This Is What It's Like To Be Autistic In The Workplace

Workplaces can be mood-draining places at the best of times, but for neurodivergent people they can be a minefield of overstimulation, frustration and fatigue.

A new study of 1,000 workers by instantprint shows that a significant proportion, approximately 39%, almost two in every five, of diagnosed respondents indicated a lack of comfort when discussing their neurodivergent condition with colleagues or their employer. 

It seems that even in 2023, neurodiversity remains a sensitive and somewhat taboo subject within the workplace. Whether that’s through personal choice, masking (when someone with a neurodiverse condition presents in a way that makes them seem like they are not living with the condition) or apprehension regarding potential judgement or discrimination, employees are hesitant to openly share about their experiences.

Twitter users who identify as autistic shared with me about their unique experiences navigating the workplace, and the challenges they’ve encountered along the way:

I’ve faced challenges in the past with reasonable adjustments and explaining my needs to employers surrounding regular breaks and finding breakout rooms to work in during planning time. Also, notably, I have faced challenges with disclosing my autism and have often hidden behind the autistic label without explaining to employers what it means for me as an individual (who, often, take a generic approach to supporting individuals with autism, instead of personalising the workplace strategies to support their careers and promote positive inclusion).

– Claud, London

I currently don’t work but it is largely due to my then undiagnosed (I’m now diagnosed) autism and ADHD making it near impossible. I found office environments really tough because of constant bright light, overstimulation from noise (people talking, phones ringing, etc.) and also consistently feeling like the odd one out for not getting “office banter” and social cues. I found myself regularly hitting burnout and it became detrimental to my health. 

– Lana, Scotland

I’d say that most of my personal issues in the workplace largely stem from sensory overwhelm in the office and emotional dysregulation. In terms of the former, it’s generally loud and distracting noises, temperature changes, and uncomfortable furniture that causes me distress. The emotional issues tend to arise if I’m suddenly thrown out of my comfort zone or have too much to deal with at one time. I also get really rejection-sensitive so interpersonal issues really affect me and can take me out of action for anything between 15 mins to an hour. My workplace are supportive enough, but the guilt over needing extra accommodations adds an extra layer of anxiety.

– Darcy

When I worked in offices, the fluorescent lights and all the different noises really, really overwhelmed me. I used to go to the toilets just to cry because I was so stressed out.

I was so burnt out by the end of my workdays that I often didn’t eat or anything when I got home and just lay in bed, in silence, for hours.

– Sarah-Louise, Glasgow

So what can workplaces do to better support neurodivergent people? Greater acceptance is needed of how we’re all unique, with individual needs, says Florence Weber-Zuanigh, Diversity and inclusion consultant and the Founder of Diversity in the Boardroom Ltd.

She says: “The sooner we embrace the idea that not everybody’s brain works the same way, not only neurodivergent people but literally everyone, the sooner employees will be shame-free and able to explore what actually works for them. This would not only have a tremendous impact on employee well-being and engagement but also for understanding, teamwork and ultimately performance.”

Kelly Grainger, co-Founder of Neurodiversity Workplace Consultancy Firm, Perfectly Autistic, agrees: “Employers need to start supporting their neurodivergent workforce and understand the benefits that diversity brings to their teams and overall business. This includes creativity, innovation and a different way of thinking.

“The tide is slowly starting to turn with companies wanting to learn and understand more and there is a big appetite for workshops, training and webinars run by actually neurodivergent people.”

He says it’s important companies embrace proper inclusion, and don’t just provide ‘box ticking exercises’: “Organisations need to create an open and inclusive workplace, which starts from the top down with constant and consistent communication. This will benefit all staff not just neurodivergent employees.”