Whose Planet Is It Anyway?

Friday, August 15, 2008

Take This Job and Accommodate It

Here's a question for autistic adults who are or have been employed, or who are seeking to join the workforce. If you were writing an article or manual with advice for employers about how to accommodate the needs of autistic workers, what recommendations would you make?

As we know, employers often have very little understanding of what helps and hinders their autistic workers. (For more commentary on employers' lack of comprehension of neurological differences, take a look at Bev's excellent post Employment: an interview.)

What kinds of accommodations have helped you to be more comfortable and productive in the workplace? Have you been in a situation where you could have benefited from a change in your work environment, but your employer wouldn't agree to it? If you are unemployed and looking for work, in what specific ways would more flexibility on the part of your potential employers improve your opportunities?

And a related issue: Autistics are a very diverse population and have widely varying needs. Therefore, if you were giving employers general advice on providing accommodations, you would want to take care to avoid stereotyping autistic workers. What concerns would you consider to be most important in that regard?



  • I have something like AS but I haven't had a job yet thanks for the info though I might get a job through my school this year.

    By Blogger AZ Chapman, at 10:46 AM  

  • Give clear and precise directions if you want us to know what you do and don't want us to do.

    I had a job stocking shelves at a bookstore. It lasted only a very short period of time, because of the following scenario:

    1) They would hand me a bunch of books to shelve and tell me what sections to shelve them in.

    2) I would shelve the ones I could fit on the shelf, and then notice that not all of them fit on the shelf.

    3) I would ask what to do about this.

    4) They would say "Take some books off."

    5) I would ask what books to take off.

    6) They would say "Use your judgment."

    7) I would stand there paralyzed

    8) They would get on my case to do it.

    9) I would ask them which ones to take off.

    10) They would tell me to take any off.

    11) I would grab some books at random off the shelves.

    12) They would tell me not to take those ones off

    #5-12 would repeat over and over and over again.

    Another autistic person had trouble working at the same bookstore, because they kept moving the merchandise around. It was also crowded, chaotic, and loud, making it hard to move around in without bashing into people. Neither of those things helped matters either.

    By Anonymous Amanda, at 12:09 PM  

  • I should also add I had two jobs that worked very well for me.

    What all the tasks at the first job had in common was that they were simple, repetitive, and I could see the work I had done very obviously. For instance, shoveling horse crap and bringing it by wheelbarrow from one point to another. Painting fences. Etc. You could see what you'd done, so it was obvious what still needed to be done and how to do it. They could also be done alone.

    (Come to think of it, I had an opportunity to do unpaid work at a (mainstream) school I was attending (all students got the opportunity to do this) that had those things in common too. Instead of outdoor work, it was office work, but the same principles applied. (The only part I had trouble with was alphabetizing. Things like stapling were easy and fun.)

    And the other job was a volunteer wildlife rescue job, where (despite going there through a disability work program) I was given the same training as everyone else there. What made that job easy was that after training in all the different areas, they encouraged you to pick which parts of the job you found more interesting. I liked sorting the feeding syringes into categories by size. Someone else liked mixing up the bird food in the blender. Etc.

    Generally, although I know there are autistic people who are the exact opposite... the more abstract and intellectual the work, the worse I do at it.

    People should remember that just because an autistic person has certain intellectual abilities, does not mean that they have those abilities at their command 24 hours of every day. I have always found such work exhausting and difficult to sustain, so I did better at concrete, physical, repetitive work that did not rely on a good deal of language or high-level abstraction.

    I know that some autistic people, however, hate being stereotyped into the exact kind of work that I do best at. But it's true of me and I know others it's true of.

    A job I am doing as a volunteer, that might evolve into part-time work at some point, does involve intellectual work, but it has a few things going for it that most such work does not:

    1. I am allowed a high degree of flexibility, such that I can do the work whenever my brain is triggered into the kind of understanding and memory required for the work, but am not forced to attempt this when unable to do it. By high degree of flexibility, I mean that there is no regular schedule, no minimum requirement of work to do, and very few deadlines. (This is why it would never translate into enough employment to live off of.)

