What you need to know about autism in the workplace

COS speaks to employees, who are on the spectrum, about their experiences and why ignorant companies are cutting off top-tier talent

What you need to know about autism in the workplace
Adults with autism suffer from the lowest employment rate in Canada (14 per cent).

Every year, World Autism Awareness Day is internationally recognized on April 2 by United Nations (UN) members around the world. Each year, the UN decides on a specific theme to focus on. The theme for 2021? Inclusion in the workplace.

Though it has been a few weeks since, awareness and acceptance are not limited to one day a year – especially when it comes to health and safety in the workplace.

Autism Spectrum Disorder

For those who need a refresher, Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), or autism, is a neurodevelopmental disorder that impacts brain development, according to advocacy group Autism Canada.

The result, they say, is that most individuals with autism experience issues such as communication problems, difficulty with social interactions or a tendency to repeat specific patterns of behaviour.

For those on the spectrum, mental health issues like anxiety and depression are common. ASD can also be accompanied by co-occurring medical conditions, says Autism Canada, such as such as epilepsy, sleep disorders, gastrointestinal (gut) abnormalities and immune dysregulation.

Lastly, the term ‘spectrum’ indicates that autism is a range or continuum of severity. This means that individuals on the autism spectrum have varying degrees of severity and different combinations of symptoms. This is important to note, because each individual is different and thus treatment and accommodations must be specific to the individual.

READ MORE: Workplace disability more common than workers believe: Survey

Autism in the workplace

Without help – or without a proper diagnosis – individuals with autism may struggle in school, in higher education and in the workplace.

According to a Canadian Survey on Disability conducted in 2012, adults with autism suffer from the lowest employment rate in Canada (14 per cent).

The problem seems to be two-fold: on one hand, employers are not doing enough to adapt their hiring practices to ensure that they are inclusive of those who are on the autism spectrum, and on the other hand if they are employing individuals with autism, they are not doing enough to accommodate their needs in the workplace.

COS recently spoke with Xavier* and Derek, who are Autism Canada Ambassadors.

The common thread in speaking to Derek and Xavier is that their experience across companies varies wildly: “There’s not a standard, it’s not consistent, and it varies from company to company,” says Xavier.

“There's a lot of diversity from one employer to another,” concurs Derek.

This is a problem, with no standardized approach and no assurances about accommodations, looking for work for adults with autism can be a stressful experience.

READ MORE: Why do workers disclose or do not disclose a disability at work?

A culture of discrimination

Derek says that one issue that arose in the workplace is that many companies are not open to criticism, which was frustrating.

These restrictions, he says, limited his ability to shine in a previous role and didn’t allow for the company to take full advantage of his potential.

By not being open to change, companies are cutting themselves off from top tier talent.

Another issue is a lack of understanding from those in the company (leadership, other employees) about what ASD is and the concept that autism is a spectrum.

Speaking about one of his negative corporate experiences, Derek says:

“There just seemed to be a culture of discrimination […] There seemed to be this contradictory idea that disability is not a spectrum. That you have to reach some arbitrary level of disability whereby you can't work at all. Or the other alternative is that you have no disability, and work without any accommodation at all. And there's this idea that you can't be in the middle.”

Workplace accommodation

The big topic when it comes to ensuring a safe and inclusive space is accommodation.

“Employers should be able to offer accommodation,” says Xavier.

People think that accommodation costs a lot, he says, but the cost to the company is usually low and quite straightforward. For example, employees may request to be isolated from noise (by using noise-cancelling headphones, for example) or the ability to work from home.

An issue that crops up is that even if a company is willing to offer accommodations, it can take time; Xavier says that one company he worked for took two years to process his accommodation request.

Any job can be fulfilled by a person on the spectrum, says Xavier, but they need to be adequately catered to.

READ MORE: Tailored support effective for young workers with disabilities

Inclusive initiatives

Xavier says that the advancement of other groups in recent years, such as the LGBTQ2+ community, has helped push for more inclusion for individuals with autism.

Nevertheless, ableism is still an issue in the workplace: “There is still some way to go,” says Xavier.

And it’s not a niche issue. According to 2015 statistics from the National ASD Surveillance System (NASS), one in 66 Canadian children and youth aged five to 17 have been diagnosed with ASD.

This is a large percentage of Canadians who will, over the next few years, be entering the workforce.

The pandemic has shown us that employers are able to make accommodations and offer flexible working and still ensure employee productivity. There is a lesson to be learned here.

There are companies out there that are willing to adapt and open themselves up. For example, software company SAP Canada has an Autism at Work program which aims to hire neurodiverse talent.

Other groups such as B.C.-based The Presidents Group, which launched the Community of Accessible Employers in 2018, champion inclusive employment practices.

But initiatives like these remain all too rare, and more companies need to step up and adapt their practices to make their workplaces more safe and inclusive for adults with autism.

*name has been changed.