There are a lot of misunderstandings about how autism affects how we work, our success in our careers, and the challenges we face in the workplace. Today, I’m talking about my own work history, what’s gone well for me, what’s gone terribly for me, and how I’ve gotten to where I am in my work life right now.
Want to listen? This post is based off of Episode 50 of the Neurodiverging Podcast! Listen on Apple Podcasts | Google Podcasts | Spotify | Youtube
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- Mentioned: Is That Clear? : Effective Communication in a Neurodiverse World by Zanne Gaynor, Kathryn Alevizos, and Joe Butler. Buy on Amazon or Bookshop, or read my review here.
- Many other episodes of Neurodiverging discuss work and neurodiversity. Consider:
- Ep. 24 / Auditory Processing Disorder at School with Suzanne DeMallie
- Ep. 26 / ADHD in the Entertainment Industry with Anaïs Lucia
- Ep. 30 / Polymathy and Neurodivergence with Dustin Miller, PolyInnovator
- Ep. 39 / Autistic Burnout and Autistic Rest with Carole Jean Whittington
- Ep. 41 / ADHD Strategies at Work with Skye Rapson
- Ep. 42 / Preparing Autistic Children for the Workforce with DE&I Expert Kerry D. Rosado
- Ep. 43 / Late-Identified Inattentive ADHD with Aron Croft of Hidden ADD
- Ep. 47 / Irlen Syndrome and Inclusive Design with Chantal Gagnon of Socolo
- “The costs of camouflaging autism” by Francine Russo on Spectrum: https://www.spectrumnews.org/features/deep-dive/costs-camouflaging-autism/
- “Selective Mutism: being quiet doesn’t mean I have nothing to say” by Kimberly Gerry-Tucker on The Art of Autism: https://the-art-of-autism.com/selective-mutism-being-quiet-doesnt-mean-i-have-nothing-to-say-mentalhealthmonth/
- “Introduction to Sensory Processing Disorder for Adults” by Tesni Linden on Neurodiverging: https://neurodiverging.com/introduction-to-sensory-processing-disorder/
- Hu, Y., Pereira, A. M., Gao, X., Campos, B. M., Derrington, E., Corgnet, B., Zhou, X., Cendes, F., & Dreher, J. C. (2021). Right Temporoparietal Junction Underlies Avoidance of Moral Transgression in Autism Spectrum Disorder. The Journal of neuroscience : the official journal of the Society for Neuroscience, 41(8), 1699–1715. https://doi.org/10.1523/JNEUROSCI.1237-20.2020. — The framing of some of these data is bizarre, but the data themselves are worth something (though limited).
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Transcript of Ep. 50: Autism and Overwhelm at Work
(Thank you to Justice Ross for their beautiful transcriptions!)
Introduction to Autism at Work
Hello everyone, and welcome back to the Neurodiverging podcast. My name is Danielle Sullivan, and I am your host. I’m so glad to be here with you today.
I hope everyone is having a beautiful day. I was late dropping my kids off to their co-op this morning because we saw a Cooper’s hawk in the tree across in my neighbor’s yard, and I lost, like… (Laughs) It wasn’t too bad. I lost, like, 8 minutes, let’s say, with my kiddos identifying the hawk and then looking up the birdcall on YouTube because it was calling, and I was like, “I’m pretty sure that’s a Cooper’s hawk!” but I actually don’t see them that often, so. That was an exciting start to the morning! But then we were late to co-op. But it was ok, so.
What cool thing did you see today? I would honestly, I’m being honest, you should email me and let me know, because that would be awesome.
Or join the Patreon, and join our Discord, and we have a Discord, a chat, just for patrons of Neurodiverging, and it starts at $1 a month. So you could join the very lowest tier, support the podcast with $1 a month, and join our Discord, and tell me what cool thing you saw this week. I would love to know. We’re at patreon.com/Neurodiverging. And a huge thank you to my patrons for supporting this podcast. Could not do it without you, so deeply appreciate you, you’re just fantastic people. So, thank you.
So today, we have just me on my lonely again, and I am talking about why traditional work, in the 40-hour week office job or blue-collar job sense, is hard for a lot of us autistic people. So if you are interested in that, stay tuned.
