Reflecting on 14 years of employment – and autism in the workplace

This is basically a positive story about employment and how I have managed to demonstrate positive qualities in my working life. Before I start with all the positivity I will preface this with the fact that for many autistic people employment is anything but positive. For some it is unattainable, with applications and interviews tripping us up before we even get a go. For others the unwritten rules and hidden curriculum of the workplace prove too challenging, confusing and frustrating, leading to people churning through work placements and even giving up entirely. For some anxiety and perfectionism make work impossible and for others discrimination, ableism and bullying cut short their careers. I recognise this and that for some my positive experiences are not at all relatable. The workplace definitely needs to change in a major way to address this. For me I have spent many years building a career and navigating these and other challenges, mostly very successfully. I hope that some of my experiences are helpful for others.

Next month marks fourteen years of my working in a professional role in the public sector.

When I joined the workforce I had never worked in an office before. There were loads of unwritten rules and it was a culture I knew nothing about. I observed and tried to learn the ‘language’ of the office. I was reasonably successful after a while but I still ‘get it wrong’ sometimes even after almost 14 years. I work very hard and am known for my diligence and organisational skills. My work ethic is very well-developed and, like many other autistic employees, I do not generally waste time. If I am at work I am working. Managers comment on this.

One of my positive employment qualities – and a positive life quality – is that I am very grateful. Gratitude is something I practice daily. Some years ago I was very unwell with depression. The psychologist I was seeing told me to write down something I was grateful for every day. I usually wrote down that I was grateful because I have a job. At that time in my life work was really challenging due to my illness but I was still grateful to have a job. In fact I was extremely grateful because I had a rehabilitation case manager from my workplace and they were really helpful in getting me through my period of illness. I am still consciously grateful to have a job. I joined my workplace when I was living in public housing and receiving the disability pension. My job completely changed my life for the better and I will always be grateful to that because being poor was horrible and took away all my choices. 

Another quality which makes my world of work wonderful is my honesty. Autistics tend to be naturally good at honesty and it can be a big positive. In my 14 years at work I have made three mistakes with potential consequences. (I’m a perfectionist so don’t really make many mistakes.) On each occasion as soon as I noticed the error the first thing I did was go to my manager and tell them. This may look like a difficult thing to do but as I am so honest, hiding errors from my manager would be a lot more difficult! And being honest in that situation was a lot better then hiding it.

Which brings me to a very important positive that I bring to the workplace: my autism. Autism can be a huge plus in the world of work. Autistics are often very diligent, honest, hard-working and have great attention to detail. Autistic employees can be keenly aware of errors and can be particularly respectful around diversity and inclusion in their colleagues and can pick up on things which neurotypical staff may miss. There are many companies now which only hire autistic staff, being mindful of these many positives.  

I imagine some readers might think I have never had any issues in the workplace. While I have had issues on occasions my overwhelming experience of the workplace has been very positive. After a long career I am now able to talk about autism and employment at work – and to other workplaces too. I think my experience of the workplace gives me an enviable position to not only talk about autism to employers but I imagine it also makes me a role model or mentor for other neurodivergent people wanting to work in professional roles. I am immensely grateful for my job and most mornings I wake up enthusiastic to start the day.

I really wish that other autistic people can have similar positive experiences at work as me and that they can say that their world of work is wonderful too. Making the workplace more inclusive and respectful is a big job but definitely not an unattainable one.

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