How Do Symptoms of Autism Present in the Workplace?
According to the National Autistic Society, approximately 700,000 people in the UK are on the autism spectrum. This means that one in every 100 adults has some form of Autism, and this number continues to rise. Regarding workplace settings, studies show that only 15-16% of autistic adults are employed (National Autistic Society), but many face unique challenges in the workplace.
It seems many employers are unaware of the wide range of symptoms that Autism can present, and some may even be unaware that their employee is autistic. The results? Unmet needs and a lack of understanding of autistic employees. This can lead to lower job satisfaction among autistic people, even a desire to switch jobs. These are some ways autism impacts an employee & presents itself in the workplace.
Constantly apologising and trying not to annoy
Autistic people can be forthright and direct in their communication style, which can sometimes cause them to come off as impolite or rude unintentionally. As a result, other employees have painted an erroneous picture of autistic workers as lacking empathy and being too blunt. To avoid this impression, many autistic workers may overcompensate by excessively apologising when speaking to colleagues. For example, one autistic employee says,
“I constantly apologise to ensure I don’t make someone uncomfortable or create tension.”
In other words, an autistic employee may feel compelled to apologise for things others find normal, which could also be seen in the workplace. However, excessive apologising for every task can lead to feelings of neuroticism, especially if an employee does not feel in control of their workload. This can decrease productivity and even burnout, as the employee spends too much time worrying about saying or doing something wrong.
Replaying conversations to try to understand
Many neurotypical people always use indirect language when communicating in the workplace. For example, they may phrase an instruction in a way that requires the listener to interpret and extrapolate information. For those with Autism, this manner of communication comes off as “hard to understand because the words have hidden meaning”, which they have to struggle to decode.
As a result, many autistic employees may repeat their conversation with a co-worker to ensure they have accurately understood it. This behaviour can significantly impact an autistic employee’s morale, as they feel anxious due to the constant struggle to decipher conversations and instructions. Furthermore, this ongoing process of replaying conversations can be misconstrued as slowness, rudeness, or even disregard by their colleagues.
Lights off/on argument
Sensory issues are a common issue for many autistic employees. Many autistic employees can experience extreme difficulty in environments that are too loud or chaotic, hindering productivity and job satisfaction. For example, a common workplace challenge is difficulty coping with bright lights or loud noises. As a result, many autistic employees may argue with their colleagues to turn off the lights or reduce the noise level to make their job more bearable. In some cases, autism-related sensory issues can even lead to physical symptoms such as headaches or exhaustion. As a result, autistic employees may be unable to cope with the same workload as their neurotypical colleagues, causing them to take on fewer tasks or struggle to complete them on time. Furthermore, an environment that does not recognise and accommodate sensory issues can lead to feelings of isolation and frustration in employees with Autism. This can further reduce job satisfaction and impede productivity.
Employers must be aware of these potential issues to create an autism-friendly workplace and ensure your autistic employees have the tools they need to succeed. In addition, employers can ensure that all employees can reach their full potential by providing safe spaces for those who may struggle due to sensory overload.