Contributions at home, at work, in the arts and in policymaking, is the theme this year that the United Nations wanted to focus on.
The purpose is to change the narrative around autism and move away from past stereotypes that have seen autistic people as individuals to be ‘converted’ or ‘cured’. The aim is for autistic people to claim their dignity and self-esteem, and to become fully integrated as valued members of their families and societies.
So, who better than an autistic self-advocate, employed in a creative role for a policy making organisation, to answer this call?
As a part of my personal and professional commitment as an autistic person, every year I like to do something to celebrate this Awareness Day, and I am here once again to talk about my living experience, and even offer my expertise to create a better and more inclusive work environment.
If you want to know more about me and my self-advocacy work, please visit www.aspergerpride.it
How can we better help?
Supporting neurodiversity is a modern topic of debate, and more and more trainings are offered by employers for supporting colleagues and managers, but
this isn’t a simple task; it is a work that involves the joint commitment of many people:
– the autistic person
– the employer
– the whole staff.
If you want to champion, or be an ally for, the autistic cause first of all you have to understand what autism is.
What is autism?
Autism is a neurobiological genetic condition that compromises the ability to communicate and consequentially makes it really difficult for autistic people to build and maintain relationships.
There are many different variants of autism, and abilities can be developed, lost, and recovered during a whole life. Some autistic people may have a higher cognitive potential and adaptive skills and less evident symptoms, making this kind of ‘disability’ invisible at a first glance.
Within the same community some people identify with their autism and they don’t feel to have a disability, whereas others feel like they’re in need of a better support and see this support denied.
And this is the kind of ‘autism at work’ I will focus on in this article.
Autism isn’t just a seasonal flu
Autism is just the skeleton of the complexity of a whole person.
Differences such as gender, personality, personal preferences, background, culture, individual experience, daily mood, personal growth, and development, vary and add into it, and then merge together.
It is really important to deeply understand that every autistic person is different because it means there isn’t a magic pill in terms of support.
There isn’t a standard way to help
Autistic process happens secretly but manifests visibly in ‘autistic common behaviours’.
In order to challenge stigma and negative stereotypes, the advocacy balance often swing towards highlighting sensationalistic aspects of autistic people, and this is great, but at the same time it creates unrealistic expectations in people who want to be allies. This can result in them understanding even less about this really complex topic, and in the end not being able to be supportive in a real situation and giving up.
This is why I think it is necessary to give a realistic scenario about how sometimes autistic people may be perceived under a non-autistic lens:
- We may be perceived as rude.
- We may completely ignore good manners, (please, thank you, good morning, birthdays, cheers, compliments and so on).
- We may say everything they think with no filters.
- We may really unintentionally make you feel hurt.
- We may have unexpected reactions to apparently harmless factors.
- We may not be able to recognise the appropriate code for a situation, including clothing, language, etiquette.
- We may not instinctively recognise leadership, authority and adapt to it in a conventional way.
- We may place themselves unwarily in dangerous situations without fully understanding the severity and the risk of it.
- We may be perceived as irritating, presumptuous, and pedantic.
- We may not understand or apply the expected social response to different situations and circumstances.
- We may come across as outsiders.
All of these factors do not make it easy for a supportive employer and an inclusive colleague to help.
Tips for managers
So, first, if you really want to help you must be able to fully embrace the commitment and understand that autistic people will never be easy to manage.
Appropriate and successful support:
- may increase your workload
- may put you in difficult positions
- may involve you in taking unusual and unpopular decisions.
If you are excited and passionate by the opportunity to make a difference in the life of an autistic person, this is what you can practically do to help.
I say potato you say tomato
Differentiations in autistic brain areas result in a different perception of the same environment, and misunderstanding between autistic people and society that, as a consequence, it is lived with maladjustment by autistic people.
It is important to understand that the autistic adults that have been successful in being employed are carrying with them the baggage of the trauma of negative experiences related to structured social environments. They may have experienced, or they may still be experiencing, bullying and deception due to their naïve nature, and they may have an unbalanced self-esteem.
For this reason, they may need constant reassurance and to be complimented with their work, you will need to use a higher level of compassion and empathy than you generally have with a non-autistic team member. At the same time, be prepared, you may perceive it as you are not receiving that much empathy and compassion back.
Keep your mind wide open and your heart wider
Even if more information about the topic is circulating nowadays, being open about your diagnosis at work still involves some risks. I want to share some examples of real responses to it:
- Not being believed, and diagnosis seen as an excuse.
- Being considered a person with mental health issues in the worst and most stigmatising sense of that.
- Being considered as a person with diminished capacity.
- Not being taken seriously.
- Being excluded from opportunity of progression and roles of responsibility.
- Being a victim of prejudice and discrimination.
- Being singled out by colleagues.
- Not being offered/losing the job.
Be smart be brave
Since the moment a person made you aware of their diagnosis at work, they offered to you their complete trust. Please recognise this and change the narrative by changing the response. So:
- Increase your level of tolerance and trust.
- Believe in the person and make them feel believed.
- Do not assume what they can, or they cannot achieve.
- Always take the person’s concerns seriously.
- Offer more opportunities.
- Step up in favour of the person where you might not
- Always support the person in group situations.
- Do not evaluate performance on interpersonal and social skills but on the ability to do the work.
- Recognise the merit even if behaviour sometimes may be missed.
This kind of response may not make you popular and may be the cause of concerns, disappointment, and conflict within your team.
This is why it’s very important you are able to create a very healthy environment and gain the complicity and the will of your team to work as a team to support the autistic person.
I hope this helped you to know more about autism and why it is so difficult to find inclusion.
I thank you for your interest in supporting the cause and the autistic community.
Did you find this article useful in understanding and supporting autistic people at work? Your feedback is very important to me to improve please let me know.