My Lived Experience of Autism at Work

In this article I am going to talk about and share some of the experiences I had when working with a previous employer. I hope this gives you a small insight into how the workplace environment may look and feel like to an autistic individual.

By Ben Holmes

What were the top 3 challenges you faced at work in a previous role?

Although there were many, if I had to narrow it down to three, I’d probably say inflexibility, conformance, and the actual role itself. To go further into inflexibility I mean that they would not flex the start/finish times to enable travelling in less traffic (even though it made no difference to the role), they wouldn’t relax the dress code during extreme weather (when the temperature was over 30 degrees we still had to wear trousers even though a) the other half of our team sat in the same room doing the same job could wear shorts and b) on dress down Fridays that were once a week we could wear shorts but if it was hot on any other day we had to wear trousers) and they wouldn’t alter some of their rules (such as persisting on hot desking, forcing staff to attend social gatherings and enforcement of side by side listening when other methods could have been used) even though it was proven to reduce productivity and general wellbeing by not changing, and it made no difference in a positive manner.

Examples of conformance include not allowing us to move away from our desk every hour, being monitored over toilet breaks, not being able to challenge poor decisions (even though their own company values included the word challenge!), having to wear lanyards round our necks when it wasn’t necessary, and having to take part in challenges not included in our job roles.

As for the role itself I’m referring to having to adhere to illogical call volume numbers and methods (such as keeping branches on the phone for over 8 minutes even if they were busy and not able to talk), lying to people every day about various matters, giving conflicting advice (such as promoting products to customers that they had no need for), and being put on the spot during training sessions where we were expected to learn things instantly. It was hard to be understood during all of these scenarios.

What support did your employer give you in resolving these challenges?

Regarding inflexibility they refused to entertain any changes to start/finish times as it was what they had decided to do from the start and those were the rules, they wouldn’t allow shorts to be worn during extreme weather conditions, citing individual team leader choices. They insisted that hot desking was necessary as it was a current business trend, and that no one could get out of social gatherings or side by side listening as it wouldn’t be fair on the others.

The same applied to moving away from our desks (despite proof that a clearer mind and more energy often boosts productivity) and they didn’t understand how autistic people often need time alone to recharge their batteries and decided to give the exact opposite support which was to time how long it took me. They insisted lanyards needed to be worn even when sat at the desk. Regarding the role itself it was very much a case of “this is what we’ve been told you have to do” and that was that.

What support did you need to overcome the challenges? Describe your ideal working environment.

Although I have described quite a lot of scenarios, many of these challenges could have been met, resulting in enhanced wellbeing and increased productivity. Re-evaluating company policies and more specifically individual team policies would have made a huge difference. Adopting a common sense approach to allow appropriate clothing to be worn during warmer conditions, flexing working hours even if by 30 minutes each way, scrapping hot desking and social gatherings as mandatory events for everyone, and finding other ways for management to listen to calls or measure success would have helped. If they had said we only had to wear lanyards/have them in our hands when walking through the building that would have reduced stress.

As for job role issues that they said were out of their hands, firstly they should have challenged upper management, but at least secondly they should have explained why we had to do what we had to do rather than just saying “because we’ve been told to” because that only disengages and disillusions staff, especially those on the spectrum who like to know why they are doing something because they like to have a purpose, because otherwise what’s the point?! There was no need to be put on the spot at team meetings and this could have been done better in so many ways, such as 121 support to check that information had been taken in, or written tests if appropriate.

Amongst all of this, just asking the employee what works best for them, what their preferences are, and they can be best supported goes a long way to making the experience enjoyable for everyone involved – a one size fits all approach definitely does not work when relating to autistic individuals or anyone for that matter.

Is there anything else you want to add about your lived experience of being autistic at work?

I have worked in many different environments and pretty much all of them were not suitable for my needs as an autistic person. Although things have worked out for the better and I believe that those unsuitable conditions were necessary for my “journey”, I do believe that life would have been far less stressful and I would have achieved a lot more in the workplace had a few simple changes been made and if I had been listened to. Whilst I am lucky in many ways that I was able to find my own path, I do fear for millions of others around the world who are not as fortunate, who have to do “normal” jobs in environments completely not suitable for them.

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