I get the message. I don’t belong.
I know that people would be upset to know that their words say that, but it’s there.

A work conversation recently to a group of colleagues was along the lines of,
“it’s so much better for you to go into the office and have those organic conversations; to be able to catch someone in the corridor and get an answer to a question. We were all in yesterday and it was so easy and we got so much cleared.”

I know what they mean and I know that they mean well, but what they are actively telling me (and people like me) is that your authentic self is not welcome and your personal health is not important. ie: you don’t belong.

That’s a pretty strong statement for me to make. But it’s necessary because it’s in direct contravention of disability equity and inclusion goals. The act of having to prove fundamental truths about ones experience, and having to prove the barriers for disability is part of the problem. Milton’s double empathy problem1 states “when people with very different experiences of the world interact with one another, they will struggle to empathise with each other.” The issue is the lack of equality in the relationship creates a paradigm that, as the autistic experience is not able to be felt by others, it is frequently questioned, dismissed or disbelieved, despite evidence to the contrary.

Conversely we understand and accept the needs for a large portion of neurotypical & allistic society to need spontaneous interaction to function at their peak. If you need that to be at your best we support it (if it could not be at our expense that would be great too). Many of the needs of the widest part of the neurotypical (and frequently white, cis-male, heteronormative etc) community are baked into the work culture. But often that is at the expense of the minority.

Too many times in the past when I’ve come up against group pep talks (or group reprimand) I’ve approached the speaker to clarify what I’m doing wrong or explain the difficulty in doing what was asked. Every time I’ve been told “Oh I wasn’t talking to you”. What that DOES tell me is that I’m rarely, if ever, talked to. Like the opening speech. Hence my problem. What has been said in those moments are a general statement establishing general expectations, ie: the status quo. I exist outside of that ie: I am siloed.

“when people with very different experiences of the world interact with one another, they will struggle to empathise with each other.”

Damian E.M. Milton June 08 2012

So why is the office environment a problem?

Inherently it’s not, but a couple of issues are2:

  • Autistic folks keep a lot of information in conscious memory. On top of that we are asked to performatively mask in order to fit into the work culture taking up additional resources. Screening out background noise, smells and UV lighting takes even more resources. As a consequence there is not a lot of conscious processing left to focus on what we need to do. Therefore social interruptions and “can I just grab you a moment” can be crippling.
  • Masking leads to suicidality and burnout3. Reason being is that if you succeed then you have just proved that a persona is more valid than your authentic self. If you fail then you let slip your authentic self to your detriment. Additionally the effort to maintain that persona takes energy and focus that you need for your basic work and self.
  • Multiple conversations at the same time like in a lunch room, or corridor, require screening out of background noise and stimulus. That takes effort. That’s not even starting on eye contact and body language.
  • Not having time to prepare information for a conversation means that a lot of processing power will have to go into dragging that information into conscious memory, and shelving the task that you were on.
  • Often the spontaneous conversation will require an answer that hasn’t been scripted. Yet again this increases the amount of conscious thinking to
    • a) parse the information and formulate a response,
    • b) judge the position and personal status of the one you are talking to in case they need a specific tone or level of detail,
    • c) edit that response for generally socially acceptable norms,
    • d) keep looking for facial and/or body language cues from the person you are talking too. NB/ I have to do this in conscious memory.

We are expected to do all the above AND not rock the boat.

By existing outside of that I am excluded. So isn’t existing outside of the rules a positive accommodation? No. I’ll explain.

To fit into the work environment I’ll need to subject myself to exhaustion and pain OR not be in the room where decisions are being made. Not being in the place where the organic conversations were being had means being excluded from the decision making process (bad for me) and having ones knowledge, skill and experience removed from the decision (bad for the business).

Because I am rarely in the room when these decisions are being made I am frequently coming up against last minute deadlines. These scrambling for deadlines and approvals further impact mental health as well as business outcomes and can lead me to working 12+ hour days.

People don’t want to deal with disability and so they work around it and create a silo. This leads to more forceful insistence and begging, which in turn leads to more alienation.

So there’s got to be a solution right?

Sure, I’m not going to just complain and run (that’s no good for my own mental health at the very least). The solution is to be prepared. Set meetings with an agenda (or create them in the moment) and write stuff down. Designate someone to take minutes. Follow up and inform. Plan. Respect boundaries.

But there are other things as well. Celebrating team wins need to be done in a way that everyone can participate in. Staff x-mas parties are excluding, and if I attend I do so at my own health cost. Team building activities are the same.

So keep in mind that (despite what pop-organisational psychology might suggest) we are not all the same. You have a diversity of colleagues and reports. Treat them with equity (not just equality) and find the way to come together. They alternative is loss of talent and headaches – but also depression and burnout.

  1. On the ontological status of autism: the ‘double empathy problem’, Damian E.M. Milton June 08 2012
  2. The Dark Side of Autism in the Workplace, Marcelle Ciampi June 10, 2019
  3. Autism Masking: To Blend or Not to Blend, Rebecca Joy Stanborough, March 10, 2021