According to Oxford Languages, the definition of ‘best practices’ within a corporate setting is, “Commercial or professional procedures that are accepted or prescribed as being correct or most effective”.
While best practices can, indeed, be effective when used to implement things like marketing strategies, office procedures and policy, and training materials, they can fall short when trying to apply them to accommodations, especially accommodations that are meant to benefit your autistic employees.
In this article, we’ll look at how reframing the word ‘accommodations’ into the broader scope of accessibility can help benefit not only your neurodivergent employees, but all of your employees, and your company as a whole!
Best Practice Accommodations Are a Great Start
You may already provide a combination of accommodations and accessibility in your place of business, such as:
- Disability-friendly parking spaces and bathroom stalls, a wheelchair ramp, and office furniture that can be adjusted to accommodate mobility aids.
- An office policy that states perfume, cologne, and other scented products should not be worn to accommodate employees who have allergies or chronic migraine.
- Signs in the kitchen clearly stating that any foods containing nuts or fish cannot be prepared on the counters or heated up in the microwave to protect employees with food allergies.
Having these in place helps make your employees with physical conditions that affect their mobility, respiratory health, and neurological health feel seen, supported, and safe in their work environment.
Turning Accommodations for Some Into Accessibility for All
However, many companies may feel intimidated and even a bit lost as to how to provide accommodations for individuals whose brains are wired differently. It can be pretty straightforward to build a ramp or forbid something in the office that may cause an acute allergic reaction, but it can be quite another to navigate how to translate the neurotypical way of thinking, learning, and processing into neurodivergent.
A “one-size-fits-all” type of handbook for accommodations wouldn’t work in this situation, but an accessibility model that both broadened the concept and provided inclusivity could do just that.
An accessibility approach works for two reasons, one, it keeps the employee from having to openly disclose their disability or neurodivergence, and two, it benefits every employee, not just those whose bodies and brains work differently!
Let me give you an example of the individual accommodation model versus the accessibility model.
Jack is a content creator at a publishing company that makes paper and digital signage for businesses ranging from simple mom-and-pop shops to Fortune 500 companies. He’s talented, diligent, and creative, and he does well when given specific parameters and then left to his own devices to create.
He had worked with the same boss for 5 years, but now someone new is stepping into the supervisor position. She doesn’t know much about how the autistic brain works, and although she’s looked at Jack’s short list of accommodations, she forgets them upon meeting Jack and approaches him with a new project the same way she would her neurotypical employees.
When Jack gets confused and asks questions for clarification, the new supervisor gets offended and writes him up for insubordination.
While what the new supervisor did was wrong, illegal even, I’d like to focus on the accommodation portion in this example. Other than Jack’s list of accommodations that his previous supervisor had memorized, Jack was the only one in the office who had an accommodations list. Everyone else was treated one way, and Jack was treated another. While this helped him with his work, it ‘othered’ him and made him really stand out as different.
Since there were no formal accessibility practices in place for this company, anyone who worked with Jack would have to study the list (if they didn’t remember its contents) and manually modify their approach each time they interacted with him. This caused quite a few of Jack’s co-workers to speak to him in a slow, drawn-out, condescending tone that Jack just elected to put up with.
After all, he’d rather people over-explain than spend days doing an entire project wrong. He’s endured the consequences of that at other jobs, and he knows how badly it ends!
Now, let’s look at the same situation from an accessibility standpoint. Instead of having a list of accommodations written out and kept in a drawer for a single employee that only one manager understands and follows, imagine the company instead has an accessibility binder. A binder that’s separated into clear categories and has instructions explicitly laid out that focus on improving communications between all employees, regardless of neurotype.
Let’s say, there’s a section on giving instructions for new projects. In the accessibility binder, there is a step-by-step process for giving these instructions, and the process is expected to be used by everyone.
- Give verbal instructions in clear and concise language.
- Follow up your verbal instructions with written instructions in the form of an email.
- Include visual instructions for any project that has more than five steps.
- Always allow clarifying questions.
- Follow up regularly on long-term projects to ensure everyone is still on the same page.
This is just an example I invented, but you can see that if this type of communication about new projects is the expected method for everyone, a neurodivergent employee will still get their needs met without having to “out” themselves as neurodivergent. There won’t be anyone getting what may be perceived as “special treatment”, instead, clear communication that provides accessibility for a wide variety of employees will be the company norm!
Note: If someone has a list of accommodations provided for them, they need to be followed by law. This article is meant to cover how to broaden accessibility overall, not remove or limit supports in any way.
Why Genuine Rapport and Relationships Are Key
The final element in providing accessibility for all employees while also ensuring your autistic employees have essential psychological safety on the job is to build a genuine rapport and relationship with all of the employees who report directly to you.
Accessibility is an important factor here, as well. Many autistic people can become easily exhausted by social interactions, so getting to know your autistic employees may look a bit different from getting to know your neurotypical ones.
If you take the time to get to know your autistic employees as individuals, traits that may have seemed blunt, rude, uncaring, etc., coming from a virtual stranger may not have the same negative emotional effect on you. Your individual relationship with them will remind you that this is just the way they communicate, and there is no hidden social agenda behind it.
True accessibility stems from genuine relationships and seeing each individual as a complex human being with their own set of challenges, experiences, and views; not just worker bees in a hive.
The business world is changing, and authenticity is on the rise. Embrace it, because when you truly support your employees, they’ll support you, remain loyal, and help you make that giant leap forward into a brighter, more sustainable corporate future.