Mental Health Training

The challenges for Autistic people at Work, by Jane McNeice

Posted by on 25 Aug, 2021 in Mental Health |

The challenges for Autistic people at Work, by Jane McNeice

Most adults will consider themselves extremely lucky if they successfully traverse their working lives without ever encountering a time when they don’t feel supported, under too many demands, or other challenges.  Anyone who faces these issues often feels stressed, and some develop related health conditions – mental, physical, or both.

For Autistic adults, the likelihood is greater still. Some Autistic adults might find it incredibly difficult to sustain gainful employment in neurotypical environments. Neurotypical is the term Autistic people and others use to describe the majority non-Autistic population (which is approx 99% of the population). Since pretty much all workplaces are built by and for neurotypicals, Autistic needs can easily go unsupported. Unfortunately, understanding of Autism remains extremely poor, fuelled by myth. Consequently, many employers don’t know how to support those on the Spectrum.

As an Autistic person myself, I’ve encountered lots of challenges, and for many different reasons. Some of these relate to the fact that I did not even know I was Autistic until recently.  Mainly the reasons relate to the fact that I had Autistic needs and the world within which I was working was neurotypical and trying to meet different employee needs. I have worked in all sectors, private, public, and third, and the experiences within each have been varied. I can recall which sector I felt most supported in and which sector where I felt least supported in, and the one which was merely paying lip service to the needs of those with difficulties.

Challenges have included open-plan office spaces where I had to spend double the average worker’s energy,  firstly on the work itself (where I generally have higher than neurotypical levels of energy and motivation), and secondly on the social communication (which quickly depletes my energy). The more face-to-face meetings I had to attend, the more energy I needed to use. This energy would be further drained if there were circumstances in those meetings in which I was out of my comfort zone. In early 2000 I experienced chronic IBS as a direct result of the relentless anxiety which goes alongside my Autism. This made meetings even more challenging. I would become low functioning and self-mute and yet was forced to share information about the work I had been doing since the last meeting. I was a PA, I supported my CEO with PA tasks, it never felt relevant, I never felt relevant, and the IBS was at the forefront of my mind in those meetings not the tasks. No one was trying to make my life difficult; they were simply doing neurotypical things that I just found incredibly difficult. This is just one of the times where my Autism felt highly disabling.

Fortunately, I learned through academic study, frequent exposure to group situations and discussions that I too was relevant, and it gave me the confidence to contribute. I was also fortunate enough in 2007 to access a prescribed medication that managed my chronic IBS extremely well. This allowed me to focus on building my confidence in group situations rather than focus on the IBS. Today that confidence remains fragile and engineered, and it still takes an incredible amount of energy, it always well. I need time to decompress after group situations, even more so if they are less structured and include more social chit chat. If I can be helped to feel comfortable and relaxed in an environment, I can better contribute effectively to these situations.

I recently reached out to the online community to ask what challenges others had experienced in the workplace. Others described issues around disclosure, where having shared with others their diagnosis, they had proceeded to be treated like children. Many Autistic people had suddenly been overlooked for promotion and were no longer offered additional responsibilities. The assumption of incapability was pervasive in many of the shared experiences. On disclosure, some had received ignorant and de-validating responses from their managers such as “well everyone is on the spectrum”.  Many more shared incidents of bullying in its every presentation and to various levels, including gas-lighting, manipulation, comments about them being ‘weird’, and/or being isolated by colleagues. It is no surprise then that many Autistic people will be reluctant to disclose at work. Many will adopt survival measures such as ‘social masking’ to fit in. It’s essential to be aware that masking takes effort and lots of it. It is energy that I can assure you the person would much prefer to direct to their tasks and duties.

If you are an employer who would like to get the best out of all your employees, including those on the Autistic Spectrum, and believe me, the talent you can get out of an Autistic person who feels comfortable and happy in their work is well worth the effort. In that case, there are lots you can do to create the right environment:

  • Firstly, employers need to ensure managers and teams are Autism Aware. Awareness can be raised through training and sharing of lived experience (where Autistic colleagues are comfortable with sharing their ‘lived experience’ – narrative is powerful!). Any training needs to reach Senior Management Teams as part of a ‘whole business approach’.
  • Employers need to be aware that they will employ and support many more Autistic people than they think. Empirical research and my own anecdotal experience strongly suggest that the number of Autistic people is grossly underestimated. Up to 600,000 adults could have Autism that has gone undiagnosed. We also know that underdiagnosis is substantially higher in females than males. Therefore, we recommend introducing Personal Wellbeing Plans which will benefit all employees. You can learn more about them in our i-ACT (for Positive Mental Health) Training Programme.
  • Employees with Autism may also benefit from having a ‘buddy’ or mediator for communication or relationship challenges. You could up-skill to becoming a persons support via a course like Mental Health First Aid or i-ACT.
  • Employees with Autism may take longer to process information, please give them time. The Autistic brain is wired differently (note I’m using the word different, not wrong) and it reaches its conclusions through different processes.
  • Leaders and managers need to understand their roles and responsibilities in supporting Autistic employees, including their obligations under related legislation. You can learn more about this in both our i-ACT and Mental Health First Aid training.
  • Employers need to co-develop supportive Policies and Procedures with their teams, ensuring that teams understand these policies and how they should be administered. This should include policies around inclusivity and mental health and wellbeing.

If you or your workplace would like to become more Autism Aware, Mind Matters can help. We currently offer a wide variety of mental health training courses for various roles within the workplace and will be launching our NEW Autism Awareness program towards the end of October 2021. Please get in touch if you’d like to keep updated on this.