Written by Justine Field
In my post I had included a table, a kind of workplace accommodation wish-list setting out the things I found hard and what I needed. Readers told me that they found it useful, which was very kind since I had stopped short of explaining how I would put it into practice.
The truth was, I hadn’t figured that bit out yet.
The table was my attempt to capture what I hadn’t been able to articulate to my managers: there is more than one way of doing things; there should be space in workplace processes to adapt to a range of needs, and these are mine.
It was a snapshot of challenges arising from a particular working environment: a large organisation whose workers had moved from the office to remote work in response to the COVID pandemic. While I welcomed the reduction in sensory demands and increased flexibility of hours, problems around communication and organisational practices were magnified.
Online meetings filled my calendar in an over-compensation for the absence of face-to-face contact. Sometimes they were scheduled back-to-back and sometimes they were impromptu, leaving me startled and distracted.
The sensory and cognitive processing demands of video-conferencing burned through my mental energy, leaving me exhausted and my nervous system shredded by the end of each day. It impacted on my ability to organise my work and I seemed to have less autonomy than when I was in the office full time.
Managing frequent interaction via electronic means added a weighty layer of work to the job I had signed up for and until then had been doing quite well.
It wasn’t just the changes themselves that were problematic, but the way they’d been imposed with an assumption that everyone would just get used to them.
I needed my managers to understand how these processes impacted disproportionately on me because of the extra work my neurodivergent brain had to do.
The response was underwhelming. I was asked to email what I wanted as though it was a request for stationery supplies that once delivered would shut me up. I didn’t feel like I was asking for something extra. I just wanted them to stop making my job harder than it needed to be.
In the months ahead, I fought for simple things like having a break in between or during long meetings or to have important details communicated to me by email.
It was as though I was making unreasonable demands when everyone else seemed to be coping. Who did I think I was asking for special treatment? Certainly not a “team player.”
I was making their lives difficult and fast becoming a liability. By making it my problem, they didn’t have to examine the way they did things and the assumptions underlying them.
Despite being an experienced professional, I wondered if I would ever be able to function in the workplace again.
The ABS data showing that more than one third of Autistic people are unemployed is familiar to the Autistic community, as are the implications for financial security, social inclusion and mental health. We’re not just faced with barriers to obtaining employment, but to sustaining it.
My blog post is still generating responses from Autistic people telling me how their requests for workplace support have been met with resistance, lack of understanding, and in some cases hostility. Some, like me, left after reaching their limit. These experiences echo submissions to the 2022 report of the Senate Select Committee on Autism, Services, Support and Life Outcomes for Autistic Australians. The Committee observed that a low rate of adjustments was likely driven by lack of understanding about Autism and the needs of Autistic employees.
It’s time to get real about the challenges faced by Autistic people advocating for themselves in the workplace. Seeking workplace adjustments shouldn’t feel like scrambling for crumbs.
Things are back-to-front if an already overburdened neurodivergent employee has to go through a special process to fix processes someone else didn’t give enough thought to.
My experience demonstrates the limitation in workplace adjustment processes that don’t operate within a culture of inclusion and support for neurodivergent employees. I encountered defensiveness and suspicion where I should have found curiosity and empathy. There was no willingness to collaborate with me to make sure I had what I needed to do my job.
Neurodivergent employees need to feel psychologically safe to ask for support in the workplace, not anxious about whether we’re going to be misunderstood or dismissed.
We’ve already worked hard to identify our needs, often wrestling with internalised ableism and people-pleasing in the process.
Many of us are carrying the mental health impact of masking, burnout, co-occuring conditions and a history of workplace trauma.
Employers can no longer treat neurodivergent workers like a niche concern and continue to build workplaces based on the needs of neurotypical workers. ABS figures on autism prevalence increased 25.1% from 2015 to 2018 (an update is due in 2024). Significantly, the highest estimate (3.3%) was in the 10-14 year old group, many of whom will be entering the workforce in the next few years. Unlike most late-diagnosed adults, those who were diagnosed as children will be more aware of their needs and better equipped to be explicit about their expectations of employers.
Research has shown that awareness and education about neurodiversity contributes to positive disclosure experiences and willingness to accommodate employees. Being able to discuss neurodiversity in an open and positive way normalises the presence of neurodivergent employees and creates a neuro-inclusive environment.
Resource Library – Neurodiversity Media – A wealth of clear and accessible research-based articles about neurodivergence in the workplace
The Neurodiversity Network – Neurodivergent Career Support – a new Australian-based organisation for neurodivergent people.
Autism@Work 2023 Virtual Summit | Autism CRC – A collection of presentations from Autistic individuals, employers, academics and others working in this space.
Chapter 13 – Parliament of Australia (aph.gov.au) – Senate Select Committee on Autism – Services, support and life outcomes for Autistic Australians – Chapter 13 is about employment.
Developing the National Autism Strategy | engage.dss.gov.au – get involved in the consultation on employment issues.
Medium – while not neurodiversity specific, this blog-site houses a thriving community of neurodivergent writers and readers and a massive range of topics including work.
Justine Field is a late-diagnosed AuDHD woman based in Sydney on Gadigal Land. She is a lawyer, mediator and writer and is currently working on a book about neurodivergence in the workplace. Justine is also involved in various projects that aim to generate awareness of Autistic experience and provide peer support for Autistic adults. You can get in touch with Justine at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Reframing Autism team would like to acknowledge the Traditional Owners of the lands on which we have the privilege to learn, work, and grow. Whilst we gather on many different parts of this Country, the RA team walk on the land of the Birpai, Awabakal, Wattamattagal, Whadjak, Amangu, Bunurong and Kaurna Yarta peoples.
We are committed to honouring the rich culture of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples of this Country, and the diversity and learning opportunities with which they provide us. We extend our gratitude and respect to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, and to all Elders past, present, and emerging, for their wisdom, their resilience, and for helping this Country to heal.