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What It's Like Being Openly Autistic in the Workplace

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In recent years, there has been a significant increase in discourse surrounding neurodiversity and inclusion in the workplace. With greater speed and scale than ever before, companies are incorporating neuro-inclusion into their diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) strategies, recognizing the value that neurodivergent team members can bring to the table. While this is a positive development, there is still a need for a more nuanced understanding of the experiences of individuals on the autism spectrum, and a comprehensive view of how it can present in working individuals.

Personally, I have had the privilege of disclosing that I am autistic to my team and discussing aspects of my personal experience with my colleagues. This is a significant step for me, as I had previously been afraid of the potential negative consequences of disclosure. With this disclosure, my day-to-day needs are better accommodated, and I feel I am a more confident and comfortable person in myself. From not having my camera on for every call, to being able to respond to thoughts and questions in writing rather than speech, my working days are a little kinder to me than if I hadn’t mentioned it at all.

Despite being in this privileged position, however, I feel I am still not fully able to express my authentic, autistic self.

The narrative surrounding autism in the corporate world tends to emphasize the “exceptional” aspects of our wiring and how we are primed for productivity. While it is of course true that individuals on the autism spectrum possess many wonderful positive traits, it is important to keep in mind that autism is a spectrum disorder, and that is codified in our typically “spiky” skill sets.

I possess positive traits I associate with being autistic, such as an excellent attention to detail, conscientiousness, and deep, hyper-focusing abilities. However, I also struggle with task transitions, executive dysfunction, and I’m easily overwhelmed by change. Perhaps most difficult of all to manage in a working environment are my shutdowns and with it, difficulty with verbal communication. I go through patches where speaking is really hard for me, and that’s no easy thing to navigate with a calendar full of calls.

I worry that by focusing solely on the exceptional abilities of us autistic folk, we risk commodifying the positive aspects of autism for commercial gain, while ignoring the difficulties that individuals on the spectrum may face. For me, personally, this means that I feel I have to live up to an ideal version of an autistic person in the workplace and mask my struggles. By not embracing my full autistic experience — the tough bits and all — I cannot be true to myself, and the mask remains on.

I don’t have a solution to this right now. Maybe it’s being honest about when I need to step away from the desk because I’m totally overwhelmed and need to decompress. Maybe it’s letting my team know I have trouble talking sometimes, so I might dip out of optional calls when I can.

In the meantime, it is crucial to remember that when championing neuro-inclusion in corporate narratives, we can’t just celebrate the “superpowers.” We must also accept and understand the challenges that may come with it, and most important of all, be ready to accommodate them. I hope that by being more authentic and open about my experiences, I can help work a tiny bit towards creating a more inclusive and understanding workplace for all neurodiverse individuals.

Let’s continue the conversation and work towards getting a more fulsome, nuanced understanding of autism firmly into DEI strategies.

Getty image by monkeybusinessimages

Originally published: February 6, 2023
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