Why Being Autistic in the Workplace is Hard

Becca Lory Hector, Director of Training
Blog Post

Stigma, bias, and ableism are three of the biggest obstacles facing Autistic people at work, and I am no exception. I am an openly Autistic DEIB professional and the director of training at AANE, and, in an effort to educate and create equity in our workplaces for other Neurodivergent and otherwise disabled people, I often take a beating in the ableism department on a personal level. Especially difficult weeks usually end in physical pain, a ton of imposter syndrome, and an intense wave of depression.

In my professional roles, I am tasked with putting on a brave face and pushing aside the personal pain, discomfort, and overwhelm that I experience in an effort to educate, advocate, and change the way that the world perceives Autistic humans. My work roles are physically and emotionally taxing. They also require a certain amount of emotional vulnerability that is an additional drain. All of which is simply part of my job because I teach from a place of “When you know better, you can do better.”

On most occasions, those that I am teaching don’t know what they don’t know. As a result, I often find myself in situations where I experience “unintentional harm” from the very group I am being asked to work with. Simply by being unknowledgeable on the topics of autism, neurodiversity, and disability, a well-meaning crowd can easily exhibit microaggressions, express bias, and/or use outdated, harmful language that can be a trigger for many, me included. It is the “disability tax” I pay to do my job and live my purpose.

Sometimes I need to just give into those feelings of exhaustion and sadness. I will often just do nothing but “stare at the wall” for a few days. This allows me the space I need to decompress and look inward to process where the yuck is coming from. I stare at the wall contemplating the damage that microaggressions cause or how hard it is to be seen and heard in this loud world, and sometimes I even wonder if it’s all worth it…if all of the energy I put into advocacy and education is moving our community forward at all. Will the world ever understand the Autistic perspective and respect our way of being as valid?

My current advocacy battlefield is the world of work.

Neurodivergent folk make excellent employees. We are notoriously honest, loyal, and hardworking. But the workplace can be a real challenge for us when our natural way of communicating isn’t understood or when the Autistic perspective is ignored. In order to sustain work, we need flexibility in our workplaces that respect and value Autistic culture, but more than that, we need flexibility in the thinking of those we work with.

For example, Autistic communication is often misunderstood in the workplace. Our directness can be received as rude. Our passion can be experienced as “too much.” Our honesty is often seen as a weakness. But the worst misunderstanding about communication differences, and the one that makes us feel most gaslit, is when our clarifying questions are misinterpreted as “challenging authority.” And it happens all the time.

For some reason, asking for “the why” is viewed as an attempt to challenge authority according to neurotypical social standards for the workplace. However, for Autistics, knowing why we are doing something is essential to our ability to complete the task. Our intention is not to challenge authority or disrespect our colleagues with clarifying questions. Autistics are simply asking for more information. We need the context and all the details, the why included, in order to fully understand what is being asked of us. Clarifying questions are necessary for good communication in truly neurodiverse environments, and their purpose is to make sure that instructions have been understood and interpreted correctly. Yet all too often our efforts are met with misunderstanding, and sometimes even negative repercussions.

Masking, or social camouflaging, has become the most common social strategy for many, if not all, Neurodivergent people to circumvent all of that social confusion. But it is also a learned trauma response. For most of our lives, whether directly or indirectly, Autistics are told that our natural state of being is “wrong.” This begins for many of us at school age and continues well into adulthood and into the workplace. In an effort to survive, we learn to mimic the ways of the neuromajority.

Whether it is fear of unconscious bias, stereotypes, & stigma, the desire to connect with colleagues, concern about mistreatment and/or unfavorable consequences, eagerness to succeed or be promoted, or in search of belonging, Autistics learn through trial and error that masking can temporarily save you the pain. But while masking is often successful, even the best maskers amongst us succumb to burnout over time. For Autistics, masking can mean quicker, less risky exchanges. But in the long term, masking is an unhealthy, unsustainable coping mechanism that causes immeasurable mental distress.

What masking looks like varies from Autistic to Autistic to Autistic. It can include forcing or faking eye contact, minimizing our interests, repeating memorized social scripts, tolerating sensory discomfort, or mimicking styles and gestures. It is so much more WORK. Yes, masking is not only unhealthy, it also adds to our workload. Bottom line, masking is NOT sustainable for Autistic folk, but most of us don’t feel safe to unmask in a workplace setting.

Being Autistic in the workplace is hard. There I said it. We can do it, but it is exhausting, and it is not an equitable experience. While masking and communication inequality are two common issues for Autistics at work, they are not the only ones. Workplaces are structured in favor of sameness: everyone working the same hours, from the same places, doing the same thing, the same way. Current workplaces demand we leave our humanity – and autism – at home, and that makes workplaces a nightmare for those of us who are different. If we are honest, this workplace sameness routine doesn’t work for anyone, and the time has come for our workplaces to reflect the reality of being human, which not only helps Autistic employees, but everyone.

Organizations need to think about creating truly inclusive workplace cultures while designing their policies and procedures around the concepts of universal design. Fortunately, there are a lot of ways to begin to shift an organization’s functioning so that it is a truer reflection of the collective values, beliefs, practices, and actions of ALL of its members. When we make these shifts, we see improved job satisfaction, higher productivity rates, and we gain the ability to capitalize on the differing strengths of the entire staff. For example, when we add remote and hybrid work options, along with flex scheduling, that flexibility creates equity. Since communication is a challenge when differing neurotypes collaborate, create clear and reliable procedures around inter-organizational communication. Scheduling regular feedback sessions with all employees is a great way to begin. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, representation matters. Organizational leadership must reflect the diversity of the staff, as well as its customers or stakeholders.

It is my mission, my job, and my purpose to change the landscape of employment for Neurodivergent folks and for the greater disability community. I realize that I have chosen to fight an uphill battle which has already left me with war wounds, but I know we deserve more from our workplaces than what we are currently being served. And so, with each social media post I schedule, and in every meeting that I sit in, I put on my brave face, push aside my personal pain, discomfort, and overwhelm because I truly believe that if I educate, advocate, and speak loud enough, I can change the way that the world perceives Autistic humans.