Innovative companies are constantly looking to diversify and expand their workforce with people who think differently. And yet, autistic people are disproportionately affected by under- and unemployment and often struggle with finding and keeping a job. While the often-cited unemployment rate of over 80% in Ireland and the UK is most likely set too high, given that a lot of working autistics fly under the radar of diagnosis, employers are still missing out on the opportunity to hire highly educated, qualified, and dedicated individuals. A few minor adjustments can help you tap into this talent pool while boosting the productivity and wellbeing of your entire staff. Although some large tech companies have taken first steps towards establishing autism hiring programmes, they still have a long way to go to become more inclusive – and tech is by far not the only industry which would benefit from a broader spectrum of people.
“Everyone shines, given the right lighting.”
Susan Cain, Quiet
Why should we hire you?
Autistic people can be an invaluable addition to your team. Of course, every person is different, but here are 7 common features which help autistics excel at work:
We are autonomous. We can be entrusted to work on tasks independently. Teamwork is important. But sometimes too many cooks spoil the broth. Studies have shown that brainstorming and tackling every task in a team setting is not the most efficient way. Giving people time and space to ponder difficult problems, come up with ideas, and then bring them together will often lead to more creative and elegant solutions.
We are super focused.Are your employees constantly distracted by social media and office chatter? An autistic person will focus on their task until it’s done. Autistic people aren’t usually great at multitasking. But then again, nobody really is – juggle too many balls and it’s only a matter of time until you drop one.
We are great at finding ‘Wally’. Or spelling mistakes. Or coding errors. Ask an autistic person to proofread a text or cross-check facts and we will do so with meticulous care.
We think outside the box. It’s true that many autistic people prefer following a routine and some even enjoy repetitive tasks. We love a good pattern. However, within our given routine, we tend to come up with creative solutions because we see the world in a different light. We have x-ray vision, seeing through porous top-down structures and crusty procedures. And we aren’t afraid to speak up and put forward unconventional ideas.
We get hooked on our special interests. Give us a task that sparks our interest and we will be so invested in it that you will have to remind us to take our lunch break. Autistics are known to become experts in their fields.
We contribute to a positive work environment. Employers are often hesitant to hire autistic people because they fear their lack of social skills. But our social skills are just different. We value honesty, directness and kindness. Which means no toxic gossiping, bullying, triangulation and backstabbing from our side, and more time to focus on the task at hand.
We are perseverant. While it is true that a lot of autistic people are sensitive to sensory stimuli, we are also some of the most resilient people you will ever meet; growing up in a world that wasn’t made for us means that we’ve always played life on ‘hard mode’ and overcome more hurdles than you can imagine.
So how do I make my workplace autism-friendly?
“Open-plan offices have been found to reduce productivity and impair memory.”
Employers are often reluctant to hire autistic people because they fear that they will have to go out of their way to accommodate our needs. But simple changes can go a long way and benefit the whole team.
Let our work do the talking for us.What do you value more, skills or showmanship? We might not talk the talk, but we do walk the walk. Autistics aren’t always the best at selling themselves in a formalised and artificially uncomfortable situation such as a job interview. Give us the chance to explain our motivations in writing. Or just let our results speak for themselves.
Create a sensory-friendly environment. Many autistic people get overwhelmed by noise, strong smells, too much heat/cold, flickering fluorescent lights, screen glare, and crowded, cluttered places. Create a more accommodating environment by including some sensory-friendly, quiet areas with dimmable/warm light or even stimulating mood lights to boost focus and creativity. Replace germ-spreading hand dryers with reusable towels. Encourage the rest of your staff not to spray or wear aggressive perfumes and aftershaves. Creating distraction-free spaces can boost your staff’s creativity.
Be straightforward.Autistic people are literal thinkers and often can’t “read between the lines”. Say what you mean and mean what you say. Don’t rely on body language or subtle cues to communicate. Be open, clear and direct. Simplifying instructions and streamlining processes will not only benefit your autistic staff but also boost your business.
Provide training and build your team. Rope courses and cocktail classes in noisy bars might not be the best choice, but there are plenty of sensory-friendly team building activities to choose from. Any opportunity for genuine interaction and direct communication will do. If employees can explore their communication styles and experiment with their different roles in a team, it’s a great opportunity for your staff to work together more harmoniously and communicate more efficiently.
Be flexible. Many autistic people are eager to work and are dedicated to their job. However, we are the ‘twice as bright, but half as long’ burning type of candles. Constant sensory input and the ‘empty carb’ type of social interaction often leave us drained – we dedicate all our energy to our work and have none left for our private lives. Flexible working hours to avoid rush hour or accommodate for our sleep patterns, the ability to work from home, or reduced hours can be a solution. There is no need for unproductive presenteeism with autistic people. Our ability to work independently and to focus means that we often get more work done in less time.
