Recent statistics from the National Autistic Society have found that only 16% of autistic adults are in full-time paid employment. We often help companies make reasonable adjustments for their staff. Whilst there is a variety of unique ways in which Autism presents itself, with relatively few, cost-effective or free adjustments, you can make your workplace comfortable and productive for your staff.
What is Autism?
Around 1 in 100 people have Autism. Autism is a lifelong developmental disability that can impair the ability to communicate and interact with others. This can often leave a person with Autism feeling alienated as body language, metaphors, and communication that we take for granted can be confusing and at times overwhelming.
Autism is often measured on a spectrum ranging from highly functioning people to people who might need a lifetime of specialist support. For those that feel that they can work, being in the right career with the right support can be enriching for their own development as well as their employers.
Cater to individual needs
Although it is unique to the individual, there are certain characteristics that some people with Autism tend to share:
- Over or underactive sensitivity to touch, sounds, smells, taste, colours, light, temperature or pain
- Highly focused interests
- Repetitive behaviour
- High focus on routines
- Difficulty understanding the emotions or social interactions of others
Ultimately, like a lot of the disabilities we work with, Autism can be a ‘hidden disability’ where it might not be obvious what someone might be dealing with. If they are happy to discuss their disability with you at work, as an employer it is your duty to make reasonable workplace adjustments under the Equality Act 2010.
In our experience as workplace assessors, no two people are the same. The real challenge is to make the individual as comfortable as possible. In some cases with an autistic client, we have recommended a different office chair fabric to cater for a sensitivity to touch, or furniture that rocks in a soothing motion.
Other effective adjustments that we have made include making sure that they have a fixed desk (even in hot desk environments) to ensure that their routine is not disrupted or unfamiliar. In the same vein, agile working environments can often create excessive noise levels that a person with autism might struggle with. Acoustic solutions are often a good way to absorb excessive noise levels to a more comfortable level and create some privacy.
These are minor and usually invisible changes to the workplace that proved to be a lot more comfortable for the user. Necessary adjustments can sometimes be funded by the ‘Access To Work’ government scheme.
Senator are the largest manfacturer of office furniture in the UK. They shared with us how to design an office space suitable for neurodivergent individuals:
- Designing the space with common elements, either from floor-to-floor or within one’s view point, can aid in orientation and provide a reassuring sense of order within an environment.
- Open-plan office can be distracting and overwhelming, quiet areas for focus, areas for concentration.
- Tech-free zones where we can escape the impact of constantly being pinged by technology.
- Places with clear lines of sight and viewpoints, such as internal staircases or mezzanines, help orient us in a space.
- Designing spaces with intuitive wayfinding elements can assist our brains’ innate positioning systems.
- Diverse work settings accommodate various user needs.
- Proportion ensures the relative size and scale of the various elements in a design are human scale. Ceiling heights and room proportion are critical to ensure the feel of the space is appropriate.
- Colour is a powerful communication tool and can influence mood and impact performance.
- Pattern recognition and logic order often results in acceptance and pleasure.
- Incorporating biophilia and natural materials into our environment helps to mitigate the negative impact of stress and have positive impacts on the wellbeing of occupants. Plants can also help offset smells and odours.
Of course, a big part of making work more enjoyable is to intertwine disability awareness within your company culture. Regardless of medical condition or disability, staff are the most valuable asset to any company, and creating an inclusive environment is important in making staff feel comfortable and productive. You can usually achieve this with awareness workshops, education and one to one sessions.
In doing this you can encourage better communication techniques to ensure that no one feels isolated at work.
Frequently check up with neurodivergent employees and ask them if there’s any changes that can be made to make them feel more comfortable in the office.