    2. The work involves one of my areas of intense interest, which means that the information is more readily accessible to me in my mind, than almost any other information of its kind would be. (I have noticed that my area of interest is often an exception to the "have a really difficult time calling up memory of this on demand" thing.)

    3. I can do most of the work from home, and am not required to leave my computer in order to do it.

    4. Communication with my boss is done over the Internet.

    Basically, the nature and the scope of the work is so exactly tailored to my life that I'm unlikely to find another job like it anytime soon. My guess is that the reason they're willing to go to such lengths is that the combination of knowledge and cognitive style required to do the work is pretty rare. (Which is another reason that I don't think I'd be likely to get many offers of this kind of job. It's an extremely specialized situation that fits my areas of knowledge, kind of knowledge, and means of accessing that knowledge, pretty exactly.)

    Another volunteer job involves interacting with cats (in fact the job is to interact with cats), which is something that is more intuitive to me than interactions with humans.

    Basically, for work to be feasible for me, it has to be something I can sustain.

    Not just something I can do, and not just something I appear "really good at" -- a sprinter is "really good at" running very fast, after all, but would have real trouble maintaining that speed if they had a job that required distance running. Intellectually, I'm a sprinter. And any employer that hires me to do intellectual work, has to take that into account and be incredibly flexible around it rather than expecting me to sustain the same high-level intellectual feats I can sometimes accomplish in isolated instances for limited periods of time. (It's the same principle that led to my total academic collapse when my short-term intellectual feats convinced people I ought to be pushed further and harder than almost any other kid I knew.)

    By Anonymous Amanda, at 12:36 PM  

  • Employment accommodations that helped me at the job I successfully sustained for a long time (office environment):

    1. Sensory: no florescent lights, out-of-the-way desk location / private office, use of head phones

    2. Communication: almost completely text-based (email / chat), no phone, most meetings done through chat, rule in the office (well known to all) never to interrupt me in person (only via chat or email), many office mates assisted with clarifying language for me when I was confused

    3. Social: Boss who handled most social things and explained stuff I was missing to me / protected me from office politics / explained work-related expectations to me in a way I understood, no expectation that I would participate in office social events, job modified so that I had no contact with clients

    4. Organizational: Flexible hours, boss warned me of any changes WELL in advance (often before announcements were made public), ability to make own schedule (in the event that I had days when my brain wasn't working or I was having transition issues), guidance from boss to create deadlines, prioritize tasks, and assist with task management

    5. Job Content: Job was created in a large part by me to focus around my special interests and abilities

    While the above things worked well for me for a long time they were unfortunately to a large degree tied to a particular boss who was very good with me. I don't think one can ask for "good boss" as an accommodation *grin* so what helped me at that job may not be generalizable. Maybe "good boss" could be replaced by "job coach?"

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 1:51 PM  

  • Current job:

    good points:
    - it's one of my interests
    - don't have to answer phone. Communication via 'stickies'.
    - clear instructions per assignment
    - socialising not required
    - they remind me to eat lunch
    - I can take short breaks during the work as long as I get the work done within advised time.
    - they're willing to talk about any accomodations I think I need, and I don't even have to come up to them and ask, I can just e-mail my jobcoach and she will take it up with them.

    bad points:
    - the journey to work
    - the lights (which they've said they'll try to do something about, but I realise that might not be an overnight fix)
    - even though I work part-time and the work is fun, I'm so drained and overloaded from the work and the travel that I can't get anything else besides work done anymore. I'm only just managing food and personal hygiene.
    - because I work less than most and need days off now and then just to recover and am unreliable in that I don't know when I might have to drop out for a day or longer and they can't give me queues of work like the others, I get paid a whole lot less and am thus still unable to come off youth disability, and make less than minimum wage. Supposedly this counts as good experience, and later on down the line I will be able to make more than minimum wage. In the meantime, though, I'm unable to do anything but work, for pay that doesn't exceed monthly disability.

    Advice for employers:
    listen to the individual's needs. They're different for everyone.

    Advice to (prospective) employees:
    If it's very draining for you as it is for me, to the point of not being able to do anything else anymore, spending any free minute you have trying to recover, don't bother if the pay won't exceed whatever other steady income you might have, unless there are future benefits if you do this now.

