Welcome back to my blog series about Loneliness and autism. Last week, we discussed how women are more likely to feel lonely when they are on the spectrum. But, working professionals with autism are also very likely to experience loneliness at work. I look forward to talking about this in more depth with you.
Autism in the Workplace is More Common Than You Might Think
The CDC recently reported that 1 in 54 children is diagnosed with autism in the US. Unless you’re at a very small company, the odds are good that you are not the only person with autism in your workplace! However, autism traits are not always noticeable. Especially when an individual has high-functioning autism or Asperger’s.
Even though you may have autistic colleagues, you may not know it. Leaving you feeling very much alone and like an outsider at work. Many of my clients have fears around being discriminated against if they were to disclose their autism to their employer or colleagues. This very real fear causes them to extend all their energy on fitting in. But they are often unsuccessful. Then, they become burnt out and isolate themselves at work.
Working professionals with Autism experience a unique set of challenges in the workplace.
It can be very hard for neurodiverse professionals to make friends and create relationships with colleagues. Adults with high-functioning autism may struggle with social skills such as making eye contact, smiling, making small talk, and understanding social cues. These skills are important to neurotypical people because they build rapport. Because these skills may not come naturally to an autistic person, they may feel socially incompetent.
Many of my autistic clients worry that they will do or say something at work that will be misinterpreted and lead to serious outcomes. These outcomes could include things such as a bad performance review, demotion, or being fired. These fears can make social situations at work highly stressful for autistic working professionals. Many clients I work with have had trouble at work due to social misunderstandings. This can be traumatic and lead to high levels of work-related anxiety. Many of my clients, at some point in their career, have needed to take medical leave due to depression, anxiety, or PTSD, stemming from problems in the workplace.
Workplace Socialization Leaves Many Working Professionals with Autism at a Disadvantage
There can be unspoken social expectations at work. Such as expectations around doing happy hours with coworkers, or eating lunch together. Yet, many people with autism need breaks from social interactions in order to recharge their social battery. These social breaks are crucial to the mental health and wellbeing of autistic people. Yet, their avoiding these social situations can be misinterpreted by their colleagues. They may think they are being rude or arrogant. To make matters worse, these social gatherings may be important networking events. They often lead to important decisions around work projects. Thus, a working professional with autism is at a disadvantage because they are missing out on these work-related benefits.
Being neurodiverse in a work setting can be very challenging, stressful, and isolating. Even the difference in communication styles between autistic and neurotypical colleagues can cause problems. I find that people with autism feel more comfortable discussing facts than feelings. They may have a passion, or special interest, such as 3-D printing, music, or World War II. Because they’re passionate about this topic, they usually have a lot to say about it. Oftentimes, it is easier for them to talk about facts such as these than talk about feelings. But, they struggle to build meaningful connections with others who do not share their interests or who talk about feelings. They can become easily bored by hearing others talk about topics unrelated to their special interests. Or, they can worry they have nothing to contribute to a conversation on a topic they are not knowledgeable on.
Also, autistic people often take a moral stance against gossiping. So they often choose not to engage in workplace gossip. Because they struggle to find common ground and initiate conversations, autistic working professionals can feel isolated or even like an alien.
Sensory overload at work:
Another workplace challenge for autistic adults is sensory overload at work, especially if they work in an environment where they can’t get away to recharge their social batteries. Feeling overwhelmed or stressed usually leads autistic people to withdraw from social interactions. Unfortunately, neurotypical colleagues might take this personally and think the autistic person does not like them or is trying to sabotage them. This can have downstream effects. For instance, the neurotypical colleague might make a complaint to management or avoid working with this autistic colleague on future projects.
Neurodiverse Working Professionals Are Often Misunderstood
It can be very hard for neurodiverse individuals to make connections with other people at work. Most neurotypicals don’t understand the unique challenges neurodiverse people have. Therefore, neurotypicals often misunderstand their autistic colleague’s body language and behavior as being aloof, angry, rude, or worse. But, this isn’t true. The neurodiverse working professionals I work with at my autism therapy clinic in Palo Alto, California are very caring and very passionate people.
These difficulties may even extend outside of the workplace. Neurodiverse working professionals may struggle to date or connect with their families. They may find emotional conversations and situations uncomfortable. And, they may struggle to express their feelings and empathy to their loved-ones. This lack of emotional intimacy in relationships furthers the feelings of loneliness in autistic adults.
Disclosing Your Autism Diagnosis at Work
As an autistic working professional, you may want to form meaningful relationships or at least good rapport with your co-workers. However, your neurotypical colleagues may misinterpret your autistic behavior. The first step in improving your relationships with neurotypical colleagues and reducing miscommunications is to use mini-disclosures.
What is a mini-disclosure?
A “mini-disclosure” is like an explanation or qualification for your behavior. A mini-disclosure consists of the following 3 key parts:
- Identify the behavior
- For example, you might say: “Sometimes I don’t go out with the team for lunch.”
- Clarify what the behavior actually means
- I need some alone time to recharge my social battery. It’s just the way I’m wired.
- Request support
- If a team member invites us out to lunch and I decline, it would be great if you could support my decision and say that you understand.
