Autistic Accommodations and Legal Protections in the Workplace
Updated: Apr 14
I highly recommend that autistic people consider using ADA accommodations in their places of employment. As a therapist, I have heard many stories of autistic people being discriminated against in the workplace. When I write accommodations for autistic clients I make sure they can not face disciplinary actions for using autistic communications or using self-protective and self-regulating measures at work. So talking in ways that neurotypicals find 'too intense', being a 'know it all', not being 'social enough', 'using harsh language', 'not smiling enough', or 'not making eye contact'. No matter how competent you are at your job or how 'productive' you are, you can face reprisals for being autistic in the workplace.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a federal law that prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities in the workplace. The ADA applies to employers with 15 or more employees, and it applies to all aspects of employment, including job application procedures, hiring, firing, pay, job assignments, promotions, layoff, training, and other terms and conditions of employment.
Under the ADA, an individual with autism is considered to have a disability if their condition substantially limits one or more major life activities. This means that an individual with autism may be protected under the ADA if their condition affects their ability to perform basic tasks such as communicating, caring for themselves, or working.
The ADA requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations to individuals with disabilities, as long as the accommodation does not impose an undue hardship on the employer. A reasonable accommodation is any change or adjustment to a job or work environment that enables an individual with a disability to perform the essential functions of the job.
It is important to note that autistic individuals should be involved in the process of identifying and implementing accommodations. The employer and employee should work together to determine the most effective accommodations for the individual's needs and abilities.
The ADA also prohibits retaliation against an individual for requesting or using accommodations. Additionally, employers are required to keep any medical information provided by the autistic employee is confidential.
Common Autistic Accommodations in the Workplace
Autism is a complex neurotype that affects how people interact with the world. While it can be challenging to be an autistic adult in the workplace, there are many accommodations that can be implemented to create a comfortable and balanced environment. Keep in mind that accommodations will not stop autistic burnout if you are in a bad fit job or a toxic work environment. Here are some of the employment accommodations that we write into ADA (Americans with Disability Act) letters for our autistic clients in the workplace:
1. Develop a predictable routine for tasks but allow for flexibility.
2. Allow for the use of assistive technology.
3. Provide access to support services onsite.
4. Allow for regular breaks in quieter spaces throughout the day.
5. Provide a quiet workspace.
6. Provide clear instructions and explanations.
7. Provide visual aids to help with understanding.
8. Provide written information, such as emails and memos.
9. Clear communication to help with understanding culture, norms, expectations, deadlines, etc
10. Allow for flexible scheduling and deadlines.
11. Allow for the use of headphones to block noise or listen to music.
12. Provide access to a safe space to prevent sensory overload.
13. Allow for the use of noise-canceling technology, sound machines, etc.
14. Provide alternative seating that is comfortable and meets sensory needs.
15. Provide access to mentors and coaches.
16. Allow the use of a buddy system with a peer or supervisor.
17. Offer job shadowing opportunities.
18. Allow for modifications to work tasks.
19. Allow for alternative lighting in the workplace to prevent sensory overload.
20. Allow for alternate forms of communication.
21. Allow for the use of communication apps.
22. The ability to work in a temperature-controlled environment.
23. Provide advanced notice for any upcoming changes.
24. Offer small group work environments rather than large open spaces.
25. Provide clear, constructive, and regular feedback.
26. Don’t force autistic employees to engage in unnecessary social interactions such as company parties and outings.
27. Create an all-around sensory-friendly office environment, control intense smells, reduce noise, etc.
28. Allow for the use of a timer to help with task completion.
29. All forms of autistic communication are valid and will be allowed, this includes speaking directly and honestly, etc. There needs to be an understanding within the workplace that there are differences in communication styles between neurotypical and Autistic people. Autistic communication is more direct and factual, this can lead to misunderstandings between neurotypical and Autistic staff.
30. Allow for alternate forms of communication, such as emails or text messages.
31. Allow cameras to be off during work meetings.
32. Allow work-from-home opportunities to allow autistic employees to be more productive in controlled environments.
33. Allow for the use of visual timers.
34. Offer flexible work hours, including later start times, evening work, etc.
35. Provide an autism-friendly work culture, and provide training for employees on neurodiversity-affirming workplaces.
36. Allow for the use of assistive devices.
37. Provide the ability to work independently.
38. Provide the ability to work in an environment that has minimal distractions (noise, scents, movement, socializing, etc).
39. A reduction in meetings or the ability to participate remotely.
40. A designated “quiet room” for breaks or to take a break from sensory overload
41. A quiet and private workspace.
42. Allow the use of fidgets to help with focus and regulation.
43. Allow for large chunks of uninterrupted work time.
It's important to note that each individual with autism may have different needs and accommodations, and it's essential that they are actively involved in the process of identifying and implementing accommodations in the workplace. Employers should work closely with individual employees to ensure that their needs are met and that they are able to perform their job to the best of their ability.
Sample Letter for Accommodations in the Workplace
Feel free to copy this and modify it as you see fit. Autistic people work with a different flow and have different needs in the workplace. It is important to utilize accommodations and take care of yourself.
To Whom It May Concern:
I have been diagnosed with Autistic Spectrum Disorder. Autism affects multiple areas of my life and substantially limits several major life activities including communication, sleep, emotionally regulating when under duress, focusing, managing sensory experiences, and cognitively processing information or accessing other executive functioning skills when I am under duress.
I am more than capable of meeting the performance requirements of this current job but will need the following reasonable accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act to ensure I am able to continue to successfully work within your organization.
I would like to attend Zoom meetings with my camera off, I will be responding in chat as a method of communication as needed.
I need substantial extended periods of uninterrupted work time.
I will need alternative lighting in my personal workspace as fluorescent bulbs create sensory issues.
I need a quieter place to work that is separated from other employees to prevent sensory overstimulation, as needed.
I will occasionally need to step away from my work for small breaks as necessary in order to self-regulate.
Our staff needs education on neurodivergency and neurodiverse-affirming practices in the workplace.
There needs to be an understanding within the workplace that there are differences in communication styles between neurotypical and Autistic people. Autistic communication is more direct and factual, this can lead to misunderstandings between neurotypical and Autistic staff.
There are days when I will need to work from home to maintain my productivity.
I will need noise-canceling headphones as needed.
I will be more productive and efficient with flexible work hours, including later start times, evening work, etc
Although Autism is listed as a disability and I am asking for accommodations, this isn’t because Autistic employees are disordered or dysfunctional in any way. My brain functions differently but not in ways that are less than or inferior when compared to the functioning of a neurotypical brain. For your company to utilize the strengths of Autistic employees, which include unique ways of seeing the world, outside-of-the-box problem solving, the ability to notice details, and an authentic and honest personality, you will need to modify your current work environment to accommodate the needs of an Autistic person.
If you have any questions or concerns, please feel free to contact me.
Amy Duffy-Barnes, LMSW-Clinical