Not only autistic people, but also many neurotypical colleagues, especially introverts, will benefit from diversifying your team and making some small, but effective changes to boost creativity, increase productivity and reduce stress, ensuring well-being in the workplace, a better work-life balance and increased staff loyalty.
So stay true to your own nature. If you like to do things in a slow and steady way, don’t let others make you feel as if you have to race. If you enjoy depth, don’t force yourself to seek breadth. If you prefer single-tasking to multi-tasking, stick to your guns. Being relatively unmoved by rewards gives you the incalculable power to go your own way.
“If you’ve met one autistic person, you’ve met one autistic person.”
An autistic person.
I would like to explore some of the colours of the autism spectrum and how they ‘look on me’, their awesome and agonising effects, and specifically, how I tend to hide them, hoping that it might resonate with those in a similar situation while making others think twice before judging the people around them. This list is highly subjective, anything but comprehensive, and not limited to official diagnostic criteria. I’m in no way trying to represent or downplay anyone else’s experience, just sharing my own. I’m usually a private person, so this is as much as you’ll ever get to know about me.
Social skills and awareness: A bull in a china shop or a cat in a dog’s world?
Autistic people often communicate differently and autistic culture follows its own social rules. Especially when we communicate with non-autistics, we often struggle with picking up on social cues, interpreting and using facial expressions and gestures, making and holding eye contact, and understanding social structures and hierarchies. While many autistics are happily coupled up or enjoy a rich social life, a lot of us often find it hard to build and maintain friendships and other close relationships, and in general, to fit in. Bullying is a ubiquitous problem at school and often continues in the workplace. An autistic person might feel like a bull in a china shop when they’re really just a cat in a dog’s world. We’re not rude or careless. We use different social cues, facial expressions, gestures, patterns of interaction, not lesser ones. I used to think that I was a weird, deficient kind of dog. But it turns out, I’m just a regular cat who is so good at mimicking the dogs that she made them and herself believe that she was one of them. Just a quirky dog, acceptably weird. Except, I’m a cat.
As the cliché goes, autistics are clueless when it comes to anything social, but I like to think that I have a deeper understanding of social interactions than most people because I had to study them, analyse each step, and emulate them. On a good day, I know how to charm people, make them laugh, make them feel comfortable, because I’ve actively studied neurotypical language and communication for the past 15 years. I have two university degrees related to how society and communication work. I can make eye contact, but if we’re not close I’ll always think about when to look at you and when to look away. It doesn’t come naturally to me. It’s hard work and work is draining.
It’s like being a proficient non-native speaker of ‘neurotypical’. Most of the time, I can pass as a native speaker, although I do speak with an autistic accent (the facial expressions I use, gestures, words, intonation). But sometimes, I make a mistake that a native speaker would never make. And because people think I’m a native, they assume that I did it on purpose and that there must be some malicious intent behind my blunder.
Literal thinking and directness: What on earth is a bull doing in a china shop?
Having a literal mind adds to the social problems often encountered by autistics. Many autistic people have a hard time understanding metaphorical language and reading between the lines. We like to be direct and honest. Clear and efficient. We don’t beat around the bush. We beat the bush in the face. Which is often perceived as blunt. And so the delicate social waltz becomes a mosh pit – which, to me, can be frightening or fun, depending on the situation. I love to joke around and make people laugh, I love to watch dark comedies and political cabaret, but if you throw a joke at me without warning, I’ll always assume you’re being serious. And few things are more awkward than people telling me a joke, staring me down with their expectation, waiting for my forced laugh. I get why it’s funny on an intellectual level, but I just don’t find traditional jokes funny. My sense of humour is built on my directness, self-irony, and a hint of audacity, pushing people’s sense of propriety a bit, because if people think I’m weird, I might as well have some fun.
I studied language and communication – first by binge-watching sitcoms, later more systematically at university – including intercultural communication, pragmatics, politeness theory, and literature. I only realised a few years back that this is not how others learn how to ‘human’, but hey, it worked for me. I love metaphors. Sometimes they’re the only way I can express myself. And ultimately, most of our language is comprised of dead metaphors. Let that sink in for a moment (yes ‘sink in’ is a metaphor, too!). I think the reason why I like them, is the fact that I’m more aware of them. If I hear a metaphor, it often falls apart into its literal components and I have to reconstruct it to understand it. If I hear ‘sink in’ I imagine quicksand. Maybe that’s one of the reasons why in this small 2014 study, autistic adults generated more creative metaphors than the control group.
