In my previous article, I gave some tips on getting a job as a person on the autistic spectrum. But what about when you’ve secured a job? How do you keep it? Work is hard for the majority of people and for autistic people, despite the skills, knowledge and positive attributes autistic people bring to a workplace, it can be particularly challenging and be filled with barriers to overcome.
The main issues with employment arise when employers don’t recognise these barriers or subsequently attempt to remove them.
The main reasons that people with autism may struggle at work are:
- Anxiety about change
- Difficulty dealing with change
- Work environment
- Lack of awareness
If you’ve had a job before, it’s likely that before starting the job you had to complete and array of admin tasks – all of which can be overwhelming and require significant organisation. Signing contracts, providing bank details, national insurance number, background checks completing forms etc…. If you’ve never done these tasks before, it can be really hard knowing where to start and how to find all the information.
I remember when I started my job in the warehouse, I found it really stressful having to source all the information for the forms. I found that the best way to do it was to create a checklist and focus on one point at a time rather than trying to do it all at once. I now keep all the important documents and information in one place to make the process a lot easier in the future.
Anxiety about change and issues coping with change
Autistic people tend to really struggle with change. This is because they use routines and rituals to try and cope with the chaos and distress of everyday life. Keeping things the same gives some sense of control. A new environment can really disrupt this. For my most recent job, I work remotely meaning there were a lot fewer changes to contend with.
Before employment autistic people might have lots of questions such as:
- What will I do as soon as I arrive at work?
- What will my colleagues be like?
- What will the work environment be like?
- Will I have to stay overtime?
- When will my breaks be?
- What if I get overwhelmed?
The list goes on and it can be very easy to get stuck in a cycle of overthinking about these things. When I started my job, the thing I was most worried about is what the actual job would be like. I was lucky in the fact that my partner at the time started at the same time as me, which gave some form of sameness and comfort as we were in it together. Additionally, the first week was classroom based and gave us a really good introduction to the job and gentle easing into the warehouse work.
Something that can be done beforehand is to request that employers give (if they haven’t already) clear guidance on what can be expected in the job role, working hours, what the general day to day structure is like etc. You could even ask for an opportunity to visit the workplace prior to starting to be introduced to colleagues and the environment. This can really help with visualising what the day and routine will be like in order to aid the transition.
Settling into the new job and environment can be really hard however there are some things that can aid the transition.
- Ensuring people know your preferred method of communication. If you prefer written instructions or instructions given separately then tell people!
- Develop a plan for how you are going to prioritise certain tasks.
- Sometimes it can be useful to ask for the personal profiles of colleagues. In the most recent job I had, we had to all create personal profiles with key facts about how we communicated and what we found annoying.
- Some employers may offer mentors to give support.
- Ask for clear guidelines on what the rules are and what is ‘acceptable’.
For example, I always thought that the half an hour break at the warehouse started from when you left the chill but it turns out that the majority of people started it after going to the toilet and sitting down with food. This is an example of something that is ‘acceptable’.
For many people, it is the work environment rather than the actual job that causes the most issues. This can be due to sensory problems. Many people with autism are more sensitive to sensory input than other people. Things like lighting, noise, smells and temperature can all cause sensory overload. One of the issues I have is having a conversation with someone when there is a lot of background noise as my brain seems to focus on the background noise rather than the person talking which can be problematic when being given instruction in a noisy environment as none of it goes in. I was quite lucky in my job as I find that a way to reduce overstimulation for me is exercise and my job required me to constantly be on the move.
If I was in an office space I think I would really struggle to work. I’m in the library at uni now, on the quietest floor yet there is still too much noise for me. Sniffing, clicking, typing etc… Luckily I have headphones.
Sometimes employers will be proactive. For example, if you work in a shop that gets busy, they may move you to a quieter area. Sometimes it’s important for you to be able to respond to your needs yourself or let your employer know that you are struggling. I used to start making a lot of mistakes in the warehouse when I got bored because my brain couldn’t process the information anymore so I would get moved to a different role.
It is standard for employers to provide opportunity for feedback and this is a great time to tell them what’s working and what isn’t.
Lack of understanding
Often, if colleagues don’t know that there is a reason for your peculiarities caused by autism then they may just label you as weird or misunderstand you and develop friction. Autism is called a hidden disability for a reason – many people don’t know that you are autistic until you tell them. If employees don’t have understanding of the condition, you will potentially lack the support you need from others. There are many unwritten rules in the workplace that can be hard to grasp. These rules vary, so it can be good to talk them through with someone. Additionally, many workplace break times involve a lot of smalltalk – which can be hard to grasp but some good topics of conversation are:
- The weather
- Plans or the evening
It’s a good rule of thumb to avoid controversial topics such as politics or money.
If you can, it could be a good idea to provide your employer with some information to give to colleagues about how your autism effects you. Most workplaces offer disability awareness courses as well.
In my opinion, it is a good idea to disclose autism to an employer as they will the have certain duties to you. The main law that is relevant to you is the Equality Act 2010. It requires promotion of opportunity for disabled people. It means that you shouldn’t be discriminated against based on you disability and should be treated equally and fairly.
It also means that you should be given reasonable adjustments.
Reasonable adjustments are changes that employers make in order to best help you carry out your role. They can include:
- Having your own desk.
- Enforcing a policy that avoids people being noisy near your workstation.
- Agreeing an alternative dress code due to sensory sensitivities.
- Allowing flexible hours.
- Allowing noise cancelling headphones.
- Allowing you to start early and finish later to avoid rush hour.
- Putting communications in writing.
- Being given advanced notice regarding changes.
- Extra training.
Some useful resources:
You may be entitled to extra financial support as an autistic person in employment: https://www.gov.uk/financial-help-disabled
practical and financial support can be provided to help you start or stay in work https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/access-to-work-factsheet/access-to-work-factsheet-for-customers
Equality act 2010 https://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2010/15/contents
Free advice on workplace rules and rights https://www.acas.org.uk