7 myths about autistic people in the workplace that need to be squashed
There are many myths and misconceptions surrounding autistic people in the workplace and they can be quite harmful.
We’re just as capable, talented and educated as anyone else, but stereotypes and stigma form barriers that prevent autistic people from entering, participating and thriving in the workforce and it’s not OK.
The destructive impact of myths about autistic people in the workplace can be felt anywhere from being misunderstood by colleagues, to being discriminated against in hiring and advancement processes to being unemployed for months or even years at a time despite holding all (and often more!) relevant experience, qualifications and attitudes. Imagine how you might feel if the success of your career or even your ability to simply generate income and participate in society could be at best, negatively impacted, or at worst, taken away from you because of how other people feel about the way your brain is wired. It’s not a nice thought and yet for so many autistic people, it’s just another Tuesday.
For me personally, these myths have contributed to a soul-destroying 27 month long — and counting — job hunt that is coming dangerously close to me being forced to apply for roles outside of the professional field I’ve spent the last decade in. In a few weeks from now, I’ll have to decide between completely switching careers or taking on unskilled work while I continue to ride out my search for a permanent UX research job.
This is not intended to be a list of opposites from my last post, but rather a deeper look at some of these myths. It is my hope that with a little education, understanding and empathy building, you might view me and people like me a little differently when hiring, working with and generally interacting with us.
Before we get started, I’d like to clarify some of the terms that I’ll be using in this piece for those who haven’t heard them before and as a reference point for those who have. The terms ‘neurodiverse’ and ‘neurodiversity’ refer to people with different brains. This term isn’t just for autistic people. It covers a wide variety of neurological differences that include: Autism, ADHD, Dyslexia and many, many more. Neurotypical is the opposite of neurodiverse — it’s what some people might refer to as ‘normal’. Allistic simply refers to a person who is not autistic, however they may still be neurodiverse in some other way e.g., ADHD. I can only speak to my experiences as an autistic person, but overall, I’ve found that people who are neurodiverse in some way tend to naturally understand what I’ll be sharing with you in this piece, so I’ll mostly be using the broader term ‘neurotypical’. From my perspective, this is just the best way that I could think of to carve up my observations and thoughts.
I’d also like you to keep in mind that I am only one voice in an enormous global community of autistic adults who exist in your workplace and beyond. I can only speak for myself, but here are seven myths about autistic people in the workplace that I’d like to put an end to.
1. Autistic people can only do certain types and levels of work
People love to tell me what types of work that I ‘can’ and ‘can’t’ do, as well as just how far my career will be able to progress given my autistic brain. Most people aren’t usually surprised when they find out I work in technology — they expect it — but when they find out that not only do I work in the very human field of User Experience (UX), but that I’m also a user researcher who makes a living by talking to people, their eyes tend to pop. It’s hard for some people to wrap their minds around the idea that someone who struggles with social interaction can not only do it as a job, but also do it well.
I’ve also lost count of the number of times I’ve been advised to ‘aim low’ or only apply for entry levels roles because it will be ‘easier for me’. I’ve met people who genuinely believe that’s all I can do and that any role above the graduate level would be ‘unrealistic’. It’s quite the ableist stereotype to assume that an autistic, neurodiverse or even disabled people in general are incapable of success in management or leadership roles. Not that I owe anyone an explanation, but I’m autistic and across my almost decade long career so far, I’ve led and managed people, projects and a successful small business.
I get that it’s easy to do. Ableism is deeply ingrained in our society whether we’d like to admit it or not. In the months following my diagnosis, thanks to my own internalised ableism, even I fell into the trap of believing there were certain types of work that I could and couldn’t do.
Autistic people come from all walks of life and all backgrounds — you’ll find us everywhere! It’s called a spectrum for a reason. There’s a significant amount of diversity across the autistic community and automatically assuming what we can and can’t do is unhelpful and unfair. Question your assumptions and try not to pigeonhole us into specific role types. Stop writing us off if you think we won’t fit. When you do that, not only are you taking someone’s choices away from them, but you’re also making an assumption that could be quite costly for you in the long run. That person might be an emerging expert or leader in their field and they’re going to be snatched up by your competition instead who will then gain all the value that you failed to recognise. Nevermind the fact that it’s also against the law in many countries to discriminate against someone because they have a disability.
2. An autistic person won’t fit into our workplace culture
I was recently told of a talented, educated autistic person who missed out on a job all because a company felt that as an autistic person, they wouldn’t fit into their Friday night drinking culture. Seriously. I know quite a few people who don’t drink alcohol and happen to work at companies who not only provide drinks every Friday afternoon, but also go out for more drinks after said weekly work event. Everyone is welcome and no one is treated any differently for the contents of their glass. The drinking itself isn’t the culture — it’s the coming together as a team to connect as human beings that forms these cultures and Friday night is just one instance of it.
