Autistic Employability in the Time of Covid-19

By Megan Lambert

“In order to talk about autism and employment as honestly as I could, I wrote two pieces with two different focuses. The first focuses more on autism and employment for potential employers, and the second speaking to a personal experience that will hopefully provide other autistic folks more comfort. I hope you learn something from them!”

ISAW Employability Essay #1: Business Focus

As an autistic college student, I’ve spent no small amount of time grappling with my future in employment. Getting—and keeping—a job for people like me can be an uphill battle. When we do find jobs, it is often through non-traditional methods: online networking can be easier than in-person interviews, the gig economy can be more approachable than networking, and internships may be a long-stay despite their lower pay and lack of staying power. When we do find jobs, the “atypical” method of our work styles and approach to work can ultimately result in less stability, lower pay, and more stress. As COVID-19 spreads across the U.S. and worldwide, autistic people like me are increasingly worried about what our futures will look like. In such uncertain times, there is an increased need for our society to reckon with the neurodiversity of our workplaces, nonstandard employment, and employee value.

            I’ve turned to alternative employment strategies because the working world generally isn’t built with people like me in mind. Like many autistic people, I’m incredibly detail-orientated and a fastidious worker, but also prone to find verbal communication difficult. I also have anxiety, another common trait amongst autistic people. In most workplaces, this is a barrier. Interviews, which emphasize spoken communication, eye contact, and “surprise” questions panic me. When I find gigs, work online, or take an internship, some of these loads are lightened; here, there is more freedom for me to communicate on my own level and ask the questions I need answered to do good work. Communication in these types of work is often more asynchronous: I have the time to think out what I need to do and say.

            There’s something interesting, I think, about all of these features of my work life (and, in reality, the work life of many autistic people): they are all uniquely well-suited for our new reality. As more and more work makes the move to a digital landscape, employers and employees everywhere are needing to spend time relearning work. For many neurodivergent workers, the internet is familiar. While schedules and offices are disrupted, autistic people have experience (and perhaps benefit) in working in strange places and times. Many of us fair better with asynchronous, written communication; interviews become less possible, autistic people can use our years spent discussing and discovering accessible non-interview job seeking formats, such as tailored job tryouts, to everyone’s benefit.

            I don’t think these strengths and skills are unique to pandemic times. No matter how long our society spends in self-quarantine, these skills have broad appeal. One more recent piece of autistic-coined terminology can help to guide a changing world: neurodiversity. Neurodiversity, akin to biodiversity, describes the existence, and indeed benefit, of a multitude of types of brains. Like biodiversity, neurodiversity is crucial to a happy and healthy community, workplace or otherwise. Where autism has historically been seen as a negative, more and more autistic people and our employers/employees have discovered that autistic ways of thinking fill needed gaps in society. While it’s true that no two people are alike, the stereotypes around autistic people exist at least partially out of truth: as lovers of detail, pattern, and routine, we can be an important balance to the modern workplace which emphasizes extroversion and aggressive go-get-‘em leadership skills. We’re also often practical realists. These are all great perspectives to have during any time. Despite being famous for our work in STEM fields, autistic people have also have strength in other fields. As a writer and artist myself, autistic attention to detail has done me wonders in my work. Autistic skills, after all, are widely useful in many fields and thus have much to offer in any time or workplace.

            I can’t write meaningfully about autistic people’s worth as employees without being frank about what that means. I mentioned earlier that workplaces are often hostile to autistic people, and despite changing times, this is still largely the case. As workplaces begin to realize the vitality of neurodiversity, they must also create real effort to make sure that their environments are friendly to all types of brains. Change, here, doesn’t only exist for autistic employees: making sure that your workplace is able to communicate and work together in a multitude of ways can help strengthen the whole team. Change does mean change, though, and lasting change is perhaps the most important.

