An Autistic Guide to Navigating the Workplace

woman-hand-desk-office

This weekend I was incredibly privileged to be invited to lead a workshop/give a talk on my autistic journey through the workplace. Following this, I was approached by several people who asked me to adapt the ‘tips and tricks’ segment of my presentation on my blog.

I post this on here (as I opened my talk) with the caveat that I am aware of how fortunate I have been and how fortunate I continue to be. I am aware that the fact that I have managed to be in almost continuous employment since I was sixteen; even if those jobs were difficult, and even if I struggled in those roles, the fact that I was able to be one of the only 16% of autistic people in full time employment makes me a lucky person.

I also need to assert that in many ways I have privileges that others in the autistic community don’t have. I am verbal. I am capable of communicating in interviews, and to (just about) survive in the stresses of the workplace. Not everyone who is autistic is able to work – and those people are just as deserving of respect, support and the opportunity to live the best life they can as those of us who can and do work.

I am aware of where my priviledge lies, and whilst I am writing this as an autistic person in work for autistic people in work, I don’t forget the other reaches of the spectrum.  My journey is my journey alone – but I hope that there are some elements of what I have learned that can help.

Before I attempt to go through the general tips and tricks for surviving in the workplace, I think it’s best to discuss the specific challenges that have affected me the most in my working life – and how I’ve gotten to a points where I can (sort of) manage them.

Stress/Anxiety – this is, without a doubt, one of my biggest nemeses. I have always suffered from anxiety; I have always drowned in stressed; I am usually been able to hold it behind my mask at work (as many autistic women will identify with), but it without fail comes down on me when I’m at home, and I am a horrific person to be around. Anxiety and stress are my faithful companions, and they have followed me devotedly through every class, every life event and every job until this very day. There are few solid, coherent answers to this. Many of the tips and tricks I’ll be talking about here feed into the drip-drip-drip of surviving this anxiety.

Struggle understanding/following instructions – there have been so many moments in my life, particularly my professional life, when I have felt like a failure for not being able to follow through on seemingly simple instructions.I feel like a flailing, ridiculous mess instead of the competent person that I know I want to and can be. We’ve come to the point where, even if something is verbally explained to me in great detail, I make precise notes to type up later or I ask the individual in question to email me the step-by-step instructions.

Executive dysfunction – this simply means that I have trouble translating a command from my brain to my body. For an incredibly long time, I harboured under the guilt-ridden assumption that I was just a lazy, awful person who allowed myself to be engulfed by procrastination. I wanted to do things, but for some reason I didn’t. As you can imagine, this presents itself with difficulties in a workplace. Although I still struggle with this at times, I’ve found that making myself a daily list of things that I need to do and evenly space out when I need to do those things. This stops things from building up to a point where everything is too much – there’s nothing as satisfying as putting that tick next to another thing completed, no matter how small a thing it may be.

Sensory overload – particularly in a customer service, the problem of too much sensory input is one that plagues me to this day. In front facing positions, there is absolutely no escape from the sensory assault. You can’t tell the people around you to keep it down; you can’t where headphones whilst serving food to customers; you can’t run off for a few moments and leave the front desk and telephone unattended. Towards the end of my front-facing career, we had a pretty well oiled machine on which I could send a two word email or phone call upstairs and someone would shoot down to cover me whilst I took some time to recover a little. Now that I’m office, I have greater access to my techniques and can manage my sensory input with more independence.

Social interaction – I have a complicated relationship with social interaction. On the one hand, I like socialising sometimes (with the right people and at the right location) and, in a workplace setting, I am relatively good at it (again – the hard won mask that is more of a curse than a blessing to many autistic women). On the other, it’s exhausting. Things that seem to come naturally to others are like fighting through treacle. I’m constantly aware of my surroundings, trying to interpret and manage everything that’s going on, and, even then, misinterpreting and finding myself in difficult situations that I have neither the verbal power or social savviness to get out of.

The tips and tricks that I’m going to go into now don’t diminish these challenges. They will always be there. They are an inherent part of how my brain functions, and the price to pay for the frankly awesome other aspects of my autistic brain. But they have allowed to manage them – to at least give the illusion that I am in control of them, rather than the other way around.

