For those of us fortunate enough to be gainfully employed, it’s a sad reality of workplace life that we’ll often struggle to ‘ﬁt in’ in one way or another.
Because autism is predominately a sensory, social and communication impairment, it is natural to expect that this will manifest itself when working alongside others, such as those colleagues who might be loud, smelly, or like to shake hands and have no idea the turmoil their actions might cause us. They’re just trying to be friendly, and are behaving according to some vague unwritten social code.
For many of us on the spectrum, the missed cues, inane lunchroom conversations, the vague directions that we might be given, just don’t make sense. It’s like learning another language – the language of the workplace. And like any foreign language, some of us will pick it up more quickly than others. Some will come to terms with the language of the workplace, some never will. How this will be tolerated by our colleagues will depend on our workplace and how well our other abilities make up for our challenges.
Despite these challenges, many of the adults with autism that I know, myself included, are employed. Many are successful in both their work and private lives, with spouses, children, houses, cars, and the other usual things that typify a happy life. What further typifies us is that while we may have had challenges in learning to navigate workplace language to an extent, our neurotype gives us strengths that are well-suited to the job. One of us is a successful psychologist and a published author. Another is a teacher, where the ability to work alongside and empathise with those with disabilities is a huge advantage.
For myself, my encyclopaedic knowledge of my workplace – having a visual map of hundreds of valves, tanks, electrical devices, and the like, and how they are interconnected – is a huge advantage to my employer. It’s because of these things that our quirks are tolerated, because we’re good at what we do. So what if we aren’t a social butterfly in the office, right?
Except it’s not always that easy. We’re not just judged on our ability. The language of the workplace dictates that we must ‘network’ at staff functions. We must make inane small talk, whether we care about what people did in their weekends or not. At the lunchroom table, we’re expected to sit next to the colleague with the tuna sandwiches and not retch.
Because of the way our brains might work, we’re planning the conversation or activity far ahead, to try and have some vestige of self-control. All of this comes at an emotional cost. I used to get home from work and hide in my bedroom for an hour before I could face my family; now I stop off on the way home. And no matter how hard we try, we’re going to be the quirky one anyway.
One obvious solution, from the outside looking in, is to disclose. At least then our workmates might understand, right? Maybe. Workplace disclosure is a minefield, and once you’ve disclosed you can’t take it back. Some of us want to disclose but, when we approach our manager, are told not to. Some of us are concerned about being stigmatised or judged, so we can’t bring ourselves to disclose.
My experience with being semi-disclosed at work has had both positives and negatives. Only my immediate manager and HR know I have autism; my colleagues don’t, as far as I am aware.
The oxymoron here is that a great way to encourage acceptance of autism in the workplace is to show that people with autism are already employed and good at what they do, but unless we share our ‘secret’, this will be slow to happen. People’s understanding of the spectrum will still be limited to their neighbour’s cousin’s son who has autism. They will have no idea that the person they are working alongside, with their quirks and lack of filters, sits on the spectrum also. It could be that the only way we can begin to understand the language of the workplace is to take the first step ourselves.
By a person on the autism spectrum who wishes to remain anonymous
This article first appeared in Altogether Autism Journal, Issue 2, 2016.