Let’s make life easier for autistic folks at work!
Carly Ho 🌈 Oct 9
My name’s Carly Ho, and I’m a Senior Engineer at Clique Studios in Chicago; I’m also an autistic adult. I was diagnosed during college as part of getting help for my executive function problems. I sometimes have difficulty with getting overwhelmed by sounds, often find eye contact incredibly uncomfortable, and can get really fidgety in long meetings if I’m not actively engaged somehow.
I’ve made it to a place I’m pretty happy with, career-wise, but it’s not all been smooth sailing, and over the course of my years in tech I’ve learned a lot of things about myself and the environments I work best in. To pay it forward, I wanted to put together some information to help make more workplaces a comfortable place for autistic folks.
Some Terminology: What is autism?
Autism is hard to pin down, since its markers exist on a spectrum. Autistic people “may communicate, interact, behave, and learn in ways that are different from most other people,” in the words of the CDC, but “there is often nothing about how people with ASD [Autism Spectrum Disorders] look that sets them apart from other people.”
The differences in how autistics communicate and perceive the world often cause them (us!) social and behavioral challenges in understanding and being understood. While there are no hard limitations on what autistic people are capable of, the way society is structured can make many things significantly more challenging.
While “person-first” terminology is recommended for referring to people with disabilities, many autistics prefer identity language (“autistic” versus “person with autism”). This doesn’t cover 100% of the autistic community, so it’s always good to double-check with people who have a personal stake in it.
“Neuroatypical” is also a way to refer to people with neurological differences, often specifically referring to autism, but sometimes also other neurological conditions and developmental disorders. (“Neurotypical” being the inverse.)
How are work environments stressful for neuroatypical folks? And how can we fix it?
There's a lot of things in the workplace—and particularly in the tech workplace—that can be a struggle for autistic folks to handle. While tech has long been considered something of a career refuge for autistic people in that it's more acceptable to stay heads-down programming most of the day and not socialize much, that's not how all autistic people prefer to work, and there are still a lot of hurdles.
A lot of this advice is also what in accessibility is called a "curb cut" effect—while it's helpful for autistic folks, they're also things that might help people with other neurological conditions, or even neurotypical employees.
Communication is often a struggle for autistic folks. Some are entirely nonverbal, and others can talk but struggle to express themselves or read tone from others in spoken communication. As a result, many autistics prefer email or chat programs for communication, where they can consider their words more carefully, and where emojis and parentheticals can clarify emotional tone.
Furthermore, communication in general can be stressful; social anxiety is a frequent companion of autism due to the fact that autistic people go through a lot of uncertainty in social situations. If you’re sending someone a message, even if it’s just friendly conversation, lead with your intent; open-ended messages can stress people out, since they don’t know if it’s bad news, a request, or just chatter.
Try and get to know how individuals like to receive communication and feedback. I know some people (including me!) have “readme” files about how they prefer to communicate at work. If your organization hosts events, consider also having color-coded badges at events to allow people to set their own level of engagement.
Noise and External Stimuli
Many autistics have difficulty with various forms of sensory processing. Noise is the most common office hazard out of all of those—open office environments, which are ubiquitous in tech, often come with noise and distractions that can make it even more difficult for autistic employees to work, since autism can make it harder to filter out distracting noise.
Try and have an emcee or event leader keep cross-talk/multi-directional noise to a minimum at events for people who have sensory overload problems, and provide rooms in the office for people to take phone calls and have conversations away from desks. If you have an open-office environment, consider subsidizing noise-cancelling headphone purchases. It can also be nice to have work events in quieter settings than the usual venues of restaurants or bars.
Long Meetings and Stimming
Many autistic people have difficulty maintaining focus through long meetings. The expression of autism can sometimes overlap with that of ADHD—fidgeting and poor attention span. A lot of autistic people feel most comfortable when allowed to engage in stimming, which often involves some kind of repetitive movement. Doing this generally helps autistic people maintain a sense of calm and focus, but can be misconstrued as being inattentive or disruptive.
Autistic adults in the workplace generally know how to regulate their own behavior in a way such that it's not attention-grabbing. However, specifically allowing people at meetings to do other things to occupy their hands and not necessarily sit completely still as long as they're engaged is something that might help autistic employees feel more comfortable in knowing that their behavior won't be interpreted as disengagement.
If it's necessary to have long meetings or education sessions, consider building in things that invite attendees to participate and have stretch breaks.
Dealing with priority and schedule changes
A common feature of autism is difficulty with executive function—which is to say, organization and successfully executing all the steps to complete a task. It can sometimes interfere with memory, planning, and time management, among other things. Autistic adults in the workplace generally have some measure of executive function, but will sometimes need different accommodations than neurotypical employees.
Let folks know about schedule changes and plan changes with as much lead time as possible. This is polite, but also helps autistic co-workers re-plan their time.
If you can, make requests or tasks in written form in addition to verbally so that there’s a reference able record. Also, try to be specific as possible about priority of tasks if there’s a distinct order; what may seem obvious to you might not to others.
And above all else…
Include neuroatypical folks in your diverse hiring efforts, and listen to them about what accommodations they need. The saying goes that “if you’ve met one autistic person, you’ve met one autistic person,” and it holds true for a lot of other types of neuroatypicality. Different neuroatypical folks have very different skills, needs, and difficulties, but we also tend to have a good handle on what will help us best if you make it clear that it’s possible to be accommodated.
What helps you?
Readers at home: those of you who are autistic or neuroatypical, what challenges do you find in the office? What accommodations and strategies do you find helpful?