Workplace adjustments

Workplace adjustments may be required for your staff on the autism spectrum to ensure they have the same opportunity to work as effectively as their colleagues

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Introduction

Workplace adjustments may be required for your employees on the autism spectrum to ensure they have the same opportunity to work as effectively as other employees.

These adjustments are usually very minor adjustments, for example allowing headphones to be worn at work or adjustments in communication style to ensure instructions are clear and understandable. A lot of adjustments represent good business practice and are beneficial for all employees, not just those on the autism spectrum.

Every autistic individual is unique and will have different sensory and work preferences and a wide range of abilities. Adjustments are not ‘one size fits all’ and will need to be discussed and individualised for each autistic employee.   

Adjustments should be developed collaboratively between employer and employee. An employee may be too nervous to ask for adjustments and will need these discussions to be initiated and led by the employer. In many cases, autistic individuals are reluctant to reveal details of their diagnosis for fear of being stigmatised or misunderstood. Employers should take steps to ensure that employees on the autism spectrum feel comfortable disclosing their diagnosis, should they choose to do so.

This document aims to give information on commonly used adjustments when working with an autistic employee. Managers should use this document in conjunction with the Work Adjustments Profile to individualise and document the agreed supports for each autistic employee.

Please note that we use a mixture of identity-first (for example ‘autistic person’) and person-first (for example ‘person on the autism spectrum’) language, to reflect the diversity of preferences in the autism community.

Workplace culture adjustments

Here is a list of potential workplace culture adjustments that might be useful for an employee on the autism spectrum.

  • Provision of information and training on autism
  • A team culture that is not condescending (different not less)
  • A team culture that ensures negative language is not used in the workplace (describing autism negatively is an example of negative language)
  • A team culture that is aware of sensory impacts (for example, eating lunch away from desks due to potential sensory discomfort from smell)
  • Colleagues conscious about wearing strong perfumes, colognes or deodorants
  • A team culture that respects preferences concerning physical contact (for example, no handshakes or other physical touching)
  • A team culture that encourages quieter conversations 
  • Managers creatively thinking of job roles within the organisation that might best suit the individual
  • Role modelling positive behaviour
  • Access to mentoring opportunities
  • Regular confidential chats to provide considerate work reviews and to ensure there are no social or work issues
  • A note taker for meetings, or someone who will pass on their learnings from the meetings, to ensure important information was understood
  • A team culture that avoids unnecessary metaphorical and idiomatic language (which can be hard to interpret for autistic employees)
  • Being asked about one’s preference for social events (for example, whether to receive birthday cards, location for social dinner)
  • Relaxed obligations to social arrangements
  • Ensuring all team members understand and respect adjustments in the absence of the manager
  • A culture that respects keeping promises and adhering to arrangements, if they are made
  • More patience and flexibility from colleagues regarding misunderstandings
  • Kind communication, including explanations of workplace protocol
  • Working near familiar, non-judgemental and understanding colleagues
  • Working with positive team members as office politics can be difficult to navigate for autistic employees.

Communication adjustments

You will get the best out of your autistic employee if you take the time to learn about how they process and express information and what their preferred communication style is.

Many individuals on the autism spectrum find it challenging to interpret facial expressions, body language, tone of voice, humour and innuendo. They may take things literally. They need you to say exactly what you mean.

In social interactions, eye contact is used to demonstrate interest and attention and makes it easier to pick up on important social cues. Failure to make eye contact can be misconstrued by others as disinterest, inattention or rudeness. It is important to know that eye contact can be unpleasant or sometimes painful for individuals on the autism spectrum, and by not having to concentrate on eye contact they are better able to pay attention and process information.

Communication has two phases:

  1. Receiving information before processing it
  2. Giving information, which includes choosing appropriate words. Any instructions need to be sufficiently clear and concise. It can be difficult to process information when there are too many words or when there is other competing sensory input. Examples of competing sensory input include other people talking, background noise, smells and bright lights.

Often wanting to present as capable, individuals on the autism spectrum may not always be forthcoming in seeking clarification or asking for more information. Be willing to check in, to ensure understanding or determine if the individual requires additional information.

