What Autistic Employees Actually Want Their Coworkers to Know and Do

What Autistic Employees Actually Want Their Coworkers to Know and Do was originally published on The Muse, a great place to research companies and careers. Click here to search for great jobs and companies near you.

I learned the art of instant personality change early in my career. As a bookstore manager in my early 20s, I would morph from a quiet loner-with-a-book into an outgoing, social person-in-charge each time I walked through the glass doors of the store. Later, when I walked out, I’d transform back into my mousy, introverted self with a sigh of relief.

At the time, I didn’t know this daily transformation had a name: autistic masking. In fact, I didn’t even know I was autistic then. All I knew was that to do my job, I had to show up as somebody different.

Autistic people communicate, socialize, and process information differently from nonautistic people. Our tolerance for sensory input is often limited. Every minute, we’re running a thousand calculations about tone, emotions, stimuli, facial expressions, language, and social expectations. It’s exhausting.

Personally, I’ve found disclosing my autistic identity to be a way to start a conversation about this extra work and how my colleagues can help. Unfortunately, disclosure is tricky. Misconceptions about autism abound (e.g., autism only affects children). And well-meaning people often say unintentionally harmful things (e.g., “You don’t look autistic!”).

Each time we disclose, we prepare ourselves to be met with ignorance and stigma. Because research has shown that despite awareness campaigns, dehumanizing attitudes persist toward autistic people, and nonautistic people perceive the vast majority of stereotypical traits associated with autism as negative.

Many autistic people inadvertently become experts at autistic masking (also known as camouflaging) to “pass” as “normal” among their coworkers. Sometimes masking is conscious—as when I attempt to hold eye contact during conversation. And other times, masking is unconscious—as when I quiet my repetitive gestures to meet social expectations. Masking can make it easier to fit in at work. But masking behaviors take a profound toll on autistic people, in my experience causing self-alienation. Early research also shows a correlation between persistent masking and depression, anxiety, burnout, and thoughts of suicide.

Autistic people often absorb the narrative that autism is pathological—a disorder needing a cure. We assume it’s our personal responsibility to “fix” our behavior in social or work settings. However, nonautistic people also share the responsibility to create more comfortable workplaces for everyone.

Considering the lengths to which many autistic people go to survive the workplace daily, I think it’s worth asking: What can nonautistic people do to meet autistic colleagues halfway?

Give us different ways to communicate and more time to process.

Many autistic people experience difficulty with verbal communication and processing. So instead of defaulting to a phone call or a face-to-face meeting, consider putting a question or new idea in writing first; it can help autistic people give it their full attention. Susan Boles, an autistic finance and operations consultant, told me she appreciates how her colleagues—many of whom are also neurodivergent—default to written communication rather than live meetings.

Of course, sometimes you just have to have a meeting. In that case, it’s helpful to have an agenda that includes any questions or challenges to be discussed ahead of time. Even then, build in some quiet time after raising a question or idea, so everyone has a chance to get their thoughts together. If it’s a virtual meeting, give comments shared in the chat the same weight as those shared aloud.

Decisions might take a little longer to reach, but a more inclusive discussion leads to greater consensus and better results.

Using a whiteboard during a brainstorming session or sending a follow-up email after a meeting also helps to make sure anyone with communication differences is in the loop. “Some people think if they ‘told’ me aloud that is good enough, but I need the visual cueing [or] reminder,” says Morénike Giwa Onaiwu, an autistic educator, writer, and activist.

Decisions might take a little longer to reach, but a more inclusive discussion leads to greater consensus and better results.

Consider your contribution to sensory overstimulation.

The modern workplace–whether in person or virtual—is a hornet’s nest of sensory stimulation: overlapping conversations, mingling lunch aromas, multiple apps vying for attention, background noise on an unmuted mic. For me, sound is a significant issue, and it’s nearly impossible to focus on a conversation when I can hear another conversation (or a song). For others, visual, physical, and olfactory stimulation can disrupt their focus or even cause a shutdown.

