Why using AV to support people with autism makes a lot of sense

There are 700,000 people on the autism spectrum in the UK alone. Tim Kridel explores AV’s role in helping businesses provide better environments for ASD employees and customers.

In February, the UK National Autistic Society named Bristol Airport an Autism Friendly airport for its efforts to help autistic passengers, their families and caregivers. In July, Morrisons launched Quieter Hour at all 493 of its UK supermarkets, where people with autism now can shop without noise such as PA announcements. 

And in the US, the Chuck E. Cheese restaurant chain, which specialises in kids parties, launched Sensory Sensitive Sundays. The programme was developed after a Center for Autism and Related Disorders coordinator wanted to take her nephew, who has autism, to one of its restaurants. 

“She knew the loud sounds, flashing lights and high-level of activity would be hard for her nephew to experience, so she asked the general manger if they would be willing to open early and adjust the restaurant’s activities to be more sensory friendly,” a Chuck E. Cheese’s spokesperson says. “When support centre heard word of what they were doing, we decided to first test the Sensory Sensitive Sundays program at a handful of stores. 

“The response and turnout was so overwhelming. We were able to expand the offering to hundreds of restaurants across the country.” 

“Each person’s use of technology is somewhat different, but the same can be said of all employees.”

They’re just three recent examples of how businesses worldwide are increasingly looking for ways to accommodate customers and employees with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), such as Asperger syndrome. 

“We have indeed seen growing number of initiatives to make public spaces, services and businesses autism-friendly, although there is still a long way to go,” says Aurélie Baranger, director of Autism-Europe, a liaison for roughly 90 autism organisations across 38 countries. “Although we cannot determine the exact reason for this growing move to reasonably accommodate autistic needs, we could surmise that a few things might be at play here. 

“[One is] a growing appreciation of the talents many autistic workers have, and how employers can harness their contributions in various work settings. [Another is] that with an estimated 1% of people on the autism spectrum, it makes real business sense to welcome autistic people [and] their families (in supermarkets, airports etc.).” 

Many of the AV technologies and techniques used to help people with ASD are equally effective for those without neurosensory conditions. Case in point: sound-masking technologies to alleviate the productivity-busting cacophony that’s a by-product of the open-floor-plan office trend, or to help hospital patients recover faster. AV firms that already specialise in those types of solutions are well positioned to serve businesses looking for help with ASD initiatives. 

SAP’s Autism at Work program began in India and expanded to other countries. Its experiences show that although people with ASD often avoid eye contact, that doesn’t mean they can’t use a mainstay of today’s workplace: videoconferencing. 

“There’s quite a bit of research [showing] workers are pretty dissatisfied with open floor plans.”  

“Each person’s use of technology is somewhat different, but the same can be said of all employees,” says Jose Velasco, the head of Autism at Work for SAP North America. “For instance, in some cases we use telepresence/ Skype to conduct interviews for candidates with autism. Some of our employees use noise- cancelling headsets. Skype or SAP Connect are used regularly for day-to-day team work, as well as training/seminar delivery. 

“In fact, we just moved the first three weeks of our six-week training online using SAP Connect and Skype. But on the whole, you’d find little difference in the use of technology between our employees with autism and our neurotypical employees.” 

One size doesn’t fit all 
Studying successful programs such as SAP’s is one way that AV firms can learn about ASD’s nuances. Another is by working with ASD organisations. 

“For such specialist advice, the best people to advise are often those on the autism spectrum themselves,” Baranger says. “For Autism-Europe’s last International Congress in Edinburgh, autistic consultants where hired to help make the venue autism friendly. They were contacted by the congress co-organisers: the National Autistic Society (UK).” 

A client’s ASD employees are another key resource. 

Office workplace. Modern office interior. Office room. Business center.

“We often talk about ‘reasonable accommodation’ for a workplace, etc.,” Baranger says. “This really means not making standard changes to a work environment using a one- size-fits-all approach. It is about talking with the autistic employee to see what things they require. 

“Each person is different. One person might require soft lighting for their sensory issues, whereas for another person their reasonable accommodation needs might include assistance in organising their work tasks and approaching their colleagues.” 

Open floor plans can be problematic for employees with ASD—but not simply because of the noise. 

“People with Asperger’s want to talk casually with their co-workers, but they want to do it in a controlled, predictable way, with no small talk,” says Penelope Trunk, an entrepreneur with Asperger’s who founded Math.com and eCitydeals. “This is difficult, so people with Asperger’s plan their communication a day in advance. 

“Open offices are terrifying because the implication is that anyone can approach anyone at any time. Someone with Asperger’s will worry all day long that someone is going to approach.” 

At the same time, it’s important to remember that the S in ASD stands for spectrum. 

“An expression in the ASD community is ‘If you’ve met one person on the autism spectrum, you’ve met ONE person on the autism spectrum,’” Velasco says. “That’s because everyone on the spectrum is different, with different skills and needs. Companies of all types, including AV vendors, should take steps to understand the needs of individuals rather than drawing any sweeping generalisations of the autism community.” 

