This is my first blog on autism where I talk about the workplace. Having been in a full-time job for over a year now, I feel I have a greater appreciation of some of the challenges that people on the autistic spectrum may face in the workspace. Navigating a neurotypical workplace can be challenging for people on the spectrum, and in this blog I go into more detail in some of the specific challenges faced.
Note that everyone on the spectrum is different and everyone will have had different experiences. Furthermore, there are lots of things that allow autistic employees to thrive in the workplace as well.
Lack of understanding of the autistic spectrum among employees
At any firm, the majority of employees will not be on the autistic spectrum or know anyone else on the autistic spectrum. Whilst there is nothing wrong with that, it can lead to an overall lack of understanding of the autistic spectrum among the firm. This can create challenges for employees that are on the autistic spectrum. Firstly, it creates barriers when it comes to opening up about their experiences and challenges, even though these conversations are important. This is because it takes more effort to explain and talk about the autistic spectrum to others that are not on the autistic spectrum and don’t know anyone else on the autistic spectrum, and therefore will have less of an understanding. Furthermore, a good number of challenges faced by employees in the workplace are not visible on the outside (e.g. autism masking). It can take time for other employees to fully appreciate the challenges that are more invisible, which can make it harder for autistic employees to reach out when they are struggling or accessing the support that they require.
Thriving in the social aspect of work
I think that the social aspect of work is extremely important, as the social aspect is fun and also a great way to make genuine friendships at work. Some people on the autistic spectrum can struggle with the social side of work. However, in my opinion, it isn’t due to social anxiety. One reason why the social side of work can be difficult is that it involves understanding unwritten social rules, which can be challenging for people on the spectrum. An example of an unwritten social rule involves knowing which topics are appropriate to bring up in a conversation. Another reason is linked to the social battery, which I talked about in a previous blog. Common work socials include office parties and after work drinks. However, both office parties and after work drinks involve potentially dealing with lots of noise, which can lead to sensory overload and the social battery draining very quickly. In summary, social anxiety isn’t always the main reason why people on the autistic spectrum struggle with the social side of work, and sensory overload and understanding unwritten rules are also a factor.
Adjusting to change
In the workplace there are lots of changes that can happen, such as moving team or a change in line manager. A good number of people on the autistic spectrum find adjusting to change challenging in general. This can be heightened in the workplace, especially if the employee on the autistic spectrum isn’t supported when it comes to adjusting to the change. Given that the workplace is predominantly neurotypical, firms and teams can sometimes make the assumption that change in the workplace is normal and something that the autistic employee should be able to deal with without problems. However, this can be far from the case sometimes.
The pandemic led to massive changes in the workplace. In March 2020, everyone had to work from home full time all of a sudden. From March 2020 to now there has been a lot of annoying back and forth with the work from home guidance, and right now firms are having to adapt to change with embracing hybrid working. It is inevitable that all of these massive and sometimes sudden changes have been extremely tough and stressful for some employees on the autistic spectrum, as it has led to changes in routine.
Knowing what is expected of them
Nearly all autistic employees have the skills and potential to thrive at their job, and one barrier to this is them not being clear of what is expected of them. Most things related to the workplace are not black and white, and employees on the autistic spectrum may find it tricky to work out what is expected of them with these things that aren’t black and white. Examples include:
- The level of detail they are expected to provide when it comes to completing a particular task of a project
- What they should be doing outside their client/project work
- Understanding the unwritten rules of the workplace, and some of these unwritten rules will be specific to the firm and their culture
- How often they are expected to work in the office. This is relevant as a lot of firms are currently very uncertain on how hybrid working will work for them, and therefore it may not be clear what is expected of employees. In this case, it is important to clarify expectations for the autistic employee.