Autism and Work

Below is an account of a time when other people’s poor communication, and my lack of understanding of myself, led to me having to leave a job for the sake of my health.

Workplace bullying isn’t restricted to autistic people, but it is very common. A perfect storm of social expectations, misunderstandings and being misunderstood, can make for a hostile environment.

There are other issues and barriers to work, there were plenty of other sensory struggles that I’ve not covered here as I’m focusing on the social side.

Here is my story. It’s nothing big or flashy, just a slow decline to the point of being unworkable.

A few years ago I worked in an office. One day IT sent out a request asking everyone to try to use their Messenger system, instead of email, to reduce storage demands.

I didn’t just agree out of duty, I was pleased. A lot of my work involved being on the phone. I find this exhausting and draining. I can’t work out people’s speech as well if I can’t see their lips move. I often ask for repetition, it makes me feel incompetent. It makes me a worse communicator.

So being given an instruction to use a system that suited me perfectly was great.
I started using it.
Being a rule-follower, I used it for work. It became a great way to get information from people. I found myself communicating better with those I worked closely with, but who were based in a separate office.

Then one day my manager appeared behind me. I hated that. I’d be focused on work and would always jump when torn away from what I was doing. My work also involved confidential information, and not knowing who was there, made me panic that they might have seen something they weren’t allowed to see.

She peered over my shoulder. “I see you’re using Messenger.” She said, “That must be nice.”

Then she walked away.

I was confused by the exchange. But then, people say strange things in the name of small talk, so I promptly forgot about it and got on with my work.

I always made a point of working when sat at my desk. I didn’t join in the talk about soap operas and Strictly Come Dancing. I’d try to in my breaks, even though I had no interest at all. But at my desk I was working. I had an excuse not to.

Time passed, duties changed, I took on extra work as the business expanded. I was happy to do it. But soon it became clear that my work load was too great.

I didn’t see this as a judgement. It was just a fact. All the work was new, there was no way of quantifying it until it started. So I did the sensible thing and asked for a meeting with my manager about it. I was on flexi-time, and was steadily accruing hours as I kept on top of the workload. But I was also a parent working full-time. I couldn’t keep taking from my own time indefinitely.

The meeting didn’t go well. I was accused of shirking work I didn’t want to do. I was told that I was often seen chatting on Messenger instead of getting on with my job, “You didn’t even stop using it after I pointed out I had noticed your usage!” She said.

So there it was. She had been bubbling away, fuming at my insubordination for months. To my mind I had obediently followed all requests. Her assumptions about my use of the work systems and her assumptions that I had the ability to understand that saying, “I see you’re using Messenger” was not a statement of fact, but an instruction, left me completely confused and shocked by the whole scenario.

I managed to respond that I used Messenger for work-related requests for information. I offered to pass on work that I enjoyed, rather than work that I knew was less important (which is what I had logically suggested), but I could see all the signifiers of anger and she clearly wasn’t listening to me.

Dismissed, I left her office utterly confused. I had been told to “find the time”. That was the solution to my increased workload.

It wasn’t a logical one. At least not for me.
I really tried. I tried to stay on top of everything. I came in early. I hit all my deadlines for the important things. I prioritised my work.

Outside of work I was a shell. I’d get the children in bed as early as I could and then climb under the covers myself and hide. In the quiet and the dark I would recharge for the following day’s battle. That’s what life had become, a battle. All spare time was wasted on preparing for the next onslaught. There was little joy.

After I dropped the children at school and daycare each morning, I would cry my way to work, then try to hide my tears. I had a lot of “out-of-season hay-fever” that year.

There were two things that I would look out for on my commute. The first was a man who was always out walking as I drove in along a quiet country lane. He was tall and frowny, with grey hair and a gnarled walking stick.
After passing him hundreds of times, I had started waving. It seemed odd not to recognise a fellow human I saw daily. He would wave back, or lift his stick in salute. Sometimes his face would uncrease and smile. Not often, but sometimes. It became one of my few positive daily social interactions.

