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Autism. The workplace. Most people have experience with at least one of these, but there are growing numbers of people who encounter both, either from the employee or the employer side of workplaces. Sometimes autistic employees disclose and request accommodations, but even if they don’t, how can an employer support them?  

Being autistic in the workplace is something that is not discussed nearly enough as it should be, often because employees and employers are not sure what to say or how to say it. Working with students and employees on the autism spectrum has shown me that there are a few key practices that employers can implement that will improve work places and spaces for their autistic employees, as well as other employees with disabilities. While this list is not exhaustive, these few practices provide a great starting point for employers.   

Practice #1: Making the Workplace Welcoming

In an ideal world, all workplaces would be welcoming of every individual employed there. Having an inviting and welcoming workplace is important for more than just general reasons: it is necessary to create feelings of trust and worth in employees with disabilities, including those with autism, and it helps to cultivate professionalism among employees in healthy ways. How does an employer make a workplace welcoming? Superficial elements of decor and refreshments can be nice, but the real ways to improve the welcoming nature of workplace are in the cultivation of communication and respect among employees and members of leadership.  

This involves having an ‘open door’ policy when employees need to discuss aspects of workplace culture, positive or negative. It also involves making sure that all employees have clear expectations for their roles and are provided necessary training for their work as needed. Employees also should be engaged in training on important workplace matters, such as codes of conduct/language, DEI, and Title IX policies, to name a few. On a related note, employers in management should work to ensure that any signs or instances of discrimination or inappropriate behavior are dealt with swiftly and seriously. These actions show employees that the workplace is managed with care and attention to professionalism and respect.  

Practice #2: Being Accommodation-Forward

Building on the first practice, this next practice involves prioritizing formal accommodations in the workplace. Because workplaces are prohibited by law from discriminatory practices, including against people with disabilities, it is important for employers to ensure that their process for requesting accommodations is clear and readily available to all employees, including individuals on the autism spectrum. For autistic employees, part of this clarity involves making sure that HR professionals mention this process during onboarding. Additionally, clear information about the accommodations process must always be made available to the employee in writing, either via hard copy materials or via the company/HR website. Doing these things allow an employee to review the material in and on their own time, without the pressure of having to comprehend all aspects of it and complete it on the spot. This also provides documented information about what is needed to apply for accommodations, such as medical documentation, which someone with autism can have difficulty remembering without a written reminder.  

Practice #3: Allow Employees Space for Self

For many employees, there is a lack of understanding about how to implement practices #1 and #2 without going overboard. It may seem obvious, but allowing employees a space for self is a practice that sounds easier than it is done, in many cases. What does it mean? To allow space for self? I like to think of it as allowing employees the space they need not only to do their work but to advocate and speak for themselves if and when they choose to do so. This means not making assumptions about what an employee with autism or another disability may need or be thinking at any given time. It also involves being patient as employees work to communicate their needs in the workplace, as this may be new to them. Similarly, it is critical that employers avoid infantilizing or ‘babying’ employees with autism (or any disability). Not only is this an inappropriate practice, but doing so can minimize an employee’s self-worth and advocacy skills, not only on the job but in general.  

Employees with autism and other disabilities are engaged, intelligent, and ready to get their work done—employers must prioritize improving their work places and spaces so that this can happen.  

Dr. Sarah Young is a seasoned higher education and disability professional with years of experience in both academic and student affairs, where she focuses on increasing accessibility and equity for students through staff and faculty development and improvement of institutional policy and processes. She earned her Doctorate of Education at George Washington University and her Bachelor and Master of Arts degrees in English from Old Dominion University. She was recently appointed as the Director of Disability Support Services at Trinity Washington University, and she teaches English literature and composition as a faculty member at three other colleges as well.