Before we get started, I just want to do a quick plug. If you go to Neurodiverging.com/UpcomingEvents, I am offering, now, a lot of group coaching classes, free monthly webinars on different topics related to neurodivergence, and many more things. So if you’re interested in all of what Neurodiverging has to offer, not just this podcast, I’d really encourage you to go pop over and check it out. Some of the offerings are paid, some of them are free, but they’re all there on Neurodiverging.com/UpcomingEvents, all 1 word.
And also, if you are not on my mailing list, can I encourage you to take a moment, and go to Neurodiverging.com, and sign up for the mailing list? I am not a spammy emailer; I email 2 or 4 times a month depending on what’s coming up. And that is a place to get a heads up when there’s new podcast episodes but also get a heads up when there’s new webinars you can sign up for, new group coaching programs that you might be interested in, or anything else I’m doing in the community. Places where I’m a guest on other podcasts, articles that I think are interesting or might be valuable to you. So, if you’re not on my mailing list, go check that out. It’s a fun place to be, and I would love to see you there.
Ok, so let’s get into the stuff we’re talking about today.
So a lot of folks—(Laughs) and this is just the curse of social media, so be aware of it, don’t compare yourself to other people—but I get a lot of emails and Instagram comments and things that are saying, “You do so much! You do all these webinars, you’re parenting, you do this podcast, like, how can you do it all? Don’t you get overwhelmed? How can you be autistic and still manage all this stuff?”
And I wanted to kind of address that in a podcast, because I think that a lot of people drastically overestimate, first of all, how much I can get done, but also how much it’s quote-unquote “normal” to get done in a day or a week or a month. And I also want to talk more about why even quote-unquote “high functioning” autistics like me (Laughs)—I’m “high functioning,” quote-unquote, because you can’t see all the supports I need, and that’s why we’re doing this podcast. Why even folks who do ok, who are low support needs, who don’t need as much extra help as, you know, other people on the autism spectrum, even us still have trouble working in the traditional sense of what work means. And I want to talk about that today because I think there’s a lot of misunderstandings about how autism can affect how we work, the ways we work, the places that we’re working well and just not good, the skills we have and the skills that we don’t have.
And again, I’m not gonna speak, in this episode, for any other autistic people, I am just speaking about my own experience with work here. But I do want to talk about it, because I think that, again, the more we talk about our own experiences, the more information is out there for other autistics who are trying to learn about what might be good for them and what might help them the best.
So I’m gonna talk a little bit about my work history, what’s gone well for me, what’s gone terribly for me, and how I’ve gotten to this place in my work life right now. Ok? So that’s this podcast.
My Undergraduate College Experience with Undiagnosed Autism
So first let me talk about: When I was in school, I’m not gonna say school was a great experience for me, because it was not. I didn’t enjoy it very much at all. But I did ok. What worked really well for me, though, was the structure, right? You go to each class and each period, you know where you’re sitting for lunch, you know what to expect to eat for lunch, and the only places I really had trouble at school were the gap spaces. When you’re supposed to just be chatty, or, like, at recess, I had no idea what to do. I often filled in those times just by reading, because it was like, people wouldn’t talk to me, I could focus on something I enjoyed, and it created structure for me, right?
So when I got to college, the first semester or the first year, I did ok, but I was very depressed, I did not understand how to create a structure for myself. I mean I did ok in school, I don’t mean I did ok in terms of wellness, (Laughs) let me just rephrase that. I did ok in terms of passing my classes and getting good grades, and maintaining the small scholarship that I had been awarded, because that was very important to me, because we needed, I needed that money in order to get through college, and that was an important goal at that point in my life. But I didn’t do ok in terms of mental health. And again, I was undiagnosed at this time. I also had some other physical health stuff going on that was undiagnosed at this time that I did not have support for.
And so I was constantly fatigued, I did not understand how to structure my life in a way that supported me, I did not understand when and how I should be sleeping, how to cluster classes. I have since learned that I do best when I can work really hard for a couple hours and then rest really hard for a couple hours. But when I started college, I would, you know, take a class and then have a 2-hour break, and then take a class and have a 2-hour break. That might work fine for some folks, but it was a disaster for me. So, you know, again, this is very individual, this is just my experience. Some folks would do beautifully on that schedule.
