In the workplace
Diversity, of all kinds, is absolutely necessary for the human race to continue and thrive. The same applies with neurodiversity in the workplace where innovation and creativity will simply not happen without it.
Advantages of a neurodiverse workplace
Neurodivergent people have many unique skills to bring to the table. When we are given the right job for us, in the right environment, accepted just as we are and supported where necessary, we can then complement the neurotypical employees and enhance creativity and productivity at the same time.
Here are just a few of our unique autistic strengths:
The ability to ‘think outside the box’ when others are unable to.
In general, autistic people are loyal, trustworthy, punctual, honest and hard working.
Many autistic people are skilled at detecting patterns that neurotypical people cannot and are known for our attention to detail.
Our intense interests can be of huge benefit, often enabling us to gain much valued expertise.
Many of us are excellent strategists, systemisers and complex visual conceptualisers.
Some of us may have exceptional memories for facts and figures. (Unlike the author of this website!)
Autistic people are often extremely caring, kind, empathetic and compassionate. Many of us work in the caring services.
We tend to be naturally accepting of difference, if we even notice it at all.
We tend to gossip less and often need less social interaction, which means we are more likely to get the job done.
These are only a tiny sample of the many advantages that autistic people can offer their employers. So why are a very high percentage of us are still unemployed, under-appreciated and under-utilised? Read on to find out.
The unhappy statistics
Despite the many unique advantages that we can bring to employment, the desperately sad fact remains that autistic people around the world are still far less likely to be in employment, regardless of their intellectual status, qualifications or abilities. In other words, we aren't less likely to be in employment because we don't gain the necessary skills or qualifications, but purely due to being autistic. Or just plain different.
In fact, according to the Office for National Statistics, we have the lowest employment rate of all disabilities. This is a very sorry state of affairs - not just for autistic people, but for potential employers who are missing out on all the benefits a neurodiverse workforce can bring.
But why is this?
The main reason for this is a lack of understanding of, and indeed acceptance of, our differences and our unique skills. Unfortunately, many of us are excluded from work before we even reach the interview. And if we do get that far, the traditional and discriminating interview process will have us walking right back out the door.
When we do get offered work, we are expected to conform to neurotypical rules, regulations and social expectations, which leads us rapidly back down the path towards burnout and long-term sickness and unemployment.
How to encourage neurodiversity
What can organisations do to encourage and support us, and to harness our strengths and talents?
Well firstly, they can come and look for us!
We aren't likely to put ourselves forward or get involved with social networking or job events, due to our social differences, sensory sensitivities and social anxieties, as well as the fact that we will have doubtless been traumatised by trying to do so in the past.
We are used to feeling unwanted and ‘othered’ and this means that we are less likely to extol our virtues and talents willingly. So, to help this, companies can advertise for neurodivergent candidates specifically, as this implies that we are welcomed and appreciated, making it far more likely that we will apply.
Then there is the interview process itself - a big brick wall standing in the way of us getting any further.
Our facial expressions, lack of comfortable eye contact, tone of voice and body language may be very different to that which has come to be expected in interviews. So it is necessary for employers to develop a broader understanding and awareness of different neurotypes and behaviours, in order to avoid judging us solely on these visible traits.
Our working memory difficulties which are part of those nightmarish executive functions, with which we struggle with so much. They create no end of difficulties for us, so that under the pressure and scrutiny of an interview situation, we are likely to struggle far more than usual.
Consequently, we will need extra processing time and patience. We may need someone to speak for us if we are so overwhelmed that our brain functions shut down completely. This doesn’t mean we are unable to do the job we are applying for - just that the interview experience itself is not compatible!
In all honesty, I can’t understand how anyone performs in an interview environment. Who invented them, and how many centuries ago was that exactly? Ideally, alternative ways of assessing someone’s fitness for the job should be considered.
Here are some tips that will help the interview process to go more smoothly for employers and prospective employees alike:
Candidates can be offered online interviews or an interview in a place more comfortable for them, and certainly with a much less formal and unfamiliar atmosphere.
They can be provided with interview questions ahead of time so that they can prepare. This isn't cheating. It's no different to putting on a pair of reading glasses to read better!
