An engineer with autism explains how she has succeeded in the workplace, and what employers can do to be more supportive
AUTISM Spectrum Condition (ASC) is what it says on the tin – it is a spectrum and a condition. People with ASC are characterised by communication and social impairment issues, sensory issues and repetitive behaviours. This condition presents itself very differently in women than men due to certain physiological differences.1 It is debilitating in some people, but at the other end, some go on to manage it exceptionally well and have jobs and relationships.
Thankfully, I am one of the latter.
If you are reading this, it is likely you are working in engineering or science. Research has showed that individuals working in STEM careers have more autistic traits.2 Also, children of autistic engineers, scientists and accountants tend to be over represented in STEM careers.3 And while autistic people are stereotyped heavily in the media, the reality is that no two people experience this condition the same. Most of us go unnoticed, falling through the cracks of society and its machinery, designed largely for a ‘typical’ population. The truth is, most of us with autism barely get by and every day is a new minefield to navigate. As Temple Grandin, a fellow autistic person and prominent spokesperson on the condition put it: “I am an anthropologist from Mars.”
My experience of the workplace and its unspoken rules may be relatable to a small percentage of readers. It has been a learning curve and is something in which I don’t claim to be well versed to this day, and probably will never be.
I am an engineer at heart and would not be one if I weren’t autistic. Daddy-daughter fun times for me were day trips to the hydroelectric power plant or the local rail depot to look at electric locomotives, or taking the washing machine apart. From a young age, I have loved the buzz of a problem and tend to break it down easily and creatively to arrive at the root of it. I organise my work with the greatest efficiency. I am a reliable and consistent performer in the right environment. I can be trusted to execute certain critical tasks. I see patterns everywhere and refuse to forget what I learn and experience. And despite my abysmal change management capabilities, I am effortless in gliding through work and its uncertainties.
On the other hand, I am a stickler for routine and a schedule to the point of frustration, and interested in very few things. I do not like vague instructions to a task; building personal rapports with bosses, peers and customers; organised fun; making small talk; or being political or diplomatic. I struggle with sensory issues, and mild synaesthesia can leave me absent and distracted at the drop of a hat.
Lack of social tact means that I don’t cast a favourable impression at work. Mindless banter affects me far more negatively, as I don’t understand it. My hesitation on acting on vague instructions portrays me as disinterested, lazy and arrogant. My lack of participation in social events gives the impression I am haughty, aloof and anti-social. When I first started working, almost 14 years ago, I was also reprimanded several times on my timekeeping.
While autistic people are stereotyped heavily in the media, the reality is that no two people experience this condition the same. Most of us go unnoticed, falling through the cracks of society
All this miscommunication makes me wide open to bullying and nine times out of ten, I don’t realise it. About 48% of autistic people are bullied at work.4 The bullying pattern is the same all of the time and starts with an offhand comment about my work or my general ‘weirdness’ from a manager or a colleague. I can recall one example when a lead on a project went the extra mile to keep tabs on my movements by tracking timestamps of documents I had worked on. Every single day for two-to-three months, they indiscreetly shouted about my ‘transgressions’ in an open plan office for everyone to hear, which was carte blanche for other engineers to also have a power trip at my expense. I had to seek professional help just to wake up in the morning and face the team. I also had to overcome feeling extremely suicidal. I was eventually signed off for stress and was left unpaid for three months.
The one time I think I genuinely came close to being physically assaulted was when a colleague began shouting and lunging at me with a large powder scoop, completely unprovoked, in the middle of an experiment. I dropped whatever I was doing at that point and fled to where they couldn’t get to me. When I managed to summon some courage, I picked up my things and absconded. This left me numb, in shock and unable to work for weeks. This happened in a well-known, large manufacturing site in the UK, which would definitely have an anti-bullying policy in place.
I still struggle to interpret the meanings of these interactions and nothing ever materialised out of me speaking about them. As a coping mechanism, I tend to overcompensate by double- and triple-checking my work and then never finding the confidence to turn it in, thus affecting my productivity. This would happen a few times and then, I’d be written off. That would break me and I would find ways to leave the position quickly without even stopping to look at my options. The two incidents I mentioned left me paranoid about my finances and I tucked away a lot of what I made as savings just in case I needed to get out of work in a flash, when I should have been saving up for a house, or travelling, like my peers did.
A YouGov survey conducted by the National Autistic Society quickly reveals some alarming statistics. Only 16% of autistic people are in full-time paid work. 50% of autistic people surveyed said that support, understanding or acceptance would be the single biggest thing that would help them to be employed. This data has been steady from 2007, and it can be said that there is not much improvement despite pledges from government to lower the disability employment gap.5
From personal experience, a candidate in the autistic spectrum is greatly hindered in the interviews and applications process. Only 11% of autistic survey respondents were offered reasonable adjustments in consideration of their communication and sensory difficulties and a meagre 3% were offered an alternate interview process.4 The whole process for individuals with ASC could be free from mass applicant filters, for example, psychometric tests, which puts them at a disadvantage.6,7 They would benefit greatly from being given competency questions before their interview to prepare and rehearse. They may also benefit from seeing the team to break the ice after interviews so that they can judge how they can fit in. Experiencing the environment first hand, ie, a soft launch, would be the holy grail.8,9
After all this time of being misunderstood, I have witnessed first-hand how some openness, acceptance, patience and support could allow me to be genuinely happy at work. As a result, my productivity and creativity are now at their highest
That said, people with autism may not even know they have the condition before they enter the world of work. I got an official diagnosis aged 30, two years after being self-diagnosed. Thankfully, when I disclosed this to my current employer, it was met positively and with enthusiasm. Since the disclosure, I can recall numerous instances where my difficulties have been taken into account and dealt with sensitively. For example, last year when the department had to restructure, its impact on me personally was handled with care and I was given constant assurance that my work would not be impacted. Ahead of a simple office move, my manager had a dialogue about an appropriate desk location along with an extra quiet space up in the laboratories. I am empowered to talk about my quirks with colleagues and it has not affected our collaboration. My ASC was never mentioned or held against me when I started a full-time university study programme funded by the organisation. Meetings with me are, thankfully, structured and succinct, and do not have to involve small talk. My manager will allow me to rehearse and prepare with them for meetings that may involve some diplomacy.