Black-and-white thinking: To bull or not to bull?
A literal mind is often also a binary one. All or nothing. 0 or 1. There’s no reading between the lines if there’s only black or white. Such simplification can lead to inflexibility and catastrophising. It can also be the kind of radical thinking necessary to see things for what they really are, without all the nice socially constructed garnish, and to make no-bullshit decisions in extreme situations.
To me, it isn’t just about black-and-white thinking, but also about feeling. I feel things very strongly or not at all. 0% or 100%. I suffer from ’empathy meltdowns’. I can watch the news or hear about a sad story and find myself curled up, weeping until 3 am about the famine in Yemen. At other times, when people tell me about sad things that have happened to them or some pain they’re suffering from, I feel completely numb (which might be some sort of self-protection). Then I have to put on all the fake facial expressions and say all the memorised words and I feel like I’m a monster or robot for not feeling anything. I also catastrophise my own pain or suffering (everyone who’s ever googled ‘light headache’ knows what I’m talking about) – unless it’s life-threatening, in which case I’m completely calm.
Special interests and single-tasking: There are almost 1 billion cows in the world
I don’t know how many of them are bulls, but then again, this is not my special interest. It is often seen as one of the most enjoyable and precious aspects of being autistic. Autistic people become obsessed with their special interests and often become experts, spending thousands of hours immersed in their subject, from Adélie penguins to Proto-Indo-European, from coding to Harry Potter, from beanie babies to succulents. We can be single-minded single-taskers. We love deep talk. Please don’t talk to us about the weather, unless you are interested in the difference between cirrocumulus and altocumulus clouds.
I identify with my interests more than with my gender, nationality or social class. If you meet someone new, you will often ask them “What do you do?” or “Where are you from?”. I don’t care. I want to know what fascinates you. And if we have matching interests, be prepared to talk about them for at least an hour.
I don’t consider myself an expert in anything. But I love the manic itch I get when I discover a new interest, the feeling of delving into a new topic, devouring everything about it like a swarm of locusts, and moving on – or sticking around. When I was a child, I used to be obsessed with dinosaurs and penguins, astronomy and the climate, Pokémon and Sailor Moon. Later I turned to some more long-term interests like languages and linguistics, art and photography. I added shorter flings like Game of Thrones and Chernobyl, astrobiology and nuclear semiotics. Some special interests are life-long fascinations while others are intense fads. Most people seem to prefer social chit-chat to topic talk, or maybe they just think it’s what’s expected, so I don’t tell them about it. I don’t give lectures or ramble on about my topics. Unless you really fancy listening to a 30-minute presentation on why crows are the best animals. I usually just sit there, bored, waiting to go home and do something stimulating. Sure, maybe our colleague’s skirt doesn’t go with her blouse, but did you know that crows can recognise human faces, solve complex puzzles, and use tools? The world is a fascinating place. Let’s talk about it more often!
Sensory processing and meltdowns: When rush hour feels like a stampede
An ever-so-quietly ticking clock might drive me nuts, while I might be completely oblivious to the fire alarm that’s been going off for 5 minutes. The reason: hyperfocus. A lot of us can only focus on one thing at the time. I’ve never made a cup of tea and drunk it while it was still warm. But this can be a superpower. Ever since I was a teen, people have come to me with their cover letters, master theses and love letters (just kidding) for proof-reading. If you want something to be done with meticulous care, ask an autistic person.
The downside is, that whenever multitasking is required, we can get overwhelmed. Have you ever turned down the radio to see better while driving? Have you ever tried to get out of a shopping mall during the onset of a migraine attack, dodging hundreds of noisy people, shielding your eyes from the flickering fluorescent lights, pressing your overly fuzzy scarf against your nose to make it through the perfume section? Then you almost know what it’s like for some of us, every day. And if it’s too much, some of us have a meltdown, which might look like a ‘tantrum’ to the uninitiated.
This colour has become much more intense over the past couple of years. I can go to the supermarket, take the sardine express (aka the tram) to work, go to a Christmas party or a noisy café with friends. Luckily, I don’t have to rock back and forth in the corner with noise-cancelling headphones. But I will be consciously uncomfortable most of the time. Sometimes I get nauseated. I’ll get home and break down crying. I’ll have a migraine for 3 days. I’ll cancel last-minute or make excuses more often than not because I don’t know how to tell you that it’s just too much. Just think of me as having an iPhone battery. I can go from 100% charged to 75% if you open more than one tab in my browser.
