5 Challenges of an Autistic person in the Workplace
“Opinions expressed are solely my own based on experiences at my workplace and do not express the views or opinions of autloud.ie. or my employer”
Dealing with unnecessary last-minute changes
A lot of what I do at work can be summarised in the word “organising”. Organising projects, meetings, information, feedback, surveys, etc. I spend a significant amount of time making sure everything is right. I make sure I ask for the stakeholders’ opinions, input, and feedback where necessary and normally give them a deadline at which I need to know something so I can make sure I have time to work on the changes.
Conversations happen without me being included and suddenly something that I have spent hours working on needs to be changed. Sometimes I can see how the change is beneficial or it is explained to me, but a considerable amount of times it is not clear, logical, without a reason, and seems more to be a personal preference than an actual need. It can also happen that I have moved on from this task and do not have more allocated time to work on the changes, which then causes a snowball of other changes such as rescheduling meetings, coming to meetings unprepared (no time for scripting), or having to move planned tasks to deal with the change.
Dealing with unplanned changes causes additional anxiety and the use of energy/spoons that I have not accounted for.
Taking people at face value
Most autistic people rate their need for honesty very highly, both on how they conduct themselves and how other people communicate with them. If you ask me a question you will get an honest answer, and sometimes too honest. As it is very unlikely that I will conceal information on purpose, I can never conceive of the idea that someone else would do it to me. If we work together and you commit to doing something, I will take that at face value. The reality is, people lie, and a lot. People rarely mean what they say and their word has very little value.
I approach any new relationship openly and give people the benefit of the doubt. Most of the time, I give people several chances. Unfortunately, once my trust is broken, it is very difficult to get that back.
Figuring out who is talking during a video call
We can all agree that hours on video calls take their toll. But it is a different ball game when you need to keep track of minutes and actions out of these calls and you struggle to recognize people’s voices. This can change by the day, some days I am doing pretty well and some others not well at all.
If I am in a small group of people that I know well, I do not have any problem telling who is who from their voice. But if the group grows to 20-25 persons, it all gets jumbled up in my head.
I am not Irish and English is not my first language. In my ears, all the people with Irish accents sound similar, all the people with English accents sound similar. If you are from somewhere else and you are a minority on the call, don’t worry, I will be able to keep track of your voice! Sometimes, I bluntly tell people to use the “Raise your hand” function available in Microsoft Teams but that doesn’t mean they will do it.
Regulating tone of voice
I have always struggled with the tone and volume of my voice. Especially when I am out of my standard emotional estate, “content”. Doesn’t matter what emotion is at play: happiness, excitement, sadness, worry, anger, or stress, the voice control goes out the window. I will sound argumentative and defensive and I don’t know how loud I am being (I’ve never been a quiet voice person). I do not have a clue what my voice is doing, I don’t know what it represents to neurotypical people and what emotions or intentions people are presuming I am communicating.
Managing facial expressions
There are assumptions made about how people feel based on their outward behaviour and body language. Autistic people’s facial expressions do not always mean what non-autistic people believe. So making assumptions and getting emotions involved in this assessment will certainly lead to mistakes. The first time I heard that there was an “issue” with my facial expressions was at my autism assessment debriefing. As part of the report after the assessment appointment, the Clinical Psychologist mentioned that my gestures (hand movements) are well adjusted to what I am talking about but not my facial expressions. That my facial expressions didn’t match what I was saying. I couldn’t believe this, but so many incidents in my life were starting to make sense. My mother used to tell me constantly to “change that face” and I didn’t know what she meant but she wouldn’t explain.
I was 32 and no one had ever mentioned this to me. I asked my husband if he thought the same as the Psychologist and he corroborated that this was the case, but as I have been doing it since he met me (5.5 years before this), he never mentioned it as he didn’t want to hurt my feelings. Then I asked a close friend at work and I got the same answer. “You have always done this since I met you, I found it strange at first, but then I got used to it”.
Of course, not everyone is that forgiving. A few months later a co-worker highlighted to my manager that sometimes I make facial expressions that make them feel uncomfortable and that I frequently “look angry”. This led me to disclose at my workplace. As a result, I haven’t used the webcam in months. I am too self-conscious that I can not control what my face does and how other people will interpret it.
If you have autistic team members, please analyze how your actions affect their day-to-day wellbeing.
- If you need to ask for changes to their work, ask yourself if they are really needed and if you explained clearly what you need and why.
- Up your honesty around autistic people as they wholeheartedly will appreciate being certain where they stand.
- Make it easier for them to follow conversations in big groups, raise your hand or repeat your name before you start talking so they can switch their attention to you.
- Be comfortable around people that communicate differently to you, they are not trying to be mean/impolite and consider that they are preserving energy to enjoy their personal lives outside of work.