Sensory Issues at Work

Introduction

James is 43 years old and was diagnosed with High Functioning Autism in early 2008. Most of the events described in this case study, therefore, took place before he had a diagnosis, or had even heard of ASD.

James works permanent nights in the stores at a manufacturing company and has been there for five years. His claim to membership of Asperger Management is that he has an ASD and, at times, does supervisory and administrative tasks.

As usual, all names and some details have been changed to ensure anonymity, but the important facts are as accurate as memory can make them.

The views expressed are personal, for illustrative purposes only and should not be related, or automatically applied to, other situations or scenarios.

Case Study

I decided to write this case study, partly, in order to feel that I am contributing to the autism/Asperger community and, hopefully, so I can learn from the process and others can learn from the results. I suspect that this may also involve sometimes learning what not to do!

As with most people on the spectrum, I sometimes have problems with sensory issues. Excessive noise, light and heat all have the potential to cause me problems.

For example, trying to work in a temperature much over 20C (68F) makes me ill-tempered and lethargic, camera flashes physically hurt as do sudden loud noises, and multiple complex sounds such as someone talking while a radio plays are exhausting to “decode”.

This means I often suffer problems the people around me are utterly oblivious to, so they can’t understand why the situation is stressful. Consequently, they think I’m just being “difficult” for no reason.

The company I work for has two factories on the same site, plus an office building. One factory manufactures circuit boards; the other assembles them and other components into electronic equipment. The boards we manufacture are very high value and have to be kept secure and individually accounted for.

The work undertaken to make them, therefore, is repetitive but precise, and appropriate working conditions are important to maintain productivity at the required level of standards.

I started with the company in early 2003 operating machines on the shop floor in the board plant. This is good work for someone with an ASD if they can stand the light and the noise because it is totally predictable; social chit-chat is actively discouraged except at break time, and it pays relatively well.

I’d also recommend nightshift work for similar reasons: you don’t get the hassle and politics that you get on days and you do get paid a premium rate. There are people with quite responsible white-collar jobs at my firm who are paid a lot less than I am.

Because I was so well suited to my work, and also have the common autie qualities of being conscientious, reliable and hardworking, it didn’t take long for me to come to the attention of the stores manager. Consequently, I was offered a job in the secure stores. I proved to be successful at this job as well and everything was going well until….

In 2004 my manager asked to see me and explained that, due to staff shortages, he would like me to transfer to the secure stores in Assembly which was also his responsibility. I said that I was willing to try it, but that I liked the job I already had so I wanted the right to return to it if the new job didn’t work out. He agreed to this.

The new job was a nightmare from the start. Because what we make is so high value, if a board fails (as they quite often do) the assemblers must bring the defective one back to the stores and swap it for a replacement so that the failed board can be sent for rework.

This means that we have a counter open to the shop floor and someone has to work by it, being constantly interrupted by people wanting “remakes” as we call them. This can happen 60 times in a shift, so people tend to dislike this job. It was normally rotated around so everyone did it one day in four.

Being interrupted would be unsettling to my routines. Another major problem I had was that radios do not work in the stores, so CDs are constantly played in it while the workers outside listened to a local radio station. This means that whoever is working the remakes counter gets a different type of music in each ear. It was loud, and for me, very distracting – it upset my internal equilibrium and concentration.

Due, I now know, to auditory processing difficulties, I simply couldn’t cope with this. At the time, all I knew was that I hated it and it would give me a blinding headache by the end of an eight hour shift. In fact, it took me a while to connect the headaches to the job. I felt that I could not do anything about this and would just have to put up with it. This was a major mistake.

As soon as I knew I had a problem I should have calmly explained it to my manager Graham and asked to either have it resolved or be transferred back to my old job, but I didn’t. As well as ASD, I have a severe anxiety disorder (also unknown to me at the time) and little confidence in talking to people so maybe that’s why I did not.

Spending one day in four with my job making me ill ,and the other three waiting for this to happen, gradually wore me down and I hit the low point a few months later when I found myself feeling totally miserable and unmotivated.

This wasn’t nice, but it was, in effect, with hindsight a good thing because as soon as I realised what I was thinking, I literally jumped up out of my chair and thought this isn’t worth this level of hassle or personal stress. It prompted me to do something.

Consequently, I resolved that I would fight the situation to resolve the sensory difficulties and secure the working conditions that I required and which would enable me to flourish.

