Autism Inclusion at work
Lily, our content and access artist, shares Autistic Conversations, part 3...
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In the third and final part of this series for Autism Acceptance Month, we’re focusing in on autism acceptance and inclusion within the workplace and dance education.
Images by Andrew Worsfold. ID: Two collaged images of Lily dancing whilst at University. The left image shows Lily in a lift, they look down whilst reaching over someones back. The right image shows Lily standing, twisting in their spine to release their arms in front of them. Lily is white with short coppery brown hair.
This topic is particularly significant to me. As someone who’s been in mainstream dance education and work, I can honestly say I never felt truly welcomed there. It’s not that everything was overtly exclusive, I just didn’t always feel embraced. Alongside being autistic I experience mental illness, which brought with it extra challenges when I was studying.
Every moment I yearned for the inclusion I feel when I’m part of companies such as Stopgap. Longing to be in a studio where my entire being was appreciated and my artistry supported. These are the working environments where I feel most creative, affirmed and enabled. As someone who has previously needed to take a lot of time out of working, I consider myself really lucky to now be in long-term employment.
Recent data from the Office of National Statistics reveals that only 22% of autistic adults are in any kind of employment. Statistics like this highlight that autistic adults face barriers to work and give a clear indication that more needs to be done to improve support for autistic people seeking employment. It’s not just supporting autistic people to find work though; employers need a greater understanding of autism to create work environments that are accessible.
It can be difficult for neurodiverse people and those with hidden disabilities to receive the support and adjustments that they need. A lot of the time when we think about accessibility, it’s in relation to things like creating accessible buildings and transport. However, less considered are the ways we can provide sensory-friendly spaces, how we can rethink ableist working traditions and develop methods for supporting neurodiverse colleagues. This is not to diminish the importance of physical access, there is still so much work to be done in creating environments that are inclusive and accessible. Inclusive spaces need to be considerate of all access needs.
Inclusion doesn’t just refer to environments either. It refers to the facilitation of spaces, it refers to the content of your educational course, it refers to organisational structures. It refers to the way you consider colleagues, the methods you use to impart knowledge as a teacher, the culture you build that affirms people, acknowledging the adaptations they need to work confidently and effectively.
Inclusion means to meet people where they are, recognise their lived experience and embrace their authentic selves.
ID: An image of Lily surrounded by youth company dancers as they take part in a workshop. Lily kneels on the floor and holds their hands out in front whilst they work with another dancer. Lily is white, their coppery brown hair is tied up in a bun, they wear a striped top and patterned trousers.
Stopgap is one of the companies leading the way in supporting career pathways for disabled dancers. Through training programmes like Sg2 our apprentice company and IRIS our Inclusive Dance Syllabus, Stopgap is working to address the lack of opportunities for disabled people to become professional dancers, teachers and choreographers. The inclusive culture and decades of experience teaching and employing disabled and learning-disabled dancers has been beneficial to developing an understanding of how best to support neurodiverse dancers. However, there are unique considerations you can make when employing and training autistic people.
During one of my chats with fellow autistic dancer and Sg2 apprentice Fin, I asked ‘what do you think Stopgap’s approach to training autistic dancers is?’. We both pondered it for a while. It can be hard to recognise certain approaches when a majority of things are just intrinsic to the inclusive ethos of the company.
We began to unpick the question by thinking about the things that are already in place, we compared it with our experiences in mainstream education and began to build a bit of an idea about how best we feel supported as autistic colleagues and students.
Below, I’ll be working through some suggestions of how we can make work environments more accessible to autistics, a lot of this is also applicable to dance education too. It is quite a general overview, but If you’ve read part 2 of this series, you’ll know that the autistic spectrum is a vast constellation and each person has their own traits, meaning they’ll face different challenges too. So not everything will be relevant to every autistic person and there are many things that could be added to the list.
This ties in nicely to our first point:
Ask your colleagues, employees or dancers about their specific experience & what helps them
Be willing to put in the time to learn about people and what they need. Even be willing to take the initial step first in asking. All too often it is usually the autistic person doing the work to tell you what they need.
However, don’t make assumptions! Don’t assume that everything is a challenge. Over time you can build up a relationship of trust where it’s possible to share honestly and openly, where you can learn from one another.
Build an awareness of neurodiversity in your place of work or learning. Most importantly learn from autistic people themselves; it often gives you a much thorough understanding when you learn from someone with real life experience.
Workplace and Learning environment:
Autistic people often experience sensory sensitivities, this can be with light, sound, temperature, textures, colours, smells. It can make certain situations really challenging when you are receiving so much sensory input that it leads to an overload, which is overwhelming, distressing and can even be physically painful. Consider all the senses when in your workplace or studio space. Be aware if anyone has any particular preferences and plan accordingly for moments when people get sensory overload.
For example, I find it really challenging to work in a studio with mirrors, it causes too much visual input. A solution to this would be to either close a curtain across it if possible, or if a curtain is unavailable then get the class to face away from the mirrors.
Another example is that many people find loud sudden noises really agonising. Consider putting in soft close doors, draws and cabinets to avoid sudden bangs.