Motor skills: Being all thumbs and fingers… and sleeves caught up in door handles
A lot of autistic people suffer from dyspraxia. Not all autistics do, and not all people with dyspraxia are autistic, but they seem to commonly go together. Children often show delays when it comes to rolling over, sitting, crawling, standing or taking their first steps, as well as speaking and toilet training, while some might skip some of those stages altogether. When I was little, I never learnt how to crawl – I went from scooting around on my bum straight to walking. Fine or gross motor skills can be affected. Someone might be able to draw portraits detailing every line in someone’s face while incapable of throwing a ball further than 30 cm. We often get picked last during PE. Trying to open one of those flimsy plastic bags in the fruit aisle is the bane of my existence. (Yet another reason to reduce plastic waste!) Being left-handed, I had to add tin-openers, wire-bound notebooks, most musical instruments, the Latin alphabet, and sewing classes to my list of enemies. I have absolutely no spatial awareness and I think I’m doing the world a favour by not learning how to drive. Although, maybe one day, I will learn how to drive. And how to dance. And how to change the duvet cover without having a mental breakdown. Some things just take me a bit longer.
Rigid routines and repetitive behaviour: If we were stuck in Groundhog Day, would we even notice?
How do you cope with 50 shades of between-the-lines, constant sensory overload that makes you feel like you’re trapped in a Disney World Parade at Shibuya Crossing, and a Schroedinger’s world without any certainties? It’s only understandable that a lot of autistic people seek refuge in rigid routines, rituals and repetitive behaviour. And is it really surprising if people react negatively if you’re trying to change their schedule and take away their life’s scaffolding? On the other hand, quite a few of us can be rather disorganised and messy. When our executive function.exe crashes, it can lead to problems with planning, problem-solving, procrastination, inhibition, attention, and memory, to name but a few.
I used to be the poster child of repetitive behaviour. ‘Playing kitchen’ meant that I would take a block of post-its and sit down for hours, drawing hundreds of doughnuts, always the same chocolate doughnuts, one on each sticky note – I was assembly-line-employee-of-the-month material. But nowadays, I hate repetitive tasks and I don’t know how to establish a healthy routine, although I would really benefit from one. I’m a procrastinating perfectionist who never learns from her mistakes and even cleaning my room can become a daunting task because of all the steps involved.
Another repetitive kind of behaviour is called stimming. I used to pace around in circles when I was trying to memorise information for school (because that’s how we rolled in the 90s), I’d sway left and right during presentations, and I’d feel the need to bang my head when in distress. I used to think there was something severely wrong with me, but stimming is actually normal and beneficial if it doesn’t involve self-harm. Sometimes I like to rock back and forth during meditation. Jews have been doing it during prayer for over a thousand years – it’s called shackling and is said to increase concentration and emotional intensity. It doesn’t mean that the Jewish religion or everybody who fidgets with a ballpen is ‘a little autistic’. It just means that what is good for autistic people, might be good for others, too.
These are just some of the colours and shades autism might come in. There might even be some ‘infrared’ or ‘ultraviolet’ traits that aren’t part of the autism spectrum (yet) or are just neighbouring colours. I’ve only recently been learning about the potential connection between autism and gender, autism and digestive problems, autism and issues with connective tissue, autism and demand avoidance. After all, the autism spectrum is only part of the whole electromagnetic spectrum of neurodiversity.
Why not tear off the mask and show your true colours?
I’ve been questioning myself a lot over the past one to two years. Masking has taken its toll. I hold two first-class honours degrees, yet I will stand at the tram stop for ten minutes, crying my eyes out (what a appropriately disgusting metaphor!) because it was too packed to get on. I was in the gifted programme at school, but I don’t know how to swim, ride a bike, or throw a ball, and I couldn’t tie my shoelaces until I was 10. I remember the exact speed of light, but I have no clue where I put my earphones.
I’ve dedicated half my life to learning how to behave like a neurotypical. It doesn’t mean that I’m a total conformist. One of my favourite pastimes is playing with and deconstructing social and linguistic norms. This sounds more pretentious than it (usually) is. It doesn’t take much really. For instance, just try not answering the question “Where are you from?” and watch people’s faces go ‘bluescreen’. But I’m not ‘out of the autism closet’. I worked hard to learn how to interact with neurotypicals, I’m proud of my own perseverance and resilience. But I’m also scared of being discriminated against on the job market, being treated differently by friends and colleagues, being looked down on or pitied. I have the deepest respect for everyone who is out and proud. I do feel I would benefit from a little help sometimes, but I’ve always been very independent. Mostly because I had to. Asking for any kind of support doesn’t come easily. I’m scared of depending on others and showing vulnerability. If only we could all cut each other some slack sometimes, regardless of the things we know about each other.