Now, whenever I find I am unhappy with my working conditions, I look back on those feelings and remember that they are the consequence of just sitting back and trying to tolerate the intolerable. This has been a hugely beneficial learning process for me going forward and securing the working conditions I need.

The next night that I was due to be on remakes, I was extremely tense. However, I kept my resolve and when Robert, the supervisor, said “You’re on remakes tonight aren’t you?” I assertively said “No, I’m not able to do it. Listening to two different types of music gives me a headache and I’m not going to put up with it anymore!”

However, though my response was necessarily assertive, it also incorporated another mistake. This was the first time this supervisor had heard of my difficulty and it was not a tactful way to say it. Robert clearly thought I had made this up as an excuse to get out of an unpopular job, so his first reaction was to say: “well in that case you can work over there and do [another unpopular job] every night then”. This I happily agreed to.

A couple of hours later, having thought about it, he said that he wasn’t going to let me opt out of part of the job, and if I had a problem with the music he would leave it off. That would have been OK if he’d meant it sincerely, but it was – I believed – just a way to torpedo my “excuse”. I had to ask him to do it at the start of the shift and after each break, and he would only do so reluctantly which did not help our working relationship.

After a few weeks working in the somewhat poisonous atmosphere this created, I gave up and told Graham I wanted my old job back, which to my great relief I got shortly afterwards.

Around the middle of 2005 there was once again a staff shortage in the Assembly stores and Graham asked for volunteers to go and work in it. When he didn’t get any he tried to impose a “rotational system” where each of the four people in the board plant stores would have to work in Assembly one week a month.

I was completely opposed to this as a result of my previous experience, as was another colleague Tom (who is not on the Spectrum so far as I know but is quiet and withdrawn enough to perhaps be close). Two other colleagues opposed it for a different reason.

For the next couple of weeks we argued this back and forth by e-mail, with me as spokesman for all of us, although I did take the precaution of printing out the first letter we sent and getting us all to sign it. As far as Tom and I were concerned, Graham said that he had checked with the health and safety manager that the noise levels were within legal limits, though it was never the level that I had complained about. In other words, though the noise issue had been, in a way, addressed, it was not done so satisfactorily from my perspective as it didn’t deal with my issues. However, we were told that if we didn’t like it we would just have to put up with it.

My response to that was that I would refuse to do so. I was unsure whether he would call it a reasonable request in the circumstances or call it insubordination, but I felt I simply could not tolerate working under the conditions proposed. I informed Graham of my view quite calmly with no emotional outbursts or personal criticism as I believed that this was the correct and only way to go about it.
The result was that Graham said that he would call a meeting to discuss our concerns face-to-face. The meeting however never happened because Graham went on sick leave and the rotational system was quietly allowed to whither.

The company’s “Plan B” was to tell me that I had to work in Assembly whenever they were short staffed. I would report in to the board plant at 10 p.m., be told to go to Assembly and, by the time I got there someone would already be working the “remakes” desk.

This was OK for a while until a different supervisor, Julie, told me that I would have to work it the next night because of staff shortages. When I asked for someone else to undertake the task, as I was not prepared to do it, Julie refused. She also refused to elevate the problem to the nightshift manager as I requested. The thought of this alone was enough to induce stress due to the thought of having to work under inappropriate conditions.

At 6 a.m. I went back to the board plant where I was scheduled to work overtime helping out the morning shift until 8. However, as I was unable to face the situation, and after seeking advice from the morning shift supervisor, I e-mailed HR to inform them that at 10 p.m. my boss was going to give me an order which I could not accept. It would be helpful therefore if they decided in advance what they intended to do with regard to this.

At 10 p.m. I was told that the overall logistics manager, Graham’s boss, had come in to see me. I explained to him why I had written the e-mail and that I was not willing to work in conditions that damage my health.

He said that he had read all the e-mails I had written to Graham and could see that it was a serious problem for me and not just a whim. He then had a separate meeting with Julie and came back to announce that he had decided to exempt me from the job that was causing the problem. Success! This solution worked until the staff shortage was resolved and I could return to my main job full time.
In the first half of 2006 the company suffered a severe slowdown in orders and had to make about 20% of its workforce redundant. I was selected but told there was a job going in Assembly Stores.

I explained the problems I’d had before and stated that I couldn’t take the job if they were not addressed. I also queried whether it was worth applying given these issues but was advised to do so and discuss my concerns at the interview, which I did.

