Just like most things in our society, we’ve structured the employment process around neurotypical social skills. Unfortunately, autistic social skills do not align with these expectations. It’s disheartening to read in Forbes that “a staggering 50-75% of the 5.6 million autistic adults in the U.S. are unemployed or underemployed.”
As an autistic, I know how difficult it is to get–and keep–a job. We are expected to transport ourselves to a neurotypical world 8 or more hours every day. So much of the employee experience operates against brains on the autistic spectrum. This includes the social skills needed to maintain long-term relationships.
Most workplaces are ripe with social nuances. Learning and participating in them can improve career success. But operating in an environment that runs counter to our innate social skills inhibits our ability to succeed in the workplace.
Companies are not prepared to shift the current formula for success to include autistic employees. It would require an overhaul of the entire hiring and promotion process.
Autistic employees don’t “fit in.”
As the saying goes, it isn’t what you know, but who you know. Networking begins the day you start your new job, and the first step in this process is to build relationships with the coworkers you see every day.
Inter-office relationships are challenging to build. Think about it. Our coworkers must interact with us every day, even if we aren’t, shall we say, their cup of tea.
As Marcia Scheiner said in her book An Employer’s Guide to Managing Professionals on the Autism Spectrum, “Although autism is considered a ‘hidden disability,’ the observable behavior of colleagues with autism is often described as annoying, odd, rude, and uncaring. While many people on the spectrum may want to socialize with others, their social-skill deficits can make these interactions awkward.”
Basically, our coworkers don’t see why autistic employees socialize the way we do. Instead, they experience autistic traits that are difficult to hide, and misinterpret them. To them, autistic coworkers are awkward. In response, they may limit their social interaction with their ‘awkward’ coworkers. They will avoid inviting them to lunch or stopping by their cubicle for a quick chat.
Sometimes, autistic employees will be the subject of water-cooler gossip and inter-office bullying. Autistic employees may see the restricted interactions by others. And, recognizing that they are not included in the inter-office relationships building up around them, can cause autistic employees to further withdrawal from office interactions.
That autistic employees don’t “fit in” according to neurotypical social expectations. In the workplace, this can hinder our ability to keep jobs and promote.
Autistic individuals’ strong sense of fairness works against the social expectations of the workplace.
Probably the first thing young adults learn when entering the workforce is that hard work isn’t enough to push them through the ranks. Mastering inter-office politics is a skill needed to succeed.
Unfortunately for autistic employees, it isn’t that simple.
We can’t wrap our heads around the unfair concept of hiring and promoting based on favorability instead of job skills. Favoritism is “when a person (usually a manager) demonstrates preferential treatment to one person over all of the other employees for reasons unrelated to performance,” as defined by Susan Lucas.
Being the boss’s favorite usually means better annual reviews and raises, the first choice of projects, and improved chances for promotion, even if the favored employee’s work is mediocre. This does not sit well with autistic employees.
We can’t see the purpose of the favorability over work quality and skill.
Office politics is a challenging concept to grasp. In addition to favoritism, employees need to learn to read social situations – not a natural skill for autistics. When should an employee be honest with my boss and when should I tell the boss what they want to hear instead? What does the boss want to hear instead of the truth? Why can’t I be honest?
“Office politics and ‘sucking up’ to the boss are not in (an autistic woman’s) social toolbox and this can cause others to dislike her socially, despite being skilled at her job.” – Sarah Hendrickx, Women and Girls with Autism Spectrum Disorder
Between our social skills and inability to navigate office politics, we are not held favorably in the eyes of bosses. Unfortunately, some bosses will do more for the “socially favorable” and find reasons to drop the “socially unfavorable.”
Autistic employees can do a few things to help maximize their success in the workplace.
Office politics won’t go away. Depending upon the job, some inter-office politics and social skills will always be required to maintain employment and promote. But there are things autistic employees can do to support themselves.
1. Choosing careers that align with our strengths and preferred working environments.
Choosing a career that doesn’t heavily rely on social skills and aligns with our strengths can improve our chances for success. Also, understanding the type of working environment can maximize our resiliency.
“The main problem for most of us (autistics) is that we have a hard time holding onto jobs for social reasons. I cannot stress enough how important it is to work with your strengths and acknowledge your triggers – things that push your autistic buttons – so that you choose the right career path.” – Rudy Simone, Aspergirls
An office environment may not be the best place for some autistic people. Fluorescent lights, cold temperatures, white-noise machines, and impromptu hallway meetings can grind on our senses. Working from home may be more appropriate for some.
I know an autistic person that loves food and can hyper focus on cooking. He is now a chef. The hustle and bustle of a commercial kitchen gives him the excuse to avoid most socializing. Hyper focusing on the plate in front of him propels him forward.
We can increase our chances of success by pursuing opportunities that align closely with our needs and strengths.
2. Become a Subject Matter Expert (SME).
Generally, autistic individuals can focus intensely on a subject; often researching it until fully knowledgeable. We love details. Understanding the details gives us some level of control and order in the subject. Typically, self-learning is an autistic strength.
These skills can help us become SMEs. Thus, becoming a source of valuable information for coworkers.
Professional conversations are a great opportunity to know someone. As subject matter experts, we can share valuable knowledge with coworkers and build a rapport through these interactions.
Autistics find small talk challenging but can talk endlessly about areas of interest. These types of interactions involve less pressure to socialize casually. The focus is on the professional subject matter, not the weather or what-was-Pam-thinking-wearing-that-outfit-to-work gossip.
Building a reputation as a “go-to” person across departments can help boost your career internally. Leaders talk. Make sure they are talking about your skills and expertise.
3. Find a mentor.
There are many benefits for anyone–autistic or not–to having a professional mentor. A mentor can shorten the learning curve, help mentees navigate the office environment, and improve their professional network.
Many companies offer mentorship programs. Autistic employees can benefit from the professional support an inter-company mentor can offer. The one-on-one support for autistic employees can be invaluable.
We all have the right to pursue career ambitions and earn a living. Unfortunately, the workplace wasn’t built with an autistic or neurodiverse brain in mind. It doesn’t mean that autistics can’t be successful in the workplace. Being more purposeful and self-aware can help us align our career goals and working environment to our strengths.