Taboo Topics – 4. Workplace Woes

It’s no secret that many autistics have a hard time getting a job. A lot of that is in the way we present ourselves in our CV and in person at interviews.

I’m not going to talk about job searching or interview techniques though, as awareness is increasing of autistic issues in those regards. A welcome trend has started with companies in the IT and finance sectors becoming aware of the untapped pool of talent out there and deliberately targeting neurodiverse candidates. Some are changing their recruitment methods to enable people with AS to demonstrate their skills practically without going through a formal interview at all.

That’s great progress, no doubt about it, and I hope it expands to companies in other sectors also. But my concern today is on what happens after recruitment – that is, the specific difficulties people with AS may have in the workplace, which can lead to them losing or having to quit their job. It is the challenge of not just getting a job, but keeping it.

This one is not a taboo topic amongst those with AS – we all know the difficulties we face – but it is a hard thing to talk about with neurotypical folks. Most of us have experienced trying to verbalise to someone our difficulties in the workplace only to be met with remarks such as “I feel like that sometimes”, “it’s the same for everyone”, or “don’t be so precious”. Basically, we are gaslit (or gaslighted?) into believing that our workplace difficulties are no worse than anyone else’s and we ought to just suck it up.

Nope. Those responses demonstrate a damaging lack of awareness, plain and simple, and that needs to change.

I’m not saying that neurotypicals don’t have workplace woes as well – in fact they may experience the same issues on occasion (which is why we get those types of responses). The problem is that the number and frequency of issues faced by the autistic person is often greater, and the ability to regulate the associated stress response is typically lower.

That last point might need a little explanation. So, studies have actually measured differences in autistics’ brain areas such as the amygdala (which is responsible for identifying threats) and cortisol levels (which enable appropriate physiological reactions to threats). Sensory input may be heightened and stress levels less regulated, so that in certain environments or situations we will be prone to overload, leading to meltdowns or shutdowns. If we try to “suck it up” and remain in such a work environment long term, it leads to autistic burn-out. So that approach is counter-productive as we’ll end up off work in any case.

So what would be a better approach?

We need employers to stop putting all the onus onto the autistic person to “learn to fit into” the work environment. I’m not saying we shouldn’t try our best – autistics can certainly develop and employ workarounds and compensatory strategies – but we need employers to meet us halfway. That means recognising that people with AS, however well qualified or intelligent, have hard-wired differences which we are not able to turn off like a switch however much we would like to “fit in”.

In fact, what I’m asking for is no more than the legal requirement to make reasonable adjustments for persons with a disability. It only becomes a problem when, for example, Asperger-type autism is not recognised by the employer as a genuine disability, or when they fear the adjustments would be unfair to others or too onerous. Unfortunately, these employers will never get to see the true value of their AS staff and the contribution they could make under optimum conditions.

So let’s look at what a sample person on the spectrum (me) actually needs in order to stay in work long term, as an example. Obviously, we are all different and have different issues requiring different adjustments – but if I were to go through all the permutations I’d end up writing a book. A few of these are formal employer adjustments but most are just my personal strategies that I’ve developed over the years:

1. It is crucially important to choose the right kind of work. My heart goes out to those autistics who end up in high pressure customer-facing roles (many retail and service industries, call centres and the like), or in noisy and hectic environments, to which most of us would be completely unsuited. For myself, engineering was a good choice. My current role is particularly autism-friendly, involving self-directed individual work of a technical nature, in a quiet office or sometimes out in the field.

2. If your autism is not obvious, I would recommend working for a while before disclosing. The reason for this is that there is a lot of ignorance and stigma out there, and some may conflate AS with intellectual disability and treat you accordingly. By waiting, the employer gets to see what you can do, and you get to see all the areas which are going to cause difficulties. I believe the best time to disclose is once you’ve worked out what adjustments you need to be able to do the job.

3. Work around any communication deficits to minimise misunderstandings. For example, I do better with written than verbal communications, and better in person than on the phone. Fortunately, as I work remote from the rest of my unit, email is generally acceptable, but I’ve learnt that some types of message should not be sent cold in an email but require a phone call first, so one has to be careful. I always include greetings in the email. If I have to make a call, it helps to have thought about what to say (and in what tone) in advance. When receiving verbal communications I always repeat them back to check I haven’t misunderstood, and I write them down immediately so as not to forget (often I send an email confirmation also). If I miss what people are saying I just apologise (maybe saying I zoned out for a moment), and ask them to repeat it. Even if it makes you feel stupid, it’s always better to seek clarification than to make assumptions about what people mean.

4. I absolutely must have a ‘to do’ list to keep myself on track. This is not only a list of things to do but includes priority order and deadlines. I find I need to take a moment to properly think through priorities – it’s important not to just do tasks in the order they arrive but to make sure you can meet deadlines at least for the most important tasks – and give the boss a heads-up if you can’t or will need help. The list gets amended and updated as work gets finished and other work comes in. Just a pen and paper list works best for me, though I use an electronic calendar a lot too, including setting reminders for meetings which otherwise I’m likely to forget.

5. If possible, find someone who can act as your mentor or go-to person for workplace queries or issues. Ideally this would be someone who could also act as your advocate / protector in case of misunderstandings or clashes with colleagues. This may need to be by an informal arrangement – in my experience it can be hard to get this as a formal adjustment as the employer is wary of asking anyone internally to take on such a role, being outside of their normal job description.

6. Be aware of your anxiety and stress levels and take care of your mental health. I’ve had issues with some kind of anxiety or stress disorder the last few years, but was able to arrange an extra day off every fortnight, which helps give me time to decompress. It’s very common for autistics to need reduced working hours, so I would say don’t be afraid to ask if that would help prevent mental health issues. Other ways I regulate stress is by listening to music through my phone (if feasible) and going outside to walk around the block. Unfortunately, unlike the reduced working hours these strategies are not formal adjustments, so there’s no guarantee of being able to employ them as needed. Employers can be wary of making any formal agreements for anything looking like “special treatment” to other employees. They seem to find it easier to accept time off work as sick leave due to spiralling to a meltdown than taking a little unapproved time to prevent the meltdown in the first place. Whatever.

7. It’s important to join in with social activities as far as one is able, however being careful to keep one’s comments and behaviour appropriate to a work setting. This may well be the area where disclosure of autism is most useful, as without awareness of the condition it is too easy for people to mistake one’s intent and get a bad impression of you. Unfortunately, people will be less likely to view you as a key member of the team if you limit yourself to work communications and don’t socialise, while if you socialise inappropriately you may be seen as an insensitive idiot, but with selective disclosure to sympathetic colleagues there can be hope at least for some understanding.

Apologies for the long post but hopefully I got the main points there. I’m hoping that if any potential employer of autistic staff reads this it will give an idea of what kind of workplace strategies can help to keep us happy, healthy and motivated!

5 thoughts on “Taboo Topics – 4. Workplace Woes”

  1. I did retail work for five years. It was pretty traumatic — especially having to read scathing comments about me on Yelp. I’m in a happier place right now — but still have some tricky situations to navigate. This article was helpful – thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

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