An employment epiphany – or how I’ve had autism and employment all wrong

The other day something happened to me which I doubt many other people ever experience. I had an epiphany about employment and was very happy about it. Employment is one of the things I am asked to speak about quite a lot. In 2014 I wrote an activity-based book to help autistic teens and young adults build their confidence and knowledge around employment to help them find work when the right time comes. Supporting other autistic people to find suitable employment and build their skills around managing at work is a great motivator for my work in the autism community. I love talking about employment and have spoken to thousands of people about autism and work over the past few years. I pride myself on being quite good at talking about employment and autism. That is until the other day when I identified a significant gap in my approach.

I was asked to write a chapter on autism and employment for an excellent book by a number of autistic women authors. I thought – and probably said to some people – ‘I’ll get that done so quickly. Employment is one of my ‘things.’” So I dashed off a chapter and it came back with edits. The editor pointed out that the chapter was quite negative. It was a surprise and I always thought my approach was focussed on the strengths of autistic employees. In fact it was but the negativity was coming from somewhere else. My epiphany made me realise for the first time that strengths-based approach to autistic people finding suitable and meaningful work also needed to include more of a strengths-based attitude around the workplace and employer.

Up to now, most of my discussion of the position I suggested autistic job seekers and employees take was quite a defensive one. ‘Employers often discriminate against you in recruitment so put strategies in place tp address this’…’, ‘Bullying and harassment happen at work so keep safe and know your rights…’, ‘Think about how to ‘disclose’ your autism…’ My position seems to have been that while autistic employees can be amazing at their job and they should build their confidence, in fact the other side of the equation – their employer, manager and colleagues – were almost certainly going to cause difficulties through bigotry and inaccurate assumptions.

A couple of weeks ago I posted one of my  memes which said ‘Something awesome might happen’. I think my employment epiphany might have centred on similar thoughts. I am amazed that i have been in this mindset for so long. I imagine it stems from some of my own invalidation in various workplaces in the past. The negative implications around assuming your employer will discriminate against you include:

  • It can make the autistic employee focus on their perceived deficits and feel hey need to justify their existence as a person and an employee rather than focussing on what they do well and can bring to their role.
  • It can also make autistic employees unnecessarily concerned and hyper vigilant, causing stress and self-doubt.
  • It can mean they are less willing to discuss their needs with their manager for fear of discrimination.
  • It will most likely make forging productive relationships with mangers and colleagues a lot harder.

Of course discrimination can and does occur but having that as your starting position is probably not as helpful as approaching  the workplace with the idea that ‘something awesome might happen’.

I actually had my epiphany while revising the employment chapter. The first thing I did was change my thinking around the concept of ‘talking about your autism / disclosure’. In the past I would have talked about how telling your manager you are autistic might be a good idea for how it could enable you to be ‘out’ at work and access workplace adjustments and so forth. This time I added that the ‘disclosure’ conversation could be a great opportunity to showcase your particular skills to your managers and proactively explain how any workplace adjustments you need are low cost and easy to implement. Talking about the employee or job seeker’s autism can be a big positive and does not necessarily need to be something to ‘manage’.

It interests me that for so many years I thought I was very positive around employment and focussed on all the good things we can do. However in the first draft of my chapter almost every single element was coming from the position that employment is difficult and employers are more likely to discriminate against us than not. I feel a bit ashamed to apparently be an autistic expert looking at employment and being so negative and essentially still focussing on the difficulties around autism and work rather than the positives. I am very happy to have had my epiphany and change my view. Of course discrimination, bullying and other horrors can occur but I think I have been doing all of us a disservice to advise autistic people to come from an assumption that work is almost certainly going to be discriminatory and that they have to be on their guard the whole time. Instead maybe as autistic people we can bring our knowledge and strengths to work and start from a position that we belong in the workplace and shouldn’t have to justify our existence. And to my fellow autistics I apologise that it took me so long to come to that particular realisation. A good opportunity for me to learn from an error which I suppose is the main purpose of errors.

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5 thoughts on “An employment epiphany – or how I’ve had autism and employment all wrong

  1. hmmm. id actually like to see data on this. of course it’s true that the experience could be either positive or negative but i actually wonder how often autistic people face discrimination as compared to a control group and generally how likely neurodiversity based discrimination is. also you need a way to deal with either scenario. but good for you! it’s nice to have positive stories to know what is the best case scenario to hope for. always good to have more of those if you ask me.

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