It took me some time to learn about my own needs in terms of scheduling and how to create structures for myself. But what I did find is that I have certain times of the day that I’m very on, and very capable of doing things—and this, I think, is normal across human neurotypes—and certain times of the day when I am like a slug, and I cannot brain at all, my English is gone.
Again, I think this is normal for all neurotypes, that we have high points in the day and low-energy points in the day, right? That’s partly circadian rhythm, that’s partly just biology and physiology. But for autistic people, I personally think that these high points and low points in terms of energy can be much more heightened than the average neurotypical person. So when I am on, I am on, and when I am off, I am off—like, I can’t, I can’t do anything. It took me some time to really learn about how to structure my days around those high and low points. And you are seeing me, obviously, as a coach now, as somebody who has had 20 years to really nail in “this is what works, and this is what doesn’t.” So if you’re earlier in your journey, it’s ok that you’re not there yet. And my system doesn’t even work for me 100% of the time. We’re at, like, an 85-80% success rate, which I am very content with, honestly.
My Early Job History
So let me talk a little bit about my job history for you. And I have a couple of themes that I have noticed. When I was thinking about… because I do get these comments so often, so I was really thinking about, well, what didn’t work for me in terms of my work history? And how does that apply to other autistic people I’ve worked with? So here’s what I’m gonna tell you about. I have worked…
I got a bachelor’s in religion, which is like anthropology and sociology of religion, history, not so much theology. And then I got minors in German literature and language and ancient Mediterranean studies, which is basically classics without all the languages. I did take Latin, but I didn’t take, you know, ancient Greek or anything. So very, (Laughs) very autistic college profile, I have to say! I loved college once I got a system going. I loved being able to pursue my own passions and really figure out what I enjoyed. But I did not understand, and I still sort of don’t understand, how to leverage a college education in the liberal arts into, like, work. Because it just, you know, it doesn’t match anywhere. But I wanted to teach, and at that time it seemed like just getting a liberal arts bachelors would be a good idea.
When I got out of college, I was in Philadelphia, and I was trying to find just kind of any job. Just any job right when I got out of college, because I was not ready to go to graduate school, I had significant fatigue transitioning out of college, I was having, again, physical health problems that were not related to autism. So I basically was like, “Ok, I’m gonna get an apartment, and I’m going to just find a job, any job.” Just, like, for a couple years, to get me across until I figure out what I want to do next, right?
I had a huge struggle with depression right out of college. And looking back, part of it was medical issues, but a lot of it was, again, the change in structure. Having to, again, re-figure out, ok, now I live in a different place, my routes are all different; how I get to different places is all different; my social support network from college had basically dissolved, like, a lot of people moved away or got jobs and weren’t available anymore. The people I had lived with for several years moved on to do different things; 2 out of 4 of them moved to different countries, and 1 of them got married (Laughs). So, like, very well dispersed. So I really was just looking for an income and a way to get food on the table.
Autistic Ethics Can Be Constructed Differently
And the first job I got, and this was very short-lived, luckily, was a job with a company that sold jewelry, engagement rings and wedding rings and stuff. I basically temped there and then quit, because although—and I want to talk about this—although they had a pretty good pay, and they had, like, a 401K and health insurance and all this stuff that you really want. Like, nowadays you really want it, but especially when I was straight out of college with a kind of useless degree in terms of a lot of these jobs that I was looking at, it was a really good opportunity. But what I found very quickly was that I do not like any kind of work where I have to subvert my own ethics to do the job.
And I think if you’re autistic, you’re probably nodding at me, and if you’re neurotypical, you’re probably like, well, all work requires you in some ways to not be 100% yourself, right? Like, when you think about the customer service face, right? Like, you have to say, (Upbeat) “Oh, you know, I’m sorry that happened,” even though I knew that product was faulty, or a lot of people have returned this, or whatever. And so obviously, in an industry that works with diamonds and gems, I was just like, no, this is not a good fit for me. Because not only is this material sourced unethically, but it’s also being sold unethically, and I was just like nope, nope, nope.
