The Reality of Being Autistic in the Workplace [AD]

AD | This post is in conjunction with the disability equality charity Scope. All words, opinions and images are my own.

The transition from school to work can be daunting for any young adult, especially when you add having a disability into the mix. It’s not just finding work and getting through the interviews that can be a challenge either; it can also impact staying in the job.

For me, being autistic has been more of a challenge as an adult than it was as a child. I was in a privileged position where I got my diagnosis young and in turn, received the right support at school. But when you get pushed out into the big world of adulthood, you can feel like it’s you against the world.

According to this survey carried out by the National Autistic Society, only 16% of autistic adults in the UK were in employment in 2016. Considering that some may not have been able to work, still over three-quarters of those unemployed said they did want to work.

Just from that statistic alone, it’s obvious that many autistic people aren’t getting the right support. And that is only those lucky enough to have a diagnosis.

Thankfully Scope are working hard to help disabled people succeed in the workplace with their employment advice and support services! They understand the challenges we’re currently facing and have built their Support to Work service around this.

Autism and Employment

Everyone deserves the opportunity to use their skills and earn money for independence. I’m in the early stages of my career and I like to think I have come a long way. Although it hasn’t come without its problems.

Processing Information Takes Time

I wouldn’t say I hid my disability intentionally, but it still wasn’t something I ever mentioned to employers. It seemed more manageable that way. Eventually, I realised after countless of temporary roles that to work at my best, I needed a job where I could progress long term. For any chance of that happening, I had to ask for help.

It’s only in my current job that I decided to disclose being autistic in the interview. This gave them the chance to get a better understanding of me, which included them asking if I would require any reasonable adjustments. This can vary from flexible working hours to specific equipment requirements. At the time I only had one request: I needed patience.

A big part of being autistic for me is the way I process any information given to me. Two people can ask the same question but word it in different ways. It can be like my brain is having a game of scrabble. Because of this, I advised that I need to be given clear instructions and if need be, let me write everything down. It might not seem like much to them, but it’s extra time to break it down and ask any questions beforehand.

Once I had been working there for a while, I noticed that I work best when I am able to ease myself into the day at my own pace. On a rare occasion, I can choose to get in as early as 7:30 am to get tasks done before everyone arrives. Other times I can get in at 9:30 am when I’m having sleeping problems, something that many autistic people struggle with. It may not seem like much to them, but having that flexibility means I’m less likely to experience information overload.

Social Interactions are a Minefield

A lesson I’ve learnt about office dynamics is that there are a lot of unwritten rules. Things that people expect everyone to know without being told. This can catch me off guard as I’m very much a ‘say it as it is’ person. How I act at work is very similar to if I were with friends, when in reality there is a time and place for certain conversations.

Who knew that tattoos would be such a taboo subject?

Anyway, I’m fortunate that I work in a laid-back environment. I’m getting better at ‘banter’ and knowing where the line is (read: when to stop talking) in a conversation.

Looking back now, I probably would have benefited with some employment services to help me before I started this job. Sadly younger Ali was stubborn and wanted to do it on her own. There are some lessons we have to learn ourselves, of course, but not everything has to be done the hard way.

autistic working life

Some Things to Think About

Anyone with a disability could need help at different stages throughout their career. If you’re concerned about starting that journey, here are a few tips from Scope and myself to consider:

  • It is totally up to you whether you tell potential employers about your disability. You are not required to by law and not everyone will feel the need to mention it.
  • However, keep in mind that if you’re planning to ask for reasonable adjustments, you will need to tell them. Your employer needs to understand why you’re asking for this type of help.
  • Have a practice on how you want to approach the subject. For example: if that will be in the interview or with the HR manager. Write a list and talk through it with someone you trust beforehand.
  • Be prepared for them to ask you questions. Some may not be fully aware of your disability and as we all know, each person will be affected differently. No disabled person is the same.
  • Something you may see as a weakness or hindrance can be turned into a positive. For example, my need for direct instructions is my way of having attention to detail and taking ownership of my work. Not to say that everything has to have a positive spin so it’s how you feel comfortable discussing it.
  • If you and your employer are unsure what type of support you need, there is the option to ask for an assessment via the Access to Work programme.
  • If after working for a while you discover that you need support in a way you’ve not mentioned before, tell your manager or HR department as soon as possible. Maybe come prepared with suggestions too.
  • The online community can be a great source of information and a chance to chat with those in a similar situation to you. In my case, I use the #ActuallyAutistic and #AskingAutistics hashtags on Twitter.

Ultimately asking for help can be scary and there is no one right way to do it. The first step of reaching out is sometimes the hardest part. At the end of it all, only you can decide what is best for you but there is help available.

You deserve the chance to build a fulfilling career for yourself; don’t let anyone else tell you anything different.

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4 Comments

  1. 5 August 2019 / 5:21 PM

    This is such an informative post, Ali! I can imagine it really helping other autistic adults, especially those who are looking at getting into employment. I’m not autistic myself but have definitely learnt something from this. I think those statistics are quite sad, considering how many autistic adults WANT to work. I can imagine it’s a tough decision, whether to tell a potential employer about your disability. But it’s great that you’ve landed yourself in such a supportive job!

  2. 5 August 2019 / 5:37 PM

    As an autistic person, the thought of traditional employment super freaks me out, to the point where I went and built my own career to avoid it. At some point, however, I know I’ll probably have to do it in some capacity, and the tips you’ve provided in this article are super useful. Something I’ve always gone back and forth about is disclosure; I only received my diagnosis at 17 so there haven’t been many occasions where I’ve had to consider that in much depth. It’s nice to have the reasons for/against it put out in front of you, though. Definitely lots to consider! Thanks for writing this article.

  3. 5 August 2019 / 7:15 PM

    This is great advice and a topic that badly needs to be talked about more often. We, as a society, are taking steps towards being more inclusive but it isn’t without growing pains and a significant amount of change. While many employers are taking great steps forward, they aren’t there yet – and for every store that’s genuinely trying, another hasn’t even taken the first steps. This could be because they are ‘comfortable’ and allowing themselves to remain comfortably blind, or because they genuinely don’t care. By talking openly and considering the information above, those who are trying to step into the workforce with a disability are able to protect themselves and make the experience a little easier/more comfortable.

  4. 6 August 2019 / 2:17 AM

    As much as I would one day like to, I can’t imagine being able to get back into the workplace.
    Because I was late diagnosed, my career has all been customer service based, or TA in a “special school”. I feel like I would survive a data entry position but locally, at least since the 2008 recession, all firms have merged those roles in with receptionist duties and I can’t speak on the phone, I’m struggling to get any words out to strangers even in scripted settings now.
    Maybe it will improve in the future. I have co-morbid mental health issues so maybe if I can get those treated and stabilised it will make managing the Autistic traits easier.

    The stats always make me sad though. It feels like the world is constructed for me to fail.

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