    By Anonymous Norah, at 2:50 PM  

  • ----(quoting Amanda)----
    I had a job stocking shelves at a bookstore. It lasted only a very short period of time, because of the following scenario:

    1) They would hand me a bunch of books to shelve and tell me what sections to shelve them in.

    2) I would shelve the ones I could fit on the shelf, and then notice that not all of them fit on the shelf.

    3) I would ask what to do about this.

    4) They would say "Take some books off."

    5) I would ask what books to take off.

    6) They would say "Use your judgment."

    7) I would stand there paralyzed

    8) They would get on my case to do it.

    9) I would ask them which ones to take off.

    10) They would tell me to take any off.

    11) I would grab some books at random off the shelves.

    12) They would tell me not to take those ones off

    #5-12 would repeat over and over and over again.

    ----(endquoting Amanda)----

    Have to say... that scenario is not even an autism issue: that scenario - as it reads there - is down to the person in charge and giving the orders giving order for the sake of it, without having considered what actually needed to be done. The reason why the autistic (in this case) would end up out of that job is because that person's disability label is easier to use as justification to get rid of them than is the fact that the person giving the order was just unable to put a sensible order together.

    Sick, really :/

    By Blogger David N. Andrews MEd (Distinction), at 2:55 PM  

  • I'd think that, if it weren't for the fact that everyone else working at that store seemed to be able to intuit exactly what was meant with no problems. It was just very, very autie-unfriendly in general, because they just assumed everyone could make the same judgment calls they could.

    By Anonymous Amanda, at 8:26 PM  

  • I would wonder whether many of the accommodations mentioned would be automatically met in a telecommuting situation.

    By Blogger VAB, at 8:27 PM  

  • Set realistic time guidelines and deadlines.
    Make it clear which rules are just guidelines and which will be strictly enforced.
    If there are priorities, make it clear what they are.

    By Anonymous Debra, at 9:26 PM  

  • My job is very accommodating and I am very accommodating to my job. I don't make a fuss if they have to cut back my hours or increase them, the understand that there are certain hours that are impossible for me.

    Because my boss knows a lot about ASDs I don't have to worry that a really lame sounding excuse will be taken for a lie.

    Autistics who can do X,Y and Z very well, or even perfectly, may suddenly be unable to do X, Y or Z and besides they might never have been able to do G or M which are normal things that "everyone" can do. So if you can do all these other "normal" things or better than normal things, but can't do a normal thing and if you hadn't discussed it specifically before with your employer... then it could look like you are lying about not being able to do something.

    It's a huge relief to me to know that my boss knows I'm not lying if I say I couldn't do something or I did something really odd at work because of some odd thing in my brain.

    But how does one convince a new boss that one isn't just trying to get away with something and that one doesn't lie about what one can do?

    In my job I work almost entirely alone, that's probably the best part. I rarely have to talk to anyone.

    By Anonymous Ms. Clark, at 4:59 AM  

  • "I did better at concrete, physical, repetitive work that did not rely on a good deal of language or high-level abstraction."

    Yeah, I'm kind of like this too, except that I can maintain the language and abstraction for awhile, enough to give lectures, interact with students, ask questions, etc. (I plan to become a teacher). I would probably want to teach college or high school.

    As for other accommodations, I'm having a blank. I usually am bad at thinking of particular suggestions, until they come up in real-life. (Perhaps a good system for employers to have, is to have a written way that someone can ask for an accommodation, when they think of it - actually, e-mail would probably suffice.)

    By Blogger geosaru, at 12:01 AM  

  • Warning! Long comment alert!

    1) Respect AS people and make sure the AS person's co-workers behave respectfully towards them too. Employers should respect all their employees (and everyone else - who knows where their next customer is coming from?), but it's amazing how many employers and co-workers forget to put it into practise.

    2) Tell the truth. AS people, in common with all other employers, hate being misled. Between a greater tendency towards literal interpretations and the difficulties AS people often have spotting a lie (or, even more difficult, a half-truth or evasion) while participating in conversation, AS employees are more likely to be thrown by lies, half-truths and evasions than NT employees.