So that kind of takes me to my first theme when it comes to reasons that a lot of autistics have trouble with the workplace, I’ll just say that, frankly, is ethics are different. We do have some research, and I’ll put a link in the show notes below, that autistic people and neurotypical people think differently about the social implications of lying. Autistic people tend to be, and this is something that I thought was a myth and just putting us on a pedestal, but research-based, it does seem to be that at least some populations of autistic people are, quote-unquote, “more honest.” That we don’t want to engage in subterfuge, we don’t want to lie, and that we don’t think lying is a reasonable way to get what we want in society. Right? In the family, in society.
Some of us, obviously, become good at lying anyway; like, I am a totally decent liar, I hate to say it but it’s true. And some of us lie out of frustration at not being heard. Right? So, there are autistic people who are kind of chronic liars, and that behavior is usually developed over a number of years where they are not being given the freedom to access what they need in positive ways, and so they’re gonna get it however they need to get it, and that might include lying. But generally, autistic people don’t like to lie and are not going to do it unless they’re forced to.
Again, this is a broad statement, and people are people. Like, we’re individuals first, right? But I definitely fit into what this research says, that neurotypicals will be honest in public and lie in private, autistics will be honest in public and be honest in private.
And so many jobs—and this is a frustration I hear from a lot of autistic people that I think maybe neurotypical people just don’t interrogate or think about—so many jobs require dishonesty. So like, the diamond industry is a really good example of: maybe I’m not lying outright, but these things weren’t sourced ethically at all, they’re upholding slavery and colonialism and all this crappy labor law stuff that I don’t really want to be a part of even though my salary is good and my health insurance is good. Like, I’m hurting other people by taking this job.
And also just being—and this is just me personally—being somewhat anticapitalist, despite having to live in a capitalist society, the closest thing I can get to personally, in a way that I can be comfortable living, is to be a capitalist that gives as much money away as I possibly can and, you know, tries to at least not live greedily. You know? And I say this with full awareness that I am an American, and we are the greediest, we are the greediest. I’m getting a little off topic, but—
Ethics are important to a lot of us. And ethics are important to neurotypical people, too, but I do think that there’s a difference in cognitive style when it comes to ethics and honesty in the job, and that a lot of the sort of smoothing over or highlighting aspects of your job and low-lighting other aspects of your job that neurotypicals engage in… Autistics just don’t want to do that. We don’t want to lie to our bosses about how the project is going. We don’t want to say, “This aspect is doing really well,” and just totally not bring up that the other part is totally falling over behind your back, right? We don’t want to lie to customers. We don’t want to sell people extra stuff we know is not gonna support them.
So there’s a lot of… I mean, I probably don’t have to go into this too much more, but there’s a lot of ethical diceyness in a lot of traditional labor, in the United States especially. And a lot of us just feel ucky [sic] participating in that. And again, that’s not to say neurotypical people don’t, but we’re already struggling with all these social communication and emotional differences, and not being supported in those differences in… anywhere. (Laughs) Anywhere outside of our own homes. And so especially in the workplace, when we’re being asked to mask, we’re being asked to communicate and have a certain style about us, we’re being asked to adapt neurotypical styles, we’re already under a lot of burden. And having to lie on top of that? It just sucks, it’s just awful.
And so a lot of autistic people just won’t do it, and that means we’re less employable, and it means we’re not going to get promoted, and it means lots of negative things for our… (Searching for the right word) our workplace opportunities, how’s that?
Disability, Masking, and the 40 Hour Work Week
I quit the temp diamond gig, because it was like, no, this is not a good fit. And I eventually landed in an office job, where I started at 40 hours a week. I could not maintain it, I couldn’t maintain it. And so I went down to, I think, 25 hours a week, something like that. Which, obviously I did not make enough money, at all. I really struggled with my finances at that time. But I couldn’t hold a 40-hour workweek.
I want to break this down a little bit more, because I think that this is something that is a little bit more complex than just fatigue.
So, when you think about the 40-hour work week, at least in this time in my life— I was walking from my apartment to work, which is like a mile walk, and then I would work; I think shift was, like, 10 to 4 or something? And then I worked 4 days a week? That was roughly it.
What it did—and again, these problems are the same for some neurotypical people, but I think that they compound when you’re dealing with other autistic traits and clusters of traits—you are actively “on,” you are actively “customer service-y.” Even if you’re in an office, if you have to talk to coworkers, if you have to talk to employers, your manager, right. If you have to talk to clients. You have to be (Sits up, fixes posture) customer service forward (Relaxes again) the whole day. Right? Which is exhausting for autistic people.
