As workers prepare for post-pandemic office life, neurodiverse people and advocates who work with them are pushing for more flexible working conditions to continue.
Kelly Johnson, an autistic self-advocate and founder of Completely Inclusive, said that a hybrid model is a sustainable solution that can provide access to work for many more people.
The hybrid model is an emerging form of work where a portion of an employee’s time is spent working remotely, while the remaining time is spent in-office.
This model allows autistic individuals to curate more control over their work environment and their interactions by designing their workspace to suit their needs, says Johnson.
For example, Johnson has switched from an office chair to a bouncy ball, with pedals for their feet and squishy toys on their desk. All of these items allow them to focus their attention on their work. While these items are simple and can be found in some offices, Johnson said that most workplaces still maintain the status quo, preferring their employees use the same equipment. Johnson, however, believes that everyone should work as they feel is best.
“It just levels the playing field for everyone.” Johnson said.
This model is not a new idea. Neurodiverse advocates have been fighting for choice in their working conditions prior to the pandemic, yet they were frequently told by employers this was not a viable option.
“There’s a lot of anger, there’s a lot of bitterness and rightfully so. Suddenly, when non-disabled people needed it, the accommodation was suddenly created,” said Johnson.
“I don’t think we should always be the ones basically asking for change all the time.”
Johnson believes businesses should be providing accommodations that allow each employee to work in a way that suits their individual needs.
“It’s what I advocate for, to allow every employee to work in a way that is best for them. I want people and businesses especially to understand that we don’t have to make it so complicated,” Johnson said.
A 2021 study conducted by Peninsula, a Canadian research and consulting firm, found that flexible or hybrid work will be more common in 2022. The trend towards hybrid work comes as business models transition after two years of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The hybrid model was identified by local autistic workers as an accommodation that could increase the number of autistic individuals in the workforce.
Lucas Gates, an autistic person, works at AIDE Canada remotely while also working on site with the Pacific Autism Family Network. He says the ability to work both at home and on site helps him.
“If this is the way forward, [hybrid work] is great. It allows for flexibility and keeps me moving without going stir-crazy sitting still.”
Autistic people have a hard time finding work. According to a 2012 study by Statistics Canada, only about 14 per cent of autistic adults are employed. Of the autistic individuals employed, nearly half reported that they are underemployed and their skills under-utilized.
Autistic people are under-represented because businesses have not always fostered an inclusive environment, according to Pat Mirenda, former director of CIRCA, a project within the University of British Columbia.
Mirenda said that many of the common challenges autistic employees face, such as sensory sensitivity and social difficulty, can be solved through hybrid work.
“You have total control of your schedule and much more predictability.”
Lucas Gates agreed and said that if the hybrid model allows more autistic people to get employed, it will benefit businesses.
“Hiring inclusive brings in new perspectives in understanding things and it benefits employees as a whole,” he said.
However, not all industries are capable of transitioning to a hybrid arrangement therefore, so some autistic individuals are turning towards other kinds of work, such as self-employment.
Margaux Wosk is a self-employed autistic person who now runs an Etsy shop from their home.
They were let go from their previous job at a small grocery store after a tumultuous relationship with their employer. Even though Wosk told managers repeatedly that they had sensitivity towards light and temperature, they said their needs were consistently unaccommodated.
Though Wosk was not able to join the traditional workforce, they are happy working for themselves.
“I’ve wound up at the point where I am on disability but I’m also self–employed. And that has been the best situation for me.”
Disclaimer: We recognize that there is some debate amongst neurodiverse people on the usage of person-first or identity-first language. In this piece, we have used identity-first language as it has been identified as a preference by the people we have spoken with.