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June 30, 2023
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Work & school accommodations for Autism & AuDHD

Last updated on January 26, 2024

In this article, I share my thoughts about what sorts of accessibility accommodations may be useful for Autistics and AuDHDers at work or at school. These ideas come from my own personal experience as an AuDHD student, professor, and employee. We will update this article periodically with community suggestions, so please share your ideas in the comments section!


School accommodations

These accommodations are geared towards adults, and are most helpful for students in college or university. However, you may also find these suggestions helpful if you are in high school.

General accommodations

Speak to an academic advisor: As a university professor myself, I strongly recommend that all neurodivergent and/or disabled* students meet with an academic advisor. Due to the rigid nature of most academic programs, it is very difficult to get accommodations without being officially set up with an advisor at your school.

I recognize that this process can be extremely frustrating. My hope is that as more professors begin incorporating accessibility directly into their courses, this won’t be necessary in the future.

*Please note that individuals within our community identify differently. Some of us identify as disabled while others do not. However, it is important to remember that we all have challenges we face.

Obtain official documentation: Again, this can be frustrating. Schools often require you to have a formal diagnosis or medical note to get accommodations set up. If you don’t have a formal diagnosis, I suggest you meet with a professional who can vouch for your needs and provide you with a note. Many universities have free student health centres that can help in these situations. It might be helpful to bring some of your results from the Autism tests page, such as the RAADS–R or the AQ, so the clinician has evidence-based psychometrics.

Reduce your course load: Reducing your course load is not a reflection of how “smart” you are. It gives you time to get a job, participate in extracurricular activities, and focus on making sure you have what you need for your courses. It can feel like a lot more work to get caught up than it does to get ahead, even though it requires the same amount of work. This is especially the case if you struggle with organization and prioritization!

Find a safe space on campus: It’s hard to be on an overstimulating campus. Knowing ahead of time where to find a sensory friendly space is helpful when you are close to a meltdown/overwhelm. Look into private bookable rooms at the library, student lounges, or even a designated campus sensory-friendly space.

Classroom accommodations

These accommodations generally require you to be set up with your school’s accessibility services. You are welcome to ask your professors if they are willing to meet your needs outside of official channels, but note that they are not obliged to do so.

Use a note-taking service: If sitting still and paying attention during long lectures is difficult, having a note-taker helps fill in the blanks if you miss important information.

Write your exams in a separate room: Personally, I find this to be the most helpful accommodation. It is much easier to concentrate when you are in a room by yourself with fewer distractions.

Ask for extra time on your exams: For example, you may be permitted 50% extra time on exams. If your class has an exam that lasts for 1 hour, you will be given 1 hour and 30 minutes to write your exam. This extra time gives you room to re-focus your attention if you get distracted or lose concentration.

Ask for breaks during exams: Breaks can be helpful if we are feeling anxious and want to take a few minutes to de-stress or if we need to stim or get some physical energy out before going back to sitting still at our desks.

Request permission to wear noise-cancelling headphones or earplugs during exams: Many professors do not allow this without permission because they cannot tell if you are cheating. But, when you are writing your exam through the official accessibility services at your university, this is a very common accommodation.

Use scrap paper during exams: Ask your professor if it’s okay to have some scrap/blank paper with you during exams. This can be helpful when we have trouble processing exam questions in our heads and instead want to draw things out so that we can see our thoughts visually. This can also help offer us a way to covertly stim by allowing us to doodle while doing the exam.

Inquire about flexible deadlines: This is helpful if you find yourself in a meltdown the day before an assignment is due, but because of your struggles with time management, you have not yet done the assignment. Having the ability to ask for an extension without penalty is a helpful accommodation for these executive functioning differences.

Get permission to record your lectures: Recording your lectures can allow you to re-listen and gather any information you may have missed due to difficulty concentrating or environmental distractions.

Ask for professors to send out their lecture slides and notes ahead of time: This accommodation allows you to know what to expect and to prepare ahead of time for any questions you may have.

Propose working on group projects alone: Be aware that this isn’t always beneficial, since it may result in a higher workload. However, if you struggle in social interactions, working alone may still be preferable.

