My Experience with Autism and Employment
One of the less clear or understood disabilities that often prevents the person from finding or holding a job is Autism Spectrum Disorder. Have you ever heard the statistic that only 20% of autistic adults are employed? This is a percentage that often gets circulated in our society, but it is suggested that this number has been increasing. The reasons for this include the rise in diagnoses in addition to the increase in remote positions as well as a greater push to employ autistic people. – Autism and Employment Statistics – Update 2023
As said in the name, this disorder is a spectrum so there are many different symptoms and varying severity of those symptoms. It is also a misunderstanding that those who are “high-functioning” don’t also have struggles with employment. I am diagnosed with autism and don’t claim to speak on behalf of everyone who shares this diagnosis. But what I can do is provide my own insights and feelings surrounding my employment experience.
Ever since my diagnosis a few months ago, I have learned that I can only work successfully and consistently under specific conditions. This list includes:
- I have to like the music that plays in the store/area
- I have to like the company well enough
- I can’t work more than three days a week (and if I work less than three days, I start to feel removed from the job and it’s harder for me go to work)
- There has to be minimal social interaction
- The lights can’t be too bright (I prefer wood or a brown colored environment. White walls, white lights burn me out very quickly)
- Little to no phone calls
- I have to be able to wear comfortable shoes
- There has to be a clear and convincing reason for me working there (sometimes money is a good enough incentive, but sometimes when the job is too stressful of an environment money is never a good enough reason)
It has taken me over a year to find another job that meets most if not all of these requirements after my remote research project ended, a grueling and incredibly disparaging experience.
For me, a lot of the difficulty lies in the fact that what is a very, very big deal to me (like the type of music that plays) is hardly a second thought to others. Since the world we live in is not generally accommodating for people with disabilities, most environments we are put in are ones that tend to cause distress in one way or another.
Most jobs require its employees to make a commitment of long-term, consistent work. They also generally require interaction with other people, whether that be coworkers or employees. They may also have loud operating equipment or bright overhead lights. These are just some of the examples that may seem insignificant or even go completely unnoticed by allistic (not autistic) or non-disabled people. But for people with disabilities, these are significant factors that can make or break employment. I will go into more detail into these categories and how they can be a struggle.
While on their own, some of these may seem manageable, and could be manageable in moderation. But when they are together with numerous other factors on a regular basis, it can lead to burnout which can cause someone to resign or be let go from their job.
A significant part that makes up our environment are the five senses: taste, touch, sight, smell, and sound. The following examples of how sensory issues affect me and other autistic people may seem trivial, but we are more sensitive to these factors. And the sensory input can build up very quickly and easily. I’ve found that if I’m not highly aware of my state and dismiss my sensory overload, it can trigger a meltdown that leaves me exhausted for a day or two.
An important fact to keep in mind while reading the following points is that autistic people have reduced neural habituation. This means that, as opposed to allistic people, our physiological or emotional response to a frequently repeated stimulus doesn’t decrease. In fact, it can actually increase which is why we can seem so sensitive and obsessive about a repeating noise when allistic people are able to tune it out. And trying to hide this reality at work is an exhausting feat.- Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders
Taste: In a general sense, food is often a significant part of the environment of a job. Whether that be the industry, you’re working, or just going out to eat with the workers it can be a source of discomfort. Many people don’t understand what it entails when an autistic person says that they do not like a certain food. Usually this is followed with something like, “Well, have you even tried it yet? You don’t know unless you try.”
I can understand where people are coming from when they say this, but in my case, I can almost always tell right away if I’m going to like something or not. And even if I can’t, I am aware of my energy levels enough to know when I’m in a position to be comfortable trying a new food or not. It can turn uncomfortable pretty quickly when no one respects your decision to not try a certain food for all parties involved. For me, if this was a significant part of my job, there would be a high, high likelihood that I would not last longer than a month from emotional distress and discomfort of having this interaction over and over again.
Touch: Certain textures give me chills and leave me with an uncomfortable, painful feeling in my body for moments after. I’ve learned that I have to immediately make another sound that is more soothing over and over again until the pain is gone.
Sight: Bright lights are a huge drain on my energy levels and, accompanied by various other environmental disruptors, would require me to recover for a day or two before being able to go back into work. And environments where there are flashing lights are out of the question.
Smell: The number of times I’ve had to breathe out of my mouth because of someone’s perfume or had to eat in the bathroom to avoid a strong smell from someone’s meal is laughable. For me, this isn’t enough to quit, but it’s one more obstacle I have to face at work that others don’t have to.
Sound: At my current job, there are loud beeping noises that happen regularly at work that always make me jump and hurt my ears. I’m immediately embarrassed because I’m always the only one that has such a disproportionate and dramatic reaction to the sound. This is just something I have to make a conscious effort to work through. This is on the smaller scale, but there are numerous other positions that require exposure to loud noises, like construction, for example, that might be an industry that would be completely ruled out as a career option.
My social issues are one of my biggest inhibitors when it comes to finding a job. When a job requires a high social interaction, like customer service, I become burned out very quickly. It’s unfortunate because customer service jobs are the most common remote jobs. So, even though I could eliminate my sensory issues by having a remote customer service job, I would have to work directly and constantly with customers. This outweighs all of the sensory issues combined, in my case, thus making it a completely unviable option.
The elements that are difficult in social interactions are small talk, eye contact, awkward pauses, figuring out topics of conversation, and multitasking. Conversing becomes ten times more difficult when I have to be doing something else while having a conversation. And oftentimes, not making eye contact is considered rude. So, I have to force myself to hold eye contact longer than I’m comfortable with.
Another element of social interactions that I struggle with is that my intense sense of social justice is very often triggered in my conversations. Autistic people often have an unwavering sense of right or wrong and often view the world in black and white. In a world where almost nothing makes sense to us, we attempt to understand it better by interpreting and adhering to the social rules the best we can. The problem is almost nobody actually follows the rules which leaves me feeling incredibly frustrated.
My sense of justice is also triggered when people behave poorly. This violates the rule that you should behave in a friendly way in public. I have to make a conscious effort to control my emotional reaction to this particular trigger.
The concept of social positions is also a difficult one for me, as well as many other autistic people. I don’t naturally feel a sense of the relationship that is employee and customer or employee and employer. And I don’t feel a sense that someone I don’t know is a stranger. We’re all just people to me. But since my autism diagnosis, I’ve learned that not everyone thinks like that at all. So, that’s another mental effort that I have to constantly remind myself of because it can get me into difficult situations.
Often times I have a problem taking on problems that coworkers or customers share with me about themselves. While some people with autism don’t experience emotional feelings as intensely, which is often the stereotype, my emotional reaction is on the completely opposite extreme end.
Social interactions with a topic of a particularly difficult nature will leave me completely drained and often lead to a meltdown. I’m not entirely sure why, but part of it, I assume, is because it’s full of grey and I see the world in black and white. I don’t understand how something that is objectively “bad” in my opinion can also create some good, for example. So the mental effort to grapple with how messy situations can get leaves me feeling exhausted.
There are lots of things that people can do to help understand or accommodate autistic people in the work place and just in life in general. Understanding that lack of eye contact does not equate to disrespect among neurodivergent people, especially those with autism, is incredibly important. As well as minimizing strong-smelling food when you’re around someone with autism, not forcing them to try a new food, letting them wear noise-canceling headphones, and answering all of their questions they may have are a great start.
And overall, keep your mind open to learning knew things and understand that autistic people have a completely different neurotype which means that, while our behavior can look similar to allistic people’s behavior, the meaning and intent can be entirely different.