The second was the sea. I would drive past the sea, and the morning light would bounce off it and into me. It would settle me before the hostility. I would breath deep and sigh. Then drive on.

It wasn’t long before I got called in by senior management. Again I stated (as a fact) that I did not have the time to do certain tasks. I listed off the additional work added to my role since I had begun. He seemed surprised by the amount of it, but it didn’t change his view. I was being awkward and rude by saying that I didn’t have the time. I had to find the time.
He then told me there had been complaints about me. About my lack of “team-playerness”, about my curtness, about my arrogance. I left hollowed.

I could do no more. The next day a doctor signed me off as utterly burnt out. I had let my children down by destroying myself for the sake of a job.

My mind slowed. It stayed slow for a month. It hurt. I couldn’t make sense of the logic of any of it. I was completely lost. My work had always been right. People from outside my department praised my accuracy and hitting of targets. They told me personally that no one in that role had been as consistently productive as me.

Yet my own management disliked me and liked me less and less the more I did. One of the criticisms levelled at me in the weeks before I left, was that my voice was too low, and they couldn’t always hear what I was saying when I was speaking to other people. Not to them, but when they were trying to eavesdrop. That was a fault of mine.

I never went back. I handed in my resignation and was lucky enough to find a new job very quickly. I was exhausted. I was broken. But the new place was kind and supportive. They embraced what I could do. They were careful about workloads. They listened to me and smiled.

A little while later I heard that the person who got my job was off with stress.
Shortly after that they turned my role into two full-time posts.

It was a dark time for me. There were concerns that I had missed due to taking things literally. That was combined with poor management and communication. It all happened pre-diagnosis.

My fault lay in assuming that people are as honest as I am. I assumed that it was my work that mattered most, and not my interactions with those around me. I assumed that I would be believed if I asked for help. I assumed that if there was an issue, I would be told outright that there was an issue. They’re all fair assumptions. If the world was built for me they’d be the truth.

It was hard walking away. I felt like I was letting everyone down. I felt like a failure.
I felt slightly less bad when (still signed off with stress) a colleague from another department contacted me to say that the work was just piling up on my desk, waiting for my return. That’s no way to treat an employee who is ill.

My new manager later told me that no job is more important than the person doing it.

I still wonder if my man with the gnarled walking stick noticed I was gone.

38 thoughts on “Autism and Work

  1. Reblogged this on thequestioningaspie and commented:
    I had to leave a job that made me ill too. I still can’t help feeling that I failed and let people down. And people wonder why we’re anxious, and assume it part of our “pathology”.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Sorry to hear this happened to you too. I think it’s very common sadly.

      That feeling of failing can be hard to shake. But it wasn’t us that failed. We were failed by poor management and a lack of understanding.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Hardest part was that everyone there was on medication and sick leave because of work-issues, but my diagnosis made me stick out. I worked so hard but always felt it wasn’t enough (I’m not good at knowing when the problem is ‘too much work’ and not ‘I’m not working hard enough’ – I’ve always had, and known I’ve had disabilities that make work slower for me, so I have no idea how much extra I need to do to compensate – just feel perpetually lazy.)

        Liked by 3 people

        1. Sounds like the place was not a good environment full stop. Good communication means good feedback. Which means you know exactly where you stand and don’t have to guess.

          Liked by 3 people

  2. I think there are plenty of NT:s just like me that have been there too, I am right now… Workplaces are like the lottery, if youre lucky you are in a place that takes care of you and if you are unlucky your in a place like the one you just wrote about. Hope you are still in a place that treats you right and sees you for who you are and what you can do. Im in a job thats good fore me, yet stress from before this jobb have me knockdown at the moment…

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Sorry to hear that. It’s another reason why I keep banging on about so many little things that can be changed. It’s not just about making workplaces more accessibly for autistic people, it helps everyone! Clear communication is good for everyone. Supportive management is good for everyone. Decreased sensory input can help everyone.