Take the time to understand what helps you personally – there is nothing more powerful than being able to approach a new situation with the knowledge of what you need. And it’s taken me an incredibly long time (a quarter of a century!) to be able to do that. The best way, I’ve found, is to try things – have a go with that fidget toy and see if it helps; take five minutes to do some breathing exercises and see if it has an effect; wear a scarf to work to test with the weight of it is comforting; spend a day with a soft toy in your bag; ask for people to write things down for you and see if that helps you understand. Make a list of what works, what doesn’t, and what things you would like to try in the future.

Create an ‘anxiety document’ – I had the really good fortune of having a work coach for some of my time working for an autism charity, and one of the most important things I gained from these sessions was the importance of having my own anxiety document. This is a document that outline what triggers your anxiety/meltdowns, how you feel when those feelings take over, ways in which people can recognise that you are struggling (ticks, movements, stims, colouring, breathing), the strategies that you have set down to help yourself, and what others can do to help in this. This has been incredibly helpful for me, as I’ve recently changed jobs and was able to hand this over rather than having long meetings trying to express myself and my needs verbally. Whilst I had help from a work coach, this isn’t necessary – family, friends and other people you trust can help you put this together.

Have stimming/fidget aids to hand – dotted around my desk (and myself), I have fidget cubes, fidget spinners, a soft toy, chewable jewellery and a soft scarf. These gives an immediate, solid aid for me to hold onto when I feel myself slipping into somewhere I don’t want to be. It also presents a simple, cheap, easily accessible tool for when you just need to take the edge off that sense of being completely overwhelmed. There’s something very empowering about the little things you can do to manage your anxiety, and something very reassuring about knowing you have them there.

Make your space comfortable – in my experience, the more you can personalise and take ownership of a space, the more you feel that you are in control of that space. This is difficult in some roles, particularly ones that I have struggled through in the past; it’s hard to personalise your space when your space is the teeny tiny gap behind the bread counter and it’s shared with three other people as well. That’s probably why I got important personal tattoos on my lower arms; that was far as I could go to own my space.However, when I moved into the more front-desk related roles, I was able to bring in a little personalisation – a picture of my family tucked behind the computer, a tiny reminder stuck to the lower part of my computer screen, a small houseplant on my desk – and now, in an office space I can truly call my own, I am surrounded by pictures that make me smile, reminders, lists, dog photographs and stickers. It gives me a sense of control, as well as a sense of comfort when I need that blanket to support me.

If comfortable, let people know you are happy to answer questions – this is not always going to be possible. For some people, it may be difficult or even dangerous to disclose there disability in their current work situation. If this is true for you, and you live in the UK, I would absolutely recommend getting in touch with The National Autistic Society‘s Employment Training team – I know some of the people who work on this team, many are autistic themselves, and they can provide training for employers and colleagues, as well as training for autistic employees (which does cover disclosure), and they can perform workplace assessments to report back to employers on reasonable adjustments. However, if you do feel comfortable doing so, I’ve found that opening yourself up to questions (within sensible parameters) can be extremely beneficial. When I began my new job, the email introducing me to the office included the line: “she is autistic – if you have any questions about this, please don’t be afraid to ask”. Obviously, it’s important to coordinate this with your manager, to ensure that if it gets overwhelming you can go to them and ask for a reprieve. However, I’ve found that, since I have been there (just over three months) the understanding of autism across my office and other departments (particularly HR) has rocketed. Hopefully, this means that they are more likely to hire other openly autistic person, as they will feel they now have some understanding of what they may need to do, and hopefully it will also mean that more autistic people will be able to enter this particular company and be supported to achieve their full potential.

And finally, perhaps the most important lesson I have learned – and boy, was it a long old climb getting to the top of this particular hill:

Remember that you are important, you deserve to be supported, and don’t be afraid to ask for help – it’s in their best interest as an employer to help you be the best that you can be. When you hesitate to tell someone that you need a particular sort of help, take a breath and remember that you deserve what you are asking for. You are not a burden. You are merely asking for some extra tools in order that you can build that bridge to being your best.

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