Everyone is different and has their own little personality quirks, right?

This is often an understatement for employees who are the autism spectrum. You see, autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a developmental condition that affects a person's ability to socialize and communicate with others.

Difficulty communicating with coworkers and misinterpreting directions can be a real problem in a workplace that relies principally on effective communication to serve clients or customers.

Generally speaking, the Americans with Disabilities (ADA) protects qualified individuals with a physical or mental disability from discrimination in the workplace. The law requires employers (with 15+ employees) to provide such individuals with a "reasonable accommodation" (or more than one) if doing so does not impose an undue burden on the employer.

But how does an employer know that a disabled employee needs a reasonable accommodation if the disability is not visible?

I pondered this question over the weekend when I read, as I always do, The New York Times Sunday Work Friend column by Roxane Gay. I love Roxane, and she seems to provide solid, sensible recommendations to folks seeking workplace advice.

In yesterday's column, an individual wrote that she loved her work at a large corporation but that communicating with her coworkers felt like "a perpetually escalating and unwinnable war."

She is also autistic. However, she says, she is not "out," at work, with her autism.

Instead, this employee alleges that she has been "open" about preferring clear expectations and direct, specific feedback. However, the employee does not feel she is getting what she needs and complains that when she seeks clarity, her questions are viewed as annoying or inappropriate. She's confused and, frankly, exhausted.

Why didn't this employee disclose her autism to her supervisor or to HR?

Indeed, Roxane had the same question. She wrote:

The benefit of disclosure is that you will receive more employment protections under the Americans With Disabilities Act, and you can request specific accommodations because of your disability. Would it be possible to disclose to your direct supervisor, and work with that person to create a communication plan that meets your needs? Sometimes, people are more willing to do something if they are clear on why it is being asked of them or, to be blunt, if there is a legal imperative.

In broad strokes, that's right!


Photo by Ayla Leung on Unsplash

Since effective communication seems pivotal to this individual's professional success, the employee who wrote to Roxane should disclose that she is on the autism spectrum.


First, according to the excellent resource the Job Accommodation Network, ASD is characterized by persistent deficits in social communication and social interaction across multiple contexts.

Next, communication is a major life activity. This employee's impairment may entitle her to reasonable accommodations from her employer under the ADA.

A reasonable accommodation is just a change in the way duties are performed to help a disabled employee perform their job duties or enjoy the benefits and privileges of employment.

While an employee with a disability does not need to use "magic words" to request an accommodation, employers are not mind readers and do not (generally) have crystal balls.

If a disabled employee requests a reasonable accommodation, an employer must provide it unless doing so would cause "undue hardship," i.e., a significant difficulty or expense for the employer given its size, financial resources, and the needs of the business. It is not a favor the employer provides to the individual. It's a legal obligation.

While employees with disabilities are held to the same performance and conduct standards as those without, the ADA requires an employer to offer an employee with ASD who struggles with communication a reasonable accommodation that enables her to perform the essential function of the job.

Most businesses rely on daily, fluid, dynamic social and communication skills, which can be extremely difficult for an employee on the spectrum to manage.

This letter writer self-identifies as autistic. If her autism substantially limits a major life activity, like communicating effectively, the ADA provides protection - - but only if her employer knows about it.

And listen, I understand that it is difficult to disclose a mental health to an employer, but it is necessary to obtain reasonable accommodations.

Otherwise, most employment is at-will, and, if these employee's emails continue to annoy her coworkers and supervisors, she may find herself without a job and little recourse or protection under the law.

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