Autistic Women in the Workplace by Barb Cook

Typically, autism is viewed as a male condition with stereotypical preconceptions that all autistics must, for instance, be mathematical savants and their career paths are in IT. Wrong. In this article I want to highlight some of the inaccurate perceptions of autistic people, in particularly women, look at the many benefits of employing autistic women and to encourage autistic women to follow their employment visions, embracing what will serve them well. I also want to emphasise that even though this article focuses on autistic women, this advice and information is applicable to all genders and ultimately it is for you to decide what best works for you.

What should I do?

Deciding on a career path doesn’t have to start early and does not have to be set in stone. If you are just starting out on your employment path, ask yourself, what am I passionate about and compile a list. This list does not have to be employment focused. It can be hobbies you enjoy, types of books you like to read, your preference between writing or speaking. Do you enjoy writing creatively or journalistic style? Are you introverted or extroverted? Many people on the autism spectrum are introverted, but find when they are doing something they love, can become extroverted.

When you have created a comprehensive list, you will start to see a pattern of preferences and style you have. Often, we don’t realise until we objectively write down and evaluate our values and passions, that there can be particular employment pathways that we are suited to. This can even be with the food we eat! If you are a vegan/vegetarian for example, you certainly might not consider working as a butcher.

But there is also a flip side to this when you carefully consider your future. For example, it may initially appear to a person with strong environmental views, that they would not be suited to working in the mining industry. These industries are often viewed negatively in environmental terms, but, these very same industries have extremely high standards and legislation to abide by to minimise environmental damage to the surrounding landscape. A person on the autism spectrum may be highly valued in a position as environmental safety officer due to their attention to detail, their moral views in upholding legislative environmental laws and finding creative solutions with ‘out of the box’ thinking in how to reduce environmental impact.

Now, these very same strategies in considering what employment best suits you, also work with people of all ages. If you have been job seeking or working for many years without job fulfilment, or have had a variety of jobs that never worked out, taking these very steps of re-evaluating what is important to you and your values, will help you to decide on how to approach your next career path.

As an autistic woman myself who is now 50 years of age, I have finally found my passion in working in the area of employment and supporting my fellow autistic peers in finding contentment through the right employment. After experiencing a lifetime of failed job positions and resigning myself to the fact that I would never hold down a long-term job, it wasn’t until I received my diagnosis at mid-life over 10 years ago that I could re-evaluate what I wanted to do and to do work that suited me and my neurology. I certainly didn’t expect to be gaining my Master of Autism in education and employment also at the age of 50, and it goes to show, when we learn about ourselves and what works for us, we certainly can grow and flourish.

I also want to emphasise that many women are not receiving their diagnosis, and more often, the correct diagnosis until they hit mid-life and are at breaking point. I want to highlight to women who are in this stage, it does get better with understanding of yourself and support from peers who get you. It is something not to be contextualised as a negative, but a starting point of creating a life that now works for you. You have the opportunity to take hold of your future.

Employing women on the autism spectrum. A smart move.

Autistic women have a wealth of skills and talents to offer business. Some of these skills are viewed as ‘soft skills’ and are valuable in every workplace. The following are some of these skills and how valuable they are to the workplace from the standpoint of a person on the autism spectrum:

Leadership skills. Autistic women have a great capacity to be strong and ethical leaders. Many autistic women are inherently empathetic and compassionate and have strong values and standards, that are essential skills in being a good leader in managerial and supervisory roles. With high standards held for themselves, these skills assist in creating a supportive and inclusive workplace, not just for fellow autistic employees, but for all employees.

Teamwork. It is often stigmatised that people on the autism spectrum can’t work as a team. This is a fallacy. Many autistic women work well in a team environment when that environment is inclusive and supportive of all members. It may appear that the person is working independently, but upon closer observation, the autistic person may need a quiet environment to work effectively in and to reduce sensory stress, which will allow them to come together with the team at specific times to collaborate and to present work they have completed in an environment that was supportive of their specific needs.

Communication skills. Another poor misconception is that people on the autism spectrum are poor communicators. Again, with the right supports and the acceptance of a variety of communication methods, autistic people can, in fact, be very effective communicators. Autistic women are inclined to support and help fellow employees who may be struggling and will reach out to them. As a high proportion of autistic women have experienced difficulties within the workplace culture, they can be an enormous asset in supporting new employees and helping navigate the workplace nuances and expectations. Having an understanding mentor within the workplace that intuitively gets you, can reduce anxiety and isolation significantly.

Work ethic. Autistic women have some of the highest standards of work ethics which must be embraced as a crucial element of a dedicated and loyal employee. People on the autism spectrum make valuable long-term employees as they are dedicated to doing their job well, and when supported within the workplace to be the best they can be, they will often be the employee who will be the longest serving. Respecting the autistic employee for the value and worth they bring, along with regular communication, feedback and supports, guarantees success not just to the business, but builds a successful and meaningful future for the employee. It is a win/win for everyone.

Accommodations in the workplace.

Providing and accessing accommodations within the workplace is an essential element in creating a genuinely inclusive working environment. Employers must be open and dedicated to creating the best outcomes through the provision of suitable supports for all employees. Employees also must have the opportunity to effectively communicate their needs and supports that will aid them in working effectively, plus, implement any supports, strategies and tools they have acquired that will improve their working environment. Addressing these accommodations is a two-way street and should not to be viewed as 50:50 partnership. These supports vary dependent on the person’s individual needs. For example, you may only need to have noise cancelling earphones to help you effectively work. These accommodations can be implemented by the employee, without the need of employer support. Alternatively, if the employee’s desk is positioned in a problematic sensory situation, e.g. under bright lights or near a noisy staff room, it is then the responsibility of the employer to work with the employee in finding a better position or find solutions to reducing the sensory overwhelm. Essentially, open communication between employer and employee will drive positive and productive outcomes.

Opportunity to grow.

With the understanding and coming of age in embracing neurodiversity within the workplace, inclusive practices are strengthening and allowing for a wider range of diverse thinking and creating positive growth within business. Autistic women bring a unique strength, compassion and high work ethic to the workplace, that must be embraced and an environment provided for them to grow. These women, when supported and given every opportunity to flourish, become the role models of a dedicated and loyal employee, they are the potential compassionate and moralistic leaders of our future and can be pioneers of a new way of thinking and evolving together that benefits not just autistic people, but every person within the workplace, creating a truly inclusive work culture.

Originally published for Specialisterne Australia here.

About Barb Cook

Barb is an Autism and Neurodiversity Employment Consultant and a registered Developmental Educator (DE) who is passionate in supporting, consulting and mentoring on employment issues for neurodiverse adults and employers. Barb has a Master of Autism (education) with focus on employment from the University of Wollongong, where she is also a tutor in this program and a research assistant in the area of self-determination and self-advocacy for adults on the autism spectrum.

Barb was formally identified on the autism spectrum along with ADHD and phonological dyslexia at age 40, and is editor and co-author of the internationally acclaimed book Spectrum Women: Walking to the Beat of Autism, and editor in chief of Spectrum Women Magazine.

As a Developmental Educator, Barb focuses on developing individualised learning strategies, tools and supports with positive outcomes for individuals across the lifespan. Barb embraces a collaborative approach by working with health and educational professionals, support staff, employers, employees, families and caregivers to develop their skills, knowledge and understanding of a person-centred approach in fostering positive support and enhancement of life outcomes. Barb has extensive experience in working with people on the autism spectrum, ADHD and dyslexia, especially with adults in creating pathways in attaining life goals in the areas of education, employment, health and interpersonal relationships.