Most adults will consider themselves very lucky if they successfully master their professional life without ever going through a time when they feel unsupported, under too many demands or other challenges. Anyone facing these issues often feels stressed out, and some develop related health conditions – mentally, physically, or both.
Autistic adults are even more likely. Some autistic adults may find it incredibly difficult to maintain employment in neurotypical settings. Neurotypical is the term autistic people and others use to describe the majority of the non-autistic population (which makes up approximately 99% of the population). Since pretty much all workplaces are built by and for neurotypists, autistic needs can easily not be supported. Unfortunately, the understanding of autism remains extremely poor, fueled by myths. As a result, many employers don’t know how to support those on the spectrum.
As an autistic myself, I have faced many challenges, and for many different reasons. Some of these relate to the fact that until recently I didn’t even know I was autistic. The reasons are mainly due to the fact that I had autistic needs and the world I was working in was neurotypical and trying to meet various employee needs. I’ve worked in all sectors, private, public, and third-party, and the experiences in each have been different. I can remember the area in which I felt most supported and in which area I felt the least supported, and the area in which only lip service was paid to the needs of those in difficulty.
Challenges included open plan offices where I had to expend twice the energy of the average worker, firstly on the work itself (where I generally have a higher than neurotypical level of energy and motivation) and secondly on social communication (which quickly exhausts me) Energy). The more face-to-face meetings I had to attend, the more energy I had to expend. That energy would continue to be consumed if there were circumstances at these meetings where I was outside of my comfort zone. In early 2000, I experienced chronic irritable bowel syndrome as a direct result of the relentless anxiety that came with my autism. This made meetings even more challenging. I became dysfunctional and dumb, and yet I was forced to share information about my work since the last meeting. I was a PA, I assisted my CEO with PA duties, it never felt relevant, I never felt relevant, and IBS was at the forefront of those meetings, not the duties. Nobody tried to make life difficult for me; They just did neurotypical things that I found incredibly difficult to do. This is just one of the times my autism felt severely disabling.
Fortunately, through academic study, frequent contact with group situations and discussions, I learned that I was relevant too, and it gave me the confidence to contribute. I was also fortunate to have access to a prescription drug in 2007 that treated my chronic IBS very well. This allowed me to focus on building my confidence in group situations instead of focusing on IBS. Today that trust is fragile and constructed, and it still takes an incredible amount of energy, it’s always good. I need time to decompress after group situations, especially when they are less structured and involve more social conversations. If I can be helped to feel comfortable and relaxed in an environment, then I can better contribute to those situations.
I recently reached out to the online community to ask what challenges others have experienced in the workplace. Others described disclosure-related issues where they were treated like children after sharing their diagnosis with others. Many autistic people were suddenly overlooked during the promotion and were no longer offered additional tasks. The assumption of incompetence was omnipresent in many of the shared experiences. Upon disclosure, some had received ignorant and disparaging responses from their superiors such as “Well, everyone is on the spectrum”. Many more incidents of bullying in any presentation and at various levels including gas lighting, tampering, comments about being “strange” and / or being isolated by colleagues. It is therefore not surprising that many autistic people are reluctant to reveal anything at work. Many will use survival measures such as “social masking” to adapt. It is important to know that masking takes a lot of effort. It is energy that I can assure you that the person would much rather focus on their duties and responsibilities.
If you are an employer who wants to get the most out of all of your employees, including those on the autistic spectrum, and believe me, the talent you can get in an autistic person who is comfortable and happy in their job is it is worth the effort. In this case, there is a lot you can do to create the right environment:
- First, employers need to make sure managers and teams are autism aware. Awareness can be raised through training and sharing lived experiences (where autistic colleagues are comfortable sharing their “lived experiences” – narration is powerful!). Every training must reach the senior management teams as part of a “whole business approach”.
- Employers need to be aware that they will hire and support far more autistic people than they think they will. Empirical research and my own anecdotal experience strongly suggest that the number of autistic people is grossly underestimated. Up to 600,000 adults could have autism that has not been diagnosed. We also know that women are much more likely to be underdiagnosed than men. We therefore recommend introducing Personal Wellbeing Plans that benefit all employees. You can find out more about this in our i-ACT (for Positive Mental Health) training program.
- Employees with autism can also benefit from having a “buddy” or mediator for communication or relationship challenges. You can train to be a caregiver through a course like Mental Health First Aid or i-ACT.
- Employees with autism may take longer to process information. Please give them time. The autistic brain is wired differently (note that I am using the word differently, not incorrectly) and it comes to its conclusions through various processes.
- Leaders and managers need to understand their roles and responsibilities in assisting employees with autism, including their obligations under applicable laws. You can find out more about this in our i-ACT as well as in our first aid training on mental health.
- Employers must work with their teams to develop supporting policies and procedures to ensure that teams understand these policies and how they should be managed. This should include guidelines on inclusion and mental health and wellbeing.
If you or your workplace want to become more autism aware, Mind Matters can help. We are currently offering a variety of mental health training courses for various roles in the workplace and will be launching our NEW Autism Awareness Program towards the end of October 2021. Please contact us if you would like to stay up to date on this.