Receiving and Processing Information:

  1. Giving Written Confirmation: Where possible, give task allocation in writing. This confirms the details and deadlines and lowers the chance of misinterpretation. It also allows extra processing time and can be referred to if needed.
  2. Confirming Details: Ensure details (whether spoken or written) are clear and concise as this improves comprehension.
  3. Providing Feedback: It is important to put constructive feedback in context by first discussing what the employee is doing well. Give clear explanations of what needs to improve or change and why.
  4. Providing handouts in advance of training/presentations (to follow what is being discussed verbally)
  5. Informing your autistic employee about inappropriate or unprofessional behaviour. If they are doing something wrong, they would like to know. Remember to not frame the feedback personally and be considerate in your messaging.
  6. It is important to give feedback for growth but never in a condescending manner.

Giving Information:

  1. Providing Context: Context is required to communicate appropriately. If your autistic employee goes off-topic or talks too long, please reaffirm the context and redirect the conversation.  
  2. Improving Theory of Mind: Having Theory of Mind assists when communicating with others: understanding other people’s perspectives and differing motivations, using appropriate language and understanding cause and effect of conversation. If an autistic individual says something wrong remember it is probably not intentional. Kindly suggest a more appropriate way to give the information and the reason why it is more appropriate.
  3. Articulating: Autistic individuals can experience difficulty formulating thoughts and articulating what they are thinking. Give extra processing time and use prompting questions to encourage the delivery of information and their inclusion in conversations.
  4. Making Small Talk: Encourage your autistic colleague to join team conversations and role model appropriate and professional communication.
  5. If the employee is being too loud or talking too much, they may need to be informed, in a considered and straightforward manner, when they are talking too much and providing too much detail. They may experience difficulties distinguishing with who, when, for how long and under what circumstances it is appropriate to share personal information or use humour in the workplace.

Team and work adjustments

Setting Work Expectations: Some individuals on the autism spectrum may have difficulty understanding ‘big picture’ objectives. This can lead to misinterpretation. Central coherence (refer Glossary) is required to pull together information from different sources to establish a greater understanding of that ‘big picture’

Building a relationship based on open communication, trust and understanding of each other’s preferences is vital for work and team success.

  1. Regularly communicate with your autistic employee to talk through their considerations and set your expectations. 
  2. Learn about their work experience, strengths, skills, needs and preferences.
  3. Ensure they know they can ask questions. Remind and encourage them to do so.
  4. Provide a staff list (with photos if possible) and advise who they should talk to about different aspects of the role.
  5. Confirm working hours.
  6. Provide written advice on the processes for sick leave and lateness, ensuring they have the relevant phone numbers and email addresses required.
  7. Explain the ongoing work review process. Regularly provide feedback for self-development.

Training, task transition & meeting deadlines:

It is important to understand that some individuals on the autism spectrum may struggle with executive functioning (refer Glossary) skills such as organisation, planning, setting priorities, managing time and remaining flexible when things change unexpectedly.

  1. Checking for understanding is crucial when training a colleague on the autism spectrum.
  2. Provide clear objectives and patient, ongoing training to help them develop into the role.
  3. Autistic employees require ‘context’ to predict work. Ensure they are given ‘big picture’ explanations of the task and where the task ‘fits’ in the organisation.
  4. Be clear on task deadlines. Assist by breaking tasks down to ensure deadlines can be met.
  5. Assist with task initiation, planning and prioritisation.
  6. Assist with setting goals (no matter how small), organisation and maintaining focus to reach those goals.
  7. Assist the individual in managing their workload and meeting management’s expectations by engaging in clear and open conversation.
  8. Regularly check with the individual that they are clear on priorities and are on track to meet them.

Adjustments for unpredicted change

Anxiety often goes hand in hand with a diagnosis of autism.  A common cause of elevated anxiety is intolerance of uncertainty. Unpredictability can heighten anxiety, which may result in negative responses or behaviour in uncertain situations and events. Some autistic individuals will avoid situations that are not predictable because of the stress that they may cause.

Your autistic employee will most likely have a preference for predictability and routine, needing to know what is happening or what has been scheduled in terms of work tasks. Their stress levels may increase as a result of being unable to predict what is happening.

Strategies to avoid anxiety from unexpected change:

  • Plan ahead to ensure you have work scheduled. Downtime can be difficult to navigate.
  • Have all information and tools needed for the allocated work tasks.
  • Give warning of any change in work tasks and clearly communicate why the task is changing.
  • Provide prior warning and explanations for any restructures, change in supervisor or change in roles.
  • Stress can often be managed by detailing tasks in written or diagrammatic formats.
  • Give prior warning of unexpected situations such as fire drills, renovations or visitors.
  • Give information (context) on any social event or training that they may need to attend.
  • Offer the option to refuse taking on more work or doing overtime (some autistic employees find it very difficult to say ‘no’).