Make sure that anyone involved with the interview is also aware of these differences, and of how the interview will be conducted in a way that creates less discrimination.
Ask the candidate what their interview needs and accommodations are. Even if you can’t assist with them all, it will put them more at ease, help them to feel validated and included and lessen their working memory difficulties, all leading to a much more relaxed and effective interview process for all involved.
Creating a supportive
working environment for all
This is a big area and one which will be the difference between a neurodivergent employee giving you their best or spending more time on burnout leave.
Creating a diverse and supportive environment for all employees involves allowing much more flexibility in terms of the actual working environment. It is often the case that, changes that suit neurodivergent employees actually benefit the majority of employees as a whole.
Companies who have embraced neurodiversity have seen gains in productivity, quality, innovation, and employee engagement as well as managers learning new skills to better leverage the talents of all employees through greater sensitivity to individual needs.
In other words - there is nothing to be lost from neurodiversifying your workforce, and everything to be gained.
We frequently come across the excuse that, if we are given accommodations, then everyone will want them. This raises two questions: Do the other employees actually need those accommodations to function better at work? If they do, then why is their environment so non-conducive to work, and what can be done to improve this for everyone?
The first step would be to simply ask us if we would appreciate any particular support and if we do, offer to help
This is no different to providing a ramp to enable wheelchair access
Our sensory experiences are very different to neurotypical people and have an enormous effect on our health and our work performance. We frequently suffer from sensory overload and other challenges which neurotypical people simply do not. One example of a modern trend which is a complete sensory nightmare for us, is open-plan offices.
Communication in the workplace is an important area that needs plenty of thought when it comes to supporting autistic people. Social communication, etiquette and workplace expectations are often very different for us.
Socialising with non-autistic colleagues may not come naturally to us and is almost always a very tiring activity. We do not need to socialise at work. We do not need to see and hear others around us. What we do need however, is access to an environment that allows us to concentrate and focus on our work and getting the job done.
Autistic people in general will appreciate patience and extra processing time, but we will also work much better if you 'say what you mean and mean what you say'! Cut out the waffle please. Be clear and concise and deal with any misunderstandings in an open and honest manner.
Above all, treat us with respect, kindness and patience - just like you should for all employees.
Other simple changes to the work environment can be made. Though we are all different, we generally benefit from a quiet space of our own, with good natural lighting. It should be free from distractions, noise, smells and artificial lighting. We also benefit from an organised space that will not be disorganised by anyone else.
If these simple accommodations are not possible, it should at least be possible to arrange for us to work without people interrupting us outside of set times and we should automatically be allowed to wear noise cancelling headphones and havea daylight lamp on our desk.
It is also crucial not to expect us to partake in office get-togethers, team building events, parties and gossip sessions. If we do, it needs to be because we genuinely want to, not because we feel it is expected in order to keep up with the office hierachy and gossip. We aren’t being rude or standoffish - we are focusing on our work and our own personal needs.
To support our executive function and organisation challenges there are many simple things that can be done. There are plenty of assistive technologies available these days, that can greatly assist us with a variety of support needs. For example, visual scheduling and reminder apps or software, digital assistants, talking calculators and so on. But again, minimising distractions and creating an environment that compliments our sensory needs are simple techniques that are easy to put in place and cam make all the difference in the world to us.
Many of us long for the right to be able to work at home, in our own comfortable environment away from the distractions of the workplace and where we can arrange our workday around our own needs. We tend to be naturally hard-working and good at keeping to (or even exceeding) our expected work hours, so we will still get the work done - you can be sure of that! And in fact, research frequently reports that home-working itself leads to greater productivity.
The Covid-19 pandemic has shown how easily this can be achieved and has really set the stage for home-working to continue if businesses allow. At the very least, flexible working hours could be of enormous benefit.
To further support neurodiversity, ensure that it is part of the training for all your employees. Basic information and awareness can go a very long way both to remove stigma and improve the cohesion or your workforce in general. Importantly, it will also go a long way to earn prestige for your organisation.
Aim to create a culture that supports and encourages all neurotypes, and if necessary, seek support and education from organisations that have been set up specifically to help integration of neurodivergent people into the general workforce.
