How to Create an Autism-Friendly Office

Rob Wilson, President, Employco USA

How to Create an Autism-Friendly Office

Autism rates have dramatically increased in recent years. However, while schools and community service programs have readily responded to what is being called “the autism epidemic,” employers are still lagging behind when it comes to meeting the needs of employees with ASD.

According to a study led by research scientist Anne Roux of the A.J. Drexel Autism Institute in Philadelphia, 40 percent of young adults who are on the autism spectrum struggle to find employment. This is not just a crisis for those who are luckless in their job search, but it is a misfortune for companies as well.

Individuals with ASD often have unusually high intelligence, superior focus, and creativity. In fact, experts say that some of our greatest thinkers (Albert Einstein, Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin and Amadeus Mozart) would have been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) if they lived in today’s era.

While employees with ASD can be a great credit to their firms, many companies struggle with creating autism-friendly workplaces.

From Chick-fil-A to Applebee’s to Boeing to Comfort Suites, national chains have suffered negative press in recent years for failing to meet the needs of their staff with ASD, or for refusing to hire those with ASD altogether.

Meanwhile, companies such as Microsoft, Walgreens and Vodafone have actually created initiatives to seek out candidates with autism, with great success and public approval.

So how can employers create autism-friendly workplaces?

Realize that people with ASD are not trying to be difficult. People tend to have a horror of being too politically correct these days. They scorn the idea of “safe spaces” or catering to people’s finer feelings. Sadly, this can mean that employers are not as flexible as they could be when working with employees with ASD or similar conditions (such as Sensory Processing Disorder, which often is related to ASD). 

It’s important to become educated about these conditions and to realize that some people genuinely do need to have modifications made to their workplaces to be successful at their duties. Just as we do not hesitate to make handicap-accessible restrooms, we should similarly be willing to work with those who have developmental disorders. They aren’t trying to demand special privileges because they are lazy or conceited, but rather because their health conditions require it.

Be willing to think outside the box. The Americans with Disabilities Act ensures that employers make reasonable accommodations for employees with special needs, including those with autism or even learning delays such as dyslexia or attention deficit disorder. But there are ways you can do this without harming your bottom line. In fact, I have found that several of these modifications are beneficial to the office environment as a whole.

For example, switching out bright, grating florescent lights and opting for energy-friendly, warm LED lights can go a long way in helping individuals with ASD or SPD. Similarly, loud or disruptive music played over the speakers can be silenced, or replaced by instrumental music. If possible, you can even create a ‘quiet area’ in the workplace, where talking, cell phone use, and other noises (like loud tapping on the keyboard, chewing gum, etc.) as well as scents (such as perfume and aftershave) are disallowed. 

You should also be willing to work with employees on a case-by-case basis. Open floor plans are common these days, but many people with ASD perform better if they can work somewhere solitary, with limited distractions and background noise. Although it might seem like ‘special treatment,’ giving an employee with autism a private office to work is no different than ensuring an employee with mobility issues has access to an elevator and handicapped parking space.

Be willing to take a small risk in hopes of a big reward. As aforementioned, employees with ASD can do amazing things in the workplace when they are given the chance to do so. Be open to taking a chance on someone who might otherwise fall to the bottom of the pile. You could end up making one of your best hires. 

[Image courtesy: hepingting]

About the Author

Rob Wilson is president of the Wilson Companies ( ), whose affiliated firms include: Employco USA, Inc.. Together, The Wilson Companies provide HR and insurance solutions to businesses throughout the United States. Employco USA is a human resources outsourcing firm that manages and administers human resources and employer-related risks for its clients, thereby allowing them to concentrate on their core business objectives. Rob co-founded Employco in 1996 and has grown the business to over $300 million in revenue. In 2015, Employco USA was recognized in Inc Magazine as one of the fastest growing companies in America.