Above the fray 
If there’s one safe generalisation about workplaces, it’s that most employees—with or without ASD—find it difficult to concentrate amid the din of open offices. Hence the growing selection of sound-masking technologies. One recent example is a system under development at the University of Illinois in the US that uses sensors to detect an audio signal before it arrives at a person’s ear and generate an anti-noise signal to cancel it out. 

“That’s been a driver of our business in the past ten years or so: this move to open-floor-plan designs and collaborative spaces,” says David Sholkovitz, Cambridge Sound Management vice president of marketing. “There’s quite a bit of research [showing] workers are pretty dissatisfied with open floor plans. Almost 60% of office workers [report] being dissatisfied with their levels of speech privacy.” 

Another trend is having walls that stop at the drop ceiling, instead of going all the way up to the roof. This enables sound to carry from one space to another. In a clinic, this can unnerve patients when they overhear procedural sounds. It also can lead to embarrassment and privacy- law fines if it enables people to eavesdrop on frank patient-physician conversations. The use of finished concrete floors rather than carpeting also can send conversations ping-ponging around a floor. 

“It’s noise, but what’s bothering people most is that they understand everything going on around them,” Sholkovitz says. “Maybe the noise level isn’t as loud, but the all the conversations become distraction.” 

For AV firms, there’s an opportunity to offer a holistic solution based on the ABCs of acoustics: absorb, block and cover. Sound masking is one type of cover, while furniture and wall coverings can help absorb and block. 

“A lot of AV integrators are bringing it up [by] either adding it to a quote or discussing it: ‘Have you thought about sound masking because you’re going to have a lot of AV going here and open space?’” Sholkovitz says. “Often the end user hasn’t thought about it yet, so it’s an additional sale for the integrator.” 

“With an estimated 1% of people on the autism spectrum, it makes real business sense to welcome autistic people [and] their families.” 

To make that sale, consider pitching to more than just the client’s AV and IT heads. 

“HR and facilities departments are on the front line of fielding complaints from employees,” Sholkovitz says. 

See the light 
Circadian rhythm is among the biological processes that AV can leverage to reduce stress and improve productivity. 

“Light is an essential element to human wellbeing,” says Thomas Walter, NEC Display Solutions Europe section manager, strategic product marketing. “Our circadian rhythm controls the cycles between sleepiness and alertness. When it’s dark, our eyes send a signal to our brain that it’s time to feel tired. Light— whatever the source, natural or artificial—is mood enhancing and essential in the work environment in order to maintain alertness.” 

Sky Inside UK has developed a light and imaging system designed to alleviate anxiety and aggression. It’s currently used in a wide variety of environments, from head trauma units to prisons to memory care living facilities. 

At one London emergency room, “it’s being used to reduce patient aggression and to help staff get their circadian rhythm back when they’re changing shifts, [such as] working nights,” says Sky Inside managing director Allan Sinclair. 

Sky Inside’s system includes imagery designed to help ASD children with cystic fibrosis, and it’s provided significant benefits at the Walton  Centre, a major UK neurology hospital. 

“They’re ‘locked in,’” says Sinclair, whose son has Asperger’s. 

“By putting waving foliage and stuff like that, they interact with it. It becomes to them a pleasurable experience, which release endorphins and reduces the pain medication they get. The Walton Centre is seeing a 30-40% reduction in pain medication.” 

The system works partly by removing blue light and interrupting pain receptors in the cerebellum. “In high-stress areas, circadian rhythm and colour temperature adjustment is the key,” Sinclair says. 

Rooms with a view 
Sky Inside recently worked with NEC at the Walton Centre’s Intensive Therapy Unit on a display system that lets patients visualise the outdoors during therapy.  

The underlying concepts and technologies can be applied to other stressful environments, such as call centres and offices, that don’t have windows. 

“People with Asperger’s want to talk casually with their co-workers, but they want to do it in a controlled, predictable way.”

“With companies looking to allocate more office space to create flexible meeting rooms and huddle spaces for ad hoc meetings, many of these will not have access to natural light,” Walter says. “Ultra-high-definition (UHD) displays can be used to give the appearance of natural light coming in through the ‘window.’ Extreme detail and clarity is achieved with UHD resolutions. 

“To give greater authenticity, the image might be a real-time streaming from the outside of the building. In smaller meeting spaces, this ‘window’ can double as the presentation screen and offer functionality for interactivity, collaboration and videoconferencing.” 

Potential applications and benefits will grow as underlying technologies get more sophisticated. “New fine-pitch LED technologies bring opportunities to be more creative and to up the scale of ambient installations,” Walter says. “With no bezel restrictions, an entire room can be covered in LED modules for a wrap-around affect, turning day to night or vice-versa. The vivid, true-to-life colours trick the senses, making this an exciting potential to generate atmosphere and alter mood. 

“In airport lounges we see increasing use of large digital surfaces to playback mesmeric images and pictures of nature helping passengers to relax, reducing anxiety over the pending potentially stressful flight. Similar wellness areas would be beneficial in other transportation lounges, in waiting areas in offices and healthcare environments, shopping malls and staff rooms.”


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