April 2, 2024
Robin Wilde

Today is Autism Awareness Day, so hey, I’m here, and you are officially aware of me. I’m the Communications and Engagement Representative (social media person and graphic designer) for UFCW 1518 and if you’ve followed any of our content in the last few months, there’s a good chance I’ve been behind it. If you haven’t, my performance gets judged on how many followers we have, so hop to it.

I’m also on the autism spectrum – I was diagnosed in 2018 at age 23, an experience which clarified a lot of questions I had about my life, and it would be fair to say I’ve learned a lot about the condition over the last six years. Whether you think you might also be autistic, or if you’re neurotypical (not autistic), it remains a poorly understood condition, and today’s a good day to learn a little more about it.

Diagnoses for autism – and other neurodiverse conditions like ADHD and dyslexia – have been rising since the 1990s, and it’s natural to have some questions, particularly as people from that wave of diagnoses are entering adulthood and the workplace.

What is Autism?

Unfortunately, this isn’t as simple a question as it sounds! Autism is, broadly speaking, a lifelong neurological condition whose symptoms can include:

  • High sensitivity to outside stimulus (e.g. noise, bright lights, smells, or textures)
  • Difficulty with interpersonal skills, including conversational cues, interpreting tone of voice, and reading facial expressions
  • Preference for some comforting or repetitive behaviours
  • Intense interest in particular favoured subjects, activities, or objects (often known as special interests)
  • Avoidance of eye contact or physical contact, e.g. hugs or handshakes
  • Difficulty with spontaneous or unfamiliar behaviour or activities, e.g. a reluctance to try new things

As you might have spotted, lots of people display at least some of these traits, and not all of them are autistic. Likewise, plenty of autistic people don’t display all these traits – although they will probably display at least some.

Some autistic people display these traits very strongly, while others do not outwardly display them much at all, and most display a mix. Diagnosing autism is therefore difficult and is often a case of subjective judgement by a doctor or psychiatrist.

How autism impacts autistic people varies widely. For many, some autistic traits can be helpful (we’re often very good at retaining facts, as you might notice if you watch a lot of quiz shows) while others are more challenging (weddings aren’t as much fun when you’re forced to try and dance).

Autism and the workplace

Autistic people have often not been able to take a full role in the workplace – as of 2022, only 33% of autistic adults were employed – but this figure is increasing, and accommodating autistic people at work will grow as a priority as it does. Autistic people often flourish in highly specialized roles, where their special interests line up with the needs of their employer – for example in programming, design, scientific or engineering work – but that is by no means guaranteed, and you will likely find autistic people in any sector.

You might not always know if someone you work with is autistic. In fact, they may not know themselves, as the condition is frequently undiagnosed.

As the number of diagnoses has increased, so has openness to talking about the condition, and some autistic people find it helpful to be upfront so that people don’t misunderstand things that we might say or do. However, plenty of people with autism choose not to tell others or may not realize that they are autistic themselves. Until quite recently, diagnoses were rare, but that doesn’t mean autism is new. Older autistic people especially were – and still are – very unlikely to receive a diagnosis.

However, there are plenty of actions that you can take to make a workplace or social setting more accommodating for autistic people which are also helpful for people who aren’t.

It is the ER’s responsibility to ensure all workers with disabilities are duly accommodated, and that if you have concerns that your ER is not so doing, you should consult with their union rep. as soon as possible.

How can I make my workplace more comfortable for autistic people?

The following are helpful tips for helping autistic people in your workplace – as both staff and customers:

  • Some workplaces can involve a lot of sensory stimuli, especially in sectors like retail, where bright lights, crowds and noise can be common. If you have a staff break room, make sure it’s a quiet place with minimal clutter where workers can decompress.
  • Autistic people tend to like routines, rules, and established processes. If you have an established way of doing things, make sure it’s easy to learn and refer to, e.g. by putting a checklist in the relevant work area. When training new staff, consider giving them a written copy of any complex instructions.
  • As far as possible, make sure equipment or stock is stored in a consistent place or has a system for finding and retrieving it.
  • Some retail stores have begun offering sensory-friendly hours with measures like lower lighting, quieter music and staff support. Consider asking the management if this can be offered at your store.
  • Autism is covered as a disability under the Duty to Accommodate in BC employment law. This means an employer must make reasonable adjustments to working conditions to allow you to do your job to the best of your ability. For autistic people, this might include agreeing on a regular shift pattern, assigning consistent duties, and giving written feedback on work to make sure it is clearly understood.

Useful Resources

If you have further questions please contact reception@ufcw1518.com.