I was diagnosed with an Autism Spectrum Disorder in April last year at the age of 29. While I am still the exact same person I was before my diagnosis, finding out why I think the way I do has opened up a whole world of possibilities for me. Finding that missing piece of my identity has allowed me to maximize my strengths and deal with my challenges more effectively.
My workplace is aware of my neurodiversity and they have been fantastic! The UX (User Experience) community as a whole has also been wonderfully accepting and supportive. I feel incredibly grateful to belong to such an inclusive workplace and be part of a professional industry that simply sees me a human being with just as much to give as everyone else. But it’s important to recognise not everyone has this and that has to change. The autistic person in your workplace has a lot to offer and with some very small adjustments, you will gain enormous value. This is for everyone- managers, directors, juniors and middle of the road people such as myself. We are all responsible for inclusion. Here are 7 things the autistic person in your workplace needs you to do:
1. ACCEPT AND UNDERSTAND THAT NO TWO AUTISTIC PEOPLE ARE THE SAME
It’s called a spectrum for a reason. The autism spectrum isn’t a straight line of severity of symptoms. Instead, think of it as a highly detailed colour wheel as shown in my very high level diagram below.
Every small curved rectangular segment of each colour slice of the wheel represents an autistic trait. The black dots show how an individual’s personal configuration of autistic traits might look. There’s a whole spectrum of building blocks that make us who we are. No two autistic people have the exact same set of blocks, but we have our similarities because all of our blocks came from the same place. Always remember, if you’ve met one autistic person- you’ve met ONE autistic person.
2. DITCH THE ASSUMPTIONS AND THE STEREOTYPES
Don’t think because I’m a successful adult female that communicates verbally that my existence is ‘mild’ or that I ‘don’t seem that autistic’ to you. That is insulting to both me and every other autistic person on the planet. I know you’re just trying to understand and have probably heard a number of things about autism over the years, but instead of assuming what it means to be autistic, just ask. If in doubt- see dot point number 1.
3. ASK HOW WE WOULD LIKE TO BE REFERRED TO
I’ve deliberately been using the term ‘autistic’ in this piece because I prefer to use identity first language. This means I say “I am autistic” instead of “I have autism”. Being autistic means my brain is different and I was born with that brain. Autism is an integral piece of who I am — it’s not something I carry around in my purse with me and it’s certainly not something I’m afflicted with. For me, it is a state of being rather than a state of having. I also identify with the terms ‘Asperger’s’ and the more informal ‘Aspie’ because that is what they used to call Autism Spectrum Disorder Level 1 up until March 2013 and I don’t agree with the change (story for another day). That’s how I would like to be referred to, but everyone is different so it’s important to ask.
4. BE OPEN TO HAVING A CONVERSATION TO DISCUSS OUR NEEDS
Many people ask me for advice on how to best support and help an autistic person in their workplace. My answer is always the same- just be open to having the conversation. Our needs are a very individual thing. It depends on a number of factors including but not limited to our work environment and our personal history and circumstances. Be prepared for the possibility that we don’t need anything but also be open to revisiting the conversation in the future should our needs change. The key is to be open and willing to listen.
5. GIVE US THE FLEXIBILITY TO CUSTOMISE OUR WORKING ENVIRONMENT
Sensory overload is an ugly thing that messes with our overall wellbeing, breaks our focus and kills our ability to be even remotely productive. Part of being autistic means that we have sensory differences — we feel things either significantly more intensely or significantly less intensely. Sensory overload occurs when one (or more!) of those sensory differences is overwhelmed and it becomes impossible to think or focus. It actually hurts us. In my case,I am very sensitive to heat, light, sound and some textures (raw meat, cotton wool buds and dishwater). On the flip side, I have a very high threshold for physical pain and abstract art, bright clashing prints and most textures have a calming effect on me.
In the workplace this means the noise from an open plan office can be overwhelming but I can’t exactly hide away in an office somewhere because I need to interact with my colleagues to do my job. I wear noise cancelling over ear headphones that block out the sound when I need to concentrate and they also communicate to my colleagues that I am deeply focussed on something and they give me the space I need. Activity Based Working (ABW) environments are also quite challenging for autistic people due to the constant change, so I have a fixed desk. I still pack it up every day like every other person in the office but I get to return to the same spot each day when I’m working from the office. That desk is in a very carefully chosen location: no morning sun, purple walls, no direct overhead light and it’s next to a window. I am currently working in the consulting space but working from a client site is actually ok for me. Even though it’s a new location, it’s like travelling- transient by nature. Home base is what needs to be stable and getting that fixed desk made a drastic improvement to my productivity. It used to take me about an hour to settle each morning which meant staying back an hour later to get my work done. Now I am settled in under 5 minutes which is better for everyone. Talk to the autistic person in your workplace to find out if small changes to their working environment will help them.
6. HELP US TO MAXIMISE OUR STRENGTHS AND DON’T PLACE LIMITATIONS ON US
I have two major skills: the ability build other skills and a sharp analytical mind that pieces together seemingly random scraps of information to quickly form accurate conclusions. I also have an IQ of 143 which is awesome but I: need detailed instructions, take things literally, work best with routine, occasionally melt down and cause offence through my directness. This can be perceived as me being someone who: cannot work independently, cannot handle change, lacks the dreaded R word (resilience) and has poor interpersonal skills. None of that is true but I can see how it might look that way. The solution? Talk to us and be open to listening to what it actually means and what we need. It’s really just a matter of simple ROI. Our needs are quite insignificant when you look at what you will get back if you give us the support we need to be the best we can be. There are many autistic people out there who are a hell of a lot smarter than me and they are going to change the world. Think about it.
7. PROVIDE US WITH OPPORTUNITIES TO PROGRESS IN OUR CAREERS
When it comes to career growth and progression we are just like our neurotypical counterparts- some of us are happy where we are and some of us would like to progress. It’s not enough to simply hire us and then tick you’re done. There needs to be a career pathway in place that we can develop into. We value routine and stability and many of us just want to find a company that we can stay and grow in. It’s also important to recognise that something as simple as a single misinterpreted conversation with a colleague or manager can see us unfairly labelled as ‘difficult’ which can be quite damaging to our career prospects. Consider all aspects of our story and give us a decent chance to progress and you will reap the benefits of our value for years to come.
Key themes of the story: ask, listen and be open. It’s easy — just be a human being. Before I leave you I want to be clear that the advice I’ve given you is entirely from my perspective. I do not speak for the autistic community. We are a diverse group with many voices and mine is just one.
Thank you and and let’s make 2017 AMAZING!
About the Author
Ashlea McKay is a late diagnosed autistic adult based in Canberra, Australia. Ashlea is a user experience (UX) researcher, designer, writer, thought leader and international conference speaker. She also leads an employee level volunteer network at her workplace aimed at championing and normalising ability of all kinds and often blogs about her experiences as an autistic adult. She’s a shoe collecting cat lady that loves LEGO and is more than just a little obsessed with colouring in. Ashlea lives with her husband Kris and one very lucky black cat named Wednesday.