Accommodating Autism in the Workplace



Autism affects nearly 1 in 68 school aged children in the US (CDC, 2016). With this high prevalence of autism in our population, it is not unlikely that a manager will be faced with an applicant or employee with autism. Just as likely is the possibility that you already have an employee that is the parent of an autistic child. 

As a manager, or human resources professional, we care. We know that the most successful leaders are the ones that let their employees know that they care. We believe in people. If we didn’t, we could never develop teams that work quickly and efficiently. It is inherent that we look for opportunities to help others grow. I was recently touched by the comments made by a manager for a young man named Raghav Swaminathan.

Photo courtesy of CBS17

“At first, I thought having him work here was a way to inspire him but it appears it’s had the opposite effect" (ClemsonLIFE, 2018). This quote describing Raghav enlightens us to the incredible value of hiring employees with autism. ClemsonLIFE is a program that provides “students with intellectual disabilities who desire a postsecondary experience on a college campus” an opportunity to grow (Clemson, 2018). In his work with the campus facilities team, and as an intern at Duke University, Raghav has inspired his team to achieve more, do more, and overall be better (Zarcone, 2017). It reminds me to look for ways I can surround myself with people that are different, and in cases like this, better than me.

The Autism Spectrum Disorder is not specifically named in the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) noted in 2011 that in an individualized assessment, almost all people with autism will determine there is a disability under the ADA (EEOC, 2011). With this kind of guidance, we need to be prepared to provide accommodations to our employees with autism and also recognize that the accommodations will likely be different than those of others on our team.

Disclosure of an individual’s diagnosis is a very important and likely difficult decision for our employee(s) (Autism Speaks, 2013). We must remember that employees with Autism are not required to disclose their diagnosis with us. If seeking accommodations, they may be required to tell our HR team but it may not be necessary to disclose any information to their supervisor or team. In the end, we should be in a position to provide guidance for our employees and even assist them with discussion if needed.

Determining the accommodations needed for an employee with Autism requires careful attention to each employee’s individual needs. The Job Accommodation Network published an extremely helpful guide for employers to assist with the development of these accommodations (Job Accommodation Network, 2013). 

The accommodation ideas they provide include:
* Atypical Body Movements
* Company Structure, Conduct Policy, and Discipline
* Issues of Change
* Maintaining Concentration
* Memory
* Multi-tasking
* Organization and Prioritization
* Sensory Issues
* Situations and Solutions
* Social Skills
* Speaking and Communicating
* Stress Management
* Time Management

One often overlooked population in discussions of Autism is the parents. Many of us employ or have colleagues that are the parent of a child with autism. The cost of special education services and parental productivity loss were noted as major costs associated with autism (Buescher et al., 2014; Lavelle et al., 2014). The costs were estimated to be between $11.5 billion – $60.9 billion in 2011 US dollars (CDC, 2016). 

While this cost is significant and can not be ignored, accounts by parents describing the people management skills they have grown by interacting with their child are powerful (Samuel, 2018). Disclosure of their child’s diagnosis is also a challenge many parents face. They will need your support for accommodations and FMLA requests. That support is well worth the skills they are developing to assist our businesses.

April is Autism Awareness Month. Check on your employees with autism or parents of autistic children. They work hard all the time and now is a great time to remind them how much we appreciate them.


References and Resources:

Autism Speaks. (2013) Accommodations and Disclosure.

Buescher AV, Cidav Z, Knapp M, Mandell DS. Costs of autism spectrum disorders in the United Kingdom and the United States. JAMA Pediatr. 2014 Aug;168(8):721-8. doi: 10.1001/jamapediatrics.2014.210.

CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). (2016) CDC estimates 1 in 68 school-aged children have autism; no change from previous estimate.

ClemsonLIFE. (2018) Facebook post about Raghav Swaminathan’s work at Clemson Facilities.  

Clemson University. (2018) Welcome to ClemsonLIFE.

Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. (2011) Regulations To Implement the Equal Employment Provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act, as Amended, 29 C.F.R. § 1630

Job Accommodation Network. (2013) Employees with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Accommodation and Compliance Series. Office of Disability
Employment Policy of the US Department of Labor.

Lavelle TA, Weinstein MC, Newhouse JP, Munir K, Kuhlthau KA, Prosser LA. Economic burden of childhood autism spectrum disorders. Pediatrics. 2014 Mar;133(3):e520-9. doi: 10.1542/peds.2013-0763. Epub 2014 Feb 10.

Samuel, A. (2018) What My Son With Autism Taught Me About Managing People. Wall Street Journal. 

Intern with autism inspires, impresses researchers at Duke. CBS17


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