As part of the reorganisation/redundancy process Graham left the company and each production area was made responsible for managing its own stores, so my interview was with David, the new Assembly Production Manager. When I raised a concern about potential noise levels he was unwilling to make any of the changes or accommodations I felt necessary. I therefore said I didn’t want the job and ended the interview.

I had assumed that this was the end of the matter until I got a phone call a couple of days later asking me to attend a meeting with an HR representative, the nightshift manager Kathy, and David, to discuss the reasons I had rejected the job. I explained them again, but Kathy said she had looked into the problem, arranged for the shop floor radio to be moved so it was inaudible in the stores and that “I will manage the situation” so that it stays that way.

I was asked if I would take the job on this basis, to which I happily agreed because of the support I had received from Kathy and I thanked her for her help. I started the job the next night and everything went well as there were no – audio – disruptions.
About a year later the work had picked up to such an extent that we needed to run 24/7 to keep up with things. Consequently, I had the opportunity to work a weekend shift where I got a full week’s pay for two twelve hour nights.

During the time I worked on the weekend shift it was decided to move the radio even closer to the stores than it had previously been, so that it was now audible throughout the stores. This was part of a reorganisation and tidy-up exercise intended to make us look more professional to visitors.

It was felt that it looked better to have the stereo on a high shelf on the wall rather than sat on top of a cabinet in the middle of the shop floor as it previously had been. I was told this was OK because I was working with a “temp” and could impose my preference to leave the CD player off which I did. In other words, I had self control over my working environment.

By early 2008, we again had less work and so it was decided to end the weekend shifts. I personally had to then go back to working five nights and so I e-mailed Kathy to inform her that I would have a problem if and when I had to do this. I followed this up with another e-mail the week before reminding her, only to be informed that the issue had been dealt with.

However, when I walked into work on my first Monday I was informed by Robert that I had demanded the CD player be banned (not true!), he had discussed this with everyone on all three shifts and they were unanimously opposed to it. As you can imagine that did not exactly make me Mr Popular! I got Kathy to explain to him exactly what I had asked for and he calmed down, but the damage was done and I’m sure a lot of people still think I only denied it because it didn’t work.

In order for this account to make sense, I should explain that by now it had become Robert’s practice to always man the “remakes” counter himself in order to be immediately available to resolve any problems or queries from the shop floor and so he did not expect me to have a problem because, after all, the situation I had complained about no longer existed.

However, the radio and CD player were now often both audible throughout the stores; or, at least, they were to me anyway. I stuck this situation out for a month to avoid complaining and, also, to get a better idea how prevalent the problem was. With hindsight his was probably another mistake as it allowed everyone to think I was happy when, in effect, it was a time when I built up serious “tensions” which exploded when later provoked.

At the end of the first month, I again e-mailed Kathy and complained that I had suffered the conditions she had promised to prevent for some or all of every shift I had worked except one. I made some suggestions as to how this could be addressed without spoiling things for others, such as exempting me from the ban on Walkmans so I could listen to white noise.

I copied this to Robert as preferred, but this wasn’t accepted because he felt I should have talked to him first which upset him. After a meeting with Kathy, Robert came back and told me to tape up the volume on the CD player at a level acceptable to me
I said I would not do this as it was never the volume that was the issue and I didn’t want to needlessly upset everyone. In the meantime, Kathy rejected every suggestion – or “demands” according to her – I had made. This was copied to so many people it has become public knowledge. I later found out that Kathy was upset because she thought I was making her solely responsible.

A meeting followed to discuss the matter. Robert asked for a radio speaker in the stores to be installed so we could all listen to the same thing. However, after six months, we still did not have one. (Robert, though, is very good about things and always switches off the CD player whenever he thinks I might have a problem which is a great accommodation for me).

In most respects my company is a very good employer. I’m well paid, I like my work, my hours and my colleagues and management are normally very fair and helpful with genuine problems. However, they still appear unwilling to make the adjustments that I require with regard to noise levels which is hampering my ability to perform as well as I can.

Some people seem genuinely unable to grasp what the issue is, and believe that something that wouldn’t bother them won’t bother anyone; a few just don’t care as long as it’s not them that suffers.

I am not opposed to others having music to listen to and I do want them to be able to listen to it. However, I can’t accept a ‘solution’ that makes me appear responsible for spoiling their enjoyment but neither can I accept intolerable conditions for their sake.

