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I recently started with a graduation internship. Which I am quite happy about. (Finally completing my studies after a couple of failed employments, also due to the side effects of autism)

When I interviewed at this company, I disclosed my autism, and let them know that I need 2 things to properly function: clarity of expectations and a reasonably quiet working environment.

They did pretty well with the first thing. However, the office is LOUD. Radio constantly on, colleagues constantly talking to each other, people in online meetings NOT GOING TO A MEETING ROOM.

This made my progress extremely slow. I simply cannot function in loud environments.

Today I snapped and went to another room, but that is not a long term solution. But I don't think I can ask them to turn the radio off, since I am the only one who is bothered by it. The same goes for meetings being held in the same place as people trying to get work done.

I asked a couple of people how they could get anything done with all that noise. But nobody seems to be bothered by it. I am at a bit of a loss on how to navigate this.

Additional information:

Work from home is currently not feasible, due to space limitations and limited climate control.

I do have a pair of noise-cancelling headphones. (Bose QuietComfort 45), the noise-cancelling part seems insufficient for me. I am not familiar with other headphones, so it is possible that there are better options out there.

This is in the Netherlands.

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    Where are you located? Disability laws vary from country to country. Feb 25 at 15:39
  • Do you have certain kind of music that you like to listen to ? If yes, then buy a super big headphone that fully covers both ears, then tune in to your own favorite songs. Feb 25 at 21:07
  • Can you privately tell your manager about your autism, and ask if there is any quiet location in office or building where you can move there to work ? BTW, is working from home partially (half of every week) an acceptable option with your boss ? Feb 25 at 21:16
  • Get some good active noise cancelling headsets. They make a dramatic difference.. Don't skimp: get Sony or Bose or equivalent
    – Hilmar
    Feb 26 at 8:02
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    I agree noise-cancelling headphones may not be adequate. Have you tried hearing protection like ear plugs or ear muffs (scroll down for ear muffs)?
    – zmike
    Feb 26 at 16:40

6 Answers 6

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As an Aspie with similar issues to loud/busy environments I feel your pain!

However you're running into things that are going to be pretty common in your career and are difficult to accommodate "reasonably" for you:

Radio constantly on

This is something you could probably get the company to do something about - the radio isn't really a work thing, but it's probably unwise to ask for it be removed if others like it. Because there's bound to be someone who really likes having it on, and to them you'd be a party pooper. It's not fair, it's not right, but you'll end up being disliked for it anyway.

colleagues constantly talking to each other

That's the norm - and even if not all the conversations are strictly work-related there's going to be a size-able portion that are.

people in online meetings NOT GOING TO A MEETING ROOM.

This one at least is partially a feature of the pandemic - and should ease as the pandemic does, but in the meantime it's a work process, and one that's being done for a pretty compelling reason.

This made my progress extremely slow. I simply cannot function in loud environments.

Today I snapped and went to another room, but that is not a long term solution. But I don't think I can ask them to turn the radio off, since I am the only one who is bothered by it. The same goes for meetings being held in the same place as people trying to get work done.

Oh, I'm with you - I've plotted many immensely satisfying ways the radio in the office I'm currently working at could be obliterated from existence (not that I'd ever do it of course or recommend that anyone did!)

The upshot is though that there's not much in the way of reasonable accommodations the company can do to make a meaningful difference to the environment itself for you, the majority of it comes from the just the day-to-day of an office operating. But that doesn't mean there's nothing you can do!

Remote/Hybrid working - getting you able to spend all or some of your time working from would be a big win, it's not a particularly difficult accommodation for many jobs these days, particularly since the COVID-19 pandemic lead to many companies working out ways employees could work from home even if it wasn't something they did before.

If you can't be fully remote though there's still going to be the issue of how you make working in that environment tolerable for you and probably the single best thing you could do would be a decent pair of noise-cancelling headphones (and I mean decent - cheap crap won't cut it, I've tried). I'm currently sat at the office with my Sony MDR-1000X on - no music playing just the ANC doing it's thing and reducing the office noise to a distant background: The inanity of whatever Radio 2 is wittering on about is no longer plaguing me, the two or three people on different phone calls might as well be in another room. If I actually listen to some music it's like I'm alone!

If you can't afford a decent pair you might be able to ask the company to contribute as an accommodation for you - however purchasing your own pair if you are able brings the size-able advantage of them being clearly yours to take with you when the time comes to move on, because I can pretty much guarantee that this will be a problem for you at other work places in the future. You can keep things like remote working high on your want list for future roles but it's not going to always be possible and it's not fair on you to have to always avoid office environments.

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  • noise-cancelling headphones — This is the answer. I once worked for someone whose kids were in the office and a loud attention seeking parrot. The only way to focus was to use headphones.
    – Knossos
    Mar 3 at 7:52
  • In terms of radio, I'd like to encourage everyone who is disturbed in their work (disability or not) to say so. If you don't, it will stay on. If you do, in my experience chances are not so bad that it will be turned off without any negative repercussions to you. There may be a bunch of co-workers who prefer no-radio, but are not bothered that much to say anything. Mar 4 at 1:29
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I think the loudness of things is much greater at first. A classic example is my gym and my previous workplace.

I did work at home for nearly 6 months at first and when I came back into the office, I never realized how loud it was. I mean really loud and it was annoying at first.

And at the gym, they had these weightlifters which before was okay but when I came back it was very, very loud. Almost too loud. And I was a bit surprised.

My thought is try to see if you can become accustomed to it after a while. If not, perhaps invest in some fancy noise cancelling ear plugs. I have some bose and they work very well and you can keep it on without any sort of music or sound coming in.

