All around the world, there are hundreds of autistic people working in professional, white-collar jobs. Some may have disclosed their autism. Some may choose to hide their autism at work, otherwise known as “masking”.
Given the diversity of the autism spectrum, I decided to ask autistic professionals directly about their experiences thriving or masking at work. I asked the following questions:
- How do you thrive at work without feeling like you have to mask your autism?
- On the flip side, if you are currently masking at work, what would you like in place to help you thrive at work?
I received a range of responses covering the importance of supportive colleagues or bosses, flexible working conditions, and focusing on an area of passion. Many responses were anonymous because of negative experiences, shedding insight on the challenge of being open about autism in the workplace.
But there were quite a few responses that showed that many autistic professionals can thrive with the right support and understanding.
Here are seven responses across countries, gender, and type of work, to highlight concrete examples of what can be possible to help autistic professionals thrive in the workplace.
Julie Elliott, Public Servant, Australia
I focus on an area of passion. Take time off when I can feel emotional burnout. Sometimes people are too loud.
Ashlea McKay, Lead User Researcher, Synergy Group Australia, Australia
In my first week at my current workplace, our amazing CEO called me into a meeting and told me something that I will never forget. She said, “We know about your autism and you’re safe to be as much of yourself as you want to be here”. I didn’t disclose during the application process and I masked for those first few days.
I was coming off the back of a 3 year job hunt where most prospective employers cut communication the second they found out. My current workplace (Synergy Group Australia) is a place where I would have been safe to disclose. You couldn’t have wiped the smile off my face that day.
In addition to the support from the very top of the firm, I also have two of the most unconditionally supportive managers I’ve ever met. The partner that oversees my service line (Digital & Technology) and my direct manager take excellent care of me and they give me everything I need to thrive.
Examples: flexible working arrangements in the form of letting me front-load my hours so I get Friday afternoon off to recharge, days worked from home, zero judgement and nothing but support if I have a meltdown at work (and meltdowns are becoming rarer too), patience and tolerance when I accidentally put my foot in it, access to a wonderful Executive Coach and more. I’ve never been denied an opportunity, they’ve never tried to limit me in any way and they’ve granted me leadership responsibilities.
When they make mistakes in regards to my autism, and they do because they’re human, they listen to me and they learn how to do better. And then they teach other people as well. They understand that autistic support needs in the workplace are an ongoing conversation.
I came into this firm a fairly broken person with severe trust issues largely due to that long-term job hunt. In the last 18 months, they have helped rebuild me into someone who is confident and feels capable (most days). They’ve never given up on me. They’ve always been there for me. Nothing has ever been too hard.
Jade Pitchford-Waters, Autism hub Coordinator, UK
My manager and my colleagues are supportive and they usually ask for my opinion as an autistic person because they see it as valuable to the work we do.
My workplace is flexible, [they] give me my own space, [and] let me use my talents and follow special interests.
Louise Stone, Executive Assistant and Social Media Manager, Auticon USA, USA
I’m really lucky to work at a great, supportive, autism-friendly company where I don’t have to mask day-to-day. That being said, I worked years before this in traditional jobs where I did mask, and I still do mask if I go to events or meetings out of habit.
Before I started at my current job at Auticon, I was drawn generally to working for small companies or start-ups, where flexibility in scheduling and work-styles and clothing was just built into the company, so I didn’t have to go out of my way to ask for these accommodations.
I worked at a startup that had a small room with comfy chairs and nice windows, so I would always work there because I could leave the lights turned off, wear my headphones, sit in a better chair and be alone.
I think having a variety of work environments and just allowing people to create the space they need regardless of any work environments is key. Everyone works best in different ways, and if you just make that a blanket policy, then you don’t force people to disclose autism or mental health or invisible physical health disabilities, but you also let everyone have the environment that is best for them.”
Magnus Hedemark, Sr. Director Health Care Cloud, Optum, USA
I am still masking, but more in some areas than others.
Working from home has been a game changer. That’s what was needed to break out of front line management into more challenging roles.
Having some control over my calendar has been important. Most of my work is driven by meetings in my current role. I have the agency to, say, create and protect a scheduled lunch break on my calendar. I also pad a couple of recovery events into the day which is where I can catch up on emails or fulfill any obligations I took on during the day.
Interpersonal communication is where there is definitely still masking. I have to write what I want to say in an email, then go back over it and “neurotypical it up” because our directness tends to put off a lot of NT’s. Especially in the midwestern US, where most of my coworkers are, and I noticed a more-than-usual aversion to direct communication among folks from that region.
I’m using an external camera now from my webcam. It captures me from the shoulders-up. So I can stim as much as I want with my hands and nobody can see what my hands are doing so I don’t need to feel self-conscious about it. But sometimes I turn it off if I’m not feeling up to face-masking for the audience.
Ronald Kerns, Graphic Designer, USA
Throughout much of my career, I had been undiagnosed and unaware that I was autistic. I was diagnosed in 2014 at age 46.
However, for the last two and a half years, I have been working for a major university. And I disclosed that I was autistic in the interview. This is the first job I have had post-diagnosis.
In my work, my manager has been so very patient and understanding. I have the freedom to work however it fits my preferences. For instance, the fluorescent lights are always out in my office. I close the door when needed, and I get as much help as needed for prioritising projects to make sure I stay on task.
Much of my “success” in my current workplace can be attributed to the fact that I knew from Day 1 at work, that I was autistic, and so did my coworkers and boss. In the past, not knowing and assuming I was just like everyone else, caused problems and conflicts with others.
At work, I really don’t feel like I have to “mask” much. I am usually in my office alone in our quiet department of myself and three other people. And, today, I am working from home. I typically work from home 2-3 days a week.
Andrew Ioannou, Business Analyst, Australia
I’ve not known myself that I am autistic for long. That being said, I’ve always known I’ve operated slightly differently to many colleagues, and I have had plenty of experience in masking mental illness.
What I’ve found is in roles where outcomes are dependent solely on my work and my work alone, where the metrics are very straightforward like profit and loss for example, I have been able to thrive and have been allowed more room to be myself.
However, in roles that involve lots of meetings and the metrics are softer, I have found myself needing to mask more and learn to appear to conform to expectations of my demeanour that in truth have no bearing on the success of my work.
That being said, in all cases, when it comes to promotions and progression, social hierarchies come into play more frequently and with greater weighting and so if I’ve wanted to move up, I’ve always needed to mask my authentic self.