11th Apr 2024
3 Min Read

The sound of silence: ASD and music in the workplace

Charlie Feasby
Charlie Feasby
People & Change

April marks Autism Awareness Month. But while we can always do more to help our neurodiverse colleagues feel comfortable in the workplace, a recent LinkedIn survey got me thinking about one way we can help.

Cat Stevens’s Moonshadow has just finished. The scarlettabbott work playlist ticks over to another track and I wonder what the next song will be. You know what I wasn’t doing in this time? Writing this article.

I’m one of those people who is easily distracted by music (ask me about the three years I spent doing a music degree) and, according to a LinkedIn poll, it seems like I’m not the only one. But for some people, music in the office can be a serious distraction.

For people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), certain types of music can be a sensory sensitivity – think things like colleagues talking and general office ambience, as well as certain foods and tastes and physical touch. Each sensitivity can quickly become an unavoidable distraction that can have a big impact on their work.

So, what can we do to make the workplace more accessible for those with ASD? Because they – and other people who are neurodivergent – have a lot to offer, yet only 29 per cent of people with ASD are in any kind of employment.

Please don’t stop the music

As an employer, it’s your responsibility to make reasonable adjustments in the workplace for employees. You could switch off the music, but it’s not that simple.

For some people, silence can be much more distracting than music. That’s because, in an office, it isn’t really silence. You start to notice the tapping of keyboards, the glug of water bottles and the ridiculously loud fridge that you never noticed before but now can’t unhear.

That same LinkedIn poll – which asked for people’s listening habits in the workplace – found it’s a pretty even split between those who prefer listening to music while working and those who don’t. But in the comments, people specify that it depends on the type of work. In retail, some kind of ambient music is expected, but in the office, it’s task dependent.

With repetitive or admin tasks, music can help you to get into a rhythm. But for creative or complex tasks, respondents to the poll tended to prefer silence. Again though, this isn’t always the case. You won’t be shocked to hear that different people have different ways of working.

You can work your own way

For many people with ASD, a noisy environment can make it really hard to focus. They may need a quieter space to work in, or even to work from home – a space where they have more control over their surroundings.

To make the office more welcoming to neurodiverse and neurotypical colleagues alike, you could offer noise-cancelling headphones or create a quiet zone – like the quiet coach on a train for anyone who prefers a more peaceful workspace.

But before you start shaking up workspaces and implementing new policies, remember that creating a welcoming workplace for people with ASD starts during the job application process – and there’s no one-size-fits-all approach. Here’s a guide from the National Autistic Society which gives you some helpful tips to get started, but – in short – ask your colleagues about how you could make work-life easier for them. They’ll know best if there’s anything you can do to make their working environment more comfortable.

That doesn’t just mean turning the music off. They, like many others, might prefer the music and the hubbub of a busy office. As for me, I’ll take a work playlist over eight hours of fridge noises any day.

Want to create an office that works for everyone?

Your office should be a place where people can feel and do their best. Want help with yours? Get in touch.

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