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  • I also find the use of active noise cancelling headphones, even with no music playing, helpful when my environment gets noisy. I believe even Apple Airpods Pro have very effective noise cancellation.
    – jwh20
    Feb 25 at 16:25
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Talk to your manager.

If you haven't already, talk to your manager about this. You have a disability, and it's impairing your ability to do your work. The job of a manager is to remove blockers from their team to allow them to perform to their fullest potential. Additionally, looking online it looks like there might be government funds available for your employer as a result of your disability that might cover certain expenses.

To that end, I'd suggest asking them to see about getting the radio turned off; if one or two employees enjoy listening to it, perhaps they'd be able to continue doing so using headphones and their own personal devices. Similarly, they could possibly send out a reminder to people to use meeting rooms when they have online meetings when possible.

Another possible course of action for you is to ask the manager to buy you some hearing protection ear muffs and ear plugs to help dampen your perception of the ambient noise. While ear muffs look similar to noise-cancelling headphones, they work quite differently and are rated to protect people from dangerous amounts of noise. This is why they're worn along with ear plugs as Personal Protective Equipment by workers who work in noisy environments like the runways of major airports.

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Technology Solution

Trying to get the office down will be a difficult battle to fight. Whatever you need is in stark contrast what everybody else wants, so there is an inherent conflict here. Even if it can be implemented, having 20 people walking around on tippy toes and only whispering to accommodate the needs of one person is a sub optimal solution.

Hence I would encourage you to apply as many measures for noise protection as is feasible.

  1. Typically office noise is probably in the 50dB(A) range or so. It might be worth measuring what it really is. If it's north of 60dB(A) it's actually okay to ask for some noise reduction since that's quite loud and will affect everyone's concentration and effectiveness and there are studies to back this up.
  2. Noise reduction can take many different forms and does not necessarily require behavioral changes: more absorption, redistribution of noise sources, quieting down AC or Heating vents, etc. This stuff is just money, so it's easier for the company to implement than trying to enforce different behavior.
  3. Once the level is down to 50dB(A) or less a good ANC headset should help A LOT. It should knock this down by another 25dB to 30 dB and it at this point it's close to the threshold of hearing for most adults. If yours doesn't make a BIG difference, either something is wrong with the headset or you are not using it right. Make sure all the controls are set of maximum ANC and that it's sitting air tight on your head. Maybe try another headset. Sony also has high performance ANC at the moment.
  4. If that's still not enough you can consider wearing ear plugs under the ANC head set. That's not particularly comfortable but should knock down another 10dB or so. This depends a bit on the character and frequency range of the noise that you are still hearing.
  5. You can also consider sound masking. Chances are what's bothering or distracting you is not the energy of the noise (which should be quite low at this point) but it's information content. This can easily be masked with very low-level pink or brown noise (NOT white noise), some nature sounds, low level ambient music, or whatever sounds you find soothing and pleasing and that have a frequency content that matches the residual noise

So there is a lot here that can be done without the need to have a major negative impact on the rest of the office. You or your employer may be lacking the technical expertise to properly identify, evaluate and implement possible solutions, but there are consultants out there that can do this type of thing.

Your employer may like this idea as well: they can demonstrate that they take your needs seriously and take action, but it may not require whole sale change of office behavior and culture which is very difficult to implement and create buy-in for.

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Today I snapped and went to another room, but that is not a long term solution.

Snapping isn't, but a change of scene is. Other answers have focused on different approaches to changing the existing environment. Even for neurotypical individuals, the kind of environment you're describing isn't conductive to long periods of intense concentration. But if someone doesn't feel like attention is a scarce resource, they won't learn to manage it. You feel that pain acutely - the current situation is clearly affecting you. Other answers discuss effective accommodations, but I would principally suggest learning to use accommodations very effectively.

That requires a continuous process of reflecting on your resources and evaluating what you've tried, what works and what you might still try. You might be able to become better at:

  • Setting reasonable expectations for yourself under a given set of conditions.
  • Asking for specific accommodations, managing your colleagues' expectations.
  • Planning: Anticipating your attentional needs, using interventions (such as headphones, or a change of scene) effectively.

Different types of tasks require different types of focus, which consume your attentional resources at different rates. The degree to which a given environment affects your ability to focus - or drains your attention - likely depends on the type of work you're trying to do. For example:

  • You need deep uninterrupted focus for: Research, learning, problem-solving.
  • Feeling active and engaged helps for: Routine multi-step tasks or small to-do type tasks.
  • Both feel quite different to the overview you need for: Planning, organization, coordination.

This will be a very personal process and hugely dependent on your current responsibilities. As an intern, you might not have a lot of tasks that don't require deep focus.

Personal experience

That's what led me to post this answer: I really had to learn this at the start of my career. I was having difficulty staying on top of my work and felt like I was underperforming. My diagnosis started a long and very deliberate process, where I learned to manage my attention span.

I changed jobs a while ago and I found myself struggling again as I grew into my role. Part of our work is time-critical and colleagues value me as a sparring partner when issues come up. I really love the collaboration and fast-paced decision-making, but some of my work requires deep focus. Constant interruptions and refocusing made me feel stressed and worn out.

Recently, I've begun booking a small meeting room from midmorning to lunch, a couple times a week. Getting in two hours of solid work at a time of day that concentration is the easiest for me, helps me meet my deadlines without stress. I'm still adjusting my expectations: It isn't reasonable to expect the same quality and quantity of output in the open-plan office, yet I do.

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Answering my own question just to let people know what worked for me.

Turns out that just politely asking if I can lower the volume was all that was needed. People didn't really mind.

My brain was just very panicky when I posted this question due to sensory overload happening at that moment.

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