It’s not just about handrails

When it comes to autism and neurodiversity, reasonable adjustment in the workplace, isn’t just about physical things like handrails and lighting. It’s more about people challenging and adjusting their underlying assumptions and prejudices.

The workplace is not a welcoming environment for autistic and other neurodiverse people. Latest statistics from the NHS confirm it. There are very few people of difference in the workforce – or will dare to admit to ‘disability’ in a staff survey. Reasonable adjustment is how Equalities Act 1998 says managers and organisations can make sure there is a level playing field for everyone at work. However, there are currently some unhelpful misconceptions about how these reasonable adjustments are perceived and applied with respect to autism and neurodiversity.

In order to ensure the workplace is equally accessible for all neurotypes its first necessary to understand that autistic and other neurodiverse people experience the world very differently. We have significant differences in our brain function and neurology and therefore our thoughts and feelings are different to those of neurotypical (NT) (non-autistic) people. Once that difference is understood. The next step is to acknowledge that different is not necessarily wrong. There can be benefits in different ways of thinking. Typical autistic behaviours can be strengths in the workplace. To us what we think, say and do is logical and reasonable whilst NT behaviour can actually seem inefficient and irrational.

However, currently, the majority of people perceive the way autistic people behave as ‘wrong’. The object of reasonable adjustment is therefore seen as assisting these faulty people to be as ‘normal (ie like them) as possible. In the light of this it’s easy to see why so many autistic people have bad experiences at work. They are often excluded and blocked from professional development, given marginalised roles and do not have their skills and abilities recognised or utilised. Reasonable adjustments in the workplace can help offset this. For some people of difference that mean handrails or special equipment. However, the adjustments needed to integrate neurodiverse people meaningfully into the work environment are more nuanced than this. Some practical and built-environment changes, such as low lighting, quiet desks and homeworking, may be helpful for some neurodiverse people.  But the really significant reasonable adjustments involve the people working alongside autistic people in challenging and adjusting their own underlying discriminatory assumptions. 

The types of adjustments required by autistic people are not dissimilar those required when interacting with people from different cultures. For example, a European should adjust and be aware of gift giving or ‘face saving’ behaviours in China. It’s important to understand that concepts of ‘normal’ and ‘acceptable’ are not universal – they’re historically imposed by dominant groups. Not incorporating difference and minorities in any system is excluding and discriminatory. Imposing an abstract ‘norm’ excludes those who cannot, or do not understand or accept the requirement to reproduce it. The imposition of a particular concept of rectitude by the majority has a long and unpleasant history. Majorities have held themselves to be right and, justified in punishing perceived aberrations, throughout history on grounds ranging from colour of skin to sexual preferences. In each case this has been unacceptable. Insisting that all individuals must be a replica of one way of being is not only narrow minded and oppressive, it is extremely damaging and destructive for the individual and stagnating for a society or an organisation. It is an approach built on fearful conformity, stifling freedom, creativity and innovation.

An example of the kind of workplace reasonable adjustment that can be made in respect of autism is plain speaking. Directness is a strong trait in autistic people. We just ‘say it like it is’ and prioritise truth and clarity, often over trying to anticipate or manage others’ sensitivity or reactions. S reasonable adjustment therefore might be for office colleagues to also ensure they are direct themselves. That means speaking plainly and being clear about thoughts and intentions and rather than hinting, alluding, embedding within compliments or complex sentences or other obscuring techniques. 

Challenging negative perceptions of autistic people’s intentions would also be a reasonable adjustment. Autistic people are not typically horrible or offensive, they don’t set out to upset or attack anyone, our brains don’t usually work that way. We don’t lie, we don’t see the point. Neither do we dissemble, scheme or misrepresent our intentions. Accepting that the actions of an autistic person are typically only intended to express truth and in seeking to deliver efficient and fair outcomes is a reasonable adjustment. Sadly, all too often instead an autistic person’s actions are imbued with negative intention or rudeness due to a lack of knowledge and understanding. Similarly, adjustment should also be made to perception of autistic colleages as rude or insensitive. In fact, autistic people are typically working very hard constantly to ‘self-edit’ and display the correct, polite behaviour that does not cause offence. The fact that they are not doing so to acceptable levels is not intentional or due to lack of trying.   

Another example of reasonable adjustment is response to autistic people’s tendency to question activities and instructions. Autistic people are very black and white and not comfortable to work on something if they know it to be wrong. They cannot easily inhabit ‘grey areas’ and working in an incorrect or undefined way causes stress and creates internal conflict. They will therefore typically query processes they know to be inefficient, incorrect or unfair rather than simply doing as instructed. Autistic people are also not influenced by hierarchy, so they’re not swayed by how senior the person asking them to do something is, only by whether it is a good idea or not. This can be interpreted as being argumentative or not having the correct, deferential or professional manner or even as being arrogant. Reasonable adjustment would therefore be for managers to welcome and incorporate comments from colleagues at all levels aimed at improving systems rather than experiencing this as infringement of behaviour codes. This also constitutes modern general good management in general. 

Adopting autistic peoples’ typical preference for instant message, text or email rather than speaking on the phone or meeting face to face would also be a reasonable adjustment. This preference is because written word enables an autistic person to objectively list tasks etc without the distracting complexity of draining or confusing personal interaction and associated required rituals. It also means agreements can be noted and referred to subsequently. Autistic people also find long meetings confusing and draining as they will need to work much harder to interpret social queues and meet required behaviour conventions – such as how long or how often to speak. Colleagues could therefore conduct as much work as possible using text-based communication methods keeping meetings short, infrequent and small in size. All measures that may well benefit NT as well as neurodiverse people.  

Finally, many autistic people often have an extreme emotional response to sudden or unexpected change or criticism which can result in sensory overload (‘melt down’) or withdrawal.  A reasonable adjustment would therefore be to give prior, written warning of change in project plans, reviews or negative feedback and to provide space and time to enable processing of information and emotions which can take longer for autistic people.

By failing to make these types of reasonable adjustment to their assumptions and judgements many managers and businesses are effectively subjecting autistic people to prejudice and disability discrimination. Where autism has been declared, not making these reasonable adjustments is discriminatory. Where autism has not been declared, a baseline of an inclusive environment and behaviour should be a best practice norm.

What is needed in order to ensure full participation of neurodiverse people in the workplace is for a widespread programme of neurodiversity education and awareness to take place. It is not reasonable or practical to expect autistic people themselves to repeatedly educate the individuals they work with on an individual basis. Programmes of neurodiversity acceptance training should be carried out along with reverse mentoring and proactive employment and career development programmesfor neurodiverse people. Only then will autistic and other neurodiverse people be permitted to participate in and contribute to the workplace fully and equally.

Author: sjb

Sally Pathak Brown is an academic researcher, copywriter and yoga teacher. She has worked for the NHS, government and the third sector and in equality, diversity and inclusion. Sally received an autism diagnosis in her late 40s. She has an adult daughter and lives in Northumberland with her dog Flo.

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