In a society that lays claim to embrace diversity and inclusion, many of us who fall into any or many of the protected categories often find our needs overlooked.
This is how it has been for me, as an autistic person. We are the weird kids, the loners, the ones who spend playtime and lunchtime on their own. We are the ones picked last when the popular kids got to choose teams. We are the kids who had nobody to invite to birthday parties. This was my experience and one shared with many others. College, university and, finally, the workplace was pretty much the same. I sat on my own at lunchtime, didn’t have anyone to talk to at the coffee machine or water cooler and found team meetings excruciatingly painful.
When I deliver training workshops, I ask three questions: what if this was you? What if this was your loved one? What would you like to see happen? Think about it for a while. Many of you will be parents and, as parents, many of us want to see our children achieve something outstanding; we want them to stand out. By that very definition, we don’t want them to be the same as the other children yet, if we find we are the parent of an autistic child, we suddenly want them to be like the other children, to fit in. Why do we do this? Is this how society has conditioned us? Is this what creeps into the workplace? We want different, someone to have novel ideas, new approaches to old issues but, far too often, the autistic employee can be the wrong kind of different. I know this; I’ve been there and so have many others, which is why autistic employees are either hiding a diagnosis or unable to sustain meaningful employment because of the exhausting mental toll it takes on them. As a result, an awful lot of talent is wasted.
I didn’t get my autism diagnosis until I was in my mid 40s so how did I cope? Quite honestly, I was used to being me and found, generally, I was accepted in the workplace. Exclusion and bullying came later. Yes, it was difficult being moved from one team to another and it didn’t always go down very well. It was difficult to cope when my manager left. She moved to a different site. One day, I got to work and decided to take an overdose of pain killers. At the time, I didn’t even know why I’d done it but, looking back, it was probably a lot to do with having an imposed change to the day to day routine. There was no support and I was asked to leave my job.
Other difficulties that are common in autistic employees would be sensory overload: the environment may be too hot; this is very true for me as I don’t feel the cold. Fluorescent lighting can be an issue and so can noise levels. We may not be chatty and water cooler conversations might not be a strong point but we get on with the job and will pay an awful lot of attention to details. Typically, an autistic employee may not always understand the manager has made a request or struggle to prioritise a task. We digest language differently so when asked to have a report finished, we could leave another task half finished and find it difficult to get back on task.
So what, as an employer, could you do?
Remember autistic people are human, too. The most accepting workplaces have always, for me, been the ones where I’ve been seen as just Laurie. Every one of us is different and we all have our quirks. For some of us, they are more obvious. Be aware that an autistic employee may not wish to disclose their diagnosis to you and as often happens, they may be unaware of their autism themselves. Be observant; if there’s a member of staff who seems to be running on a different operating system, get to know them. Find out what you can do, as a manager, to make work life easier and remember, if it’s easier for the employee, less of your own time is taken up. If office noise and traffic is an issue for them, why not looking to moving the team member to a quieter area? Yes, imposed changes can be an issue so inform, prepare and plan for it with those involved. When delegating, give a time frame. Does the job need doing now or will by the end of the day work?
Always include the member of staff. They might say no to drinks after work or avoid office parties, but ask anyway. Take it from one who knows, it hurts when the assumption is we won’t go. The kid who never got invited to parties is still in there, somewhere.
About the author
Laurie Morgen is a freelance autism trainer and public speaker. She got her autism diagnosis at the age of 44 and is committed to seeing greater understanding of autism, challenging its many myths and misconceptions and working with professionals to raise awareness. She is the parent of three adult children, two of whom are parents and have children of their own.
Her book, “Travelling by Train – the journey of an autistic mother” is available in paperback and on Kindle and can be found here: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Travelling-Train-Journey-Autistic-Mother/dp/1784529109