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  • Writer's pictureAutistic Animist

Autistic Workplace Accommodations, Disclosure, Neurodiversity Training and ERGs

For today, Day 6 of my 30-days-of-blogging challenge, I want to wade into the enormous topic of Work and Employment from an autistic perspective. In just one blog post, I can only scratch the surface, and I’m well aware that my personal experience of this topic is just that--my own experience. There will be common themes throughout my workplace experiences that relate directly to my being autistic, and there are also some tremendous privileges I enjoy due to other aspects of my particular circumstances which are not common among adult autistics.

I had already planned to broach this topic today when I woke up to see the wonderful Yenn Purkis had also just posted about it (specifically the topic of disclosure at work), so I will link that post below in the resources. I deeply respect and appreciate the work Yenn does, and I resonate a lot with their perspective of being “out” at work and how this is important to (and somewhat unavoidable as a result of) the advocacy work they do. This is exactly how I felt about finally pursuing official diagnosis (as I wrote about over the last few days) and beginning to disclose my autistic identity in certain contexts, as well as starting this blog, engaging more directly in self-advocacy, etc.

But disclosing at work? That’s trickier… for me, at least. I am not exactly keeping the fact that I’m autistic a secret, though I haven’t outright told anybody at work, and I don’t plan to do so for the time being. I’ve started to express my neurodivergence more specifically (including masking less and being more explicit about my work preferences--what are my strengths and what would I like to do more and less of as I progress in my career) but haven’t brought out “the A-word” yet. I chew on this on a daily basis.

Part of my reasoning has been that I want to lay some educational groundwork first. In some (non-work) contexts, I’ve felt comfortable identifying as autistic and then immediately taking on the burden of educating the person I’m speaking with as to how, yes, I really am autistic even though I don’t (seem to) fit their stereotypes. I don’t believe that this is a great position to put myself in at work (yet), so instead I come at the subject from the side. My hope is that at some point I will be in a position to disclose my diagnosis and be met with, “oh, yeah that makes sense and explains a lot of what you’ve already shared” rather than shock and discrimination. It’s a hope.

One thing holding me back is the lack of Employee Resource Group (ERG) for Neurodiversity or for Disability at my company (whether or not you consider autism a disability, there is a certain amount of overlap in terms of work-cultural understanding when it comes to accommodation for neurodivergence and disability or chronic illness). We have ERGs for other marginalized groups, and recently have been paying a lot of attention to increasing diversity and education around unconscious bias in the workplace. But as yet, this diversity has not expanded to include neurodiversity or diverse ability.

Here’s the thing: I work in tech, for a Silicon Valley-based startup to be specific. It’s (fairly) well documented that there are actually… kind of a lot of neurodivergent (and specifically autistic) folks working within technology. No, not every autistic person is some kind of computer or numbers whiz (this is a stereotype that harms a lot of autistic people), but some of us are, and we’ve naturally gravitated toward this kind of work because it allows us to play to our strengths and avoid some of the challenges we would face in other lines of work. In many ways, we don’t “have” to disclose because we fit right in among others like us--we dive into the stereotypes and hide there. I myself chose my current employer precisely because the majority-remote (even pre-COVID) workplace allows me to work effectively without needing anywhere near as much specific accommodation as I would need in an in-office setting. I can stim without anyone knowing, I can control my sensory environment (to a certain degree), and I can minimize face-to-face interactions.

Where this becomes a problem is that I do still have marked differences from the neuromajority, and what can be played off as “quirks” to avoid discrimination are actually significant impairments in certain contexts. Most of the time I can crack jokes about my bluntness, my social awkwardness, and I can playfully say things like “please don’t put me in front of clients!” But these are not really jokes, not really playful preferences. It will actually have substantial, negative impacts on my health if my “quirky preferences” are not honored. And I play a constant game of walking on the edge of trying not to seem like too much of a “diva” while still ensuring I’m never put in a position where I could make a major blunder that would cost me my job.

Wouldn’t it be easier to just disclose? Yes and no. If I could trust that my employer genuinely understood and respected autistic adults and was willing to work with me, then of course it would be easier than playing this awkward game. But I really can’t be sure of that--and in the past, I’ve worked in environments where “autistic” was actually used as a slur against other coworkers (who were not “out” as autistic, but may have genuinely been on the spectrum--or may not). When there isn’t a collective, community-level understanding of what autism is and is not, we are always at risk of having one of our autistic traits perceived as a kind of willful misbehavior or “performance issue,” regardless of how it actually impacts our ability to do our jobs (and whether or not reasonable accommodation could mitigate that impact).

This brings me back to my point about ERGs and other company-wide conversations about neurodiversity. I know that ERGs are not cure-alls and that companies can certainly pay lip service to diversity initiatives (including neurodiversity) without actually being safe workplaces for those among marginalized groups. At the same time, I do believe that open conversation and ERGs are a good starting place for promoting neurodiversity at work, and I’ve been encouraged to see some tech companies opening up about this (including Yahoo, Microsoft, and Automattic, all linked below). I’ve also encountered a number of autistic advocates and educators who offer neurodiversity training for the workplace, including NeuroDivergent Consulting, Neurodiversity Training International, AUsome Training and Aucademy (also linked below). For me to consider publicly embracing my autistic identity at work, I’d want to see some tangible commitment in these directions.

And this leads to the sort of chicken-and-egg problem of autistic disclosure at work: for those of us “fortunate” enough not to be forced to disclose, how can we push for neurodiversity initiatives without first disclosing? Many marginalized groups don’t have the privilege of concealing their marginalized identities, so this question doesn’t come up as directly. But I believe it’s always present to a degree. How much do we choose to mask or downplay our true identities to avoid possible material ramifications (loss of income, loss of health insurance), and how much is that choice a function of privilege--can you afford to lose your job? And how much do we have a responsibility to put our own livelihoods at risk in order to stand up for those of us who don’t have the privilege of masking so well (for whatever reason--maybe higher support needs in general or particularly incompatible combinations of skills and sensory needs)?

I don’t have answers to any of these questions. I do believe I have a responsibility to take care of myself, as an autistic person, for the sake of other autistic people. I also believe I have a responsibility to push whatever boundaries I can afford to in order to speak up in ways that could create space for more autistic people to have better workplace accommodation. For now, I might not have the spoons to start that ERG, but I can keep the topic alive and continue to self-advocate. And I can stick up for the sensory needs of my colleagues, whether or not I know them to be autistic. In small ways, it is possible to shift culture to be more accepting of neurodivergence even without ever talking about it directly.

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