After all this time of being misunderstood, I have witnessed first-hand how some openness, acceptance, patience and support could allow me to be genuinely happy at work. As a result, my productivity and creativity are now at their highest. My stunted career has finally started to experience a growth spurt, and I have some confidence to think about what opportunities I could pursue, as I am sure I will be coached to meet those competencies.
In this article, I have offered my personal take on how my employer has closely collaborated with me to manage my condition in the workplace. After I disclosed my diagnosis, we started out by making use of resources on the web to decipher certain technical terms related to the condition followed by plain, frank conversations. We all worked hard to create an environment that is open, safe and runs both ways. For example, if I balk at an assigned task, I am gently reminded that there are some things in the workplace that need doing, and that I may not find some of them interesting. If an instruction is vague, my manager understands that I will ask them about it repeatedly until I am clear because I am strategising an approach. I tend to seek an outlet for my bursts of creativity and my colleagues, within reason, will hear me out immediately, or let me know explicitly to come back at a certain time. They are also aware that I hyperfocus and will be single minded about what I want. The company also has a specially trained occupational health practitioner to consult on an ad hoc basis to make sure mine (and others’) needs are being met.
Empathy, sensitivity, openness and awareness go a long way in harnessing the qualities of someone who is autistic. It all starts with positive, open and non-judgemental dialogue
Most employers can do something similar without a significant resource burden. Right from the interview stage, they can ensure they are catering for candidates’ needs. Rather than dismissing people with ASC and branding them difficult, or being short with them, some patience and empathy could be instilled in the workplace towards their condition. Boundaries could be gently set and previously unspoken rules could be made clear in words, statements and conversations. Managers could have brief one-to-ones frequently to ask for and provide feedback. Plans, agendas, weekly targets and diaries may be used to effectively manage workflows. Employees may have behavioural goals built into their annual performance each year and be given an opportunity to meet them in a controlled environment. If resources are available, there are plenty of services providing awareness training and managing the introduction of autistic employees in workplaces.
As a conclusion, empathy, sensitivity, openness and awareness go a long way in harnessing the qualities of someone who is autistic. It all starts with positive, open and non-judgemental dialogue. Most of us want to be given the right opportunity to disclose our condition. Most of us are willing to work with employers on how best to manage our behaviours. Like the ‘typical’ population, we would also like to be seen as contributors, and not as liabilities. Most of us do not expect special treatment and will go above and beyond, given the right environment.
Now, I am not compelled to retain emergency savings. I have made enough progress with my communication skills to be able to positively influence and negotiate with my colleagues and bosses on how I can contribute. I can now dare to dream where I would be in five-to-ten years – and it is not aimless job hopping. And the best thing – I now go out for dinner and drinks with my colleagues.
The author has chosen to be anonymous in this piece so that her experiences are the main takeaway from this article. She is a female chemical engineer in her 30s and has been in the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industry for all of her career. She has had roles in process engineering design, product development, manufacturing support and process safety. Currently, she works in a biotechnology-based manufacturing unit, handling pilot plant operations and designing small-scale process models for manufacturing processes.
1. Lai et al, “Quantifying and Exploring Camouflaging in Men and Women with Autism”, Autism, 2017, vol 21(6), 690–702.
2. Ruzich et al, “Sex and STEM Occupation Predict Autism-Spectrum Quotient (AQ) Scores in Half a Million People”, PLoS One, 2015, 10(10):e0141229.
3. Wheelwright S, Baron-Cohen S, “The Link Between Autism and Skills such as Engineering, Maths, Physics and Computing: a Reply to Jarrold and Routh”, Autism, 2001, 5(2):223-7.
4. Autism employment gap report, https://bit.ly/3aXRvPy
5. Employment campaign, www.autism.org.uk/get-involved/campaign/employment
6. In The Government Legal Services v Brookes, https://bit.ly/3b0vos7
7. “Autistic job seeker with ‘hidden disability’ awarded £18,400 compensation”, https://bit.ly/2u2sUIV
8. “Daniel: An autistic employment trial kickstarted my career”, https://bit.ly/2RGnxIv
9. Hillier et al, 2007, “Outcomes of a Social and Vocational Skills Support Group for Adolescents and Young Adults on the Autism Spectrum”, Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities, vol 22(2), 22. 107-115.
– For more resources including information for employers and managers, please consult the National Autistic Society (NAS) webpage, focussing on recruitment and employee retention, www.autism.org.uk/professionals/employers
– For an insight into the legacy and history of autism, I – recommend you read Silberman, Steve (2015), Neurotribes, The Legacy of Autism and How to Think Smarter About People Who Think Differently, Allen & Unwin.
– For resources focussed on women and girls, please see Sarah Hendrickx (2015), Women and Girls with Autism Spectrum Disorder: Understanding Life Experiences from Early Childhood to Old Age, Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
Catch up on the latest news, views and jobs from The Chemical Engineer. Below are the four latest issues. View a wider selection of the archive from within the Magazine section of this site.