Succeeding at Work

This post originally appeared in the OAR newsletter.

I am a 42-year-old woman with a diagnosis of autism and atypical schizophrenia. I am an author, blogger, radio show host, mentor, advocate, public speaker, and ambassador for many autism organizations in Australia. Last month I celebrated 10 years in a professional role in government administration. When I applied for my job, many people — including my psychiatrist and an autistic friend I considered a role model — told me that I would never be offered a job like that and that it wasn’t “autism friendly” anyway. Thankfully, I didn’t listen to them.

My job has been a great support. Virtually all of my experiences at work have been positive. I have been promoted twice and am now a middle manager. My workplace recognizes the work I do as an autistic self-advocate outside of work hours. I am very visible at work due to this, so every day I am greeted by colleagues who know me from what I call my “non-work work.” I get a lot of questions from fellow staff members about autism. I think I have close to the perfect job.

Sadly, my experience is not very common. One thing that most autistic adults will tell you is that employment is hard. Navigating through recruitment processes and interviews can be almost impossible and even if they do land a job, the unwritten social rules can be incomprehensible.

Some of the skills and practices I have used and still use to ensure I do well at work include:

  • Keep in mind when you apply that you do not yet have the job. So if you do not get the job, you will have lost nothing. If you get the job, that will be a big bonus. I find this approach helps to address some of the anxiety around job applications.
  • Consider using disability or autism employment services if they are available. If help is there, take advantage of it.
  • Prepare for the interview. Job interviews can be extremely challenging for autistic people. While some workplaces use alternative sorts of recruitment processes, being selected for most jobs will involve an interview. These tips can help you:
    • Research the company so you can mention it in the interview when it is appropriate. Many interviewers ask applicants if they have any questions at the end of the interview. They are usually looking for the applicant to demonstrate their understanding of the company rather than asking what the salary or hours will be.
    • Practice interview techniques with a friend or family member or in front of the mirror.
    • Think about what questions the panel might ask and what your responses will be.
    • Remember that job interviews favor confident extroverts and most people — including non-autistic people — are not confident extroverts and will be feeling uncomfortable at the interview. Being aware of this can help you feel less anxious.
  • Decide whether, how much, and what you will tell your manager/supervisor and colleagues about your autism. Give it some consideration and develop a plan of action that is comfortable for you. Disclosure is a personal decision and will probably be different for each job and each staff member at each workplace.
  • Find out the kind of work you are expected to do. Ask your immediate supervisor questions if you do not know what to do or require clarification.
  • If you have sensory issues, don’t assume others at work are aware of them. Most non-autistic people do not have sensory issues. Suffering in silence can make working very unpleasant and may well impact your performance.
  • Keep in mind that when you start a job, you will not be proficient immediately. Don’t worry about it. Your supervisor and colleagues will be aware of this. Just try to learn as much as you can. If you are offered training to help you do your job better, do it.
  • Understand that interpersonal issues are just as likely to stem from others as they are from you. Do your best to get along with your colleagues even when it is difficult. There is a perception that autistic people are rude or anti-social, and any interpersonal issues somehow “must” be the fault of the autistic person. This is not necessarily true.
  • Focus on your skills. It is likely that you will be a highly sought-after employee. While many people think more about the deficits associated with autism, in fact, autistic people tend to have great strengths, including in the workforce.

A number of strategies can help address the difficulties finding and maintaining employment that autistic people face. Autistic people can be great and valued employees, and work is often the passport to independence for autistic people. Those benefits make it worth pursuing employment opportunities even if it is difficult.

Jeanette Purkis is an author, public speaker, and autism advocate who has a diagnosis of Asperger syndrome and atypical schizophrenia. She has worked full-time in the Australian Public Service since 2007 and has a master’s degree in fine arts. She is the author of three books on elements of autism and hosts an Internet radio show. She has been facilitating a support group for women on the autism spectrum since 2011. She was named the 2016 ACT Volunteer of the Year and was a finalist in the 2017 ACT Woman of the Year awards.


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