On Being Autistic

by Tammy Harman, Careers Coach, Evenbreak

Last month, the Office of National Statistics (ONS) released its ‘Outcomes for Disabled People in the UK’ report for 2020. It’s the first year the ONS has asked people specifically whether they have autism, and it’s not before time. 

The numbers in the report are stark. The ONS claims that in the six months before June 2020, only 21.7% of autists were in any kind of paid work, part time or full time. That presents an even grimmer picture than the 32% stated in the National Autistic Society’s 2016 Autism Employment Gap report. The ONS numbers are undoubtedly affected by the arrival of Coronavirus in March last year, but it’s not clear by what margin.

Both stats are shocking.  But they are also probably wrong. Not because they over-estimate the struggle of autistic people to get into and stay in work, which is pervasive and immense – but because they under-represent the challenges of people with undiagnosed autism who are trying to do the same.

I don’t show up in the ONS data. My diagnosis came in October 2020. By then, I’d already been in the workplace for over twenty years.

It would be easy to assume if I could exist in the workplace for twenty years before getting a diagnosis, there couldn’t have been much that needed changing. But you’d be wrong. Of the more than twenty years, at least five of them have been spent recovering from burnouts.  

Autistic burnouts happen for a variety of reasons. They tend to be prevalent amongst high-functioning autists who expend a lot of effort masking their condition. Many of them don’t even know they’re doing it. Stressors build up over time – the train taking you to work being overfilled with people who jostle you, the lights in your office being too bright, the fact that you seem to stop a conversation dead just by joining it, the noise of people talking loudly in the corridor outside your office (which is already too small for its five inhabitants), the noisy rhythm of the photocopier which is simultaneously a comfort and a torture, why you never seem to get things quite right no matter how hard you try. The list of stressors is endless. And because the stressors aren’t always recognisable to the autist, like an overfilled balloon suddenly everything goes ‘bang’.

The ‘bang’ lasts a long time. My most recent ‘bang’ lasted three years. I’m still recovering.

Mental health conditions like anxiety and depression are commonplace amongst autists. They’re also more likely to have more than one chronic health condition. Sometimes, mental health conditions are written off amongst undiagnosed autists as attention-seeking, when in fact autistic people often find it extremely hard to ask for help. Amongst autistic women, it’s common to be misdiagnosed with bipolar disorder or schizophrenia. 

None of these are reasons not to employ people with autism. In fact, autism is probably already present somewhere in your workplace, whether you recognise it or not – or whether the undiagnosed autist recognises it or not. 

If I had been given adjustments and a diagnosis earlier, I would have been able to stay in several of my previous roles. Working from home, as I do with Evenbreak, is ideal for me. I can close my own curtains, dim my own lights, and use some of the earplugs in my industrial-sized box when the fans on my PC get too much. I also have managers who do mental health check-ins regularly with me, and since we use MS Teams I can respond in writing. This is a very helpful adjustment when it comes to expressing my needs as I can find faces distracting if I have to ask for help.

I bring over 20 years of work experience and skills to Evenbreak, many of them gathered as a result of autism and not in spite of it. I am conscientious, analytical, detail-oriented, loyal, honest, people-focused and kind. I am also, unlike the common autism trope, absolutely hopeless at maths.

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