We’ve talked about masking; this is sometimes called “masking” or “camouflaging,” and I’ve talked about it a little bit in other episodes, and I’ll put some links below. But if you’re not familiar with masking or camouflaging, I’m not gonna talk about it too much in this episode, but it’s this idea that you put this face on so that you fit in better with neurotypical norms. Right? And I do it a little bit automatically, and I’m trying to break myself of it, but it was, again, 20 years before I was identified autistic, and I don’t always notice I’m doing it. But this idea that you’re not just allowed to talk with a flat face, right? You’re not allowed to say (Speaks with a flat affect) “Hi manager, how are you” the way I just did. Especially as an American. And my foreign friends might know the stereotype that Americans have to be big and happy all the time, but we do, and it is horrible for us autistics, I’ll tell you.
So in America, even at work when you’re not in a client-forward-facing position, even when you are just with your managers and your coworkers, you’re still expected to communicate—and this is furthered by if you’re an AFAB or presenting as a woman kind of person, even more—you’re supposed to present with a smile, with your eyes kind of up. If you’re watching the video, you can see (Demonstrates smiling face). And you’re supposed to make eye contact, and look at the person, and smile at them, and it is exhausting. It is exhausting.
So masking for a length of time is hard for an autistic, but especially to do it for 8 hours a day, for 5 days a week, is just not manageable. It is too tiring. And we’re not only masking, but we’re trying to get our work done at the same time. So you’re asking us to mask, to communicate like a neurotypical, and to work like a neurotypical in some ways, all on top of dealing with the amount of fatigue that we have to deal with when we have to… You’re asking us to work on a foreign planet, basically, for 8 hours a day. It’s just too much.
And that’s not even counting all the other workplace stresses that we have to deal with as autistics. And so, autistic fatigue is real, and autistic burnout is real, but it is compounded by expectations at work, social expectations and communication expectations at work, that just don’t match with autistic norms and autistic styles, and it just makes it… It compounds, again, the difficulty that a lot of us have at work.
Communication Differences, Processing Differences, and Ableism
The other thing I want to talk about a little bit more directly is communication challenges. You might notice that I’m pretty verbal. And I have episodes of mutism, but it’s not overwhelming in my life, and it’s not something I have to deal with as often as I hear other autistics have to or end up with. But I want to talk more about communication challenges, specifically.
So first of all, like I just said, a lot of autistics have… “selective mutism,” it’s sometimes called—basically periods where we’re not able to be verbal, or where we can be verbal but it’s so hard that it’s not worth doing. And different people label these different things. And of course, then there are autistics who just don’t speak, who are nonspeaking autistics, who use different manners of communication like sign language, or AAC devices, or writing, or all sorts of different things.
So there’s a lot of communication variation in autistic populations that are mostly not acceptable in a workplace, which, you know, is ableism at its finest. Right? But even for somebody like me, who looks quote-unquote “neurotypical” in a lot of ways and communicates neurotypically in a lot of ways, I still have trouble with communication in the workplace.
And a lot of this comes down to, and I’ve talked about this a lot before—and I’ll put some resources below—but a lot of this comes down to the way neurotypicals communicate about the actual job they want to get done, and how much extra information they give you sometimes that is just not necessary. And so then I have to process it. Let me give you an example. So I’m sitting at my desk, and somebody comes up and says, you know, “Here’s the file for this client that’s coming in, and we need you to check this with the insurance, and check this with this, and can you fax this over to Sandy, and can you whatever?” And there’s your list of tasks that you’re given that is like, ok, I now need to accomplish these tasks, check.
But then they keep going, and they ask, “Well, what are you gonna do for lunch, and did I tell you about the game last night, and did you see the weather forecast for this weekend?” And now you’re trying to remember all these tasks they just gave you, which they did not write down, because they think that you’re an auditory processor, but you have auditory processing disorder, so of course everything is just harder. And you’re not only supposed to remember these tasks—and it would be rude to look away and start writing, because then you couldn’t listen to them, and they’re still talking. So you’re supposed to listen to them, but that means you’re probably gonna forget the tasks, but if you write the tasks, then they’ll know you’re not paying attention and they’ll think you’re rude. So you’re, like, (Tight, tense body language) every day in this conundrum. If you listen to them, they are giving you totally irrelevant information about what they think about football; the weather, which you could look up on your own, thank you; and whatever else I just said. (Laughs) I just, like, already forgot.