Oh, one last thing, all too often it is the case that job coaches are brought in to 'help the autistic person'. Please stop othering us. If you've done everything you can to create a more suitable work environment for us, then please consider expanding the role of the work coach. It's clearly not just the autistic person who needs some coaching. Everyone can benefit from education, support and guidance, to better understand and adapt to each other.
Many of us struggle to find a good work / life balance, manage our time effectively and schedule enough down time and recovery time.
One of our strengths is the ability to hyper-focus on tasks. But this isn't always a good thing and may actually be something we need some help with. We can struggle to stop or switch tasks, and when we are totally immersed in something, we tend to forget to attend to our normal everyday functions such as eating, drinking and going to the bathroom.
This can be a particular issue for the self employed or even for those of us who prefer to work from home. To avoid autistic burnout it is vital to somehow manage this balance, even if we need a little coaching or guidance to do so.
When working at home for the first time during the pandemic lockdown, many people - autistic or not - struggled with managing this balance. Especially with having to juggle multiple family members' schedules, young children, school schedules and so on. And lots of us found it particularly difficult to stay motivated and get things done, even when living alone.
This is particularly relevant to autistic people, who tend to rely heavily on routines and structure in everyday life. Lockdowns made the days and weeks merge into one. They drained the 'light and shade' from daily life, and they are real motivation zappers.
Here are some suggestions that really helped a couple of friends of mine:
Managing the work / life balance in lockdown
Create a new routine. Yes, a different routine! Yikes! I know this might be painful, but if your old routine ain't working it's time to create a special 'lockdown' one. It will probably help to have this routine written up somewhere very visible. Perhaps even in each room.
Get up at the same time every day. Go to bed at the same time every day.
Get dressed. Or at least have one set of pyjamas for 'work and play' and one for bed! Insist on keeping your daily hygiene routines.
Schedule 'work days' and 'days off' - even if you don't do paid work. It can be so easy and tempting to just immerse ourselves in our tasks - especially when they are something we enjoy - but pay for it later. This is so hard for me, even as I write this website. If you find it helpful, try to find someone else to help with this process by checking in on you regularly, or sending you timely reminders to stop work or even just to ask you what you have prepared for dinner that day.
Schedule in regular breaks, self-care time, time off and lunch breaks, meal times and bedtimes. And don't be tempted to stray from them just because you can!
Include leisure activities in the schedule and stick to those times. You can schedule in some 'random time' too if you want, so that you have nothing planned during that time to allow for some spontaneity - if that's your thing!
Set times when your phone (including social media notifications) is switched off or on silent.
Use scheduling apps or sheets of paper, or anything that suits you. (See my section on 'helpful equipment' for more ideas.)
Set alarms to help you stick to this routine. You can be as 'rigid' as is comfortable for you, but don't let anyone else interfere with your new 'work day' by trying to get you to fit into their routine (or lack of!).
Insist on your schedule. Write it down, pin it up and stick to it. Try your best not to let anyone else in your household disrupt it. Prioritise your own health and your own routine. It might help to imagine you are working for someone else and this is the schedule that they insist on - just like you having to start work or school at the same time. Don't go easy on yourself once you've decided on your schedule. You are the boss, and you must do as your boss says!
If you live with others, it is essential that you create some kind of space and time for yourself to recharge. If the only way you can do this is to book the toilet for a half hour once a day, then do it! But if you have rather more comfortable option such as a room, a shed, a tent or a corner of a room with a privacy screen and noise cancelling headphones, book that. Make sure everyone knows it is your recharge time and that you are not to be disturbed.
Mental health is a big issue in times of crises such as lockdowns and pandemics. There are lots of tips on the internet to help keep ourselves mentally well, but there is one more tip I think is particularly appropriate for us. Because we can be overly sensitive, it's going to be really detrimental to our health is we continuously follow the bad and sad news. Not just on the TV, but social media always flares up at these times. My advice would be to seriously limit your exposure. Schedule in set times, at the end of the day perhaps, when you allow yourself a limited time to catch up on all the world's doom and gloom. Schedule an alarm or timer to turn off the TV after a certain time if necessary.
