Family Friendly Workplace Strategies
by Dan Coulter
If you have a child on the autism spectrum and a job, the ideal workplace is accommodating and supportive. I've worked in places that were – and some that weren't. That includes a college, a university, a number of radio and television stations, three large corporations and the family business I now manage with my wife.
While there's no way to guarantee your boss and coworkers will be considerate and helpful, there are ten things I've observed you can do to tilt the odds in your favor. If you're already doing some of these things, I bet they're helping you succeed.
1 Do your absolute best. You always want your boss and coworkers to see that your contributions outweigh any accommodations they make for you, such as allowing you to have a flexible schedule.
2 Work with your boss to set realistic expectations. Focus your boss's attention on what you accomplish, not on your activities. If you generate good results, does it really matter if occasionally you work from home? Emphasize all that you can do, and what you're willing to do, to excel while you also take care of your family's special needs. While you're emphasizing the positive, make sure your boss doesn't expect things that you know you can't deliver, such as being on call 24/7. The best way to make sure you can meet or exceed expectations is to help your boss create them.
3 Present your boss with solutions, not problems. One common accommodation is occasionally being away from your job during business hours (or your shift) to meet your child's needs. If someone has to back you up when you leave, keep good notes so that it's easy to hand off a task or a project. As soon as you know you need to be away, arrange with a coworker to cover for you. Offer this solution to your boss when you explain the situation and get his or her approval to be gone.
4 Be accommodating yourself. Be ready and willing to provide others the same support they provide you. Perhaps your boss can get input and identify logical people to back each other up throughout the work group. That way work is less likely to be interrupted no matter who needs to be away. You don't want to stand out as the person who others are always interrupting their schedules to help. Giving everyone in the office the same consideration is important. I've been in workplaces that were very accommodating to parents in ways that caused resentment among the single employees. Anything you can do to encourage a culture where everyone feels fairly treated will benefit you and your needs. From my experience, coworkers who would resent someone who offloads work will respect someone who carries a full load in a flexible manner – and helps as much as they are helped.
5 Show interest in your co-workers and display a positive attitude. Be the person who remembers birthdays. Learn about your co-workers lives and ask about them. Make some time in the day (at appropriate breaks) to listen to coworkers. People are more willing to accommodate coworkers who they consider friends.
6 It can be helpful to be open about your child's diagnosis, but consider what you say.
Sharing information about your child is up to you, but It helps to let your boss and colleagues know why you're asking for accommodations. If you discuss your child, share the positive along with the negative. It's good to be seen as a parent who has lots in common with other parents.
While we're thinking about what to say to colleagues, be careful not to share too much when you're feeling down. I recall a Doonesbury comic strip in which a desperately sick person in a hospital was upbeat and cheerful. A visitor asked him, given his condition, how he could be so positive. He replied something like, “Acting depressed drives people away, and I need people.” Sharing your burdens with a close friend or counselor can be an essential outlet and no one expects you to be cheerful all the time. But routinely projecting a positive attitude on the job can help you get your work done and maintain important relationships.
7 Be a team player. Helping coworkers makes you a more valuable employee. I've sat in a lot of sessions where managers decide how employees are rewarded and who gets promoted. Being seen as both a strong individual performer AND a person who enables others to succeed is a persuasive combination. It's evidence in your favor when you ask for flexibility – and also good job security if a company downsizes.
8 Maneuver yourself into the best job for you. If you want to move to – or be promoted to – a specific job in your company, talk with your boss or your personnel department about the job. Ask what you'd need to do to be considered and follow through to make yourself competitive. This is especially important if the requirements of your current job conflict with the needs of your family. While you may not identify a perfect job, you want one that offers the best combination of what you can do, what you want to do, and the flexibility to meet your family's needs. You can also try job carving. That is, analyze your company's needs and your skills. Use what you discover to design a job that offers the company advantages over the current structure – and that offers you a good work/family balance. Then pitch the job to your boss or personnel department. Emphasize the benefits to the company. The benefits to you are a bonus.
9 Investigate job sharing. In one job, I worked closely with two people who shared a job as secretary to the company's CEO. They each worked 20 hours a week, making sure to share information so each was fully aware of what needed to be done. Job sharing could be a good option for a parent who can't be away from the family for 40 hours a week.
10 Consider working for yourself. Being your own boss can give you a lot of flexibility, but it can also present additional challenges. In today's economy, with more work being shifted from employees to contract workers, starting your own business may offer job security you can't find anywhere else. Under the right circumstances, you might even hire your child on the autism spectrum. If you want to investigate whether starting a business is right for you, there are great free resources available at the U.S. Government's Small Business Association (SBA) website: https://www.sba.gov. The site has information about what to expect and how to proceed. You might be able to take advantage of all you learned working for someone else to strike out on your own.
While working in a corporate media relations job, my boss and I urgently needed input and sign-off from a company lawyer on press materials for a major announcement. The lawyer had a son with autism and had gone home to deal with a crisis.
There was no one else who could help us. After many tries, we reached the lawyer by phone. He explained that he simply could not leave or take a break to review the materials at that time. Because I have a son with Asperger Syndrome, I could relate.
As I recall, this made for a very long night and a lot of anxiety. But the world didn't end. We eventually resolved the situation. It was the right thing to do for him to be there for his son.
What I took away was that you should do everything you can to make sure work can go on without you, but you can't prepare for everything. The goodwill the lawyer had created by being a nice guy and a reliable coworker made it easier for those affected to accept his being temporarily unavailable. We knew he wouldn't have left us with a problem if there was an alternative that didn't involve letting his son down.
If you can develop the same kind of respect and trust in your workplace, it can help ease your mind when your family has to take priority. Because you know your coworkers understand – and you'd do the same for them.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Dan Coulter is the author the book “Life in the Asperger Lane” and 13 videos about Asperger Syndrome and autism. Dan's videos are available as downloads and DVDs. You can find more articles and information on Dan's website: www.coultervideo.com.
Copyright 2016 Dan Coulter Used by Permission All Rights Reserved