How to Support Autistic Individuals in Agile Workspaces

By | 3 minute read | February 7, 2019

Agile work spaces are becoming more and more common, thus increasing the probability that an autistic individual will find themselves placed in such an environment. Due to sensory processing disorders and sensitivities to certain environments, autistics may encounter difficulties thriving in agile office spaces. However, with simple accommodations, they can adjust more quickly and feel more comfortable in these settings leading to increased focus on their work. This document is a list of recommendations put together by autistic IBMers to create an environment in which they can thrive.

Keep in mind that every autistic individual is unique when it comes to their needs so some of these may not apply for certain folks, or there may be accommodations not listed here worth discussing.

Adjustments in office meetings 

Being in an office space where there is a conference room and regular meetings, some autistic employees have found that the constant back and forth between their desks and conference rooms can cause increased anxiety, stress, or frustration. If possible, allow the individual to attend meetings “remotely” from their desk via teleconferencing. Especially for meetings where the individual will not be required to speak or heavily participate, allowing them to be in “listen-only” mode from their desk can make a huge impact on the outcome of their day as a whole.

Desk placement

Agile spaces can lead to unique desk arrangements. While the difference between the same size and shaped desk whether it is located against a wall or in the middle of the room, or next to vs. across from another desk may seem trivial to neurotypical individuals, it is an important factor to an autistic individual’s comfort and productivity levels. Talk to the autistic employee to find out where they would be most comfortable sitting. They often know what the optimal seating situation would be and will gladly share with a manager willing to accommodate that.

Noise-cancelling headphones

 Many autistic individuals have a hypersensitivity to sounds. Whether it is a squeaky chair or general office banter, external noise can impact the autistic employee’s productivity. Active noise-canceling headphones are a simple solution to this. It’s important that it be full-ear coverage active noise cancelling, rather than passive, in order to effectively cancel out the background noise.

Dedicated space 

Autistic individuals can often experience moments in which they become overwhelmed with emotion, for a variety of reasons, and at those times they may need to “escape”. Having a more isolated space or room where they can go when they need to separate from the work environment in order to recover emotionally is important. Similarly, having the understanding of managers that sometimes they just need to get away and as long as it doesn’t impact their work that is fine for them to do that.

Awareness for coworkers 

Being in such an open space, autistic individuals are much more exposed to their coworkers and also much more impacted by coworkers’ interactions. Allowing the autistic employee to provide awareness about their situation can improve both that employee’s comfort working closely with others and the social dynamic of the team.

Social contracts

Autistic individuals often struggle with understanding the “unspoken rules” of office interactions. However, clear explanations of what is and is not appropriate will eliminate this problem. Consider drafting a social contract with the employee to define the do’s and don’ts of office and general work interactions. Teaching them how to understand and interact with the organization hierarchy and clients will be helpful.

The National Autistic Society provides more information about creating an autism friendly environment here.

About the Authors

Megan Roddie (left) is a new hire to IBM Security X-Force IRIS as a Cyber Threat Researcher. She is a public advocate for mental health awareness and uses her own experiences from living with autism to educate the community.


PageBill Dusch (right) is a new hire Data Scientist, part of IBM Services for Managed Applications. Bill received his PhD in Physics from Penn State, where he integrated data science techniques in the analysis of data related to Scanning Probe Microscopy. Bill is passionate about teaching the natural sciences and data science to people and an autistic advocate who can educate the community through his experiences.


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