Other useful but less common accommodations

Ask to submit your work in an alternate format: For instance, our executive functioning differences can make it hard to formulate and organize all our thoughts for an essay question during an exam. You may find it easier to give an oral presentation instead, or to write your essay up on a computer. Some professors/universities will offer this accommodation, but it is not guaranteed.

Ask to shift the weighting on your assignments: Because we have different executive functioning compared to neurotypicals, we may be at a disadvantage when it comes to achieving grades that represent our actual understanding of the material. For example, oftentimes the evaluation scheme heavily favours students who do well on written, often multiple-choice, exams. If we have an assignment in the class that is of a more favourable format for our executive functioning, it may be worth asking the professor if they can switch the weighting. For instance, if an exam is worth 30% and an oral presentation is worth 20%, we can see whether the professor would be willing to make our exam 20% and our oral presentation 30% instead. This may not work in most situations, especially when the topics being assessed differ across each component. However, if you ask at the very beginning of the semester, there may be more room for accommodation.

Ask for regular one-on-one meetings with your professors or teaching assistants: When I teach smaller classes, I often hold meetings for neurodivergent students to talk about the course. I have found that this gives time for students to ask for more clarity, verify whether they missed any pertinent information, and check in to make sure that their accessibility needs are being met. Autistics and AuDHDers can’t always process everything in the moment and so this extra time outside of lectures can be really helpful. The reason this is not a regular accommodation is that professors can have hundreds of students, and it is not always possible for us to meet with every single neurodivergent student in our class. Regardless, it is always worth asking!


Workplace accommodations

General accommodations

Request additional, as-needed breaks: Many jobs only allow you to have a set number of breaks each day. Having extra breaks can be helpful for autisics and AuDHDers who are prone to being overstimulated. If you are impulsive/hyperactive, it can also be helpful to use these extra breaks to do something physical.

Ask that meeting agendas be available ahead of time: For example, your boss can email you the agenda the day before so that you have time to prepare and anticipate what will be discussed.

Request written instead of verbal communications: Autistics and AuDHDers can struggle to pay attention during verbal instructions and can struggle to remember everything that was said. As an example, in meetings, this accommodation would involve someone taking notes for you.

Ask for clear to-do lists and instructions: Autisics and AuDHDers often find instructions to be ambiguous. AuDHDers also tend to struggle to prioritize tasks. This accommodation meets our needs for defined timelines, organized lists, and specific due dates.

Set up a workplace calendar: Since AuDHDers need routine but also struggle with organization, you can ask your workplace to schedule your meetings and deadlines directly into your calendar.

In-office/on-site jobs

Request a private office: If you work in an office, there can be a lot of sensory overstimulation and distractions in the environment (like loud co-workers). Having a private office allows you to make adjustments that are sensory-friendly, like turning off the lights.

Investing in noise-cancelling headphones: Earplugs or noise-cancelling headphones (if budget permits) can be helpful in noisy workplaces.

Ask for permission to miss out on social events: For example, if your team regularly goes to a loud bar, this environment may not be accessible to you. Hopefully, if you have this accommodation in place, your co-workers will understand if you choose not to attend. (And perhaps next time, they’ll even plan something more Autism/AuDHD-friendly!)

Remote jobs

Spend time setting up your workspace: This might mean removing distractions, like things that are hanging on the walls. This also involves making your space more sensory-friendly, like changing out fluorescent lightbulbs. If budget permits, I’ve heard good things from AuDHDers about using a standing desk and treadmill to help with hyperactivity and also stimming!

Request regular meetings with your supervisor: This is especially helpful if you don’t usually meet with your co-workers. These meetings give you time to clarify any uncertainties, go over deadlines, and prioritize tasks. It would be a bonus if these check-in meetings were routine! It is so much easier for an AuDHD brain to know that meetings will be at the same time and same day every week.

Work alternate hours: Many AuDHDers prefer working in the evenings. Instead of working from 9 am to 5 pm, since you are working remotely, you may be able to request different working hours, such as 12 pm to 8 pm.