    3) Give the employee a mentor; someone who's experienced at the job, has a track record of being patient and open-minded and is a clear communicator. This is especially important when the employee is new, if the company is highly political or when the part of the company in which the employee is working is going through turbulent times. To be honest, I think every employee should have a mentor, but it's particularly useful for AS people.

    4) When demonstrating something, explain the whole procedure before expecting the whole procedure to be done correctly. Otherwise, the point at which the explanation ended will probably be the point when the process goes wrong.

    5) When changing part of the process, make sure the AS employee has taken the change into account (by action as well as in communication) before expecting that things will carry on as usual.

    6) Don't ask for "smart casual" dress unless you have discussed with the AS employee precisely what that means to the company (depending on the company, this can be anything from jeans and a T-shirt to one step less formal than a suit - I've encountered both under "smart casual").

    7) Further to the above, precision in any request helps (but I think Amanda did a better job than me of expressing what that means in general).

    8) If the AS employee needs earplugs/special glasses/some other unusual-for-the-company item to function well as an employee, let them bring them in. Once brought in, do not bring any special attention to these (unless the company is prepared to fund the purchase of these items, and even then only discuss them in private with a relevant member of staff).

    9) Be more concerned about what is produced than the methods used to do it. AS people often come up with new ways of doing stuff and forcing one particular method is often unwise. Only if a particular thing has to be done to complete the task requested should there be criticism if it is not done.

    10) If your AS employee suggests an improvement and it won't impact some other area of the company's functioning, implement it. Don't dismiss it as "newbie moaning" or "that [insert negative adjective here] person unlike the other employees' latest daft idea". An AS person's new ideas are, given everything else is equal, just as likely to benefit the company as anyone's else's, plus they have the benefit of looking at the (perceived*) problem from a different angle.

    11) Tell AS employees before you change something relevant to their job. Like our NT equivalents, we're not telepathic (even if some bureaucrats appear to assume otherwise).

    12) If there appear to be weak points in how an AS employee is doing their work, try to find out why (preferably by asking the employee, but through observation if this is not possible). Then be prepared to explain how to do it better. Such asking, observation and explanation would be perfect tasks for a mentor, but if the company is too small or otherwise doesn't want to provide a mentor, the employer (or the senior representative on duty) needs to undertake this role. The "shout (or fire) first and ask questions later" approach works even less often for AS employees as NT ones because AS employees are less likely to see an incident the same way as their employer (noting that most employers are themselves NT).

    13) Play to the individual AS employee's strengths. If they're really good at something, reward them with more of it. If they're really bad at something (and explaining it better doesn't work despite other employees being able to do the job to the requested standard), let the AS employee swap the task with a task someone is doing that the AS employee could do nearly as well, as well or better. I would hope that the same was routinely done for NT employees as well, but sadly my time working suggests otherwise.

    Also relating to this point, abfh's point that all AS people are different is completely correct. However much some AS people like cookie-cutter activities, they are emphatically not cookie-cut themselves. (Neither, incidentally, are NT people).

    14) Check the working environment is compatible with what the AS employee needs to work. And if the AS employee indicated that anything was necessary on the application forms, take it seriously. Even if that employee only needs that particular element of the arrangement occasionally, or when under high stress, it can still make a big difference to the AS employee's peace of mind.

    15) When considering hiring or promoting an AS employee, a work trial on full pay of a reasonable length (3-6 months) with appropriate initial training can ease a lot of misgivings. It also gives all involved a graceful way out if the arrangement really isn't workable.

    16) Don't promote an AS employee to management until it has been ascertained that the AS employee has sufficient training and ability to actually do management. Even then, having a co-manager or assistant manager who is a "people person" (with the AS manager concentrating on managing processes or objects) could make the difference between the appointment succeeding or failing.

    17) If the above works, and the AS employee is not only well-matched to the job but happy in it:

    a) It may be useful in some cases to have someone gently remind them when it is time to have a break, have lunch and/or go home. Happy people often lose track of time, and with some AS people's difficulty tracking it and working simultaneously in the first place

    b) Congratulate yourself - in getting a happily-working AS employee, you have got an employee who is almost certainly more effective than the majority of employees in general (many of whom are quietly unhappy and inefficient in their jobs).