Try reducing distractions around your space, or if there are going to be planned distractions (e.g., a fire alarm) make sure everyone is aware well ahead of time.
Be aware that people may simply not be able to focus for long, this is okay, work within their timeframes and create a structure that enables them to work when they can. If we’ve learnt anything from the past year, it’s that flexible working is possible! An example of this is that I often find myself better able to focus in an evening, this means I try divide up my day and get work done when I can in the evening. But also – autistic people are really determined and engaged by what they find interesting, make this hyper focus work for you by allowing them to follow areas of interest.
Social rules and expectations of a workplace:
Some autistic people find it hard to pick up on social cues and don’t automatically understand the culture within a workplace. Things you may think are easily understood may not be the case for everyone. For example, do people use first or surnames when communicating? Are there certain protocols around contact times and work hours? Do we all take lunch breaks at the same time?
It can be really helpful to have a document that explains some of the more unwritten “rules” of your workplace and even covers some of the social aspects. E.g., Do people get lunch together on Fridays? Is there a bi-monthly rota for who replenishes the biscuit tin? These things might be missed by someone who needs to focus on their work tasks and may not overhear it being mentioned.
Encourage and allow social opportunities but be respectful if people prefer to work and socialise independently. Create an open area but also provide spaces where people can go to spend time alone.
In dance education this is also really helpful that there is support with the social aspects, as sometimes autistic students can feel excluded from groups.
Communication and the way you communicate:
Be literal! Sometimes we won’t pick up on certain tones of voice, certain phrases or sarcasm, so it can be helpful to just say what you mean.
Be as clear as possible about a new task. I greatly appreciate details; it helps me avoid misinterpreting a task I’ve been given. This means I’ll tend to ask a lot of questions too so that I can gain a full understanding of a task or project. Being detailed allows me to execute a task fully.
This is the same if it’s a new dance exercise or phrase: be clear about its purpose, be ready to explain thoroughly and be prepared to work through and repeat new movement.
Preparing in advance
To allow people to prepare, give everyone information in advance, whether this be about an upcoming meeting, a task or something new. If you are organising a meeting, let someone know in advance what it is about and how they can prepare. Let them know if they’ll need to contribute anything.
Allow for individual interpretation
There might be a certain process to how you do something, but an autistic person may have their own way of doing it. We shouldn’t be made to feel like we need to copy your way. Our way may work for us and that’s fine, you could suggest and show another way of doing something; but ultimately, let us make the choice as to which we find works best.
This is based on the individual again, but certain elements of “traditional” workplace protocol may be inaccessible for some. Wherever you can, aim to alleviate pressures. For example, I simply cannot process work phone calls, so removing the expectation that I need to make phone calls is really important to me.
Another example is around time; let things take the time they take. We put so much focus on efficiency and productivity, but often these ideas are ableist and disregard those who simply require more time to do something. When it comes to deadlines, make these clear and communicate about them far in advance. Help people to prioritise tasks to meet these deadlines. Flexibility around this is really appreciated!
Autistic adults appreciate consistency
Changing situations, whether that be work schedules, studio space changes or changes with a task can be a challenge. Unexpected fluctuations are particularly difficult for many autistic people to adjust to. Be mindful and create a supportive plan of action should people get overwhelmed, give them a quiet space if they need. Or alternatively work to avoid these unexpected situations by creating a schedule that announces changes far in advance.
For myself, things like new projects, meetings and environments can be overwhelming, but I know they are part of my job and have to deal with it. I appreciate time to adjust. It’ll maybe take me a week to get my head around a new project and feel in control of what I need to do. This week will include processing and time to decompress from the stress of change. Be patient, there can be a lot of internal processes going on that won’t be obvious.
Be accepting, but not assuming
It can be hard to strike a balance between being supportive or being overbearing and (often unintentionally) patronising. It can be very exposing and isolating when you are the only person in a group that is being offered support. Being singled out can be an uncomfortable experience. When offering support do it in a way that’s comfortable for everyone. Try not to jump to conclusions about anyone needing support.
There can be a challenging internal dialogue occurring when being offered and needing support. Due to societal pressure and ableism, sometimes autistic people don’t want to be seen autistic in order to protect themselves – some of us develop the ability to mask our intrinsic behaviour and appear neurotypical. Be aware that people may not always disclose their autism, they may not yet be in a place where they feel their natural behaviour is accepted. By creating an inclusive environment and awareness of neurodiversity it can give people the opportunity to open up as and when they feel safe to do so.
Creating an inclusive place of work or education benefits everyone. A diverse workforce means a rich diversity of strengths and fresh perspectives. By building a culture where everyone feels included, it empowers people to share their unique voices and approaches.
It really makes a difference to your wellbeing, your work ethic and your satisfaction when you feel included, and I’m proud to be part of a company where I feel just that. I’m proud to be a part of Stopgap.
I’d really like to thank you if you’ve taken the time to read or listen to these blogs. It’s been such an enjoyable experience sharing these conversations and autistic perspectives. My hope with these blogs is that they will inform you more about autism and neurodiversity, enabling you to be confident in starting more conversations around the inclusion of neurodivergent people. April may be Autism acceptance month, but acceptance is essential all year round.