5) A less hostile workplace culture. Locking someone in the walk-in cooler because you think he's a geek is not funny. Encouraging a co-worker to break an important rule is not funny. Mocking, excluding and criticising people for stims isn't funny either. I've seen bosses not only turn the other way, but actually join in the "fun". Someone needs to be doing some education and training at corporate and local levels. Autistic people deserve a workplace free from harassment, just as women, gays and persons of all races and ethnicities do.
Monday, July 2, 2007
Autism at work
The subject of "special treatment" has been raised once again. How can I claim that autism is a difference worthy of respect (as opposed to a necessarily and inherently disabling condition) and still advocate for accommodations for autistic people? It's one of those questions which no matter how many times (or how many ways) I answer it, possibly some people are never going to get it. I have an arsenal of arguments for this topic, filed under names like Affirmative Action Comparison, The Handedness Argument, The Social Construction Explanation, Definitions Please, and the ever popular Because I Said So ("not an argument, it's just contradiction!").
Today, I will try a different approach, called What Does It Cost You? Now, before anybody gets all upset about this, yes, I know this doesn't cover it all. I know that some people need more than the things on this list, and I believe that they should be able to get them. This is just about some things I think would have been helpful to me personally and perhaps to some others with similar cognitive and social makeup. The point of it is to reduce, however slightly, the fear that affects employers and taxpaying citizens upon hearing words like "accommodation" and "supports".
1) A written, prioritized list of job assignments. If someone tells me more than two things I need to do, I need it in written form. I have long made a habit of carrying a small notebook for this purpose. For someone who finds writing by hand slow and laborious, though, providing him or her with a list could be helpful. For me, the prioritizing part of this accommodation would be the most help. See the next point for further explanation.
2) Clarity and specificity. I don't automatically know what the boss sees as most important. Left to my own devices, I will approach a task list by starting with the easiest and quickest so that I can mark it off. Second, I'll do the most difficult job, to get it out of the way. Then back to an easy one. If something needs to be done NOW, it really helps to be told that. If "sweep the dining area" means "sweep the dining area and front entrance area", that would be a really good thing to know. Being direct in requests is equally important. Some autistics won't pick up on sarcasm, such as "great job on that sweeping" when it hasn't been done adequately or hints like "It would sure be nice if someone swept this floor".
3) As much as is possible, consistency. I have always had problems in settings where I've had to report to five or six different managers, all with different preferences for how things should be done. Often, these managers have been at war with one another and tended to use their employees as pawns in this game. This is a level of strategy I'll never be able to negotiate on my own. Could it be understood that some employees really do need to be accountable to one particular manager?
4) Exemption (within reason) from wearing the company uniform. Cotton is good. I like cotton. Polyester, anything scratchy or "slippery" feeling, these sort of things guarantee that I will not be able to focus on anything except how uncomfortable I am. I am sure this is true for many NT employees, too. I hope that someday all corporations will recognize how truly unproductive some types of uniforms can be.
Cost: minimal (purchase of similar item might be necessary)
Cost: (?) Management workshop or seminar; inclusion in company non-discrimination policies; training for co-workers
6) Patience. I learn routines quickly, but if the routine changes, it might take me 4 or 5 times as long to relearn it. I know this doesn't make sense to NT managers, but really, it's not some kind of game to me. Understand that it will take some employees a while to give up the "old" way of doing things. Also, if your employee is trying to tell you something, it might take a very long time to get it said. It is really not helpful to finish her sentences for her or otherwise show impatience. Cost: $0
7) Understanding schedule requirements. Some autistic employees will happily work a standard 40 hour week consisting of (5) eight hour shifts. Others will do better with shorter days or a four day work week. The benefits to the employer include not paying for time which is not going to be productive due to overload or exhaustion. Understand that the energy we must put into being around people is draining. Being in a break room with others may actually be less relaxing than being on the factory floor in a more isolated area. Performing job tasks while in the constant presence of others can tire an autistic person significantly.
8) Consideration in type of work assigned. Not every worker fits well with every job in a company. I have been lucky enough to have some employers who saw my strengths and knew what type of work would suit me. I have worked in some very chaotic environments which I survived by finding a place for myself in the background, away from the demands of direct customer service. I had no problems managing an eight hour day working in the stock room of a department store, but found doing similar tasks on the sales floor very draining. Managers need to know that employees with this type of profile are not just "being difficult".
This list of free to inexpensive accommodations is far from exhaustive. I'm sure every autistic person who reads this will have something to add or change.
Clearly, the price to be paid for these "supports" is not financial, but is traded in the currency of attitudes. Employers fear the development of a "slippery slope" or situation whereby more and more employees will demand "special treatment". Co-workers may harbor resentments that someone who is not obviously "disabled" is getting "preferential treatment" in scheduling or work assignments. Until autism is better understood and accepted by the general public, problems will persist.
Providing some of these accommodations would be easy. Getting past the idea that everyone is the same and that treating everyone identically should be maintained as the gold standard of fairness, well, that's another story, isn't it?