Every communication experience an autistic has to go through in the workplace with a neurotypical person who doesn’t understand their styles is so hard. We are dealing with so much. The number of us who also have auditory processing issues or sensory processing issues is obscene. Like, it’s a huge percentage of autistics who are also dealing with these issues. And the way neurotypicals communicate doesn’t make any sense to our brains. You give us a lot of information; some of it is relevant, and some of it is not. And sometimes, we’re supposed to be able to sort it and we guess wrong, right? So maybe the weather actually was important that one time, but since the weather is usually not important, I ignored it this one time, and now I’m going to look like a fool next week when it turns out that there was something important that I was supposed to have done that was mixed in with the weather conversation. Do you see what I mean? So it just gets very overwhelming and very frustrating very quickly.
Another thing that is common for neurotypicals, and I’ve mentioned this in a couple of podcasts, is using figurative language, using metaphor and simile, hyperbole, overstating the thing—which I do all the time, you have heard me do it. So I’m not saying autistics don’t do this too. But in the workplace, when you are already kind of fatigued, and already dealing with a lot of sensory and emotional inputs, sorting through figurative language is hard for a lot of us. There’s actually a really, really, really good book, I’m so glad it exists, I want to throw it at everyone I meet—there’s your hyperbole for you—that talks about how communication, especially speech and written communication, is different between a lot of autistic people and a lot of allistic people. And so I’m gonna put a link for that in the description down below. It’s a fantastic book, and it’s very short, and it has specific examples in it, and I just love it so much. So if you feel like you might benefit from having such a book… It’s useful for autistics, too, because if you have a manager who means well and just doesn’t have the education, you can hand it to the people you work with, and they will learn a lot about how to support you in the workplace. So I’ll put the link down below.
Ok, that’s communication challenges.
Sensory Challenges in the Workplace
I also just wanna talk about sensory inputs. So, I worked in offices, I worked in bakeries, I worked in restaurant environments, I worked in that jewelry place, like I said. And then I worked teaching, and I worked as a grad student. So those are kind of a broad range of the places that I have tried to work. And obviously, now I work from home.
Sensory input is a huge challenge for a lot of autistic people, as I just mentioned with communication, right? A lot of us struggle with sensory overwhelm. If there’s a lot of noise, if there’s a lot of busy talk that doesn’t really mean anything but we’re not quite allowed to tune it out, that’s sensory overwhelm right there. Buzzing lights, like those fluorescent lights. People cleaning the windows. Roombas and other little cleaning machines make a lot of noise. Just people talking and the echoing of people can be overwhelming. Pens clicking, staples, people coughing. These are all sensory inputs that we are dealing with. We also, in a workplace, often don’t have the ability to control the temperature, right? So it might be too hot, it might be too cold. You might have a dress code that you have to maintain even if you are physically uncomfortable, even if the clothes are scratchy, right?
I worked at Dunkin’ Donuts when I was in my early 20s, and there was a dress code, and the bottom was khaki pants. And you could buy your own khaki pants, but I could not find khaki pants that were soft enough. And so every shift, I was uncomfortable, because even though I had “control,” quote-unquote, over my clothes in that sense, it turns out I just don’t like khaki pants at all. At all. (Laughs) Even to this day, they are not comfortable for me.
So even sensory overwhelm from our clothing can be huge for autistic people. When you’re thinking about the office environment, even if you’re working construction, if you’re working in a bakery like I did— In the bakery, part of my tasks were to make batters and cookie doughs, which is obviously a highly sensory experience. The electric mixers were constantly going, to make buttercreams. They are loud, you guys, the motors on those things. There are people all around talking. Sometimes you’re trying to help a customer while also checking on a loud mixer, which is heck if you have auditory processing issues like I do. There’s the beeping from the oven timers. There’s, when you wash the dishes, having to use the bakery soap, which was not soap I liked. Right? So there’s all this sensory input that is just impossible to manage for a lot of autistic people. Even though the tasks themselves are completely doable, the sensory aspects of the tasks are not manageable. Ok.