      It’s definitely a general issue that can and should be dealt with.

      I’m glad you’re currently in a good environment 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. As I said before; it’s to bad the word isn’t for autisticpeople because it would have been better for all of us. Just saying! More logic, less stress and less nonsens talk… Instead what we get is the opposite all the way 😡

        Liked by 2 people

  3. My experience of the workplace is that it is an extension of the school environment and social skills seem to hold more currency than capacity to work effectively. By that I mean the kind of gossipy interplay that constitutes the power game of popularity. May sound sexist but so much worse in females than males. If you stay out of it accuse you of arrogance, if you join it you invariably get in wrong or exhaust yourself. A friend who works on Occupational Health, after years of counselling stressed employees in the public service took to describing many professions as a blood sport. The worst thing about Autistic Spectrum in women is their tendency to blame themselves, despite having done nothing wrong.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. I think you’re right about the social skills being more important than productivity. I’m not a game-player in any aspect of my work. I put a lot of effort in to try to fit, and it was never going to work.

      I now know why. With a bit of clarity and hindsight, it’s clear.

      My latest workplace was all female and supportive, I don’t know if it’s a sex thing, or actually that they are being sexist. My male boss definitely was. It was certainly an alien culture for me.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Heartbreaking. Thank you for writing about this – a complete injustice – as so often happens we are the only ones who follow the stated rules and miss the nuance of communication when the NT habit of not following their own rules strikes. But as you found in the second job it was also a problem of unpleasantness and exploitation – people genuinely being unkind and unfair. So glad you are out of the unsympathetic and hostile workplace!


  5. I think that is why jobs such as teaching or nursing or wherever focus has to be on the task are a more comfortable fit. If is any comfort lots of neurologist-typical a leave jobs with significant ‘social’ demands for the same reason you did. Don’t mean to do my sex down but perhaps it seems that way because of the gender stereotyping of employment.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. This is a sad story, but beautifully and honestly written. I think many workplaces are like this, and office and social politics come before real work. I could never do small talk in the office, or anywhere else, either. Just not interested in the things everyone else seems to want to talk about. Loved the old man and the sea. I am the same – I like to find things I can do or look at in my routine that make me feel good, and distract me from the bad or difficult bits. Looking at the sea or a lovely view is very soothing. It is maybe something all we autistic folk do?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It think you might be right. I definitely see looking at the sea as visual stimming. It was so important to me. As things got worse I’d use my lunch breaks to go to the cliffs and watch the waves.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. That is very interesting. I love watching the sea and water, and being outdoors. When I was at work I always had to have a walk at lunchtime to be outdoors, and to relieve the tensions and pressures.

        Liked by 1 person

  7. Urgh! I am so, so glad you are out of that. A waste of your talents and personality. I have noticed two major workplace things that are inconsistent with our aspie nature. 1) that small talk is more valued than graft and 2) that letting everyone know that you are working hard is more valued than just quietly getting on with things (because otherwise how will anyone know that you are working hard!) I suck at small talk and can only work by finding the most efficient way of doing things and then focussing on actually doing them and so, despite being damn good at what I do I am the least valued.

    Years back when I managed a small team I was most appreciative of the quietly efficient ones. Can’t understand why that’s not universal!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I still think the best method is to assign work, and then let the person get on with it. Work from home? Great. Prefer an office? Great. No phones, just email? Not a problem! You’ll never be judged by your irrelevant social interactions.

      I’m not saying that there aren’t jobs where that’s important, but we can all work to our strengths.