I think everyone is aware of how important getting out into the fresh air and nature was to us during lockdown, but it really is so important, so healing and beneficial is so many ways. Try to get out there every day if you can. Schedule it in. It doesn't have to be long and it doesn't have to involve anything in particular. But if you can get to a wood or a forest, a seashore or other natural environment of some kind - the dividends will be worth it.
To disclose or not to disclose
- a very personal decision
Should I tell my employer or potential employer, that I am autistic?
There is no simple answer to this question. Whether or not to disclose our autism to employers is a very personal decision and one that deserves much thought.
It's still a very sad fact that autistic people face stigma, exclusion, bullying, manipulation and even abuse in the workplace. Autism is not understood in general society, nor necessarily accepted even by family members, so it stands to reason that our difficulties will be many in the complicated and less forgiving world of the workplace.
Some of us, no matter how proud we are of our autistic traits, prefer not to disclose them to our employers or prospective employers due to the rampant stigma that still follows us everywhere we go. We are still made to feel 'less than', ashamed and unworthy. Even at times, infantilised. It's possible that we have been traumatised by our previous experiences. Or we may understandably fear losing our jobs.
On the other hand, disclosing can lead to a better work environment, with adjustments and protection by law from discrimination. It can have a positive effect on our overall health. We will not feel the need to constantly mask our traits and hide our true selves rather than trying to be someone we are not. As a result, there will be less chance of burnout and a much better general working environment for the autistic person.
But if we don't disclose, we will be denied any adjustments, support and understanding, without which the job may be extremely difficult or even impossible. It is indeed a difficult position to be in and a decision that must meet an individual's personal needs, but until such time as the world catches up, one which we are forced to navigate.
What is for certain is that if we do decide to disclose, we should be treated with the respect and confidentiality that we deserve.
The video below may be of help when making your decision, and there are more relevant links below.
Autistic burnout & workplace burnout
Anybody, autistic or not can suffer workplace burnout - a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress.
Most of us have heard of it - even if there is still stigma and myths attached to it. Some still wrongly consider it to be a ‘weakness’ or something to be ashamed of. Others consider it to be as innocuous as having a cold or that it is too often used as an ‘excuse’ not to work.
The World Health Organisation have recently gone some way to dispel these myths and create better awareness of the condition by including burnout in the 11th Revision of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11).
Whatever the definition, workplace burnout is a serious condition that needs medical and occupational support, without which there is a very real risk of developing serious mental health disorders such as depression and anxiety, as well as risk to livelihoods and family health and quality of life.
Autistic burnout is something which many autistic adults experience. Although it has similarities to workplace burnout, it happens with a higher frequency and not just from the workplace. It happens as a result of all aspects of daily life, because it is the result of the sheer energy drain needed to constantly navigate a world that is designed for neurotypical people.
Autistic people have to navigate and adjust to a confusing and constantly changing social and sensory environment which is not intuitive to their own innate neurotype. Mental exhaustion and sensory overload build up and up, and the resulting burnout is an intense experience of complete physical, mental and emotional exhaustion that goes beyond fatigue.
In addition to the problems associated with workplace burnout, for autistic people there will be dramatic increases in distress and with this, increased meltdowns and shutdowns, brain fog, headaches, inability to process any more information and physical pain, as well as loss of skills and abilities such as speech and everyday tasks. It can last for weeks or longer, and will keep repeating if nothing is changed in the environment.
Some of the triggers for autistic burnout include;
Having to deal with everyday social situations
Pressure to socialise unnecessarily
Too many demands and not enough processing time
Not enough 'downtime'
Having to mask and camouflage our autistic traits
Not being allowed to stim or be our natural selves when around other people
Changes to our daily routine, such as moving schools or homes, or changing jobs
How can we try to avoid, or at least reduce autistic burnout?
A big ask! And one which is not always possible. Firstly, of course, there is a need to reduce the list of triggers above. There are also some other ways to make the task easier. The following are some ideas and guidelines, but professional coaching and support may be necessary for many of us.
The overall aim is to treat your precious energy and brain processing capacity as you would a bank account. Just as our bank account funds limit how much money we can spend, we have personal limits on how much energy we can spend and how quickly our processing capacity is reached. And these limits are completely individual.
