Is Autism Protected by the ADA?


Logo-rI wrote to Workforce Management Magazine this past week wondering if Autism and Asperger’s syndrome are protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act. It’s not just children who have this disorder; so do some adults. The only difference is that most adults are not even aware they have this affliction, because when we were kids, the disorder hadn’t been named yet.

Those with Autism and Asperger’s syndrome are not stupid. Quite the contrary, they are super smart. But what makes them stand out is they have poor social skills. Most lack friends, tend to have a strong interest in only one subject, and thrive on a daily routine where they do the same exact thing at the same time every day. It’s very ritualistic. They don’t adapt well to change, and tend to have a lack of empathy for their peers. And while not required for diagnosis, those with Autism and Asperger’s can be clumsy, or have a funky gait, such as walking on their toes a lot. They also tend to have a heightened sense of self-importance and are quick to point out the flaws of others, or may perceive that their co-workers are getting preferential treatment.

Because many managers, as well as the employees themselves are unaware of the symptoms, there can be clashes in the workplace. Managers may see the Autistic employee as difficult, unyielding, and combatant, especially if there is a schedule change, or change in responsibilities. In fact, most managers will try behavioral therapy to address the issue, focusing on specific deficits to address poor communication skills, obsessive or repetitive routines, and physical clumsiness. When in fact, the managers and co-workers should be aware of the disorder(s), and how to coach and work with an autistic employee. At the ADA and the Department of Labor, it’s called an accommodation. But are accommodations granted to those with Autism? It’s not a disability you can easily see, and employees can only hide it for so long, if they are even aware they have Autism.

Managers and HR Directors need to be observant of their employee’s behavior to determine if a diagnosis is necessary instead of just firing the worker because they are challenging. Otherwise the company could end up with a huge lawsuit on their hands, and a lot of unwanted media publicity.

In the meantime, if I hear back from Workforce Management Magazine on whether the ADA protects Autistim, I’ll post it here. Your comments on the subject are encouraged.

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