Workplace adjustments for PDA
Businesses and employers are increasingly recognising the benefits of employing autistic people, but much more still needs to be done. The Chief Executive of the National Autistic Society recently said “most autistic people who want to work aren’t able to work” because conventional roles and workplaces can present many challenges. This page offers some suggestions about reasonable adjustments to workplaces and work patterns to accommodate a PDA profile of autism.
Understanding some of the challenges
Two informal polls of PDA adults (or PDAers, their preferred term of reference) were conducted by PDA author and meme creator Sally Cat – these demonstrate some of the work-related challenges faced…
Quick Poll of 240 PDAers
- 90% “I need control of my own life”
- 88% “I need to know what is happening/ can’t tolerate uncertainty”
- 87% “I need access to quiet space”
- 72% said “demand avoidance stops me doing the things I enjoy”
- 24% said “I am able to work to earn a wage”
- 84% said “I can achieve a lot but need space and autonomy to do it my own way”
A poll of 155 traits suggested by members of an adult PDA Facebook support group
– not identifying with PDA profile
|I can’t cope with being told what to do by managers/ bosses||*69%||31%|
|I’m not motivated by money, but will work for hours unpaid so long as there is no demand that I do this||51%||47%|
|My perfectionism in work causes anxiety and makes it hard for me to keep up||70%||64%|
|I have a hard time following through with multistep processes||72%||65%|
|I can’t cope with deadlines||*86%||39%|
|I can’t cope with being confined to a workplace||*67%||30%|
|I can’t cope with being an employee unless given a lot of authority and/or autonomy||*70%||>31%|
*statistically significant differences between the groups
The results from these polls highlight some specific challenges faced, particularly around issues of control, confinement and deadlines.
“At most places I’ve ever worked, I have often decided to give myself days off here and there. Not out of fear necessarily, and not even out of boredom (which was admittedly usually the case anyway), it would be because the very act of going to work would sometimes prove too demanding.” Harry, The PDA Paradox, page 24.
“Wages become a demand- and no matter how much I enjoy performing a task, I am no longer doing it of my own free will. This takes away all the personal reward and the activity can become unbearable. I would jump, even for a pay cut, to a different job. Personal relationships are also key- if I like the person making the demand I am much more able to comply and if they phrase it nicely as a request then even better!” – Tony, PDA Society website Adult Life pages.
Choosing the right company
When applying for a role it can be helpful to research the company’s approach to encouraging diversity within its workforce. Companies that demonstrate a culture of inclusion and respect may be a good fit. The Government’s Disability Confident scheme is a register of companies which actively recruit individuals for their talents and skills, regardless of their additional needs. These businesses are more likely to be flexible and willing to consider alternative, innovative approaches to working patterns and styles. If a company isn’t listed, it is perfectly acceptable to inquire about their inclusion policies before applying for a job.
For many PDAers, finding work that is meaningful is often a greater priority than financial rewards. Choosing a company that aligns with your moral code is often a more important consideration.
“I think that, as PDAers, we must have a meaningful input into what we plough our energy into….For me I can’t act against my heart…” – Sally Cat, PDA by PDAers, page 278.
“I understood I was working within a system. All cogs of a bigger machine. That was fine whilst I was in general agreement about the way the machine was operating. But once my values stopped being incorporated into those of the bigger machine, then I had no wish to remain part of it.” –Little Black Duck, PDA by PDAers, page 278.
It’s a personal choice as to whether or not individuals disclose your diagnosis – please see this helpful page from the National Autistic Society for some thoughts around this. In some cases it’s beneficial so that a request for reasonable adjustments to the interview process can be made. It can also help to explain any gaps in employment history, where career breaks have been taken due to poor health or being unable to work. It’s unlawful for a prospective employer to discriminate against someone who discloses a diagnosis of autism. We’ve produced a Guide for Employers which can be shared to help prospective employers understand PDA and to discuss what accommodation you may require.
Some reasonable adjustment requests might be:
- Asking for interview questions in advance to allow for extra processing time and preparing/practising answers.
- Accommodating sensory differences – requesting a quiet waiting area separate from other candidates may help to reduce anxiety and it might be possible for an interview to be held in a quiet room with minimal disruptions.
- Requesting information about the format of an interview in advance – this may help some prepare for transitions between different interviewers or assessment tasks.
- Enquiring how many interviewers will be present, their names, job titles and whether they will all be asking the questions.
Possible workplace adjustments
Each employment situation is unique, as are the specific requirements of each individual. The National Autistic Society gives some top tips about workplace adjustments for autistic people.
“With work, flexi-time was really helpful to me and time off in lieu…allowed me space when I needed it. I did better the more latitude I had to make decisions about what I did when, and the more it felt like deadlines and expectations were reasonable. In one job I got to arrange my side of the office to suit me and reorientated my desk which helped. I prefer teamwork to hierarchy. The unknown makes me anxious. ‘Can you pop in to speak to me at 10ish about x’ is better than ‘I need you in my office at 10.00 precisely’.”– T.C., PDA by PDAers page 311.