When you view a workplace culture by its core concepts, values and principles that are practiced every moment of every day, you’d have a hard time finding one that an autistic person wouldn’t fit into. This is another myth that comes down to framing, perceptions and a conscious need for acceptance of all types of diversity.
Different people communicate and practice an organisation’s values in different ways. In fact, as with the Friday night drinks example, I suspect you’ll find there’s already quite a bit of diversity among the ways your existing neurotypical employees live and breathe your culture. Workplace cultures need diversity to grow and thrive with your organisation — they’re never just one thing or demonstrated in a set number or type of ways. You just have to be open to letting another type of that diversity in.
3. Autistic people are poor communicators
To be completely honest, the same could be said about neurotypical people. While you might be bewildered by my mismatched facial expressions and frustrated by my detailed explanations, keep in mind that neurotypical communication styles can be pretty damn challenging for me too.
Neurotypical people don’t always communicate clearly or directly and they can be quite vague when giving instructions for example. They don’t always say what they mean and expect people to ‘read between the lines’ — something that just doesn’t come naturally for me. Engaging in office politics is considered ‘normal’ and people are often applauded for their ability to ‘play the game’. It’s incredibly confusing and stressful for autistic people to deal with this, but it doesn’t make us ‘poor communicators’. There are issues on both sides of that fence.
For me personally, I tend to communicate in a way that is precise and detailed and I tend to avoid making assumptions. This can sometimes make it hard for other people to understand what I’m saying because they’ll be looking to fill in blanks that aren’t there or my refusal to speculate on which one of the several possible pathways and outcomes will be the one that actually happens, can make me appear ‘difficult’.
An example of this would be when I’m unable to provide a definitive timeline on a task because there are a large number of dependencies that are completely out of my control e.g., other people. When this happens, I will honestly say that I’m not yet able to answer that question, but will provide an update as soon as I have one. In my experience, a neurotypical person is more likely to instead estimate a timeline based on assumptions and then hope that they can update it later if for whatever reason, something doesn’t happen. I find this very hard to do because I don’t naturally make assumptions and I struggle to predict events and human behaviour.
However, I’ve also found that when both neurotypical and autistic people come together and consciously choose to create a safe environment where people can communicate openly and with trust, these issues are usually easily resolved. For example, neurotypical people will actively look for ways to communicate clearly and openly and when they’re confused by my facial expressions they ask me what’s going on inside my head rather than automatically assuming I’m angry/confused/disagreeable etc. On the flip side — and provided I feel safe to do so — I try verbalise my thought processes and also try to talk through what’s blocking my progress to see if someone can help me out. The conversation then becomes much more productive and focuses on continuously moving forward together and equally. This is another one of those mindset based myths that can be resolved through a shift in thinking. It’s about everyone recognising that everyone is different in their own way and that we should be working to meet each other in the middle rather than trying to force a marginalised and heavily discriminated against group into line with what the majority of people deem to be ‘normal’.
4. Autistic people are immature or lack resilience
An autistic person I experience the world around me at a heightened level of intensity. I’m not going to say my world is more intense than yours because I don’t know you, but I can tell you that just leaving the house every day takes a lot of mental effort and work on my part. When compared to my carefully curated home environment, everything out there is dialled up to 11. Lighting in public places tends to be exhaustingly bright, loud and unexpected sounds can leave me feeling quite rattled and certain foods, scents and textures can have a negative impact on my wellbeing. This is all on top of the effort required to socially interact with other people in both planned and unplanned ways and across all channels (face-to-face, email, text messages, social media, phone calls etc).
When I have a meltdown — which is not another word for a bad day but rather a complete loss of emotion control in an autistic person brought on by trying to keep a grip on a world that wasn’t designed for us — I cry. Crying — or any display of emotion beyond happiness — in the workplace is usually a pretty big no-no. It’s often taken as a sign of immaturity or a lack of a resilience. People often think that if you can’t even control your own emotions, then you can’t really do anything. It didn’t take me too long in my career to figure out that telling someone — autistic or not — that they ‘lack resilience’ is all too often dressed up as support and weaponised as one of the most socially acceptable insults in the working world.
The funny thing about the crying is, it actually really helps me. There’s always a huge amount of pressure building up within me from stress, social interactions and the constant barrage of environmental stimuli that my brain is incapable of ignoring and the crying lets some of that pressure out. Meltdowns are exhausting, horrible things that leave me feeling absolutely wrecked, but when they pass, I almost always feel calmer and clearer than before.
Does the fact that sometimes my brain gets overwhelmed and makes me cry speak to my maturity level, mental strength or overall ability to do my job? No, it does not. If you knew how much energy, effort, planning, sheer strength and willpower it takes for me as an autistic person to leave the house let alone function at my fullest potential as so many autistic adults do, you’d think I was the toughest creature on the planet.
5. Autistic people can’t handle change and our organisation experiences a lot of it
Speaking of resilience. You might have also heard that autistic people have trouble dealing with change. Whenever there is a major change going down at an organisation — as there so often is — that pesky r-word (resilience) tends to pop up a lot more than usual.