If we go into an overdraft, we know that we will have to pay that money back at a later date, plus interest. If we go into energy or 'capacity' overdraft, the same thing applies. But we may never actually have that spare energy to pay back the overdraft, and so the debt will accumulate and our condition will get worse.
So, we need to set limits on our energy spending, just as we do for our money. To do this, we can ‘share out the energy’ over a week, or even a day. Allocate a proportion of our energy fund per day and be very careful to stick to our limits. If we use more than we have one day, we will have less available to use the next day. This may well be OK for you, as long as you are aware of it.
We have to develop an awareness of what personally uses up our funds the quickest, and avoid those where we can. A good place to start is with the list of triggers above.
It may be work that is causing us the most problems, in which case we may need to adjust our work hours or our work environment somehow. Or it may be social events or life simply being too 'peopley' and we may need to adjust or reduce that in some way.
In addition, there may be things which give us energy to add to our fund. For example, stimming or pursuing one of our intense interests. We have to get to know what adds extra energy or capacity, allowing the funds to build up quicker. For me personally, some activities can give me a real energy boost, while others are like pulling the plug out of a bath and watching all that precious energy disappearing down the drain.
Importantly, we really need to avoid being forced to wear our neurotypical mask and camouflage gear. Again, this takes practice and needs to be learned gradually - initially, in environments and situations where it is safe for us to do so.
It's helpful to discuss our needs with those around us so that they are aware of them as well as the need for us to avoid burnout. Better to do this now rather than when we are in the middle of burnout and do not have the energy to do so.
It all takes time, patience and practice of course, but one possible way to help us get to know our own energy needs is to keep some sort of diary, making note of what increases our funds and what depletes them. What are our ‘energy givers’ and our ‘energy zappers’? In this way, we can build up a picture of what helps to balance our energy scales rather than allowing them to always tip into negative balance.
All far from easy of course! And it takes much practice. But it is vital, in order to create a better school, home or work environment for ourselves - one that is better suited to our needs. Remember, do not hesitate to seek professional coaching or support if you need to. And many of us do.
© Vanessa Hughes 2021
We need to be aware of our ‘energy givers’ and our ‘energy zappers’
When autistic burnout hits...
When autistic burnout hits, we have no choice but to take time out - be it from school, work or other commitments, and especially to highly stressful ones.
Now is the time to only concentrate on activities that increase our energy funds, or which are absolutely essential and cannot be delegated to someone else. We can refer to our list of ‘energy givers’ such as sleep, stimming, intense interests, relaxation, music, meditation, reading, sports, enjoyable social activities and getting out into nature. In other words, it's time to focus on self-care.
References & further information
I highly recommend:Thinking Differently About Autism, April 2022: A fantastic series of 5 international panels consisting of actually autistic experts, organised by Sienna Castellon in partnership with Lexxic, for Neurodiversity Celebration Week. Highly recommended!
Raymaker, D. M, Academic Autism Spectrum Partnership in Research and Education (AASPIRE), Autistic burnout: "My physical body and mind started to shut down" (no date)
Ronnie Pinder (a self-advocate, consultant, trainer and mentor). Autistic fatigue:
Undercover Autie (Emma). Autistic fatigue and exhaustion (2019)
Cherry Blossom Tree (Kate). Autistic burnout and regression (2017)
The Autistic Advocate (Kieran). An autistic burnout (2018)
Ryan Boren. Autistic burnout: the cost of masking and passing (2017)
Patrick Dwyer. Burnout and expectations (2019)
Amythest Schaber. Ask an autistic #3 - What is autistic burnout? (2014)
The thrive with Aspergers podcast - 5 autistic burnout recovery tips you need to learn now (2018)
CS Wyatt - Autistic burnout (2018)
Karlett A - Audio blog My autistic burnout and recovery (2018)
Neurodiversity guidance for neurodiverse healthcare professionals, and healthcare students and their managers, mentors, teams and union reps:
Deloitte Neurodiversity Learning Guides for Recruiters. Bringing different people, with different ways of thinking, together in collaboration is how positive change happens.
European Brains at Work: