Adrian Carroll: Impact of COVID-19 on Autistic Employees

Like many others facing difficult times, autistic people will largely have the same concerns about the potential disruption COVID-19 will cause to their livelihood and their daily routine. While people with pre-existing health conditions are particularly at risk from COVID-19, particularly people with respiratory or immune conditions, chronic pain conditions or conditions like Down Syndrome, autistic people may also encounter additional social, psychological and economic barriers arising from their condition which may have an additional impact on their well-being and quality of life during this pandemic.

Employment Factors 

COVID-19 will present a substantial impact on the Irish economy, and the ‘sharp shock’ of effectively stopping many businesses, schools, bars, restaurants and shops for several weeks, if not months, to fight the pandemic, will also have lasting effects on autistic people. It is very likely that existing restrictions on travel and personal contact will remain in place for some time, and may last for several months. This means that sectors that hire many young workers such as tourism, hospitality, and retail will face substantial challenges in recovering from this pandemic, particularly as these sectors are the main employers in many parts of the country, and many of these jobs are seasonal in nature. This could disproportionately impact young autistic people, many of whom would otherwise be looking for work over the spring and summer months and who could particularly benefit from learning soft skills through these jobs, who already face substantial obstacles to making a successful transition from school to the workplace, and who may need extra support during the transition.

Autistic people may find themselves in jobs with fixed-term contracts, for instance, which may last for a few months, which can be more precarious in nature. This challenges may be compounded by COVID-19, which will dramatically change the nature of the jobs available in the coming months, and may cause some employers to reconsider their immediate plans for hiring people as they tackle this crisis. These challenges can be similarly felt in the gig economy, and issues regarding job security in these sectors may be compounded by COVID-19, and need to be tackled by employers across the country. Due to a natural desire to look after their health and wellbeing, or distress or anxiety from constantly hearing about COVID-19, autistic people face a particular dilemma in weighing up the need to self-isolate to be healthy and their desire to earn their own income, to learn valuable skills and experience, and the dignity of having a job. This may mean that autistic people could have their hours temporarily reduced or face a temporary lay-off as businesses seek to mitigate the financial impact of COVID-19. In circumstances, you can direct employees to the COVID-19 Pandemic Unemployment Payment of Short-Time Work Support for the duration of the crisis   

As people with disabilities are half as likely to in employment as non-disabled people of working age, including over 80% of autistic people who are unemployed or underemployed, an economic shock of the magnitude of COVID-19 could potentially provide fewer opportunities for the autism community to secure employment, and this would put them in a further disadvantage in a competitive job market, which can often be inaccessible to autistic people. 

Autistic people already face substantial barriers to recruitment and retention, which often arise as many of the personal qualities we seek in employees and candidates tend to favour people who both have ‘soft skills’  and perform the job required. Whilst many autistic people have technical skills which may be an asset to organisations across the country, they may find communicating these qualities more difficult, particularly in settings like a job interview or on a Curriculum Vitae or application form where they may feel under pressure and may not know the right thing to say to employers. An increase in unemployment arising from the COVID-19 pandemic may make it even harder for autistic talent to secure work. AsIAm offer services and supports that can help you reach a vast untapped pool of autistic talent.

Changes to autistic people’s routine

Routine plays an essential part in helping many autistic people to manage their daily lives, as the routine helps create certainty and predictability in an often confusing and unpredictable world.

Government restrictions on social gatherings, whilst necessary to ensure public health and safety, have meant that many businesses, schools, universities and public buildings and spaces need to close to contain the outbreak, without knowing when they will re-open. The impact of these closures will cause disruption to many autistic people’s daily routines. For autistic people with additional support needs, the sudden change to their routine may be particularly difficult to navigate and manage, as they may not know about the pandemic’s devastating consequences for those whose lives are impacted or disrupted by the virus.

