Autism in the workplace

Neurodivergent people have many unique skills to bring to the table. When we are given the right job for us, in the right environment, supported where necessary and accepted just as we are, we tend to compliment neurotypical employees, bringing different skills and perspectives as well as enhancing creativity and productivity at the same time.

Here are just a few of our unique autistic strengths:

  • The ability to ‘think outside the box’ when others are unable to.
  • We tend to be loyal, trustworthy, punctual, honest and hard working.
  • Many autistic people are skilled at detecting patterns that neurotypical people cannot and are known for our attention to detail.
  • Our intense interests can be of huge benefit and put to good use, often allowing us to gain much valued expertise.
  • We are often excellent strategists, systemisers and complex visual conceptualisers.
  • Autistic people are known to be caring, kind, empathetic and compassionate. Many of us work in the caring services.
  • We tend to be more accepting of difference, or even not notice it at all.
  • We tend to gossip less and need less social interaction, which means we are more likely to get the job done and waste far less time than our non-autistic couterparts.

This is only a tiny sample of the many advantages that autistic people can offer employers. Yet, according to the Office for National Statistics, we have the lowest employment rate of all disabilities. A high percentage of us are still unemployed, under-appreciated and under-utilised, regardless of their intellectual status, qualifications or abilities. In other words, we aren’t less likely to be in employment because we don’t gain the necessary skills or qualifications, but purely due to being autistic.

This is a very sorry state of affairs – not just for autistic people and our families, but for potential employers who are missing out on all the benefits a neurodiverse workforce can bring.

But why is this?

The main reason for this is a lack of understanding of our unique skills and differences. Unfortunately, many of us are excluded from work before we even reach the interview, and if we do get that far, the traditional and discriminating interview process will have us walking right back out the door.

If we do get offered work, we are then expected to conform to neurotypical rules, regulations and social expectations which leads us rapidly back down the path towards burnout and long-term sickness and unemployment.

How to attract neurodiversity in the workplace?

Firstly, a message to employers – come and look for us! 

We are not likely to put ourselves forward and be involved with social networking or job events due to our social differences, sensory sensitivities and social anxieties, as well as the fact that we will have doubtless been traumatised by trying to do so in the past.

We are used to feeling unwanted and ‘othered’ and this means that we are less likely to extol our virtues and talents willingly. Companies can advertise for neurodivergent candidates specifically as this implies that we are welcomed and appreciated and is far more likely to encourage us to apply.

Then there is the interview process – a big brick wall standing in the way of us getting any further.

Our own facial expression, lack of comfortable eye contact, tone of voice and body language may be very different to that which has come to be expected in interviews, so employers themselves need to have a broader understanding and awareness of different neurotypes and behaviours in order to avoid judging us solely on these traits.

Our working memory difficulties create all sorts of difficulties for us so that under the pressure and scrutiny of an interview situation, we are likely to struggle far more than usual. We will need extra processing time and patience. We may need someone to speak for us if we are so overwhelmed that our brain functions shut down completely. This doesn’t mean we are unable to do the job we are applying for – just that the interview experience itself is not compatible with us.

In all honesty, I can’t understand how anyone performs in an interview environment and if at all possible, alternative ways of assessing someone’s fitness for the job should be considered. Of course, this is rarely the way things are done, but there are some tips that will help the interview process to go more smoothly for employers and candidates alike:

  • Offer online interviews or an interview in a place more comfortable for them, and certainly less formal and unfamiliar.
  • Provide interview questions ahead of time so that they can prepare.
  • Make sure that anyone involved with the interview is also aware of these differences and of how the interview will be conducted in a way that creates less discrimination.
  • Ask the candidate what their interview needs and accommodations are. Even if you can’t assist with them all, it will put them more at ease, help them to feel validated and included and lessen their working memory difficulties, all leading to a much more relaxed and effective interview process for all involved.

Creating a diverse and supportive working environment for all

This will mean the difference between a neurodivergent employee giving you their best or spending more time on burnout leave. 

Creating a diverse and supportive environment for all employees involves allowing much more flexibility in terms of the actual working environment. It’s interesting to note that, changes that suit neurodivergent employees actually benefit the majority of employees as a whole.  

Companies who have embraced neurodiversity have seen gains in productivity, quality, innovation, and employee engagement as well as managers learning new skills to that benefit all employees through greater sensitivity to individual needs.