While it’s true that I as an autistic person do find change to be unsettling and will often need more time than my neurotypical peers to adjust, it’s not impossible and actually depends entirely upon the behaviour of those around me.
My brain thrives on routine, stability and predictability and unfortunately these are all things that I struggle to create and maintain myself due to my autistic differences. Change can be quite rough on me, but if it’s communicated and delivered in a structured, supportive and inclusive way, I can adapt much quicker.
As I mentioned earlier, I tend to think in patterns and pathways. This is really useful in my work, but in the case of say, big organisational change, my brain can become quite overwhelmed if the proper supports aren’t in place. When I receive news of an impending change, my differently wired brain instantly charts out every possible pathway and outcome based on the information I’ve been given and I can’t always make sense of it — it can be a lot to deal with! It can be very overwhelming. I remember a time last year where I happened to visit a company office on the day of a desk reshuffle. I wasn’t part of it, but I had to sit in the middle of it while it was happening and the sheer chaos of the change going on around me broke my brain. I almost had a meltdown. I ended up going into the bathrooms and waiting 10 minutes or so for it to finish. My meltdown was averted and there was no harm in me not being there for it, so everything was fine.
It really helps if I’m told of change that affects me in a way that openly provides detailed information and gives me the chance to ask questions — not only on the spot but also after that conversation has finished because sometimes I think of things later. I understand that sometimes detailed information isn’t always available and in these cases it’s important that it’s OK and safe for me to keep quickly checking back in to see if there have been any updates. The ‘no-news is good news’ approach doesn’t work for me because I don’t make assumptions. It might work for others, but it can actually make me feel more anxious about those pathways my brain is stewing over and struggling to resolve and yep, can definitely make me look like I can’t ‘handle’ change. When communicating change to autistic people, it’s essential that you be human about it.
6. Autistic people don’t work hard enough to hide their autistic traits
Invisible disabilities are tricky. Neurological disabilities are even trickier. You can’t see it and it’s all too easy to mistake autism for rudeness, a personality clash, disrespect, immaturity and more. I can’t leave the house without my MedicAlert bracelet in case someone makes that mistake because it can put me in real danger. It’s also easy for people who are aware a person is autistic to still insist that person ‘work on’ or ‘fix’ their differences and genuinely not realise how discriminatory and ableist this is. For the record, comments like these are no different to telling a wheelchair user to ‘work on taking the stairs’.
It’s easy to assume that because autism is neurological it can be ‘trained’ out of a person, but that’s not true and it’s not OK. Autistic differences are genuine and as we discussed in my previous point, we work damn hard to find a way to thrive in this neurotypical world that wasn’t designed for us. We know we’re resented, we know there are people who find us unbearably annoying and it hurts. It really hurts. It hurts us because we often find ourselves needing to work quite hard in order to be afforded something as basic as respect, and it also hurts because we genuinely care about those around us and would never want to make another person unhappy. We’re human too.
If you find yourself thinking that autistic people are not doing enough to give you what you need, I suggest that you stop and ask yourself if there’s a chance that you’re not working hard enough to understand autistic people and meet them halfway? It’s not unreasonable to ask that everyone does their part. It’s about equality. As I mentioned earlier, try embracing all differences and look at ways for everyone to come together just as they are and work together. And besides, you seem to enjoy the benefits of that differently wired brain e.g., different thinking styles, pattern recognition, diverse problem solving skills! You’ve got to take the good with the annoying and mildly inconvenient.
7. Autism is expensive or difficult to support
The type of support I need as an autistic person in the workplace doesn’t have a price tag attached. It costs no more to hire and accommodate my differences than it does for one of my allistic peers. With the exception of a four day working week, most of my reasonable adjustment needs are social and cultural based and the only thing they will cost you is your mindset. The mindset that autistic differences are acceptable in your workplace.
I am well aware that autism stigma and stereotypes are deeply ingrained in our society as a whole. In this world, autism is seen as a problem and/or a tragedy. This world tells me every day that it’s not OK to be OK with being autistic. As I mentioned earlier — you can’t see it and it’s really easy to mistake autistic differences for something they’re not. But if you consciously stop yourself from falling into these traps and all the traps shared in this post and be open to the possibility that what you think you know about autism may not be accurate or complete, you might just be able to see how valuable we are in the workplace. Reasonable adjustment needs are a very personal and individual thing. Because no two autistic people are exactly the same, neither are our support needs. As for how much or how difficult the cost or effort of supporting it will be — that’s entirely up to you.
There are many, many more myths about autistic people in the workplace that need to be quashed. These seven are just a starting point. If you asked any other autistic person about their experiences, they’d likely have plenty more to add. I’m only one voice in an enormous community — a community that not only deserves to be heard, but also respected, believed, treated equally and met halfway. Autistic people need genuine and effective allies. We need people who are willing to stand up and challenge the myths, misconceptions and stereotypes about us to help us all change things for the better.