“Clinicians who try to grapple with the questions that a person with ASD puts to them, if they are able to empathize with the emotional intensity that lies behind these questions, will find themselves having to question their own values and life equally carefully.” Digby Tantam, Autism Spectrum Disorders Through the Life Span
Not only did my last job required a long commute but also working in a shared office space divided up in cubicles. I asked if its possible for me to work from home but my employer said no. I didn’t mention my autism although it’s a thought I had in my mind and I wondered how it’d play out and its relation to what constitutes autism awareness.
Disclaimer: All names and characters are fictitious. Any reference to “he/his/him” should be read as including “she/hers/her”.
# Fact scenario 1: Legal awareness (diagnosis-driven awareness) & Autism awareness (?)
Abyssinian is an employee of Exotic Feline Company and works side by side co-workers in a shared open office. Abyssinian is autistic and hypersensitive to lights and sounds, making it difficult for him to concentrate in a shared office space due to constant distraction in the environment (phones ringing, talking, coughing, footsteps, photocopying machines, flickering lights, air circulation etc.), which is becoming a source of stress and anxiety as well as putting a strain on co-worker relationship. Abyssinian decides to disclose his autism to the Company and asks for reasonable accommodation such as the option to work from home on certain days, a separate room with no more than 2 co-workers, more partitions etc.
The Company is concerned that if it agrees to make reasonable adjustments to Abyssinian, other employees would follow suit. However, after taking into account various factors including its legal obligations and corporate social responsibility, the Company agrees to making some adjustments.
# Fact scenario 2: Legal awareness (diagnosis driven awareness)
Birman is an employee of Exotic Feline Company and co-worker of Abyssinian. Like Abyssinian, Birman finds it difficult to concentrate and work in a shared office environment due to the constant distraction. Instead of increasing collaboration, people were engaged in small talk and co-workers’ relationship have deteriorated due to miscommunication and misunderstanding. Birman decides to talk to the Company about the possibility for more flexible working arrangements and/or the setting up of more partitions or separate rooms. Birman is a self-diagnosed autistic and has no other co-morbid conditions.
The Company refuses to make adjustments to Birman due to lack of supporting documentation to support Birman’s self-diagnosis and Birman’s refusal to obtain a professional diagnosis.
# Fact scenario 3: Legal awareness (diagnosis driven awareness)
Chartreux is an employee of Exotic Feline Company and co-worker of Abyssinian and Birman. Like Abyssinian and Birman, Chartreux finds it difficult to concentrate and work in a shared office environment due to the constant distraction. Instead of increasing collaboration, people were engaged in small talk and co-workers’ relationship have deteriorated due to miscommunication and misunderstanding. Chartreux decides to talk to the Company about the possibility for more flexible working arrangements and/or the setting up of more partitions or separate rooms. Chartreux is an introverted neurotypical and has no other medical conditions or disabilities.
The Company refuses to make adjustments to Chartreux due to lack of disability i.e. Chartreux is ‘normal’.
# Fact scenario 4: Self-interest awareness
There has been increasing research on the negative effects of shared office space on work productivity and employee relationships. Other employees have also raised their concerns and complains. Concerned by the results, Exotic Feline Company decides to implement changes to the office layout (more enclosed rooms and partitions).
# Fact scenario 5: Enlightened & Transformative awareness
There has been increasing research on the effects of shared office space on work productivity and employee relationships but no conclusive evidence. On the other hand, Exotic Feline Company notices an improvement in Abyssinian’s performance following the environmental adjustment. This led the Company to re-consider its operation and HR policy. The Company thinks that other employees would benefit from similar adjustments and decides to extend their reasonable adjustment policy to all employees. In line with this new culture of embracing diversity, the Company comes up with a new slogan, Pawsomely Exotic & Weird, and consults their employees (including Abyssinian, Birman and Chartreux) on their needs and preferences in relation to the new revamped office layout.
Devon is a new recruit of Exotic Feline Company and co-worker of Abyssinian, Birman and Chartreux. Devon who isn’t aware of the office revamp expresses concern about working in a shared open office. The Company reassures Devon that it has separate rooms and partitions for employees who need it and that they are open to alternative and viable suggestions. Devon is relieved but added, “Do you need my medical proof?” to which the Company replies, “No, we don’t care if you have a diagnosis or not, whether your are NT or ND or Autie. Every employee is entitled to a more sensory friendly environment because everyone at Exotic Feline is pawsomely exotic and weird.” 😺
Is the enlightened/transformative awareness too far-fetched? After all, what’s special needs are essentially human needs. Is it asking too much of people to be more considerate and thoughtful? I guess this is what the above quote by Digby Tantam meant. Being Asperger has made me question about fundamental human values and life. And if outsiders are able to empathize with the intensity of my emotions, they might hopefully question their own values too and realise that my needs are merely human needs.
“When I think about all the struggles, I question my existence, I begin to believe that the autism spectrum exists to remind mankind that just because something appears ‘normal’ or is typical doesn’t mean it is necessarily correct; just because something has always been done a certain way by the majority doesn’t mean I have to follow too; and just because I don’t see it, doesn’t mean I can deny its existence. Autism taught me being difference is neither bad nor wrong.” Aspie on a mission
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