In other words – there is nothing to be lost from neurodiversifying your workforce, and everything to be gained.

Neurodivergent people frequently come across the excuse that, if they are given accommodations, then everyone will want them. This raises two questions: do the other employees actually need those accommodations to function better at work? If they do, then why is their environment so non-conducive to work and what can be done to improve this for everyone?

How to help

The first step would be to simply ask us if we would appreciate any particular support and if we do, offer to help.

This is no different to providing a ramp to enable wheelchair access.

Learn from actually autistic adults. Learn about our general differences as well as valuable advice about what may be helpful to us. Or not. Be careful, at the same time however, not to generalise because we are all unique. Our main differences are all based around sensory experiences, communication, executive function and social differences.

Our sensory experiences are very different to neurotypical people and have an enormous effect on our health and our work performance. We frequently suffer from sensory overload and from things which neurotypical people simply do not. The modern trend of open-plan offices is a complete nightmare for most of us. 

Ask us how this affects us specifically. Frequent and simple accommodations in an office environment might be things like allowing us to wear headphones at work, moving our desk nearer to natural light or allowing a daytime lamp, allowing us to move around rather than sit still like school children all day. Allow us to snack at our desks or listen to music privately, or use fidget toys or other sensory equipment. 

Basically, we have an extra strong need to be comfortable, organised in our own way, in our own space, with good lighting and free from distractions by people, equipment, noises, smells, lighting and so on.

It is also crucial not to expect us to partake in office get-togethers, team building events, parties and gossip sessions. Unless we actually want to. We aren’t being rude or standoffish – we are focusing on our work and our own personal needs.

Communication in the workplace needs plenty of thought when it comes to supporting autistic people. Social communication, etiquette and workplace expectations are often very different for autistic people, compared to non-autistic people. Socialising with non-autistic colleagues may not come naturally to us and is almost always a very tiring activity. We do not need to socialise at work. We do not need to see and hear others around us. What we do need, is access to an environment that allows us to concentrate and focus on our work and getting the job done.

Autistic people in general will appreciate patience and extra processing time, but we will also work much better if you ‘say what you mean and mean what you say’! Cut out the waffle. Be clear and concise and deal with any misunderstandings in an open and honest manner. Above all, treat us with respect, kindness and patience – just like you should for all employees.

To support our executive function and organisation challenges there are many simple things that can be done and also many assistive technologies available that can greatly assist us with a variety of needs. For example, visual scheduling and reminder apps or software, digital assistants, talking calculators and so on. But again, minimising distractions and creating an environment that complements our sensory needs are simple techniques that are easy to put in place.

Many of us long for the right to be able to work at home, in our own comfortable environment away from the distractions of the workplace and where we can arrange our workday around our own needs. It tends to suit a lot of us very well indeed. As do flexible hours, or frequent breaks. We tend to be very strict with ourselves about making up any time we spend not doing our actual work so will get the work done – you can be sure of that – and we are more likely to work more than we need to in fact. 

To further support neurodiversity, ensure that it is part of the training for all your employees. Basic information and awareness can go a very long way both to remove stigma and improve the cohesion or your workforce in general. Importantly, it will also go a long way to elevate the kudos of your organisation. 

Aim to create a culture that supports and encourages all neurotypes and if necessary, seek support and education from organisations that have been set up specifically to help the integration of neurodivergent people into the general workforce. 

Disclosing at work or to a potential employer

Many people ask – should I tell my employer if I am autistic or not?

There is no simple answer to this question. Whether or not to disclose to employers is a very personal decision and one that needs a great deal of thought.

It is still a very sad fact that autistic people face stigma, exclusion, bullying, manipulation and even abuse in the workplace. Autism is not understood in general society, nor necessarily accepted even by family members and stigma follows us around like an annoying wasp. We will often have been made to feel ‘less than’, ashamed and unworthy with a history of negative and even traumatic experiences around disclosure under our belts already. 

So, it stands to reason that we may reluctant to share this information in the complicated and less forgiving world of the workplace.

However, an advantage of disclosing is that it can lead to a better work environment, adjustments and legal protection from discrimination. It can also have a very positive effect on our health as we will not feel the need to constantly mask our traits and hide our true selves. There will be less chance of burnout and a much better general working environment for the autistic person.