- Share what you value about that interaction
- I want you to know that I appreciate our relationship and like hanging out with you.
- Identify the behavior
For a mini-disclosure, you do not need to disclose that you have an autism diagnosis. However, you can consider disclosing your autism diagnosis at work. I know this is scary and hard. You might be worried that people will start to treat you differently or that it could hurt your career progression. But, it may help your employer and your coworkers understand you better. It could lead to fewer miscommunications.
Disclosing Your Autism Diagnosis at Work
It is important that you take time to decide if and how you want to disclose your autism diagnosis or Neurodiversity at work. Consider the possible repercussions and benefits of disclosure. Then, consult a mentor or mental health professional for added support. They can help you consider the pros and cons of disclosure. And, they can also help you decide who to tell at work and what to say. Writing a script for the disclosure so you know how to word it, can be helpful. You might feel very anxious about disclosing. But, practicing what you will say can help you feel more comfortable. Just telling someone you have autism is not that helpful. Most people don’t understand how high functioning autism can impact someone’s performance at work. Therefore, the disclosure would need some details about how autism specifically impacts your work style, needs, or communication at work. Part of a good disclosure clarifies what kinds of support or accommodations you need at work to reach your potential.
Another possible benefit of disclosing your autism diagnosis at work is that you might get connected with other autistics in your company. Meeting neurodiverse coworkers builds feelings of solidarity. And, if your workplace doesn’t have an autism inclusion group, consider founding one. I bet others would really appreciate your courage and benefit from having a safe space to discuss the challenges they are having. I do believe there is a slow-growing movement in the US toward understanding autism better in the workplace. However, these are early times. If you do disclose your autism, your workplace may be supportive or may not be. It’s valid to feel afraid of disclosing.
It’s Okay to Ask for Accommodations at Work
Some of my clients feel bad about asking for specific support or accommodations at work. But, they shouldn’t feel bad. I’ve personally asked for specific support at work. My brain is wired in such a way that I have my own strengths and challenges, as we all do. It’s just the way my brain is wired and it’s not something I need to apologize for. I learned to do mini-disclosures with my colleagues, so they would not misinterpret my behavior.
Many of my working professional clients have the perception that the problem lies with them. They are broken, or they are not good enough for their company. This is imposter syndrome. But, I think as autism awareness grows in the workplace, we will realize that autism is just a form of diversity. Autism is neither inherently good nor bad. So, companies need to be responsible for accepting and supporting diversity and inclusion.
Outside of work you could try to find virtual or in-person groups, activities, or conferences related to your area of interest. Connecting with others who have shared interests can be fun, rewarding, and reduce feelings of loneliness.
Consider Online Autism Group Therapy
I encourage you to consider joining a neurodiverse support group. Engaging in individual, couples, or group therapy can help you grow in self-awareness, emotional understanding, and social communication skills. These will help you build and nurture meaningful relationships in your life. For example, you may feel like you lack the practical skills to even start or maintain a conversation. But, these are skills you can learn and practice in a social skills group.
My Working Professionals Group gives you the skills to build or improve relationships with your peers and loved ones. In all social skills groups at Open Doors Therapy, we focus on addressing three key components: learning and practicing social skills, reducing anxiety and dealing with unwanted stimulation, and self-advocacy.
We address the specific needs of working professionals on the autism spectrum by discussing these common concerns:
- Building and improving friendships & intimate relationships
- Handling work miscommunications
- Improving non-verbal communication
- Improving listening skills
- Offering constructive feedback to others
- Understanding unwritten social rules
Join The Online Neurodiverse Working Professional Group:
If you’re a neurodiverse working professional in California, who is looking for support, I encourage you to consider our therapy services. I would love to meet with you and learn about the struggles you’re having at work and discuss the ways I can help you thrive.
To begin online autism group therapy in California, please follow these steps:
- Make a free 30-minute phone consultation call.
- Like me on Facebook. Here you will find useful information that will allow you to stay up-to-date on Open Doors Therapy and our autism services.
- Sign up to receive my autism newsletter.
Autism Therapy Services offered at Open Doors Therapy:
My autism therapy clinic in the South Bay Area serves teens and adults with autism. We provide services for people who have high functioning individuals who identify as having Aspergers, high functioning autism, undiagnosed autism traits, etc. and their families. Due to COVID-19, I am offering all autism therapy services online. My neurodiverse counseling services include individual counseling for autistic teens and adults, parent counseling, and group therapy. I also run several social skills groups for neurodiverse working professionals, college students with autistic traits, gifted youth & caregivers, autistic adults, women who identify as neurodiverse, a summer social skills college transition training program for youth transitioning to college, teens & caregivers, and a mothers group. To learn more about the many ways I can help you, or your autistic loved one thrive, contact my autism therapy clinic.
About the Author:
Dr. Tasha Oswald is a trained developmental and clinical psychologist. And, she is the founder and director of Open Doors Therapy, a private practice specializing in autism therapy services in the South Bay Area, near San Francisco, CA. Dr. Oswald specializes in helping neurodiverse teens and adults and facilitating social skills groups.