Organisational adjustments

Some employees on the autism spectrum can struggle with organisation due to difficulty with executive functioning (refer Glossary). You can help your employee strengthen their organisational skills by using schedules, Outlook reminders, alarms and a clear ‘to-do list’ at the beginning of the day – marking off tasks as they get completed.

Some strategies to adopt for employees who have difficulties with executive function:

  • Give tasks that have a clear starts and ends, as well as distinct steps throughout.
  • Where possible provide samples of work at various stages for example, at commencement, in the middle and the completed product.
  • Give detailed steps for completing each task.
  • Give support to prioritise work tasks, especially if there are multiple tasks due for completion at the same time, or if deadlines change.
  • Allow extra time to transition from task to task, as transition can take a lot of mental effort.
  • Help with initiation of tasks.

NOTE: everyone uses executive functioning skills to plan and organise their day. It is not just autistic people who can have difficulties in these areas.

Focus and regulation adjustments

Your autistic employee may find it difficult to focus when there is competing sensory input. It is important to learn if any adjustments are needed for your employee, such as being located in a quiet area of the office or wearing noise-cancelling headphones.

When you provide the right environment, the right team culture and the right work, you create an environment that is more conducive to learning and processing information, and therefore long-term employment success. Observe and interpret the signals of your employee. If the employee is not able to focus, consider helpful adjustments or maybe engage them in another task. Autistic individuals are often unaware of their heightened stress or anxiety and resultant inability to focus. They may need a support person who observes and initiates mutually agreed strategies for regulation and focus. Some other support strategies and adjustments are:

  • Alternate sedentary activities with movement activities. Allow breaks to go for a walk if they become frustrated with work or need a break to regroup and refocus.
  • As much as practicably possible, reduce the level of sensory input.
  • Give clear daily task goals, for example complete five tasks per day gradually increasing the amount as the employee becomes familiar with the role.
  • Multitasking and having conflicting tasks may impact productivity and cause stress and anxiety. Provide time to transition from one task to another. Changing tasks can be frustrating, especially when the changes are unexpected.

Social and interpersonal adjustments

Social awkwardness can be a core aspect of autism. Employees on the autism spectrum often find communication and social interaction challenging to navigate, especially when they are new to the role and learning how they should act in a work situation.  Ensure that your employee on the autism spectrum is in a supportive work environment and a positive work culture. Give considered explanations of workplace protocol and demonstrate patience and flexibility if your employee unintentionally does or says the wrong thing. Telling your employee about inappropriate or unprofessional behaviour is consistent with demonstrating patience. Avoiding the issue is not a good long-term strategy. Encourage and model appropriate communication and workplace behaviour.

Many individuals on the autism spectrum demonstrate ‘black and white’ thinking, with an absence of a compromising middle ground. As such, they often hold high standards for themselves and by extension expect others to possess the same level of high standards. While possessing such high standards can be beneficial in the quality of work produced, it may mean that collegial relationships are strained.

The ability to understand that others have different perspectives, feelings and ideas from their own is known as theory of mind (refer Glossary). As with executive functioning and central coherence, theory of mind is another intrinsic difficulty associated with a diagnosis of autism.

Strategies to create a positive and accepting work environment for your employee on the autism spectrum:

  • Do not take offence if your autistic employee does not engage in small talk. They may not place the same importance on what they see as irrelevant conversation nor understand how their non-participation is perceived by others.
  • Autistic individuals can sometimes be easily influenced and potentially negatively led due to impaired theory of mind. It is important they are surrounded by positive colleagues who have their best interests and employment growth in mind.
  • The manager should regularly initiate a confidential conversation with the autistic employee to ensure they do not have concerns with social interactions or workplace relationships with colleagues. 
  • Provide concrete instruction regarding aspects of work culture: regular meetings, breaks, celebrations and hierarchy.
  • If overuse of a personal phone is an issue, the employee should be reminded to put the phone away so they are not distracted by it.
  • Always extend invitations to attend social events and gatherings and allow the choice to not attend.
  • The support of a trusted buddy or mentor may be beneficial in assisting the employee to understand when they have made errors in terms of the ‘Hidden Curriculum’ in the workplace.

Sensory adjustments

Sensory processing is how an individual receives signals from both the environment and their own body. It is also how we interpret internal body signals, such as hunger and the need to move. Sensory overload from one or more of the body’s senses may result in overstimulation, which may impact the work performance of your autistic employee.