What is for certain is that if we do decide to disclose, we should be treated with the respect and confidentiality that we deserve.

Workplace burnout and autistic burnout

Anybody, autistic or not can suffer workplace burnout – a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress, which is a serious medical condition needing medical and occupational support.

Most of us have heard of it – even if there is still stigma and myths attached to it. Some still wrongly consider it to be a ‘weakness’ or something to be ashamed of. Others consider it to be as innocuous as having a cold or that it is too often used as an ‘excuse’ not to work. 

But without help, there is a very real risk of developing serious mental health disorders such as depression and anxiety, as well as risk to livelihoods and family health and quality of life.

Autistic burnout is something which many autistic adults experience and although similar to workplace burnout, it happens with a higher frequency and not just from the workplace. It happens as a result of all aspects of daily life because it is the result of having to navigate a world that is designed for neurotypical people on a daily basis.

Autistic people have to navigate and adjust to a confusing and constantly changing social and sensory environment which is not intuitive to their own innate neurotype. Mental exhaustion and sensory overload build up and up and the resulting burnout is an intense experience of complete physical, mental and emotional exhaustion that goes beyond fatigue.

In autistic people, this causes dramatic increases in distress and with this, increased meltdowns and shutdowns, brain fog, headaches, inability to process any more information and physical pain, as well as loss of skills and abilities such as speech and everyday tasks. It can last for weeks.

Some of the triggers for autistic burnout include:

  • Sensory overload
  • Having to deal with everyday social situations
  • Pressure to socialise unnecessarily
  • Too many demands and not enough processing time
  • Not enough ‘downtime’ 
  • Having to mask and camouflage our autistic traits
  • Not being allowed to stim or be our natural selves when around other people
  • Changes to our daily routine, such as moving schools or homes, or changing jobs.

How can we try to avoid or at least reduce autistic burnout?

A big ask and one which is not always possible. But there are ways to make the task easier. The overall aim is to treat your precious energy and brain processing capacity as you would a bank account. Just as our bank account funds limit how much money we can spend, we have personal limits on how much energy we can spend and how quickly our processing capacity is reached. And these limits are completely individual.

If we go into an overdraft, we know that we will have to pay that money back at a later date, and with interest. If we go into energy or capacity overdraft, the same thing applies. But we may never actually have that spare energy to pay the overdraft back with and so the debt will accumulate and our condition will get worse.

So, we need to set limits on our energy spending, just as we do for our money. To do this, we can ‘share out the energy’ over a week, or even a day. Allocate a proportion of our energy fund per day and be very careful to stick to our limits. If we use more than we have one day, we will have less available to use the next day.

We have to develop an awareness of what personally uses up our funds the quickest and avoid what we can. It may be work, in which case we may need to adjust our work hours or our work environment. It may be social events and we may be able to adjust them or reduce them in some way. In addition, there may be things which give us energy to add to our fund. For example, stimming or pursuing one of our intense interests might add extra energy or allow the funds to build up a little quicker.

We need to avoid situations where we are forced to wear our neurotypical mask and camouflage gear. Again, this takes practice and needs to begin slowly, in environments and situations where it is safe for us to do so. It is helpful to discuss our needs with those around us so that they are aware of them and the need to help us to avoid burnout. Better to do this now rather than when we are in the middle of burnout and do not have the energy to do so.

It all takes time, patience and practice of course, but one possible way to help us get to know our own energy needs is to keep some sort of diary, making note of what increases our funds and what depletes them; what are our ‘energy givers’ and our ‘energy zappers’? That way we can build up a picture of what helps to balance our ‘energy scales’ rather than allowing them to always tip into negative balance.

All far from easy of course! But it is vital to create a better school, home or work environment for ourselves – one that is better suited to our needs, and we may need professional or family help to do this.

 When autistic burnout hits…

When autistic burnout hits, we have no choice but to take time out – be it from school, work or other commitments. Now is the time to only concentrate on self care. On activities that increase our energy funds, or which are absolutely essential and cannot be delegated to someone else. We can refer to our list of ‘energy givers’ such as sleep, stimming, intense interests, relaxation, music, meditation, reading, sports, enjoyable social activities and getting out into nature.

Further information: 

Lots more information and resources specific to autism can be found on our resources page here.

© Vanessa Hughes, May 2022
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