Autistic Cycles of Work and Rest
And then the last thing I want to talk about is that, in a neurotypical world, we have atypical cycles of rest and work. So when I worked at a restaurant in Philadelphia called Sweetie’s—which is sorely missed, the people who were there with me were fantastic—I was hired as a front of house person and then, for various reasons, ended up basically doing whatever job was open that day. So I would run the front desk, I would decorate, I would bake, I would prep cook, I would waitress… And it actually worked really well for me, because it was a very small restaurant, it wasn’t that loud, there were only, like, 2 or 3 other people that worked there, and so it was a nice, close-knit community where I wasn’t constantly overwhelmed and barraged by sensory input.
But what I did notice is that—and I don’t know how the owner identifies in terms of neurotype, so I don’t want to speak for them—but I wanted to come on shift, and I wanted to be given enough tasks to fill up my whole shift. And if we had a slow point, I was like, “Hey, does anyone need shopping done? Do we need to decorate? Can I box orders?” Like, can I do something? Because I do not like to be “at work” and not working. And some of that is anxiety, but I think some of it is also just the neurodivergent norm of wanting to be on task. And if I’ve structured my day in this way, where this is work time, I want to be working, because if I’m not working, what am I supposed to be doing? Right? It can be hard to have that kind of autistic interest in maintaining a structure and maintaining a routine and then have that routine broken because there’s just not enough clients that day, there’s not enough customers to, like, make more salad. But then what am I supposed to do?
And I drove the manager kind of up the wall. She was super nice, and I loved her so much, and I’m so glad we got to work together. But I think I drove her a little bit up the wall because anytime I finished a task I was like, “Ok, what can I do next?” And she was just like, you know, “Oh, Danielle, you need more things to do already?” like, “Come on, just relax.” And I was like, I don’t really want to relax, can I please, you know, organize some silverware or something? Like, can you give me something to do? And she would send me on errands, I think just to give me things to do.
And this was, again, before I was diagnosed, so I didn’t have this framework. And I was just like, why isn’t everyone like this? When you’re working, you should work, and when you’re not working, you should not work. And now I know that that is really atypical, that a lot of autistics are like that but neurotypicals have very different patterns. They’ll work for a bit, they’ll rest for a bit and chat, they’ll work for a bit, they’ll rest for a bit. I just want to do all the work at once and then take a good break and not work at all for the whole rest of the day. And that is an atypical work pattern.
A lot of us also, like I was talking about before, have different types of energy and different types of fatigue. So when we are tired, we are tired, and when we are on, we are on. And I think my experience at Sweetie’s is a good example of that, of: if I showed up for work that day, I was there to work, and I was in this environment that was my work environment. And so I was primed, mentally, to be doing tasks the whole day. Then when I got home, I was in my different space, and I was trying to chill out and read a book and not do anything. And I had a hard time understanding that neurotypicals’ brains don’t work that way, in the most part.
And again, we are a spectrum of diverse individuals, and I am just speaking for myself. Many autistic people have rest and work frames that look more like neurotypical ones than mine do. But that was my experience working.
I Can’t Work A Traditional Job
So to wrap up, I’ll just say: There are a lot of reasons that I can’t work a “traditional,” quote-unquote, job. I had trouble in office environments. Outside of Sweetie’s, I had trouble in restaurant or bakery environments, because they were so busy and they were requiring a lot from me. The social needs of neurotypical people are past my ability to handle in a lot of ways. The ethics issues are huge in a lot of neurotypical workplaces. So all of these things together just make it overwhelming to consider work in the traditional way.
I am very lucky. And I think, to get back to the very beginning of this episode, when people email me and they’re like, “Why do you get so much done?” the reason I get so much done is that I don’t conform to neurotypical norms. And that’s kind of a point of pride, but it’s also a huge privilege. It is not something that most people can manage to do. I homeschool my kids, I work from home, I literally stay in this room for most of the day, most weeks, for most of the month. And I am super happy to do it. But a neurotypical hearing that, if you’re hearing that and you’re a neurotypical I know you’re like, “Ah! Staying in one room for a month! Like, that’s not healthy!” Maybe if you’re a neurotypical it’s not, right? And that’s ok! But if you’re autistic like me, this is a space of comfort. This place has my food and my drinks, no one is interrupting my thought process, no one is making me make faces that I don’t like, I can set up the sensory inputs in here in a way that supports me. And I can manage my own schedule, so I’m working during high points of energy and not working during low points of energy, with nobody else organizing my time. Right? Except for my kids. And they’re, like, a different— (Laughs) You know, as a parent, obviously.