Many individuals on the autism spectrum experience the input received from different sensory modalities differently from most other people. The sensory experiences may be of such intensity that they cause pain or discomfort to the individual and may need adjustments to reduce the workplace stimuli. The individual on the spectrum may also seek certain types of input from varying sensory modalities in order to stay focused on tasks, or to manage stress and anxiety.

Determine what sensitivities exist (if any) and consider ways to avoid them becoming an issue. For example, if florescent lights are a problem have a workstation near a window that admits natural light or remove the florescent lightbulb; if noise is an issue allow headphones to be worn; and if smells are an issue position the employee away from the kitchen. Some individuals may need more physical space than other employees in order to not feel ‘closed in’.

Autistic individuals may also have difficulty with interoceptive awareness: the ability to read internal physiological cues and relate them to various states, including hunger, thirst or emotions. Due to the inherent difficulties with ‘reading’ internal bodily cues, individuals on the autism spectrum may also experience difficulties ‘reading’ the cues of others, especially in relation to how their actions or communication styles may affect others.

Workplace adjustments:

  • Consider the location of your colleagues’ workspaces. A quiet work environment, away from busy thoroughfares, kitchens and photocopiers would be preferable.
  • Where possible allow employees to adjust their workspaces as needed if practicably possible.
  • Autistic individuals may have difficulty managing distractions caused by work conversations.
  • Observe if your colleague has any sensitivity to sounds, smells or lights, and make adjustments where possible.
  • Flexibility regarding clothing choice (if possible).
  • Suggest the use of noise-cancelling headphones to block out noise.

Other commonly used workplace adjustments

  • Clear signage throughout building  
  • Staff list with photos or office map showing where the staff are located
  • Ability to have some flexibility in working hours (perhaps to avoid peak times)
  • Providing additional training, mentoring and supervision
  • A trusted support person who kindly and consistently gives feedback on performance
  • Consistent workflow
  • Allowing regular short breaks to help with focus
  • Ability to adjust room temperature where possible (for example air conditioning, desk fan, window)
  • Height-adjustable workstations
  • Avoid desks under fluorescent lighting if possible
  • Avoid desk locations in a busy open plan office if possible
  • Option to work away from doors, kitchens, and busy thoroughfares
  • Allocated desk (not ‘hot-desking’)
  • Option to reposition desk (for example into a corner to avoid being startled)
  • Plants, or planter boxes to provide screening
  • Visual partitions of workspaces (to minimise distraction and sound)
  • A safe space to keep belongings (for example lockable desk drawers)
  • Maximising the individual’s personal space where possible 
  • Allocated parking area (where possible)
  • Approval to wear sunglasses, tinted glasses or a cap if lights are too bright
  • Designated quiet space for downtime
  • Ergonomic wrist-rest and keyboard
  • Fast response to malfunctioning equipment  
  • Noise-cancelling headphones, or approval to wear earphones at work
  • Online induction resources about getting up to speed in a new role
  • Site blocker software to avoid internet distractions
  • Software to improve accessibility (for example screen reader)
  • Notebooks, colour coded organisers, calculators, diaries, and reminders and encouragement to use these effectiveness tools

References

Discover Autism Research and Employment Adjustments Report V1.0.7 published 20/1/2020

Heasman, B., Livesey, A., Walker, A., Pellicano, E., & Remington, A. (2020). DARE report on adjustments. Centre for Research in Autism and Education, Institute of Education, UCL, London, UK.

Download alternative formats

Workplace adjustment profile

The Work Adjustments Profile is designed to help managers to discuss, understand and detail the individual needs of their autistic employee, and set expectations around how work and working environments can be structured to facilitate optimal individual performance.

This document serves to assist the employer in understanding the unique individual traits of the autistic employee. It can also be used as a means to identify and agree upon reasonable adjustments to reduce barriers within the workplace. The document covers:

  • Impacts on the person at work
  • The effects of particular working environments (for example open plan offices)
  • The ability to interact with colleagues and customers
  • Ensuring the work environment provides the right structure
  • Encouraging regular performance and reasonable adjustment reviews
  • Detection and reduction of sensory distractions

Positive feedback, guidance, encouragement, and ongoing support is crucial to ensure your autistic employee has the same chance of success as anyone else.

The information provided in this Work Adjustments Profile is confidential to the autistic employee, their DES Provider and their employment line manager. It should not be shared with anyone else without the written consent of the participant.

Please note that we use a mixture of identity-first (for example ‘autistic person’) and person first (for example ‘person on the autism spectrum’) language, to reflect the diversity of preferences in the autism community.