Historically speaking, the needs of people on the autistic spectrum in social and occupational contexts has been prone to misunderstanding and more often than not, disregard. Since society at large is still catching up to recognising how common this hidden disability is, while also trying to navigate the endless changes and new terms coined for this condition (Asperger’s syndrome, for instance, was reclassified as autism spectrum disorder in 2013), it is important to recognise that autism does not have defining characteristics, quirks or traits and is in fact, a condition that exists on a spectrum.
Though there are overlaps in the behaviours that autistic people tend to display, everyone is different – and so, as an organisation with team members on the autistic spectrum, we feel we can offer some introductory insight into accommodating the needs of autistic people in workplaces, social gatherings and other environments based on their first-hand perspective with autism.
As a general rule, large groups can be over-stimulating and overwhelming to be in for those on the autistic spectrum. Michael, who manages our social media, much prefers one to one interaction, due to the frequency of social nuances in large groups. Although reading situations like these come naturally to most of us, it can be a lot to compute for those on the autism spectrum, in addition to finding the “right words” to say in these situations. As for some, words can be non-native to their personal mode of thinking. Although not the case with every autistic person out there, Michael also claims to misinterpret jokes, particularly when irony is involved.
Being a small company, we find it easy to accommodate his preference for small group interaction, as this provides better options for meaningful participation. For this reason, when it comes to the workplace, we would recommend asking colleagues on the autism spectrum what their preference is if it can be accommodated.
Providing agendas and materials in advance can go a long way when it comes to accommodating those with autism in a work environment. At Direct Access, we do our best not to change agendas on the fly and give our autistic employees notice when it comes to their work. Although we must stress again that this is not a rule (and based on Michael’s testimony and experience, as well as our own research), autistic people generally prefer to prepare for things in advance and appreciate a solid structure and routine to their work schedule.
Autistic people are known to have more sensitive, well, senses! Particularly when it comes to sound and light sensitivity. Due to Central Auditory Processing Disorder (CAPD), many autistic people report difficulty understanding auditory information, particularly around loud noises. Therefore in the workplace and social settings alike, it is crucial to hold conferences, exhibitions parties, etc. in environments where foreground and background noise are separated. This issue extends beyond autistic people, as it also poses issues for blind and/or deaf people who are also autistic. Keeping doors shut and avoiding flowing water can be helpful to autistic people, as well as providing areas where they can retreat from the noise. If this cannot be accommodated, offering disposable earplugs can be a useful alternative.
As well as noise, many other elements of the built environment might also prove intrusive to autistic people, such as light. Using non-fluorescent lighting can prove useful to autistic people who might otherwise be overstimulated. Natural lighting is always best, however, in situations where this is not possible, non-fluorescent lighting must be avoided as it can cause issues with balance, dizziness, and even communication. Michael, also has epilepsy, as many autistic people do. Therefore, being mindful of flash photography is another factor that should be taken into consideration in social environments such as weddings, parties, and corporate events.
There are a variety of items that can be used to signify someone having autism in public settings, although there is no universally accepted and ‘official’ garment, bracelet, or ribbon. The National Autistic Society, for instance, offers a wristband to show support for autistic causes which can be purchased and worn by anyone. The one Michael most recommends, however, is the Hidden Disabilities wristband/card, which is a discreet way to indicate a hidden disability to those in public or private settings that might be unaware. An organisation might choose to offer this signifier to an autistic staff member if they find themselves in a new environment. Some autistic people might choose to avoid this, but providing the option to wear a bracelet or ribbon to an autistic colleague or friend shows consideration for their disability in a way that most would not think to consider.
Preferred styles of communication vary from person to person, and this applies too to an autistic person. Michael prefers to be given information using semantic and pragmatic language, and in the work environment, we recommend an autistic staff member be asked directly about their preference. This applies also to the way communication takes place, in addition to the language. Many autistic people prefer taking instructions or engaging in social interactions via text message as it can be less overstimulating. However, Michael prefers to conduct online meetings where he can hear the other person’s voice. But for some this can trigger anxiety, and research shows that autistic people are four times more likely to have this condition than a neurotypical person. So again, it is important to find out the individual preferences of someone with autism and not jump immediately to conclusions.
Finally, it is important to note that the wider Autistic community prefers to be referred to as Autistic, in much the same way the Blind and Deaf communities prefer to be referred to as Blind or Deaf. In as much as hearing impaired and visually impaired are often offensive to the Blind and Deaf communities. Referring to an Autistic person as a person with autism is often offensive in the Autistic community.
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