I now know that these issues relate to my having HFA. As far as my ASD is concerned I started reading about Asperger’s Syndrome in late 2007 and could not decide if I might have it or not. I got high scores in on-line tests and most of what I was reading fit me perfectly, but a few things jarringly didn’t. I didn’t want to live with this uncertainty so arranged a professional diagnosis which I got in January.

As soon as I got the diagnosis I checked my terms and conditions at work to see if I’m obliged to report it to the company (I’m not) and searched the company intranet to see if it has a disability policy (I have been unable to find one). After much thought, and after reading about the experiences of others, I decided that since I had already been granted the only accommodation I need, the risks of disclosure outweighed the benefits and my employer is still not aware I have an ASD.

This was while I was on weekend shift and before I transferred back to 5 nights, when the accommodation was effectively withdrawn. At that point I did consider reverting to the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) but, again, decided the risks of disclosure outweighed the benefits. Instead, I would rely on the fact that when the company made promises to get me to accept a job those promises would become part of a verbal contract between me and them.

Conclusion

So what lessons in relation to sensory issues have I learned from the above experience?

Firstly, that the sensory issues associated with ASDs are genuinely incomprehensible to many people. Most often assume that their experience is everybody’s experience and therefore can’t understand, or even believe in, the problems we have. This makes it very difficult to explain what the issues are. Difficulties in communication only add to this.

It is very easy to get frustrated and angry when explaining the same, apparently simple and obvious, problem over and over and not being understood. It is also very important to avoid this and stay calm; criticising people usually does nothing but harm, especially if they are genuinely struggling to understand.

Secondly, I believe, there’s a ‘theory of mind’ issue at play in relation to issues of a sensory nature. I tend to assume that if people know that certain conditions have caused problems every year for the last four they should realise that if they obtain now they are a problem now as well as before.

Obviously, this is not the case and, if I do not repeat the same request, it’s assumed that I’m happy, especially if I reply to “How are you?” type questions with “fine, thank you” as I normally do. I appreciate that I need to re-iterate my needs.

Thirdly, I have a very good memory and I don’t make promises I can’t keep. This does not automatically seem to apply to everyone. The promise made in 2006 was that there would be only one source of music audible in any part of the stores in order to prevent sensory distress and this would be achieved without depriving anyone of their enjoyment.

I took this as a commitment for as long as I worked there which was genuinely forgotten and no-one sees anything much wrong in this. This might, I suppose, be taken by managers as rigidity of thought or literal interpretation on my part.

Fourthly, I need to be much more assertive (and probably also less aggressive at times) and communicate more with people even if they “can’t do anything” or “already know it”.

This point has been made to me by at least two managers. This is very difficult for someone with HFA, especially in the face-to-face meetings most people seem to prefer. However, I appreciate that this is essential. To assist me in achieving this, I find it useful to make notes in advance of what I want to say and not rely solely on my memory which is not always efficient when I’m stressed.

Fifthly, it is important for those of us on the spectrum to get as much understanding as possible of the ways in which we are different to the majority. NT managers do not act the way I expect because they don’t think the way I do. However, mostly they do genuinely want to help and they certainly don’t want to lose good staff or have to deal with litigation.

I have found that if I explain things clearly to management so that they understand the reasons why it is important to me, they often come round to my thinking and are accommodating towards my request.
This approach is the opposite to demanding changes per se which lacks tact in a work context and usually ends up preventing the outcome I desire from being realised. However, this does not always work and sometimes confrontation is necessary, unpleasant though this is. Some people, I have found, respond only to credible threats, whether of legal action or simply the best candidate for a job refusing it.

Finally, people with ASDs tend to be highly honest so we are greatly insulted when people assume we are “making it up” or even “trying it on”. However, I have come to appreciate the need to realise that NTs are less able, and liable, to understand this issue or position as they are used to dealing with people “trying it on” in the normal course of events. Again, if employers do not understand that some people think differently or have different needs they will never empathise with our views – or requirements.

In conclusion, I can say that sensory issues remain a problem for me at work necessitating that I do seek the ameliorative changes in order to deal with them. Such changes are, I believe, acceptable for all workers to request and are reasonable insofar as they assist in enabling the person involved to work productively to the benefit of the company in a healthy environment.

From an ASD perspective, it may be not only necessary – but also justifiable – to utilise the protection that the DDA affords to achieve this. Given the risks involved this is a personal decision in each case. Either way the important thing is to communicate your needs and to do so in the correct manner, by coming at the issue as much from the company’s, not just your own, perspective

Managing with Asperger Syndrome