Despite growing awareness of the importance of neurodiversity in the workplace, many employers are still unsure how to accommodate employees with “invisible disabilities,” such as autism spectrum disorder (ASD), anxiety disorders, and ADHD.

Supporting employees with autism isn’t just part of creating an inclusive workspace — it may also be a legal obligation under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Here’s what employers need to know about autism accommodation at work, including some common workplace accommodations to support your employees.

What Is Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)?

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a term that encompasses a range of developmental disabilities, including what was previously known as Asperger’s syndrome. According to the Mayo Clinic, autism “impacts how a person perceives and socializes with others, causing problems in social interaction and communication.”

ASD is usually diagnosed in childhood, but it varies in impact and severity, and can continue to have an impact well into adulthood. Autistic people may struggle to read body language, maintain eye contact, and navigate social situations, and they may experience sensory overload or engage in “stimming” behaviors.

Although many autistic adults learn to “mask” these behaviors, ASD can still present challenges in the workplace. Autistic employees may have trouble with:

  • Executive functioning
  • Sensory processing
  • Time management
  • Communication

Despite the challenges of creating an autistic-friendly workplace, it’s important to point out that neurodiversity can bring many benefits to the workplace, including creativity, attention to detail, and a broad range of skills and perspectives.

Since ASD symptoms can vary from person to person, and may overlap with conditions like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), it’s important to treat employees as individuals when providing autism accommodations at work.

Who Is Entitled to Autism Accommodations at Work?

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) offers protections to employees who have a mental or physical condition that “substantially limits one or more major life activity.” In 2008, the Equal Employee Opportunity Commision (EEOC) clarified that autism is on the list of “specific impairments that should easily be concluded to be disabilities.”

Employees aren’t required to disclose that they have ASD unless they’re seeking an accommodation. In that case, their employer can request medical documentation to determine which specific job activities their condition interferes with.

The employee must “be qualified to perform the essential functions of the job with or without reasonable accommodation”. Employers can only refuse to provide an autism accommodation at work if it would be an “undue hardship” for them. Employers with fewer than 15 employees are exempt from the ADA.

5 Examples of Autism Accommodations at Work

Autism accommodations at work: employee talking to his colleague

Autism accommodations range from adjustments to the physical work environment to changes in communication or management styles. Although every autistic employee has different needs, here are some common accommodations that might help.

A flexible schedule

One of the most common ADA accommodations for autism is a flexible work schedule. This allows employees to have more control over their workday, and reduce the risk of overstimulation or burnout. They could even have the option to work from home.

If the job requires on-site work, consider offering a flexible break schedule that allows autistic employees to take downtime when they need to.

A quiet workspace

No one likes poor working conditions, but autistic employees may have an especially hard time dealing with an open floor plan or noisy work environment. Some possible accommodations include:

  • A separate workspace
  • Noise-canceling headphones
  • A fixed desk instead of a hot desk

If you can’t provide a private workspace, consider providing a separate break room where autistic employees can relax without feeling pressure to socialize.

Sensory supports

Some autistic employees may experience sensory issues that are triggered by light, scent, noise, and other stimuli. Potential accommodations include:

  • Installing LED lights instead of fluorescent lights
  • Providing sunglasses or blue-light-blocking glasses
  • Restricting strong fragrances in the workplace
  • Providing sensory toys such as fidget spinners

Job coaching

Many adults with ASD are familiar with self-advocacy. They’re used to having to speak up for themselves and advocate for their own needs in the workplace. But employers are increasingly recognizing the benefit of job coaches, who can help autistic adults:

  • Acquire additional training and on-the-job skills
  • Communicate with supervisors and co-workers
  • Address behavioral issues or sensory overload
  • Develop a plan to get to and from the workplace

A job coach can be a reasonable accommodation for ASD by enabling the autistic employee to perform the essential functions of their job.

Communication tools or support

Some employees with ASD may struggle with time management, or with processing verbal or written instructions in order to complete tasks. Employers can provide task management apps, timers, and flowcharts as possible accommodations.

Other accommodations include having one-on-one meetings instead of large group meetings, or using instant messaging instead of phone calls.

Best Practices for Autism Accommodations at Work

The right accommodation for ASD will be different for every employee, but you should still follow a consistent process to meet your obligations under the ADA. Here are four best practices to keep in mind when providing autism accommodations at work.

Follow the ADA interactive process

The ADA interactive process is a set of guidelines that employers need to follow when an employee requests an accommodation or discloses a disability. This collaborative process involves finding out how the disability impacts job performance, researching possible accommodations, and deciding on a mutually agreeable solution. 

Follow this 7-step checklist and document every step of the ADA interactive process, even if the accommodation you choose is straightforward or obvious.

Support neurodiverse employees

Being an autism-friendly employer isn’t just about providing autism accommodations when the law requires it — it’s about making sure your workplace is welcoming to all neurodiverse employees and supports various communication and learning styles.

Although employees aren’t required to disclose their ASD diagnosis during the hiring process, make it clear that you provide an inclusive work environment by specifically recruiting neurodiverse employees for new employment opportunities.

Ensure confidentiality

Some employees may be open about their autism diagnosis around their co-workers, while others prefer to keep it private. Even if one of your employees requires visible accommodations, such as sensory toys or a separate workspace, their colleagues aren’t entitled to a detailed explanation.

Keep any documentation related to their disability separate from their usual personnel file, and only share it with supervisors or colleagues on a need-to-know basis.

Follow up frequently

The ADA interactive process is an ongoing process that involves checking in often to make sure that the accommodation is still effective and appropriate. Since an autistic employee’s needs and job duties may change over time, autism accommodations at work aren’t set in stone and should be revisited on a regular basis.

Streamline ADA Accommodations With Pulpstream

Entrepreneur writing in a notebook while looking at his computer

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) affects as many as 5 million adults in the U.S., some of whom experience challenges in a typical work environment. Autistic adults may struggle with time management, sensory overload, and some interpersonal interactions. Autistic employees may be entitled to autism accommodations at work under the ADA, which could include a flexible schedule, a separate workspace, or a job coach.

Pulpstream makes it easy to navigate the ADA interactive process and automate other HR processes such as leave of absence management. Our no-code interface means you don’t have to write a single line of code to create and streamline your workflows. Plus, our cloud-based platform allows you to store documents safely and securely, protecting employee confidentiality and maintaining a record of compliance.

Request a demo today and see how Pulpstream can empower your team!