So there are lots of ways that I have modified my work experience from the quote-unquote “conventional” work experience, because I have the privilege to do that. But most people can’t just opt out of conventional work experience. Most people who work work because they need the income, obviously. And that means that they are putting up with huge amounts of challenges as autistics, and other neurodivergent people have to deal with this as well. But as my experience as an autistic person, I hope that talking through some of my work experience and some of the stuff I’ve dealt with, and some of the stuff that’s been harmful and hurt me, made it more difficult for my mental health and my wellbeing, just gives you an idea, especially if you’re a neurotypical listener, about what your colleagues are going through trying to work in places that are not built for them, and not built for us.
And I hope this will also help some folks think through why it’s so important— I mean, I’ve talked on this podcast a couple of times, I’ve brought a couple of guests on about autism in the workplace, neurodiversity in the workplace. It is so important to get consultants, to have people who understand our experiences of neurodivergent people in the workplace and who can come in and help you modify your workplaces so that we can handle it better. Because, like, I’m a good worker! I think I’ve made it obvious. And I think my clients would agree; I hope. You are listening to this podcast, you must think it has some value, right? This is a product of my work. I am very able in lots of ways.
Could I do this podcast in a traditional studio environment where I had to deal with other people telling me what to do? No, I probably couldn’t. I probably couldn’t. Would it maybe be a better podcast if I could? Yes. Right? But I have to work with what I can do. And so many of us autistic people are working with what we can manage. And that’s why, when you don’t see us promoted, when you don’t see us even in the workplace, when people don’t let us wear ear defenders, when people don’t let us have our drinks next to us, when people don’t let us have sweaters, even, or wear the pants that we want to wear: this interferes in our ability to produce good results for you. And this means that is looks like (Air quotes) “disabled people can’t work.” And it’s like, no, we can work fine. We’re just not supported at all. At all, right?
And again, just to acknowledge the immense amount of privilege: I am a college educated—I have a masters degree—person; I am white, you might notice; I pass as a woman. I live in Colorado. I have a partner who works full time who is able to provide a lot of our family income, right, not all of it but quite a bit of it. So huge amounts… We own our own house, right? I can organize my — house, because I’m not living in an apartment. I used to live in apartments, and it was mostly fine, but there’s a lot of sensory input with apartments in a city that you can’t manage yourself, that you can’t control. I now live in a house, and I can control the noise in my house. Right? So the more privilege you have, the more control you have over all these circumstances.
So if someone like me, who is highly privileged, had this much trouble at work, just think about everybody else who is not this privileged, who is struggling so hard to show you what we can do and everything we could accomplish as autistics in the workplace.
So, anyway. I hope this was helpful for some of you. I hope it answered some questions about how work is like for a lot of us autists who are really trying our best to get good jobs, to get jobs we enjoy, just like everybody else is, and to contribute. For so many of us, contributing to the larger human community is a huge goal for us. That’s something I notice time and time again in my coaching clients, is when we’re looking at values and personal values, so many people say, “Social justice and contributing to the community are values that are in my top 5.” We want to contribute. But we’re not allowed to right now based on how the workplace is set up for us.
So if you work somewhere that you think might be hostile to autistic people, talk to HR, talk to managers, see what you can do. Even little things can make a huge difference.
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There are lots of resources, lots of great ones. And we’ve had a couple of guests, too, that if you haven’t heard their podcasts, I highly recommend if you’re thinking about how you can improve the workplace for neurodivergent people.
Thank you so much for being here today. I really appreciate it. My email is down below if you have any questions or if you have ideas for future podcast episodes or anything else. And please come join us on the Patreon Discord for a dollar a month at patreon.com/Neurodiverging. You can also go to Neurodiverging.com and sign up for the mailing list, and that is no money at all per month. And that will give you a heads up on some of the cool stuff we’re doing around here.
Thank you so much for being here with me today; I really appreciate it. I hope you enjoyed it. And please remember, we are all in this together.