Discussions about autistic people at work often focus on the negative, with a large emphasis on the fact that it's often hard for folks on the spectrum to get jobs that match their qualifications and skill sets — or jobs at all. No matter what statistics you look at, or from what country, you'll see that autistic people are far less likely than others to be employed and employed full-time, and more likely to be underemployed.
What struggles do autistic people face in the workplace?
Knowing what struggles other autistic people have dealt with at work can help you get a better picture of what you might be in for, and potentially how to avoid the same challenges. Research reveals that:
- Fifty-five percent of employed autistic people report "communication issues" with coworkers and other people they interact with in the workplace. These include trouble processing verbal information and instructions, difficulties in deciphering implicit information (expressed so subtly autistic people don't understand, expressed through body language, or using metaphors), and misunderstandings.
- Forty-five percent experienced high levels of stress and anxiety at work.
- Many autistic people run into executive functioning issues while at work. These can include finding it hard to manage time, having trouble multitasking, or difficulties adapting to sudden changes.
Thinking about your ideal workplace — or just one that isn't a total horror
Some things to consider when envisioning your dream job include:
- Socially, some autistic people will prefer working with raw ideas, problems, or objects rather than people. Depending on their skills and passions, they may be happy working from home (or "telecommuting — which can involve a lot of social interaction, but without the physical presence of people's bodies) wherever possible, working in workshops or labs away from the general public, or working in small companies with few employees.
- On the other hand, other autistic people are happy in jobs that involve a lot of contact with people. One study included a comment from an autistic tour guide, for instance, who loved their job because they could share their knowledge by means of a predetermined script. The job required little social improvisation, allowing the person to use their knowledge without being forced into social interactions of the kind that made them uncomfortable.
- On a sensory level, you may require a job that doesn't feature bright lights, loud sounds, or lots of people coming in and out.
- As far as executive functioning goes, you may prefer a job that has set routines, or you may do well in a job where you have support to get you started on new tasks.
Should you tell potential employers you're autistic?
This is a real dilemma and something to think about seriously. Disclosing that you are on the spectrum may give you access to support of the kind that you may either really need or that means you can thrive in the workplace rather than struggling. It can also, depending on where you live, give you legal protection under disability discrimination laws. On the other hand, it can also induce social stigma that may make working at your job harder, or even cause you not to be hired (despite the fact that this is illegal in many jurisdictions). Some autistic people therefore choose not to disclose, and instead hope to be seen as "a bit quirky".
Remember that a growing number of adults is being diagnosed as being on the spectrum now. Many of these people have had careers (successful or less successful) for many years or decades before their diagnosis came along. These people could not disclose a diagnosis they didn't yet have. If this is you, you may decide to talk about the fact that you're autistic in the future, either at a new job or at your current job, or you may not.
How can you manage social interactions at work?
Once you've landed that job, you could try some things to make social interactions easier:
- Observe the workplace culture carefully before jumping in to really participate in social interactions.
- Ask people you know for tips about specific situations you're not sure about.
- Sometimes, a mentor can be helpful. So-called autism-friendly workplaces may make these available.
- When in doubt — ask.
- Often, if you excel at your actual job, this makes it easier to get away with being "a bit weird" socially.
- Some autistic people tell their co-workers that they have social anxiety (which is true, just not their actual diagnosis) to avoid participating in after-hours events or small talk.
A final word
Research has identified some core strengths in autistic workers — and you might have them, too:
- The ability to hyperfocus on a task for a long period of time — not giving up until the job is done. Research reveals that autistic people almost always list this as one of their strengths in the workplace, and it's a trait employers will value.
- Organizational and leadership qualities and an extraordinary attention to detail are other potential strengths that will work well in many jobs.
- Attention to detail is a great advantage in a broad range of jobs.
- In some jobs, typically autistic communication styles like "saying it like it is" and staying away from small talk are rather beneficial.
- Autistic people can bring creativity to the table that neurotypical individuals may lack.
- Furthermore, autistic people have been shown to have higher levels of empathy towards animals and other neurodiverse or marginalized people.