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Accommodations for Autistic Employees

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Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a neural developmental disorder, which is “characterized by social impairments, communication difficulties, and restricted, repetitive, and stereotyped patterns of behavior” [1]. Severity ranges from one individual to another, which is why it is referred to a spectrum. According to the CDC, approximately 1 in every 88 children is diagnosed with ASD and is 5 times more common in boys than girls [2]. Those with ASD vary in intelligence levels; “about 40 percent have average to above average intellectual abilities” and may posses “distinctive abilities” [3].

Many on the Autism spectrum experience “altered” sensations which could manifest as hypersensitivity to stimuli, hyposensitivity. Sensitivity to lights, sounds, smells etc could be heightened, diminished, or varied [4]. Many have difficulty attending to more than one sense at a time [5]. They may have difficulty with keeping track of time and place, relying on routine to orient themselves in their environment. Maintaining order and minimizing clutter can be very important.

This can lead to many difficulties with communication and social skills. Many on the autism spectrum prefer to not make eye contact when speaking with someone else. This may be in part due to their need to ignore visual information to allow them to attend to the auditory information being presented to them. Many also have difficulties with “theory of the mind,” or the ability to understand what another person is thinking or feeling [6]. “For example, children with ASD often do not point or gesture. This theory suggests they cannot understand that others do not see the same things they are looking at. Adults with ASD may have difficulty understanding that other people do not know or feel the same things they do. Similarly, if a person with ASD asks a question and other people do not understand it, the person may not be able to figure out how to rephrase the question and will, instead, just repeat the same question over and over. This does not mean people with ASD do not care about others; they may just be unable to step outside themselves and see the point of view of others” [7]. They also often have difficulty understanding sarcasm, and take everything incredibly literally. Communication difficulties can go both ways, and some may have problems communicating what they are feeling. Some on the autistic spectrum may rely on particular behaviors to indicate a particular emotion.

Anxiety is a huge problem for those on the autistic spectrum. Understandably so, as it can be difficult to orient oneself in a highly variable, fluctuating world and society. Many find humming and repetitive movements such as rocking, or flapping their hands to be soothing. It helps them to calm down, block out disorienting stimuli, and think. To the uninformed observer they may seem odd or even crazy, but it is just a tool for dealing with high stress.

Neural Differences

According to the TEACCH (Treatment and Education of Autistic and Related Communication Handicapped Children) program at the University of North Carolina, common thinking/behavioral patterns that those on the Autism spectrum exhibit that differ from the norm are:

•“Relative strength in and preference for processing visual information (compared to difficulties with auditory processing, particularly of language)”
•“Frequent attention to details but difficulty understanding the meaning of how those details fit together”
•“Difficulty combining ideas”
•“Difficulty with organizing ideas, materials, and activities”
•“Difficulties with attention. (Some individuals are very distractible, others have difficulty shifting attention when it is time to make transitions)”
•“Difficulty with concepts of time, including moving too quickly or too slowly and having problems recognizing the beginning, middle, or end of an activity”
•“Communication problems, which vary by developmental level but always include impairments in the social use of language (called “pragmatics”)”
•“Tendency to become attached to routines, with the result that activities may be difficult to generalize from the original learning situation and disruptions in routines that are upsetting, confusing, or uncomfortable”
•“Very strong interests and impulses in engaging in favored activities, with difficulties disengaging once engaged”
•“Marked sensory preferences and dislikes.” [8]

Employable Attributes of those with ASD

Despite some limitations, those on the autistic spectrum have specialized skills that make them highly valuable employees. Examples include:

•The ability to focus, for hours at a time
•Attention to detail
•Visual and visualization skills
•Emphasis on accuracy
•“Strong sense of duty” [9]

It is important to note that not every individual with autism is the same. Each has their own individual abilities and limitations.

Common problems in the workplace

Finding employment can be an extremely difficult and arduous task for those with ASD. Aspects of their disability that make integrating into a work environment difficult include:

•Concrete thinking : Difficulty understanding complex instructions. Require help to understand why a task is being performed.
•Communication – Not understanding social cues, slow to process verbal information, blunt honesty, taking things literally
•High reliance on routine: Prompts given in the first few days may be incorporated into the employees formation of a new routine. If they become reliant on these prompts as part of their new environment, they may not cope well when these prompts are phased out [10].
•Knocking things over in close quarters – many on the autism spectrum have problems with proprioception, or awareness of their body and may be clumsy.


Creating a routine: During the first few days of a new time, the individual may be trying to form a new routine, so anything that occurs during that training will be incorporated into the new routine. When training them on a new task, it is helpful to train them within the environment in which they will be working. Only include prompts that will continue to be around. If you need to prompt them, it is better to do so by tapping them on the shoulder and pointing, rather than speaking [11].

Scheduling: Those with ASD do get bored with overly repetitive routine. Creating varied tasks for different days, but providing a schedule ahead of time is very helpful.

Clearly defined goals

Use visual communication as much as possible.

Explaining concepts with demonstrations or diagrams
Use of email to communicate
Simple sign language can be useful as a visual cue [12]

Minimize distractions

Soft lighting
Sunglasses or headphones
White noise machine
Avoid clutter

Organized workspace

Designated and marked areas for different tasks
Enough space to easily move around in
Safe space to retreat to in times of stress

Training other employees

Do not be offended by lack of eye contact. It isn’t meant as a slight.
Know their behavioral language
Contact with a small set of coworkers rather than the public

Where to find help

There are programs designed to assist those with ASD and their families. While many programs are geared toward children, there are those that help adults find and transition into employment. The TEACCH Autism Program at the University of North Carolina offer an array of services. Project SEARCH is geared toward helping young graduates find employment after they finish school. A revolutionary consulting firm in Denmark called Specialisterne specializes in hiring highly skilled individuals with ASD. They work as consultants to other companies who need employees to performed highly focused, specialized tasks with high accuracy [13]. Other resources can be found here Autism Speaks.


1) "Autism Fact Sheet." : National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS). N.p., n.d. Web. 07 Dec. 2012. <>.
2) "Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASDs)." Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 29 Mar. 2012. Web. 07 Dec. 2012. <>.
3) "What Is Autism?" Autism Speaks. N.p., n.d. Web. 07 Dec. 2012
4) ^AutismEmployment Standifer, Scott, Ph.D. "Adult Autism & Employment: A Guide for Vocational Rehabilitation Professionals." At DPS. Disability Policy and Studies, School of Health Professions, University of Missouri, 2009. Web. 06 Dec. 2012. <>.
5) ^TEACCH "TEACCH Autism Program." — TEACCH. N.p., n.d. Web. 07 Dec. 2012. <>.
6) ^AAdvantage Cook, Gareth. "The Autism Advantage." The New York Times. The New York Times, 02 Dec. 2012. Web. 07 Dec. 2012. <>.

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