    19) If you forget everything else, do Stuff That Works For That Individual.

    And yes, the same applies to every other employee.

    * - Sometimes, AS employees detect solutions to problems before their NT colleagues have even noticed that a problem exists. Problems still need fixing even if only some people can see the problem.

    By Anonymous TrillianZeta, at 10:06 AM  

  • Advice for small business employers:

    First and foremost:

    Find and designate, or become, a peer/leader within the organization who is willing and committed to the success of the overall employment outcome of an autistic individual.

    Without this, don't bother. A half-assed effort in maintaining appropriate leadership, communications, and effective accomodations, will have been wasted time for both the employer and employee.

    If you do choose not to bother, take a moment and think about that from time to time. You may be running a business smoothly, but you could be missing opportunities you aren't even aware of, and you may have the potential to contribute to the planet in a more meaningful way.

    By Blogger Do'C, at 6:57 PM  

  • Trillianzeta, and others who contributed detailed suggestions: There's no need to feel self-conscious about writing long comments -- I think it's good when people are willing to put so much time and energy into sharing their thoughts.

    Do'C: Please keep in mind that under the Americans with Disabilities Act and similar state laws, an employer cannot legally "choose not to bother" when an employee requests disability accommodations.

    Also, while mentors can indeed be very useful in helping an autistic employee to succeed, there are many autistics who have not "come out" in the workplace and who do not have the benefit of mentors or other formal accommodations, but who are productive in their careers. Quite a few of us (myself included) started working at our current jobs before we knew anything about autism. To suggest that it is "wasted time" for an autistic person to work without a mentor strikes me as paternalistic and dismissive of our abilities.

    By Blogger abfh, at 10:29 AM  

  • Thanks for that, abfh. I started putting long comment warnings in a few years ago when I learned that some people simply don't have time to read massive comments in one go. But it's nice to know that long comments are OK here :)

    By Anonymous TrillianZeta, at 6:43 PM  

  • I'm not really sure what accomodations I need - I'm really new both to the idea of working and the idea that I can actually get accomodations - but here's a start to what would help for me:
    1) be polite and logical. By polite, I don't necessarily mean 'please' and 'thank you', but try not to get mad at me and to instead calmly explain what you want. If you can give me a sensible reason why something should be done a certain way, and you aren't nasty to me when explaining it, I'll do it. But I get very scared when I'm expected to follow nonsensical rules and people are getting mad at me. (I suspect this is good for NTs too, but I'm like the 'canary in the coal mine' in this area - I am much less able to cope with a bad work environment than most people.)
    2) very often I know something without having official credentials, particularly if it's in an area of interest (such as disabilities - and that's also the area I'm looking for work in). For example, I don't have an MD, but I'm probably more knowledgable about rare syndromes than some geneticists! A wise employer would take advantage of this knowledge, and the fact that my perspective on things is different from a formally taught person.
    3) I have very poor time sense. For me, lateness does not mean I don't care about my job, even if I don't have a *good excuse*. I'll do my best to arrive on time if it's a job that needs that (and I compensate fairly well) but I will probably be late more often than the average employee. If you're concerned about me not getting enough work done, I'd be willing to stay late to make up for it - my difficulty shifting attention also makes me slower to stop working!
    4) I do not handle beaurocracy well. I'm not sure what can be done to help this. I think I'll just need to have someone else deal with most of the beaurocracy, or at least prompt me.
    5) I can't handle a lot of noise (eg Sarcan is not an option for me, even with earplugs). I also have rigid and unusual tastes in music, including a hatred of pretty much any love song, and having to listen to music I hate is really stressful to me, so I should probably not work in an environment with ambient music that I hate. (However, if you play 70s socialist songs or bizarre fantasy songs like Rush's songs, I'll be delighted!)
    6) I am hypermobile and tire easily, so heavy physical labour is not a good idea for me.
    In general, I think the best recommendation for employers of autistic people is to listen to them. They (or if they can't communicate well enough, their caregiver) can tell you what kinds of accomodations are needed.

