There is a well-known statistic that autistic people are less likely to be employed than others, by a significant margin. This is not at all OK and needs to change.
You might know that I talk a lot about employment and autism. And you might also know that I am a career public servant of over fourteen years’ tenure in a middle management role. I am on leave at the moment due to medical reasons so I wanted to reflect on my work. I should add that my managers and team are very supportive and are looking out for me which is lovely. Evidently something is working in my employment world so I thought I would share some of the things I have in place which help to make my world of work pretty wonderful.
When I applied for my job in 2006 a number of friends poured metaphorical cold water on my ambition. One friend told me that he had done a similar role and was terrible at it so there was no way I would be able to do it. Another said that sort of job ‘isn’t autism friendly.’ I responded that if that was the case maybe I should do my best to make it autism friendly. And that is essentially what i have done. I have put in place measures which make work work for me. I have listed a few of them. I will say that most of these strategies won’t be as effective in a toxic work environment although some of them can help to avoid things getting that way. Work can be really hard for autistic people and what works for me will not always translate to everyone else’s world of work. Keeping these things in mind, I thought I would share my strategies in case they are helpful to others.
- I have always disclosed my autism and also my mental illness (atypical schizophrenia) to managers and colleagues. I know disclosure is often a tricky subject but for me the decision was already made as I had a profile in the wider community as an autistic person. This default sort of disclosure was worrying at first but I soon discovered it meant I could talk about any supports I needed with my managers and that if anything went wrong that I got to work through it rather than suffer in silence. (It is important to note that decisions around disclosure are personal and individual and sometimes it is not a good idea to disclose so this is just my personal experience.)
- I have always been actively involved in disability advocacy within my workplace as part of the disability employee network.
- I always ask if in doubt as to anything. Assumptions are the parent of most screw-ups in the workplace.
- If I need an adjustment or change I ask for it and explain why I do and how it will enable me to work better.
- I am unashamed about being autistic. I talk about autism and my advocacy work with colleagues. I pull people up – kindly – when they say something unhelpful like ‘we are all on the spectrum’.
- I support other autistic people at work and allistic parents of autistic kids too.
- When I have had issues with managers being difficult – micromanaging and that sort of thing – I confide in someone and where possible I change my role. There is little more soul-destroying at work than to have a manager who you don’t get along with.
- I have always sought out mentors and role models at work. These can help build my career and give some perspective on the work I am doing.
- I hold myself to an exemplary standard in ethics and integrity. This is partially because there’s a few years of being unethical in my past but also because it is good practice to do so and is the right thing to do.
- I listen to music on headphones pretty much all day. This blocks out the noise in the office which I find distracting and also means I get to listen to nice music all day long which makes it easier to work.
- I don’t mask. If people have an issue with me then it is their issue. While that might sound hard, I ahed found it improves with practice.
- I am grateful to have my job. I reflect on this every day. Before I worked in the public service I was on the disability pension. I was very poor and had no choice as to where I lived. This meant I lived in a public housing estate where the neighbours were not very happy people and used a lot of drugs and alcohol. Because I was desperate to be liked I tried to fit in, meaning I drank a lot more alcohol than I wanted to. One of my neighbours was a stalker and I was tormented by her but I couldn’t afford to leave. I knew I needed to get a full-time job in order to move into my own place. Fourteen years later and I have a beautiful rental property with no difficult neighbours. I can choose where I want to live which is amazing. Being employed for all that time has meant other positive changes, including in my self-esteem and how I view myself. So I am very grateful that I get to do such a lovely thing five days per week.