Innovation shouldn’t end here. Neurodiversity may be a key component of the changing workplace. Including diverse brains means building on many workplace changes that happened as a result of coronavirus, strengthening new systems, and planning for a long-term strategy that knows its own growth points. It means that, more than ever, neurodiversity’s strengths in the workplace are in the spotlight. Autistic people certainly know it.

ISAW Employability Essay #2: Personal Experiences

Throughout the last few years, I have spent time exploring “atypical” work environments. I work part time, take internships, and do consulting. Much of this work has been from home or has involved tight schedules and travelling. As a trans autistic person, this type of work has been a godsend: as someone who struggles working the 9 to 5, often on a strict schedule and gated behind socially intense interviews, I struggle with the average workplace. Atypical work environments have allowed me to thrive on my own time while providing meaningful work for my employers. They’re often safer, too: I can better control who I work for, what parts of myself I share, and what I decide to do. However, my strange, autistic approach to work has become more difficult with the rise of COVID. It’s also become more valuable.

            I am not the only autistic person I know who approaches work differently. No two people are the same, and that includes autistic people, but there is some truth to be found in the stereotypes. Many of us find spoken communication hard; written or digital methods can be easier. We often have our own daily routines that help us manage energy levels, sensory problems, and change-based anxiety. We might work differently, and that can often mean working in bursts, walking or moving while working, and sometimes distracting self-stimulation techniques like humming, rocking back and forth, or talking ourselves through our work. We’re also often exceptional at working online, as many of us have spent the last few decades immersed in the digital: there’s no eye contact online, and digital social communication pushes people to communicate clearly. Plus, aren’t we famous for being nerds? As work moves online, autistic people can find solace in work environments that are often better suited to our styles.

            Unfortunately, we’re also more likely to be left behind during the pandemic’s impact on the workforce. Most jobs, after all, weren’t digital before COVID-19. As companies struggle to keep afloat, autistic people may bear the brunt of layoffs and rising unemployment rates. Precisely because we often struggle in traditional workplaces, we might not be seen as worth keeping. During these times, I call back to my time working “atypically”: writing from home, working with supervisors to create physical workplaces I can access, asking questions and requesting more written communication. I’ve done exceptionally well and enjoyed myself. In accommodating environments, I have been able to truly take advantage of my odd working style and its strengths, which do well to balance out the more standard strengths of many of my non-autistic coworkers. Here, and elsewhere, though, I struggle with imposter syndrome: it is far too easy to feel like I don’t belong, like I haven’t earned my keep, or that I’m only tricking naïve supervisors who will surely see my folly any moment and move to someone else.

            I fear for myself and other autistic people. We are all-too-often prone to imposter syndrome, self-doubt, and fear of failure. I don’t think we should be; we have strengths that shine strongly during the worst of times. You see, our skills and our strengths are valuable, but autistic folks aren’t the only ones who are needed here. Recently, the business world has been picking up more on an autistic-created term: neurodiversity. Neurodiversity refers to the broad diversity of and value of different types of brains, and this applies to the workplace too. It’s good to have all types of workers, as different brains bring different skills. It drives innovation and it nourishes workplaces that values teamwork, creativity, and thoughtfulness. It’s also meaningless without changes.

            If autistic people’s talents are to be meaningful in the workplace, pandemic or otherwise, autistic people and other people with non-standard brain types need to be uplifted. Autistic people, too, belong in leadership. Non-standard working styles are meaningful and will continue to be so after the pandemic is in our distant memory, but they will only be meaningfully possible when we realize that the pandemic-inspired changes to our workplaces need to stay and be built upon. When we design workplaces with multiple methods of communication in mind, multiple workflow styles, multiple social strategies (extroverted and introverted leaders, for example), and broad flexibility in mind, we will be better in the long-term.

I don’t want my style of working to be atypical anymore. As a result of the pandemic, many workplaces have discovered that changes to the standard workplace are possible. Let’s build online infrastructures, foster multiple ways of working, and lift each other up. It’ll lift up our workplaces and our employees at the same time. I want diverse, multi-faceted workplaces that welcome all types of workers as valuable. You should too.

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