The wider autism community may also face difficulties in maintaining a healthy work-life balance. A prolonged period of physical distancing may cause people to lose touch with friends and family,  as some people may not know how to reach out to people, and this period of social isolation could adversely impact their mental and physical health and wellbeing. 

 

Communication in the Workplace

Autistic people who are working face the same challenges caused by changes to their work routine as everyone else. These changes, like the need to work remotely to maintain their health, and to how they communicate in the workplace may have an impact on their ability to work productively during the COVID-19 pandemic. Regular one-to-one meetings with their managers to monitor their performance, keep track of objectives and to address potential barriers may all help an autistic employee to produce their best work if agreed by both parties, and in order to effectively monitor their productivity and performance, their line managers may need to make alternative arrangements, like arranging a regular call via Zoom, Skype or Teams, to touch base with any autistic employees they may manage.

Whilst working remotely from home may be particularly helpful for autistic people wishing to access the workplace but may find working in an office environment overwhelming, even the increasingly widespread use of communication systems may take some time to adjust for everyone at your workplace. Making the transition to these applications could pose potential difficulties for some autistic employees who may be unfamiliar with these applications and may also experience connection issues if they live in different parts of the country. Organisations may need to take proactive steps to support the transition from office-based environments to communicating using platforms like Skype, Zoom, Microsoft Teams or Slack, although with the right supports in place, these tools can also play a key role in supporting your work beyond this crisis. Scheduling regular check-ins between line managers and autistic employees may also be a helpful way of supporting the transition to working remotely, which can help if you want to retain these supports in some form once the outbreak subsides.

Another barrier for autistic people may lie with barriers to accessing the healthcare they need. This may make it harder for autistic people to access treatment, as many autistic people may present medical symptoms differently to their neurotypical peers. For instance, some autistic employees find it more difficult to understand how their feelings may be connected to the COVID-19 outbreak. This may have a knock-on impact in situations where they present with symptoms of the virus and they don’t immediately contact emergency services. Some employees may elect to work if they’re sick in an effort to maintain their routine and avoid sudden changes, and they may not communicate to you about their symptoms if protocols around sick leave or temporary layoffs are not clearly communicated across the organisation. 

This places a need for organisations to proactively provide clear guidelines around sick leave is communicated across the organisation, particularly if close contact between staff is a necessary part of your organisation’s work and if your workplaces face challenges to observing protocols around physical distancing. The Department of Social Protection’s scheme on sick leave and supporting employees may be a very useful way of keeping employees safe throughout this outbreak. If you need to temporarily lay off employees, you can let them know about the COVID-19 Pandemic Unemployment Payment which they can access during this outbreak.

Accessing Reasonable Accommodations

Autistic people already face significant barriers to accessing Reasonable Accommodations in the workplace. Reasonable Accommodations are supports which help autistic employees perform their best work for the organisation and can also help them work in a healthy and safe manner. Some Autistic people may require further support to identify what Reasonable Accommodations can be used when they’re working from home. AsIAm has an article on Reasonable Accommodations for Autistic Employees which can help your organisation to support autistic employees to work to their potential.

While working from home may be very helpful for some autistic people, this can also pose additional barriers for other autistic people, who may find having to change how their work is structured overwhelming without the right supports in place. These barriers may include having other people who may also be working from home in the same, the impact of having constant distractions and trying to find space in the house to work productively.

Autistic people who may also be availing of other Government schemes that help people with disabilities access the workplace, like the Reasonable Accommodation Fund and the Workplace Equipment Adaptation Grant, may also face challenges to accessing the accommodations they need at home, particularly if there are certain technological supports they use at the office that they don’t access to at home, particularly when the office is closed. You may also need to consider whether transporting this equipment from the office to the home would be feasible and if any alternative supports can be offered whilst they’re working from home.