There are some additional adjustments that might specifically help PDA adults. This is not an exhaustive list but it gives a few ideas to get started:
- Instructions – ambiguity should be avoided but detailed, multi-step instructions can also be difficult to follow. Some people prefer to know what the overall expectation from a task is, but be allowed the freedom to express creativity and complete the work in their own way.
- Providing information about what is happening and why reduces intolerance of uncertainty, which can cause high levels of anxiety for PDAers.
- Most PDAers find requests for work more tolerable when delivered in a polite manner. Indirect demands are easier to follow rather than rigid, direct orders. Reverse psychology is rarely effective and should be avoided.
- Avoiding the apportioning of blame for problems that arise can help maintain a respectful relationship. Grievances should be discussed calmly and fairly, allowing the opportunity for PDAers to identify and solve issues themselves or in a collaborative manner.
- Two-way mentoring: some find the hierarchal system of work challenging so the opportunity to regularly give feedback to more senior colleagues can help build and maintain mutual respect.
- Flexi-time – having autonomy over work patterns and being given days off in lieu may be helpful, especially if the accrued leave can be used for spontaneous recovery days.
- Having the option of working from home can be beneficial.
- Deadlines – understanding the reasoning behind deadlines may help work to be completed on time. For many, though, deadlines can cause anxiety. Having the flexibility to choose when work is completed might help some to keep to a deadline.
- Regular breaks – masking at work and sensory overload can be exhausting; scheduled breaks allow for recovery time throughout the day. Some people may need access to a quiet space, whereas others may prefer some time away from the building.
- Control of workspace – choosing where to work within the workplace can be helpful. A desk in a quiet area without distracting noises and smells might be preferable to working in an open plan office. ‘Hot-desking’ allows for minimal control over workspace and should be avoided.
- Navigating social situations and interactions within the workplace can add to anxiety levels. Removing the expectation to participate in social activities can alleviate some of this; colleagues should understand that attendance is optional. A PDAer may not be able to participate in ‘normal’ office banter and sarcasm may be misinterpreted.
The Guide for Employers contains a printable checklist which can be used as a framework for negotiating and discussing which workplace adjustments might be helpful and how they could be implemented.
Alternative forms of employment
“I’m much better on a zero hours contract where I (in theory) know I can refuse work, or being a contractor, where I have control over whether I work or not.”– Pink, PDA by PDAers, page 280.
“I actually do much better working voluntarily than being paid. I can work happily for hours and hours going above and beyond any call of duty unpaid, but wages tend to make jobs into demands for me and I lose all motivation.” – Sally Cat, PDA by PDAers, page 280.
“I worked as an Uber driver. Now this is a PDAer’s dream if I’ve ever known one. I had no boss and no timetable, I was free to work whenever I felt like it and all I had to do was drive my passengers from A to B.”– Harry, The PDA Paradox page 166.
For PDA adults who are unable to work in a conventional role, there are a few alternative ideas which might be worth exploring:
- Freelancing, contracting or being self-employed allows for autonomy over the volume and timing of work undertaken.
- Zero hours contracts allow some control over when to work. When working isn’t possible there are no bosses requiring an explanation.
- Employing an agent to handle paperwork can reduce some of the demands associated with negotiating money and contracts.
- Voluntary work enables PDAers to contribute to society and maintain self-esteem, whilst avoiding the pressures of conventional employment.
- Seasonal work – contracts are usually short so individuals can mix and match job types. It’s possible to combine work with travel, for instance beach and ski resorts fully utilise seasonal workers. The variety of this style of work may hold some appeal, though for others the uncertainty may be tricky.
- Employment agencies – signing up with agencies gives access to a wide variety of short-term, temporary work.
“However much I like doing what I’m doing, I find my tolerance for it has a shelf life.”- Silva, PDA by PDAers, page 285.
“The thing about Demand Avoidance is that it isn’t something the PDAer can control. Agreements, however willing when given, are done by a person who doesn’t have full control over their actions.”- Riko, PDA by PDAers, page 288.
“When making an agreement with a PDAer, you’re making an agreement with someone who has little control over whether that agreement is carried out.” -Riko, PDA by PDAers, page 289.
Even when reasonable adjustments to the workplace have been made, it may still not be sufficient to enable some PDAers to work. Even if the adjustments do help, they may not necessarily help for long. If paid employment becomes unsustainable, but mental health allows, it can be beneficial to find some other form of work or take up a voluntary position until the next job opportunity arises. That dream job may be just around the corner! It is really important to remember autistic people have many admirable qualities that would be well sought after by employers, businesses and charities.
* Thank you to Sally Cat for permission to share the two memes above