One thing, though, is certain: Hiding my autism has brought me close to mental breakdown and burn-out. This blog is a first attempt at becoming more visible and showing my true – sometimes awesome, sometimes agonising – autistic colours.
What do your autistic colours look like? I would love to hear about your experience in the comment section 🙂
Welcome to my blog! I’ve created this blog – 1) to untangle my own thoughts 2) to help some non-autistic friends understand me better, 3) to help spread awareness and acceptance, 4) to write more in English, and 5) hoping that some people might recognise themselves in it and feel heard, entertained, or at least find a reason to put off that thing they were supposed to do for another 5 minutes.
Before I start, I would like to help clarify some basics, especially for people who want to learn more about autism. If that’s not the case for you, just skip straight to the fun part. I revised this post 16 times before I published it, which goes to show that it isn’t easy for me to put into words how I understand autism – if you have any suggestions for edit number 17, please let me know in the comment section.
The autism spectrum gets its name from the light spectrum because autism comes in many colours – and because everybody knows autistics love a good metaphor. As our understanding of autism and neurodiversity evolve, our metaphors change, so we might need to come up with a new image at some point in the future (I’m thinking of something more web-like maybe?). But looking at it as a spectrum can be useful, so let’s stick with it for now. A lot of people confuse the spectrum itself with a gradient from ‘mild’ to ‘severe’ autism, from ‘high-’ to ‘low-functioning’. But green isn’t more severely red than orange, orange isn’t a mild blue – they’re just different colours, yet on a continuum and connected with each other. Check out this comprehensive post to learn more about the difference or check out this comic strip if you like visuals.
Some common autistic colours (traits) involve social interactions, literal thinking and directness, black-and-white thinking, special interests, sensory processing and motor skills, rigid routines, and repetitive behaviour. Autistic people possess a spectrum of traits which can each be more or less distinct, more or less visible, and more or less beneficial or hindering in a world that wasn’t designed with autistic people in mind – and which can make us different, not less.
From spectrum to gradient: Masking
But why is the blog called ‘Invisible Spectrum’? The thing is, people can’t usually see my autistic colours. Partly, because some of my traits aren’t as distinct, and partly, because all traits come in hundreds of shades and don’t always look alike. But mostly, because I mask. Masking means hiding. Like using photo editing software and dragging the saturation slider all the way left, toning down your bright reds and blues until you blend in with the generally accepted grey. It’s not only about how ‘severely affected’ or ‘high-functioning’ a person is – it’s often about how they present themselves, which can lead people to say hurtful things like ‘You don’t look autistic’. If you don’t understand why this is hurtful, watch this video.
Some people are so good at hiding their identities that they even manage to fool themselves. Especially women. We are taught from a young age to get rid of our idiosyncrasies, ‘unseemly’ passions and ‘quirks’, or at least not to show them in public. I was in my teens when I first heard of Asperger Syndrome, and I couldn’t really see myself in most of the diagnostic criteria. By then, I’d already smoothened out a great deal of my repetitive behaviour, literal thinking, and social awkwardness and I’d replaced dinosaurs and astronomy with poetry and art as special interests. I became obsessed with learning everything there is to know about human nature. Humans became my obsession. Surely, an autistic person wouldn’t behave like that. Turns out, an autistic girl would behave exactly like that. I only discovered this years later at the age of 30, when I came across this video by the renowned psychologist Tony Attwood. And it just clicked with me. Naturally, I gobbled up everything I could find about autism. I’d spent years trying to perfect my social skills, my facial expressions, my ‘ah’s and ‘oh’s to show interest, sympathy and surprise, my eye contact, paying (back) compliments, building common ground, not criticising anyone too directly. Partly, because I simply assumed that this was just the way people learnt how to ‘human’, partly, because I didn’t want to be bullied and ostracised any longer. But ever since I learnt that I wasn’t defective, just different, I’ve been questioning whether I’ve been unconsciously overdoing it with the masking. Living in a complex and densely-populated society means that everybody has to put on a mask sometimes, but I do think that it’s important to find the right balance. If you lay it on thick, the mask will become brittle, all the little cracks will become visible, one way or another. This blog is part of my personal journey to coming to terms with and embracing my sometimes awesome, sometimes agonising traits, making them more visible, and showing my true face underneath the mask.
In my next post, I’m going to explore what some of my autistic colours look like in everyday life.