Future of work 08 Dec 2021 5 min read
What is autism, and why is it important to think about it in the context of the office space? Simply put, autism is a neurological difference that affects the ways in which a person interprets, experiences, and interacts with the world.
It is not a condition to be pathologized, nor does it need to be treated or cured. But living as an autistic person in a world designed largely for and by neurotypical people can create challenges. These challenges extend to the company-level, often manifesting themselves into office space design. How might office spaces accommodate the needs of autistic workers? Indeed, office design can always be more considerate of the needs of autistic workers, and of the potential benefits to all workers if such design considerations were to be taken as standard.
Understanding Autism on the Company Level
At most companies, employers implicitly expect that autistic workers, or indeed any disabled workers, take it upon themselves to ask that their needs be accomodated, and to specify which accommodations they require. There are significant shortcomings to this approach, as well as, more generally, with the prevailing attitude among employers that workers, as individuals, must always self-advocate. Many autistic people don’t know that they are autistic. This issue affects women in particular, who often make it well into adulthood before being diagnosed, if they are ever diagnosed at all. Misdiagnoses are also not uncommon--another issue that disproportionately affects women.
There is also the issue of the cost barrier to accessing a formal diagnosis. A person could be quite certain that they are autistic, and have even had this confirmed to them by a professional, such as a psychotherapist, but be unable to afford a formal diagnosis, which can cost thousands of Euros. Even if a person has been formally diagnosed with autism, they may be hesitant to disclose their diagnosis to their employer. Or, if a person has disclosed their diagnosis, they may be uncomfortable asking for the accommodations they need.
How Office Spaces Can Accomodate Autism
Workers have a responsibility to perform their assigned tasks, but they often can’t cannot reasonably be expected to do this to their best of their ability unless their employer provides them with the appropriate working conditions. It is in the interest of both the worker and the employer that work settings are designed to be comfortable accommodating environments where everybody is provided with the best possible foundation for reaching their full potential.
So how can office spaces help? The individual is always the person best qualified to specify which accommodations they need, but there are some simple design considerations that architects and interior designers can integrate into office spaces to make these settings more comfortable for autistic workers, and indeed most workers
First of all, offices should ideally not be located near busy streets, but, if this is unavoidable, good sound insulation is necessary. Double or triple glazed windows and soundproofing panels are highly effective at filtering out noise; pink or white noise machines might work in some spaces, too. Designers should also consider ways to keep interior noise to a minimum. For example, a clock that makes a ticking sound should not be placed in or near work spaces, and doors should be equipped with hinges that shut softly.
Secondly, other amenities should also be taken into account. Kitchens should not be located near workspaces, as sounds, smells, and the stream of people walking back and forth can be intensely distracting. Light installations should have switches that allow for light intensity to be brightened or dimmed, and windows should be equipped with blinds that can block out light completely. Color schemes should be soft and natural, rather than bright and dazzling.
Lastly, layout design plays a big role, too. Open plan offices should have separate, quiet spaces, where a person can sit alone, either to focus on their work in silence or recharge. This should be done subtly, so as to allow the person to slip away discreetly when needed. Personal space is coming back into style anyway, as the pandemic has forced designers to re-think open-plan layouts.
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