Why Working Is Harder Than It Looks for Many Autistic People
Being at work has always been a source of stress for me, and before my diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome I really beat myself up about it. I was ashamed that I found the work environment so challenging. I berated myself for not being able to stick at something, for not digging in and working myself upwards through promotions and to see the rewards of my efforts being recognized and financially recompensed.
The actual work was never the source of stress; indeed I undertook many jobs which did not utilize my skills and abilities in any meaningful way. Most often, although I started a new position with the hope and expectation that this job would be OK, sooner or later I would start to get that feeling again, like I wasn’t fitting in or this company environmen wasn’t for me. And then it was a matter of seeing just how long I could endure these feelings before I would have to leave the position.
I once started a job and left after only two days as I knew I just couldn’t work there. The office was chaotic, noisy and disorganized and the social expectations on staff were high for after work drinks, weekly events and social functions. At other jobs, I would make myself stay in for a year and walk away after that with an immense sense of relief that I had stuck it out and now was free again.
There was also the issue of my being able to “perform” well in an interview. As I’ve discussed in my previous article “My Tough but Worthwhile Journey to an Asperger’s Diagnosis,” I am very adept at “performing” when required. I could be that upbeat, confident and sociable person for an hour but maintaining it on an ongoing daily basis under the scrutiny of an open office environment was another thing. I often became withdrawn and was never really comfortable being in a “team environment.”
After leaving university, I started my career working for the head offices of a large retail company after having previously worked on the shop floor. Although I was nervous, I soon settled into a small team located peacefully on a mezzanine level and managed by the most wonderful boss I have ever had. He was encouraging and patient and took the time to get to really know each of us, was mindful of differences and quirks and I was truly happy working there with them for around two years. Then came the inevitable round of “re-structuring” and soon everything was changing very quickly into a world of chaos for me — new manager, bigger team, new tasks and a large open plan office. I simply couldn’t cope and knew I had to start over again somewhere different.
I found a position in a much smaller office working in Admin alongside a team of engineers. This was better as I was in charge of my own work and could run the office as I liked, making changes and improvements where I could identify them. However I still found many elements difficult and eventually I decided to reduce my hours at work to help ease my stress. From the age of 28 I have worked only on a part time basis.
I have moved through a series of jobs across the private, public, charitable and educational sectors in the hope of finding somewhere I could just fit in and work without the accompanying stress. I left each job on good terms with every employer seemingly unaware of the personal stress that I was under (I really am that good at disguising it), but the challenge of hiding it was taking a real toll on my mental health. Working freelance four the last two years has proven to be the best option for me both professionally and personally.
Sadly, my story is not unique as statistics show that only 15 percent of adults with autism are in full time employment. That means that there are hundreds of thousands of adults whose often unique skills and talents are not being utilized in the workplace or recognized across society as a whole. Every one of these individuals will have their own story of disappointment, rejection and embarrassment that they can’t just fit in at work, mixed with the sad knowledge that they have so much to give an employer simply because of their autistic traits.
As I was diagnosed in my 40s, I often wonder what impact it might have had on me if I had only known sooner. Would I have been able to say to an employer that yes, having Asperger’s might mean I find working in an open office or within a team dynamic challenging, but with a few changes and support you’ll get the best out of me? Or would they have read “Asperger’s” on my resume and not even given me the chance of an interview?
Things are already improving — a few forward-thinking employers, mainly in the tech industry, are already adapting their interview processes and changing their work environments and structures to help recruit and maintain autistic workers. They realize how vital and unique their skill sets are, and how much happier (and healthier) those workers can be when going to work in a supportive environment where they are appreciated by an employer for who they are and not for what they “can’t do.”
But what about the large majority of people out there who are really struggling? I recognize that I am very lucky to have had my husband to fall back on to support us. Many others may not — what happens to them? How do they support themselves and their families? What impact is it having on their mental health if they are working under so much stress when just a few changes in the workplace could make all the difference to them?
What if simply being autistic and not fitting in gives us the need and drive to create our career paths by working freelance, by being entrepreneurial, by making an income out of a hobby or by working creatively or in scientific research? Would we really want to lose that unique pool of talent to a big corporation just for the sake of being able to fit in?
It seems vital to me that each unique autistic person is given the opportunity and support to succeed at work in whatever career path they want to follow. I believe those of us who have a voice must speak up for the rest of our community when we can. There’s an awful lot of work to be done before we see any percentage increase for employment levels realized.
Getty image by Kieferpix.