Autistic People, COVID-19 and Mental Health

Autistic people may be more prone to experiencing mental health difficulties, including anxiety and depression, than neurotypical people, and are more to be at risk of suicide than neurotypical people, particularly when catastrophic events like the coronavirus are happening. The constant stream of bad news surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic may exacerbate mental health issues as many autistic people may find the news surrounding the virus particularly overwhelming, and may feel helpless over how they can play their part in stopping the virus. AsIAm has several helpful resources on how to manage stress and anxiety surrounding COVID-19 which can be found here.

Some autistic people respond to loss in different ways to non-autistic people. While most people diagnosed with COVID-19 make a recovery with treatment and a period of self-isolation, this is not always the case, some people may lose loved ones to the virus. In these situations, up-to-date information on the mental health supports may be necessary, as many autistic people may not just need time to grieve for their loss, but also additional support for adapting to the sudden loss of their loved ones and the overwhelming emotions arising from this loss.

Going beyond the workplace, prolonged periods of social distancing and self-isolation may also worsen some autistic, particularly if they live in difficult domestic or family situations. Some autistic people may be more vulnerable to domestic violence, and the fear of social isolation and financial insecurity may make it even more difficult to leave abusive situations. 

Autistic people and hand washing

Some autistic people may also be diagnosed with OCD, a long-term mental health condition which is often associated with obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviours. Obsessive thoughts may be an image that repeatedly enters a person’s mind to such an extent that it may cause great anxiety, and in some cases, it can overwhelm people and cause considerable disruption to their daily lives. Compulsive behaviours may comprise repetitive actions a person feels compelled to take to reduce the effect of the obsession or take control of their situation. This may result in a negative spiral the person may use the compulsive behaviour to temporarily relieve themselves of their anxiety, only for the cycle to begin again and the obsessive thoughts to return.

The COVID-19 outbreak, particularly the rapid and seemingly uncontrollable way the virus is spreading may compound people with OCD’s anxieties if their obsessive behaviour revolves around cleanliness, or if they feel overwhelmed about not being able to personally control their situation. Whilst the Department of Health and the HSE’s advice for people to wash their hands is critical for each of us to help contain the virus, this may have a knock-on impact for people who may also have OCD, particularly if repeatedly wash their hands becomes a part of their daily work routine. Your organisation may consider steps on how to manage any anxieties people may have around handwashing once the COVID-19 outbreak subsides.

Diet and nutrition

The COVID-19 outbreak has also caused some shops and restaurants to close, or restrict their services to takeaways, and for more people to restrict when and how often they choose to go to shops and supermarkets. This may mean that some foods and other daily items that some autistic people may use to comfort themselves may become less readily available around the house during the pandemic. This could have an adverse impact on some autistic people who have diets which may require them to eat certain foods, who may also be experiencing eating disorders such as anorexia, or even some autistic people whose executive functioning difficulties means that they may have issues in trying to decide what they need to eat over the course of a week. 

Employers can consider why some employees may need to shop during working hours, or may need to shop more regularly due to these executive functioning issues and try to take steps to make working schedules more flexible to accommodate this where it may be feasible to do so. You can also suggest what precautions autistic people can take to keep themselves safe during this pandemic if they need to go out more regularly.

Food, particularly the taste and texture of certain foods, can also play an important role for autistic people in comforting themselves. The increased scarcity of certain foods may have an adverse impact on many autistic people’s physical wellbeing, particularly if the person has sensory issues around food. Whilst diet and nutrition plays a key role in looking after your physical and mental health, it is also worth noting that a sudden change to an autistic person’s diet may have the unintended consequence of exacerbating any sensitivities they may have around food, particularly if the autistic person eats particular types of foods as a way of managing their sensory needs. 

However, we must stress that people should try to stay at home, self-isolate and reduce physical contact with people by respecting physical distancing where possible. We strongly advise that autistic people spend as much time at home as they can, to make sure that COVID-19 does not spread to other people in their community, and to only go out on occasions where people need to exercise or to go to the shop or supermarket.   

 

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