Many autistic people find ways to cope with overstimulation, including Shannon Collins, a wedding photographer. Even in a raucous wedding reception, they say, they can wear earplugs to control sound and stim (i.e., engage in repetitive motions or other self-stimulating behaviors that help to deal with outside stress) “by moving around and ‘dancing’” without being perceived as out of place.

If you’re not sure? It’s more than OK to ask.

But not every source of sensory stimulation is easy to cope with. You can help by assessing whether the scents you wear, the music you play, or the place you take a call might make it more difficult for others to do their work. Find a quiet place to hop on Zoom or mute your mic if there’s background noise. Don’t expect an instant response to non-urgent communication. Recognize that interruptions can derail us in profound ways. And if you’re not sure? It’s more than OK to ask.

Assume the best.

Autistic people are often nervous about being perceived as odd or rude at work. Some of our earliest memories might be learning that we’re just not quite normal. “We get little, weird mocking comments. We get told to stop squirming in our seat, you know, to make eye contact, to pay attention, even if we actually are paying attention,” Devon Price, psychologist and author of Unmasking Autism: Discovering the New Faces of Neurodiversity, told NPR’s Life Kit.

Nonautistic people can perceive our natural differences as standoffish or rude. And we fear being labeled that way. But the self-monitoring required to avoid those labels is exhausting. I’m not rude or standoffish, but my natural presentation can run counter to a narrow definition of what’s “polite.” If you assume that not making eye contact is rude, you’re going to perceive me as rude. Instead, if you accept that eye contact isn’t necessary, you won’t perceive me as rude.

By questioning your assumptions about what’s expected or polite, you can recognize the diverse ways we present ourselves as valid.

By questioning your assumptions about what’s expected or polite, you can recognize the diverse ways we present ourselves as valid. Collins prefers to keep their camera off to listen in and take notes during Zoom meetings, for instance. But nonautistic people often interpret that behavior as a sign that they’re disengaged or don’t consider the meeting a priority.

Onaiwu and I both tend to jump right into the topic at hand rather than wading in slowly with small talk. For many people, small talk might be an effective way to establish an initial connection or demonstrate care. But we tend to connect best around the substance of a meeting. And not engaging in small talk doesn’t mean I don’t care. It just means I show care in different ways.

Above all, don’t take your experience for granted.

Reconsider what “normal” really is. That’s the advice diversity, equity, and inclusion coach Erica Courdae always gives. If you assume an experience is normal or universal, it’s hard to see how someone else might experience things differently. If nonautistic people don’t assume the “rules” of work are apparent or universally beneficial, then autistic people can be part of the conversation to determine the best way forward for everyone. Of course, that goes for all types of diverse identities and backgrounds!

We invest so much time and energy learning how to function in the nonautistic world. What will you do to learn how to operate in a world that welcomes autistic people?

In her book, The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters, Priya Parker suggests using “pop-up rules” to establish specific expectations for a given situation. Instead of relying on unspoken etiquette, which separates the in-group from the out-group, articulate explicit standards for behavior levels the playing field. You might establish meeting guidelines that include the invitation to turn off one’s camera to promote focus. Or encourage participants to share questions or comments in the chat to allow for easier participation. Or even schedule a time to talk about non-agenda topics before a meeting begins to promote free choice around socializing.

Yes, questioning your assumptions and expectations in this way “takes more work than relating to a nonautistic person,” Jim Sinclair, an early autism-rights activist, said in a 1993 autism conference presentation. “But it can be done—unless nonautistic people are far more limited than we are in their capacity to relate. We spend our entire lives doing it.” We invest so much time and energy learning how to function in the nonautistic world. What will you do to learn how to operate in a world that welcomes autistic people?

By Tara McMullin - The Muse
The Muse
Expert advice to answer your career questions.