In this guest blog, our friends at Auticon tell us how they support employees with Autism during times of change, and provide some insight into what organisations can do to help neurodivergent employees transition to new ways of working.
Change is one of those things that can be truly refreshing when it’s a choice, but that nobody seems to like when it’s forced upon them. If that forced change comes with little warning and affects all aspects of one’s life, it’s going to be even harder to deal with for the average person, let alone an autistic person. If you have autistic or other neurodivergent employees, you may have seen them struggle more than their neurotypical peers, especially at the start of the work from home (WFH) transition, and you want to know how to continually support them. Conversely, you may have some autistic employees that have been thriving during this WFH period, and you’re concerned about the eventual transition back to the office. At Auticon, we have 21 offices globally, totaling about 300 employees, 200 of which are on the autism spectrum. We have managed to successfully transition, support, and manage all of our employees throughout this time and are here to give you some tips that may help your team.
There’s a stereotype that all autistic people prefer to work from home and therefore should be thriving during this COVID time. The majority of our staff have not felt this way. Since the day we moved out of the office, the biggest complaint from our team is that they miss being together in the office and, if it were safe, they would prefer to work in the office. That being said, we do have employees that prefer working from home. Autism is not a one-size-fits-all diagnosis. If you’ve met one person on the autism spectrum, you’ve met exactly one person, and you won’t find another with the exact same strengths and challenges from their autism.
However, we do know that the reason many autistic people who have struggled in traditional work environments thrive working from home is due to them being able to control their environment. Since we at Auticon have worked very hard to ensure that our offices and client spaces are fully autism-friendly, it makes sense that our employees would be equally - if not more - comfortable in our offices as they are in their homes, because they may not have proper office set-ups at home. However, if you’re finding that many of your neurodivergent employees are performing better working from home, when it comes time to transition back to the office, consider having one-on-one conversations about office environments and accommodations you can make for them to feel less stressed in the office.
Regardless of whether our employees have been preferring working from home or not, most of them struggled initially, and that is because change of any kind, even for the better, can be very difficult for people on the spectrum.
Something we see in our team and that is very common across the spectrum is a need for sameness, schedules and routine. When transitioning to working from home, the most obvious change was a schedule change. We tried our best to keep working hours and schedules as they were in the office, but that’s not the only part of someone’s schedule. The morning routine is now different; it doesn’t include a commute, or maybe a workout class, dropping the kids off at school, or other things that have been a daily occurrence. Outside of work, routines have changed as well. Social routines and hobbies have been disrupted, and pretty much no part of life is exactly the same as it was back in early March or before. Some of these changes will have settled into a positive, such as the lack of a morning commute leaving time for more sleep. Others are continually harder to deal with, like needing to find new, socially distant hobbies. Either way, these initial changes in routine need time to settle in, so as more changes happen, including returning to the office, consider this and leave room for this adjustment period.
Another aspect of change is environmental change. Even small changes in environment can affect autistic people. One story we often tell at Auticon is that when Rebecca, our President, first came to Auticon (then Mindspark) she made some office improvements over one weekend, including painting and new furniture. Many of our employees did not appreciate this sudden change and had a really hard time working that Monday in a new environment. After they adjusted, they preferred the office upgrades, but again, it took time to adjust. When changing to working from home, many of us were truly not prepared, and may still not be. Working from our beds, couches, or makeshift desks can make it hard to focus and separate work time from home time when the boundaries are already blurry. Something we have had to remind our employees of over and over, not just during the WFH time, but even in the office, is that if they need something for work, they can ask for it. Self-advocacy is something many people, but especially people on the autism spectrum, can struggle with. So, make sure that you are proactive in offering and reminding your staff of the availability of things like comfortable desk chairs, laptop adaptors, and anything else they may need to have a productive work environment.
With all of this to consider, you may be wondering what we have done to ensure success throughout this COVID time and beyond. Below are our top 3 tips with explanations of why they’re so important.
The situation around COVID-19 did not allow for much planning or advanced notice, but we still gave as much as possible and considered the timing in regard to preparation. We were able to notify people on a Friday morning that Monday would be the last day to come and collect anything needed to work from home. This was much less notice than we would have liked, but at least it gave our staff the chance to bring things home on Friday, the weekend to prepare their homes to be their new offices, and Monday to come back and get additional things they may have forgotten or not thought about. As other changes have come throughout this time, such as the return to office date changing, we have notified staff immediately and left as little up in the air as possible. Advanced notice is not something unique to the COVID times; it is something we have practiced since day one and is always our number one piece of advice for helping to mitigate stress around transitions and change.
A huge part of our compassionate management style is an open-door policy, and this continues virtually during WFH. When there is uncertainty, people will have questions and concerns that need to be addressed to minimize anxiety. At auticon, we have implemented a couple of ways for employees to communicate their needs to us. One way is through regularly scheduled, optional support circles. These are casual gatherings where people can come and socialize and discuss topics that may be bothering them or even just get ideas for ways to pass the time. Another way to maintain open communication is weekly check-ins with our job coach. We realize we are incredibly lucky to have a trained, full-time job coach to help support our employees through times of change, but you don’t need a specific position to offer something similar. We recommend having a third-party, non-supervisor person available to your autistic employees to talk about things they might not want to bring up to a supervisor. The final communication tool that has been new for us during this COVID time, and has been proven to be very helpful, are well-being surveys. We have sent out a few of these, and from them have been able to get a general sense of how people are feeling about working from home, how we’re doing in our management and communication, and when people would feel comfortable returning to the office. Not only are they beneficial to management, but our staff have also said that they appreciate the surveys. These are just a few methods that we use to ensure that our employees feel they have a truly open channel of communication to management and can voice their concerns; we never want them to feel like it’s a one way street where only management can communicate to them.
Right now, a lot of people are feeling isolated and bored and are looking for ways to stay connected and engaged. The team environment is a very important part of a workplace, and that needs to continue through the WFH time as much as possible. Some things we have done are virtual game nights, a month-long bingo game over Slack, trivia, various Slack channels like #positivevibes and #wfh where people can share fun things, and the aforementioned support circles. While it seems every office is offering similar activities, we’ve done a few things to make sure our activities are autism-friendly: All activities are optional (but we do encourage everyone to join at least once just to try it out); video is always optional for any virtual meeting/hang out as it can be stressful and tiring for many autistic people; all of our activities are open to as little or as much participation as you want, you can listen and not participate, you can complete 1 bingo square or the whole board; everything is focused around support and uplifting, not competition. We have found that we have a regular group of people that attend everything, and for those people, these sorts of activities are a crucial part of them feeling connected during this time.
This is an unprecedented time, and it can be comforting to know that everyone is experiencing change and uncertainty at the same time. However, for people on the spectrum, change at any time can be extremely challenging, especially in a work environment where schedule and routine is usually something that can be counted on. While these tips are specific to these COVID times, they can- and should - all be adapted to regular daily work life as well. We recommend keeping them in mind for the transition back to the office and as a regular part of management.
We hope you've gained some ideas to help you support employees with Autism in your own organisation. To learn more about neurodiversity, and explore more ways to support neurodivergent employees throughout the working day, download our free guide 'Unlocking neurodiversity in the workplace'.