Sensory Processing Patterns in High-Ability Adults with Autism Spectrum Disorders in the Workplace
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Rationale: Previous studies have reported low employment rates for adults with autism spectrum disorders (ASD). The challenges to finding and maintaining work have been attributed to their social, communication, behavioural and sensory processing difficulties. Numerous studies report that children with ASD experience abnormal responses to sensory stimuli, whereas estimates for adults remain unclear. Furthermore, little is known about how sensory processing patterns affect employment. Objectives: The purposes of this study were a) to describe the self-reported sensory processing patterns in high-ability adults with ASD and compare them to adults without ASD; and b) to explore the role that sensory processing patterns play in the workplace for high-ability adults with ASD. Methods: A sequential mixed methods approach was used. In Phase I, 20 participants with and 20 without ASD completed the Adolescent/Adult Sensory Profile (AASP) and employment details. In Phase II, 10 of the 20 participants with ASD described their work experiences during phone interviews. Participants with ASD were recruited from autism societies in Ontario and Québec. Results: Significant differences were found in all four subscales of the AASP between the high-ability adults with ASD and those without ASD. The adults with ASD obtained significantly higher scores on the Low Registration, Sensation Avoiding and Sensory Sensitivity subscales than the comparison group, and significantly lower scores on Sensation Seeking. Approximately half of the adults with ASD were employed, but few were experiencing sustained employment. Participants described using avoidant, replacement and preventative coping strategies to overcome overwhelming sensations at work. Enhanced sensory processing had the potential to improve work performance. Participants chose alternative work environments based on their sensory preferences and challenges. Disclosing their ASD diagnosis proved to be a delicate process, resulting in differential consequences on accommodations and workplace relationships. Conclusions: High-ability adults with ASD displayed different sensory processing patterns compared to individuals without ASD. Most of these adults showed an awareness of their sensory needs. Sensory processing patterns impacted on work choice, performance and satisfaction. Accommodations that modified the physical environment and occupational tasks promoted an optimal work fit for individuals with sensory issues. Self-employment offered a means of self-accommodation.