I’m your colleague, I’m on the autistic spectrum and I’m an individual

I want to share with you an important conversation about supporting and advocating for autistic individuals in the workplace. In this article, we share interviews with two employees, a woman who has received a diagnosis for autism and another young woman who is seeking a diagnosis to confirm that she is on the autistic spectrum.

Confident young woman at work

As many as one in five people in the workplace are thought to be neurodiverse, which means that 20% of our workforce has a difference such as ADHD, autism and dyslexia. The term ‘neurodiverse’ means that our brains work in a different way to what other psychologists might consider as ‘typical’.

“Autism really varies significantly from person to person” explains business psychologist Ellice Whyte. “And it's a difference not a deficit in how your brain has developed. There are many strengths in people on the spectrum that are very valuable in a professional environment and more and more businesses are actively recruiting autistic employees - including Google, Microsoft, PWC and many more.”

How many people are autistic?

Amber Wright is a 25-year-old autistic woman who negotiated the education system undiagnosed until she started university at 19. She successfully gained her degree, has qualified as a neurodiversity instruction partner and now supports early years autistic children. She also provides a lived experience perspective in parent support groups related to autism.

Exploring experiences of autism at work

Andy Rigby, head of enablement at Posturite, interviewed Amber in a webinar entitled ‘Autism and working life: exploring experiences’:

Amber, how did you feel after your diagnosis of autism please?

“I experienced quite an interesting shift after my autism diagnosis. It made sense to me. It wasn't any surprise, because I thought it out after a friend who was autistic suggested that I should go.

Then afterwards I didn't really know what I needed to support myself. I didn't know where to go.

And I've probably learned more in the last year working with autism early support than I have in my entire life.

Amber Wright talking about autism

As a young girl, it's pretty important to acknowledge that I was probably never going to get an autism diagnosis because I've always masked, in everything in my life. But I definitely had traits of autism that I could easily have identified now. There have been predominantly male traits that were outlined in autism. So much of the female population has gone undiagnosed and unsupported and I was unfortunately one of them.

‘Well you don't look autistic’ someone has actually said to me. And a medical professional even asked me if I was cured of my autism once. Unbelievable. It's not a curable thing and it took me a lot to be okay with that and to move on.

I did a real deep dive into this term ‘functioning’ after my diagnosis of autism. Because it really does impact your self-esteem and your valuation of yourself against others. In a world where the function aspect is so neurotypically orientated and accommodating to those that fit typical roles. And actually there's so many positives that I believe autistic differences bring to my personal life and to my work life.

For example, I've always been a good listener and have empathy. I think the most empathetic people I've ever met in my life are autistic. That’s a big thing that people misunderstand a lot.

I can really adjust myself to manage quite intense tasks.

I’m also good at responding to an emergency situation. I witnessed a neck injury at a cheerleading event, and everyone else was freaking out, but I was able to really manage it, help out and have clarity in that moment.”

Do you have any sensory preferences or challenges?

“Taking a shower is really, really hard for me because of the sensory processing and the differences in temperature and I really struggle with it” Amber tells Andy.

In the same webinar, Andy also interviews Star, who works as a Credit Controller for a retailer. She received a dyslexia diagnosis and discovered that autism and ADHD align almost perfectly with her difficulties and she's now on the waiting list for an official autism diagnosis.

Star, what kind of work environments suit your sensory needs best and do you ever experience sensory overload?

“Yes, so I find I work best when I'm working from home as I can control my sensory needs a lot better than in the office. I prefer dim or natural lighting and a quiet environment. I can focus when there's just music on but when there's music and people talking, and mouse clicking and that kind of thing, it can get a bit much.

Music while working from home

I find lunchtimes in the office can be quite difficult as well because I'm quite sensitive to smells.

So I find if any of those factors are ‘out of whack’, then I do experience sensory overload which can get quite all-consuming.

So taking frequent breaks when I'm in the office, when I can feel it bubbling, is really important.”

You can watch the ‘Autism and working life: exploring experiences’ webinar in full here:

What made you realise that you might need some support at work, please Star?

“I realised that I might need support following a couple of absences because I was starting to struggle with my mental health. I felt a bit burnt out. So in one of our return to work meetings, I spoke to our HR team. I voiced some of the things I was struggling with and they offered me a Neurodiverse Workplace Needs Assessment. And I also had neurodiversity coaching following on from that.

Both were extremely helpful and eye-opening.”

This is very positive to hear from Star.

Amber, have you ever felt anxious at work?

“I've definitely experienced workplace anxiety in several previous workplaces. So it can be things like correspondence and how colleagues maybe correspond in different ways and tone. I like to know in advance what a meeting will be about so that I can prepare myself.

Sometimes when work is intense, I may struggle to even speak after work, and need to be alone to recuperate.

There's so many simple, universal and easy reasonable adjustments that they can make for you at work. Shoes off in the office or access to fidget toys, just for example. Another example would be that I was really struggling in my workplace at one point with the noise, and I'd never used ear defenders before. And my wonderful specialist teacher got up, came over to me and gave me a pair of ear defenders. I’d never even considered them before but it was so easy. Everyone can have these reasonable adjustments – they’re to actually allow people to do their job better.”

Star, if you do eventually receive a diagnosis for autism, what would that mean to you?

“I think I would be very emotional. As clichéd as it sounds, I feel like it would be the missing puzzle piece.

I think it would help having it on my medical record and for medical professionals to know.

I think I may then advocate for myself better. And hopefully, slowly start to be my authentic self.”

How can we support our autistic colleagues to thrive at work?

Ellice Whyte

“Never make any assumptions about what people need” advises business psychologist Ellice Whyte (pictured above). “So meet with the individual to understand what support they might like and consider offering your employee a Neurodiverse Workplace Needs Assessment. Work together to try to provide the most effective support and reasonable adjustments.

Also make sure to provide clear expectations and specific or concise instructions on the job role. Some people will really thrive with more structure and routines at work.

Regarding sensory sensitivity, creating that comfortable environment at work is important too. I can't tell you how many people, how many workplaces I've been in when they've got really loud ticking clocks or very noisy buzzy lights and things like that!

And we want to raise more awareness of neurodiversity in general and the support at work that we can provide. So it's important that you consider your own organisation to make sure that you can do that.

Please don't expect somebody with any neurodevelopmental difference to conform to the typical norms of the workplace. Try to understand them as an individual and what they need to thrive at work.

Meting with HR to discuss neurodiversity

Additionally, please understand that autistic people may have co-occurring additional differences as well. Your colleague may need additional support for things like ADHD, dyslexia and dyspraxia that might need additional reasonable adjustments to support in the workplace.

We need to remember that this is an autism 'spectrum' with each autistic person presenting differently and having unique strengths - and with that may come some challenges. There's a professor, Dr. Stephen Shaw, who has autism himself and says ‘when you meet one person with autism, you've met one person with autism’ and he's really highlighting here how diverse this particular condition or difference is.”

The ‘Autism and working life: exploring experiences’ webinar discusses these themes in more detail. Meet Amber and Star and watch it here.

Thank you to our interviewees in this article for sharing their experiences.

Read next:
•    My workplace adjustments for ADHD – and my advice to others
•    I’m dyslexic, and this assistive technology helps me at work
•    You’re stressed at work, but won’t take the time to do something about it?