Unmasking in the workplace – the late diagnosed autistic dilemma

Dianne McLean

Autistic people are great employees, writes Dianne McLean, a recently diagnosed autistic person who says it’s amazing how many things now make sense in her life.

19 May 2020 – Autistic people make excellent employees.

We often have unique skill sets that make us ideally suited to many jobs and our focus and attention to detail can be great assets in any workplace. We are loyal and very hardworking, attributes all employers value highly.

However, sometimes we may experience unique challenges that can make coping in the workplace difficult at times. Most of my working life has been as an undiagnosed autistic woman and although I coped for the most part, there were two jobs that left an everlasting impression on me and now I am diagnosed have led me to reflect on what I do need and want in a workplace.

The first example was the worst job ever – for me. On the face of it, it should have been my dream job. Sole charge (for the most part) with routine jobs typical of an office, working for a shuttle bus company taking people to and from the airports in Hamilton and Auckland.

Unfortunately, I failed to recognise in myself the lack of executive functioning skills I needed to successfully perform a vital part of the job description and this led to much angst and stress for me and huge amount of frustration on the part of my bosses. Terrible things happened – like people being stranded at the airport because I had failed to note down their return date.

I did learn something very important from this after I finally handed in my resignation and that was that I needed to find a job that utilised my strengths instead of me always having to compensate for my weaknesses. This decision was one of the best I’ve made for myself because it led me to working in rest homes organising the activities.

Rest home work suited me very well for many years, mainly because the environment was quiet and the way the day was structured gave me plenty of time between activities to ‘decompress’ and organise for the next. There were some things I struggled with – visiting residents in their rooms, for example – but overall, I did very well in that role and my ability to hyper focus meant I often went above and beyond my given duties.

I managed to do this job successfully until by chance I found myself in the best job I have ever had, as a tertiary level tutor for a private training provider. Strangely enough on the face of it, it should have set all my autistic nerves jangling. But it didn’t. I have often wondered what made the difference. Tutoring wasn’t like the office job and I didn’t need to use the same skills, but it should have presented enough challenges to make my working day miserable, but it didn’t.

Some of the reasons for this were because there were certain supports built into the job already, such as an assistant tutor to deal with the administration tasks and the fact the course I was teaching ran from a remote location rather than on a busy campus. It helped, too, that I loved the course I was teaching. But I think the reason I did so well came down to the level of support offered to me and all the other employees by the management. This support was offered in various ways to all of us in the company, not just to me. At that stage I was still undiagnosed, so no one knew I was autistic, even myself. I’m confident had my diagnosis been known even more support would have been offered to me, because that was the company kaupapa.

What I learned from this job was the value of being supported in the right way at work. It makes such a difference and although it is never easy to open up and declare you are autistic to an employer, doing so may just make the difference between being able to stay in that employment or having to leave.

When I received my diagnosis, I asked my psychologist if it was important to tell people about it. His advice was – it is always better to be honest. And of course, it is. It opens the possibilities for better understanding and acceptance between colleagues and concessions from management that can facilitate a better working day. Especially if some of our challenges are more hidden. For example, I often struggle with unexpected changes in the routine or I get stuck on a detail and can’t move on from it, which can frustrate my work colleagues at times.

I don’t think any amount of support would have helped me in my first example, to be honest, because I lacked certain skills due to my autism and that’s a lesson. But for those of us who have skills and talents but just need to work a little differently or even remotely, disclosing may mean all the difference. And, if an employer isn’t willing to make accommodations to be supportive of our differences, we must ask if they are an organisation that deserves our talent and resources in the first place.

  • Dianne McLean is a late diagnosed autistic author who lives in Thames where she happily indulges in her love of all things ‘steampunk’.
  • This article first appeared in the Altogether Autism Journal, 2021




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