    By Blogger Ettina, at 8:35 PM  

  • Well, aside from actual on-the-job accommodations, I think employers need to work on being open to different kinds of employees in the first place. I have seen so many job postings even for very technical positions specifically requesting applicants who have "excellent verbal skills" and are "good at dealing with extensive multi-tasking and interruptions". While some autistics certainly have those traits, at least in the right environment (Joel Smith has written some on this, I think), they're pretty intimidating things to see in a job description, and I personally am NOT good at dealing with multi-tasking and interruptions in any context I've been in (and my verbal skills are variable at best, and actually often seem "worse" when I am actually doing something technical very effectively). A lot of jobs these days also expect a person to be able to travel frequently and without much notice, and to work varying amounts of overtime (both of which can scramble someone with a need for a fairly consistent schedule in order to function).

    But...there are plenty of useful things that can be done in most workplaces that would be perfectly suitable for a person who may need to focus on one thing at a time, and who might need a more consistent schedule. I think workplaces make a mistake when they go about seeking people to be generic "resources" than when they go about looking for people to develop in particular niches (of course with the understanding that a person may move between niches as s/he develops skill). I also think there needs to be less emphasis on forcing a person to "play politics" in applying and interviewing -- I was lucky enough to get my present job through having an internship there while I was in school (in fact, they didn't even interview me after I graduated - they just asked me for an updated resume and asked when I could stard), but if I were going into the job market "cold" now, I would likely be expected to do all kinds of ridiculous things just to get looked at by an employer.

    Most of the job-hunting/interviewing advice I've come across has said that a person should make eye contact, be able to spontaneously answer the interviewer's questions, and "sell herself" with her resume. Even a lot of the advice I've come across for (and sometimes by!) autistics has emphasized these things, often with the stipulation that, "well, this is just the way the world works, and sometimes you just have to do things you don't like". Only for some of us, it's not just a matter of "not liking" something -- it's a matter of being unable to play those kinds of games, or force ourselves to come across a certain way for the sake of making an inaccurate impression on an interviewer just to get an "in" at the company.

    I am all about respect, and I do think it is fine to suggest that people should at least dress neatly (i.e., not in cutoffs and a chainmail bikini top!) for an interview in an office setting, and that they research the company first so they can ask intelligent questions and describe why they want to work there, etc. But I also think that employers should be more willing to consider at least trying out employees who might not make the most dazzling first impression, and who might want to be more forthright about their difficulties up-front (e.g., people shouldn't be rejected outright because they say something like, "I have difficulty with multi-tasking" -- sure they can also say something positive like, "I am highly focused", but if specifically asked about their multi-tasking, telling the truth should not be seen as a sign of lacking in confidence any more than "I haven't figured out how to fly by waving my arms" signifies such.).

    Actually (sorry this is a bit of a tangent) that brings to mind another point -- which is the importance of helping autistics learn what our strengths actually are, and how to describe them. There is obviously nothing wrong with being on the spectrum, however, a lot of us (regardless of diagnostic status) grow up being told all the time what we have trouble with and what our weaknesses are, to the point where it can be a default mode for many of us to automatically launch into a laundry list of our difficulties. What's more, if people like us are constantly being talked about as if we have no strengths or skills, then we are going to have trouble discovering and developing the skills we do have. So another part of helping autistics in employment (or even stuff like volunteering, unpaid work, projects, etc.) is combining learning what our own strengths are with encouraging employers to recognize and think about how those strengths might be applied.

    By Blogger AnneC, at 1:15 PM  

  • I served as a job coach for an adult with autism, and it was at a busy chain coffee shop. His boss and coworkers were excellent - they always greeted him cheerfully and were truly happy to see him every day. I think that this helped him to want to perform his duties and to do a good job (taking out the trash, refilling the containers that held napkins, straws, sugar packets, etc.). His coworkers did not necessarily understand that he really was nonverbal and was autistic, but always gave him space to do his job and encouraged him along the way.

    By Blogger Joanna, at 10:02 PM  

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