Task Interruption at the Office: Hell on Earth for Autistics

We all know that interrupting someone is rude. Our parents taught us that. Our teachers taught us that.

It’s frustrating to be engrossed in a task or conversation and be interrupted. Just about anyone, neurotypical or neurodivergent, is irritated on some level.

I envy the person that can pick up a conversation with, “Now where was I? Oh, yeah! So, as I was saying…” I’ve never been that person. The person that can take a few moments to remember and pick it up the conversation again. Me? If I’m interrupted, I need to start the thought process over from the beginning.   

For autistic people, interruptions are on another level. Forget irritated – try emotionally shattering. I’m so involved mentally in the task that when someone interrupts me, I’m ripped out of my body. I’m thrown off and expected to pay attention to the interrupter. But my attention doesn’t want to let go of the original task. It’s mentally and emotionally jarring.

Masking is virtually impossible at this moment. Attempting to stop the look of frustration and avoid a terse response is hit or miss.

The response to being interrupted during a task at work is amplified. The interruptions aren’t a sometimes thing, they are excessive. It’s exhausting to shift focus to the interrupter then shift back to the task at hand. It’s like spending all my time sorting coins only to have someone come along and throw them all around the room. I can’t jump into the task where I left off, I need to start at the beginning to reorganize the information in my head and follow the thought process all over again.

On top of frequent socializing, task interruption is probably one of the main causes of exhaustion for me. At the end of the day, I’m frustrated and on edge. I can’t focus on anything. And I take all that home. Sustaining this work method just throws me into meltdowns and burnouts.

Notifications for chats, phone calls, email dings, meetings, and people randomly stopping by my cubicle. For much of the pandemic, I’ve worked remotely – desk drops are replaced with Teams chat notifications or unexpected calls.

Even though meetings are scheduled, they too interrupt my work. I don’t have the time to focus deeply on a project before shifting over to another meeting. When autistic people focus, we can lose all track of time and miss a lot of our own body signals until the last minute. When I’m focused, I don’t know when I need to go to the bathroom until it becomes an urgent feeling. Even though I know a meeting is coming up, I’m so focused and lose track of that time that the notification reminding me of the meeting is a frustrating interruption.

Lately, I started exploring a few options to reduce the interruptions. Blocking large chunks of time on my calendar, turning off notifications, and silencing my phone help a little. But they don’t stop the persistent co-worker or boss in an environment where every employee is expected to jump at any moment’s notice. I live in fear of being fired because I set up boundaries that others don’t.

If we really want to create inclusive work environments for autistic people, the entire way companies work will need to change. That’s what companies don’t understand.

It isn’t a few accommodations for the autistic person – it’s how everyone in the office works. Although interruptions effect autistics at a much greater intensity level, they do negatively affect the overall productivity of everyone at the office.

According to University of California Berkley, “The length of our recovery time depends on the complexity of our task; ranging anywhere from 8 minutes for simpler tasks to 25 minutes for more complex ones,” and, “Frequent interruptions can also lead to higher rates of exhaustion, stress-induced ailments, and a doubling of error rates.” 

Avoiding interruptions isn’t just good for autistics, its good for the entire workforce. If only we could rely less on accommodations (which many companies do not approve or support anyways) and more companies overhauling the way they work.

When the entire company culture is aligned on reducing task interruptions and maximizing productivity, autistic employees – and employees with other neurodiverse conditions – benefit as well.

If only, right?

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