Ask for accommodations during virtual meetings: You may prefer to keep your camera and microphone off during virtual meetings. It is also common to ask for closed captions or meeting transcripts and to ask to participate using the chat function.


ADHD & autism contradictions

If you’re like me, finding accommodations that reliably work for AuDHD is complicated by the fact that some autistic needs contradict ADHD needs. Often, satisfying both at the same time is difficult. Here are two examples of what this looks like for me personally:

Routine vs. variety

I prefer when my work is routined (common autistic experience). Doing the exact same tasks over and over again is very soothing. I love when I know exactly what to do and how to do it. At the same time, I also crave a bit of variety (ADHD trait). As calming as these routined tasks can be while I am engaging in them, this desire for variety makes it really difficult for me to actually start doing the work. It can lead me to procrastinate a lot and to experience anxiety because I am unable to just start working.

I try to balance my need for routine and variety. When I have to do something routine, I usually watch TV at the same time. While not everyone is able to multi-task in this way, for me, the TV is a good motivation to start working and it helps keep my “bouncy” mind busy so that I can enjoy the routine task I am engaging in.

I also balance these two things out by being rigid about how I do tasks, but being flexible about when I do tasks and what tasks I do each day. For example, as a student I always write essays using the exact same process. But, when I choose to work on my essay differs from week to week, and the topic I choose to write about also changes regularly.

Hyperfocus vs. attentional differences

I often get into hyperfocus mode (autistic trait). Once I’m in the middle of a task, it is difficult for my mind to disengage until I’m finished. I can work on something for hours without stopping. However, this mostly happens when I am doing something that I am interested in. Because I also struggle to begin tasks that I am not interested in or that I find too easy or too hard (ADHD trait), there are also times where I am unable to work for 30 minutes without getting distracted.

Many ADHDers swear by the Pomodoro technique. Essentially, this is a time management method which uses a timer to create a repetitive work/break schedule. Typically, the schedule is 25 minutes of work followed by 5 minutes of break. After you repeat this cycle 4 times, you take a longer 20–30-minute break before restarting the schedule over again.

When I am doing an incredibly boring/easy/difficult task, this technique helps me get going. But, because I also struggle with behavioural flexibility (autistic trait), this technique can also be frustrating. Sometimes it takes me the whole 25 minutes to even get my brain to switch to doing the task at hand. And then when the timer rings, I am unable to switch off in time to enjoy the 5-minute break before it’s back to work. If I get into a hyperfocus mode, I can even get upset when the timer goes off because it is disrupting my flow!


Accessibility & inclusion

It isn’t always easy to seek our accommodations. Some hostile work/school environments view accommodations as unfair and require us to “jump through hoops” to get our needs met. In contrast, a disability justice framework recognizes that all individuals can benefit from accommodations, regardless of diagnosis or need. In a truly inclusive environment, anyone would be able to access these accommodations without jumping through hoops. In fact, they wouldn’t even be seen as accommodations because they would be considered the norm!

In the education system, an example of this framework is UDL (Universal Design Learning). UDL asks that teachers, professors, and educational institutions implement flexible learning environments in all classrooms and for all students. This means that neurodivergent and/or disabled learners who need accommodations and neurotypical and/or able-bodied learners who don’t need accommodations but who benefit from them all have equal access. There is no need for doctors notes or formal diagnoses and there’s no need to submit paperwork and make official requests. This is what true inclusion and accessibility look like and we hope to see more of it in the future!

Lastly, as always, each of us has such unique lived experiences. The accommodations suggested in this article may not be what works best for your personal accessibility needs. If you’re looking for more ideas of possible accommodations, I recommend taking a look JAN (the Job Accommodations Network). They have a comprehensive list of possible workplace accommodations sorted by condition/need.

References

This article
was written by:
debra-bercovici

Dr. Debra Bercovici PhD is an Assistant Professor, Teaching Stream at the University of Toronto. She has a B.Sc. in Psychology from McGill University, and a Ph.D. in Behavioural Neuroscience from the University of British Columbia. She was formally diagnosed with autism at 28.

Disclaimer

Although our content is generally well-researched
and substantiated, or based on personal experience,
note that it does not constitute medical advice.

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