COVID and autism – how the pandemic has affected the autism work environment
2020 and the rise of the COVID-19 pandemic made for an intense and crazy year for many groups of Canadians. So much of the daily routine was upended by various stay at home orders, with businesses and schools closed and limits on gatherings, and even those who feel that they thrive in chaos and disorder have struggled to find a sense of balance and purpose during the pandemic. For individuals with autism, this change in routine, both at home and at work, has been magnified in the last 12 months.
Working from home
One of the biggest challenges faced by both workers with autism and their neurotypical peers is being asked to work from home. While in normal times this might seem like everyone’s dream, it’s tough to maintain routines and schedules when there’s no visual difference between home and work. People with autism struggle to learn new skills easily and feel comforted by routines that allow them to repeat known actions and conversational patterns. Going to a physical work environment, such as an office, puts in a certain number of routines including getting up, preparing for the day at work and getting to work on time. When work is just an open laptop away, people with autism have suffered in their productivity and attendance.
Fortunately, there are some strategies to put in place to support an individual with ASD adapt to working from home:
- Continue with the existing schedule – it may sound strange, but many employees with autism report success in continuing with the exact same routine, but instead of commuting work, they either drive the car round the block or take a short return bus or train journey and end up back at their home. This continuation of the old routine feels safe and familiar and makes sure that they start work in a calm and receptive state of mind.
- Create a separate working space – the main problem with working from home regardless of brain type is finding a balance between work and home life. Sitting on the sofa or in bed can cause confusion and lead to higher levels of anxiety even once the laptop is closed. For people with autism, it’s good practice to use a spare room (if possible) or create a “cubicle” where they go to work, and when they leave that space, it’s a clear visual indication that work is over and that they can engage in their at home routines and behaviors.
- Engage autism employment support – the chances are that at some point, the employee with autism has been through some form of autism employment This may have been a full employment seeking agency or merely some advice on how to get started. In either case, it’s worth revisiting these sources of support to help them find new routines and re-engage in their new work patterns.
In person working
In many ways, the pandemic has forced a lot of companies to change their work practices in such a way that actually benefits people with autism who are able to work in person. Some of the biggest positive changes include:
- Less people in the office – with less people in the office, there are considerably less distractions from conversations, as well as lower volume levels all round. Many people with ASD prefer quieter work environments where they can just get on with their own work so this new style of pandemic work will help their productivity.
- Clearer communication styles – with face masks now almost ubiquitous in every work environment, a certain amount of facial body
language has been lost. This means that everyone has to use their words more to convey their messages, and in many cases this makes colleagues use more concrete language than before. Given that many people on the autism spectrum find social interactions difficult due to abstract linguistic patterns, such as metaphors and idioms, this shift to more concrete and concise conversations helps them to feel more comfortable and connected in the workplace.
- Plenty of personal space – many people with autism find close contact with people who aren’t close friends or family members awkward, so the 2 metres of social distancing required by the pandemic works well in their favour.