Diversity & Inclusion, Learning & Development

Adult Autism is Increasing: How HR Can Support Business Evolution 

Ideally, businesses hire and retain great employees. Yet as every business owner knows, the balance of finding, hiring, and fully utilizing talent is difficult. The challenge becomes more difficult as younger generations have differing workforce demands and needs.

The number of American adults with mental health disorders is rising. Over the past decade, studies have pointed to an increase in autism, anxiety, ADHD and related conditions, especially for younger adults. While Gen Z may be one of the most educated generations, employees with these conditions are more likely to struggle with sensory processing differences and need appropriate accommodations. 

What are sensory processing differences?

All adults perceive the world through senses, including sight, sound, taste, touch, and other forms of perception. Yet not everyone experiences the same level of stimulation. The National Institutes of Health reports that “people with sensory processing disorders may be hypersensitive (over-reactive) or hyposensitive (under-reactive) to sensory input, or they may experience fragmented or distorted perceptions.” For example, one person might not be able to tolerate the feel of a particular fabric or work uniform against their skin. Another person might be overwhelmed by bright lights or loud sounds, experiencing negative reactions as a result.

Thankfully, many people can cope with sensory challenges when given the proper tools, resources and strategies. As an added benefit, adaptable businesses will tap into an overlooked talent pool of educated professionals, as many capable professionals with autism are currently unemployed.

How can businesses accommodate employees with sensory differences?

To fully leverage employees with sensory processing differences, businesses need to support and accommodate various employee needs and sensory differences.

  1. Ensure the office space is sensory-friendly.

Are a variety of work environments available? If the work environment can get loud, is there a quiet space available for employees to work or take a break? Or can employees access noise-canceling headphones? Can lightbulbs be changed from fluorescent to incandescent? Can the lighting be dimmed or leverage natural light? Does the dress code include a variety of cuts and fabrics? Are fidgets and other coping tools allowed and encouraged? These accommodations and resources can be vital in helping an employee self-regulate or cope.

2. Integrate accessibility into business operations.

Are employees aware of available accommodations? Are the accommodations easy to access? Are they getting used?  If your workforce isn’t aware of and consistently utilizing the sensory-friendly accommodations, then the workplace is not sensory-friendly.

3. When some operations can’t be adapted, consider adding new, sensory-friendly options.

There’s a chance that not every aspect of current business operations can be adapted to be sensory-friendly. For example, some social outings encouraged by the office may take place in overwhelming or stimulating environments. For these situations, consider adding additional operations or events that include an intentional sensory-friendly focus. Can the rotation of office social events include a few sensory-friendly outings in addition to bustling restaurants? Can the business offer an additional service catered specifically to be more sensory-friendly? Having a choice of an occasional sensory-friendly outing, option, or event can make a big difference in helping employees with sensory concerns feel included.

4. Communicate the sensory-friendly accommodations.
Are there obvious signs in the office highlighting the sensory-friendly resources?  Do website and event communications include a social narrative, so employees or stakeholders know what event logistics to expect? Is an FAQ available on the website that details typical resources? Provide a clear outline so anyone with sensory concerns knows what will be available and how to prepare for various business-related functions.

5. Be flexible.

Some professionals may have unique sensitivities or specific needs. Are employees able to be granted specific accommodations or modifications? Or, if a particular office environment isn’t supportive of an employee’s sensitivities, is that employee able to work in another space that is? Can employees work remotely based on sensory differences? When the business encourages social functions, do those environments also include sensory-friendly accommodations? Some accommodations may not be standard, yet they may still be impactful in making an employee’s experience more sensory-friendly.

6. Continue evaluating and adapting.

Are the accommodations truly making your business more sensory-friendly? Are the accommodations utilized? Are other accommodations desirable? Have the needs of your workforce changed over time? Request regular feedback from employees through a variety of avenues. Continue reevaluating to see if the adjustments continue to ensure your business successfully accommodates staff needs.

Gina Brady is the Sensory Supports and Training Program Manager for Fraser, a revered nonprofit working at the intersection of autism, mental health, and disability services. Gina specializes in establishing partnerships with organizations to provide sensory-friendly and inclusive experiences to families throughout the community. She graduated with her master’s in occupational therapy and her bachelor’s in child psychology from the University of Minnesota.

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