popping in.” And these suggestions help both autistic and neurotypical employees. 

Regardless of your efforts, workplaces may still overwhelm sometimes. A “quiet room can be very beneficial.” They are darkened rooms in low-traffic places containing comfortable furniture and a minimum of other sources of stimulation. 

Spending time in a quiet room helps Autistic people cope when overwhelmed, and non-Autistic workers also report psychological benefits from quiet spaces. A productivity win for everyone.

These are all simple low cost ways to create an autism friendly workplace.

2. Create a culture of clear communication in the workplace

The communication and social difficulties experienced by Autistic people are heavily intertwined. And so resolving communication issues will also help with creating an autism friendly workplace. First, make unspoken norms explicit

Managers should be trained to provide detailed instructions in writing and avoid ambiguity in task assignments. Things that may seem obvious, such as how to prioritize assignments, should be explicitly explained.

Managers should clearly state what's expected each day to day, with a clear "to do" list and responsibilities. Many autistic employees thrive with routines at work (as do many neurotypical employees), so where possible, help employees develop a routine when they start work. For example, if your office includes RFID access controls, one of the first things that should be in their daily tasks is to make sure their RFID tags are attached to their employees' ID cards to give them access to different parts of the building.

Performance criteria should be clearly outlined, and employees should be capable of monitoring their progress. It is worth noting that these steps help all workers and represent documented best workplace practices.

Autistic workers report that their ability to communicate is increased when they are able to see questions in advance; when people avoid jumping between multiple topics; and when their intent is not judged by eye contact or having the “right” facial expression.

Clarity is key for building an autism friendly workplace: Managers can give clear directives and deadlines to employees, and then help clear any obstacles that prevent those directives from being accomplished.

3. Offer social and emotional coaching in the workplace

Even with the supports already outlined to create an autism friendly workplace, Autistic colleagues may find the social and emotional behaviors of others mystifying. A coach can be helpful in creating an autism friendly workplace. That mentor could be a trained co-worker or an outside expert. Co-workers may also benefit from receiving information to increase understanding.

These are all simple steps that can help employers create autism-friendly workplace and leverage the large group of under-utilized Autistic workers in the labor pool. Many of these accommodations could help all workers and represent good business practice. Accommodating autism, therefore, has the potential to make our workplaces more just and productive for all.

The Conversation
Article by
Katherine Breward

Katherine Breward, the author of "How can companies create an autism friendly workplace?" is an Associate Professor, Business and Administration, University of Winnipeg. er research focuses primarily on disability accommodation in the workplace and labor market entry for historically disadvantaged populations. Her research has appeared in the Canadian Journal of Disability Studies; Case Research Journal; Equality, Diversity and Inclusion: An International Journal; and the Journal of Immigrant and Minority Health.