      Liked by 2 people

  8. As I discover so much of my blind spots are Asperger’s, I look back on many very similar situations as you’ve described and I’m losing my shame. Losing my shame at always getting played, never seeing it coming, trusting the wrong people.
    I never fit. Too smart and too dumb at the same time.
    But now I get it. People are allowed to be dishonest bullies, so they are.
    I’m not ashamed any more. I went into things with nothing but the desire to do a great job.
    It’s these people who are disordered, not me.
    I couldn’t figure it out, FOREVER, why I was such an easy target.
    No matter where I lived or how I looked, I was always a patsy.
    It was like being molested throughout my childhood.
    I thought it must be a mark or a sign over my head.
    NOPE. It’s fucking predators.
    I’m just here, looking at the birds and the sky and thinking what a wondrous place!
    They’re looking at me thinking, I bet I can steal something good from that sucker.

    I got a book about dealing with these kinds of people in the workplace. Halfway into I realized, the book was telling me to be more like the sociopaths. NOPE. The way I’m made is better. It just means I have to be patient. Because there’s a lot more of them than any psychology book will say. We live in a culture tainted with sociopathy. I don’t care what they say, I have loads of empathy, I am crippled by my empathy and sorrow at the suffering in the world. I’ve spent my life surrounded by people telling me that the way I feel is weakness, wrong, and unacceptable. NOPE.
    I’m just going to be patient and wait for the folks who feel the same way as I do.
    Man, there’s not many around and that scares me.

    Liked by 3 people

  9. I’ve left a couple of jobs because of stress, resigned with nothing to move on to. My employment history is filled with instances of me being complained about/pulled up by managers for ‘disrupting the work environment’ with what I now know were, all along, autistic meltdowns. I have often been overworked, and my home life has suffered. I was dismissed from a temping job I had shortly after graduation because of inappropriate behaviour.

    I have, however, been INCREDIBLY LUCKY to have always worked – at least since finishing my BA – with supportive colleagues and managers. I can’t honestly say I’ve suffered workplace bullying, and it always astounds me when I hear of it. It’s just awful – I hate that you had to experience this, Rhi.

    Whilst I haven’t experienced bullying at work I can’t deny, however, the huge negative effect being an undiagnosed autistic person in an NT working world has had on my confidence, ability to progress, and so on. It’s why I pushed my local service to get an earlier assessment. I love my current job, but felt I needed something in writing to confirm to my department that I needed certain types of support.

    Funnily enough, autism and work is something I’ve been thinking of writing about myself recently. My experiences are very different from yours, but part of the growing picture of adult-diagnosed autistic women’s employment experiences.

    Thanks for sharing this xx

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I could not agree more. Going into an office isn’t necessary for so many things. It’s another example of “We do it like this because this is how we do it.”

      Liked by 2 people

  10. The situation you describe is exactly where I am now. Right in the middle. On sick leave and completely burned out. I thought this sort of thing was unusual. I’m sad it isn’t but I’m also reassured that I’m not the only one. Thank you – reading your experience has really made a difference.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m so sorry you’re going through similar. Do you have a decent HR department? Make sure you put your health first. No matter what, the job is not worth your wellbeing.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Thanks. You are quite right. I won’t be going back. It is a tiny company which has no HR department. Just me and the boss and the guys in the workshop. But my health comes first. And I’m resting and recharging and getting support where I can. It’s been month since I was put on leave by my doctor and I’m only now starting to get some distance and perspective. Time heals 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It does. You will heal from this. Whatever you do, don’t feel guilty about walking away. It’s not giving in, it’s putting you first.

      It’s appalling that you’ve been treated this way. There are so many good, supportive workplaces out there. I hope you find one when you feel ready.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. You’re very welcome. I remember only too well what it was like and how much I needed to know it was ok to move on. You’re out of it now, that’s the main thing 💐


  12. I am so sorry at what you were put through, you and others who have commented. I have been through it too and will never go back to work now. I am near retirement age. I am going for an assessment next week, hoping to find a reason for so many of the difficulties I have had throughout my life. Just found your blog tonight. Thank you for writing it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! It was a tough time, and taught me a lot about how ridiculous people can be! There are some things I’m glad I don’t understand. Sorry to hear you’ve had similar 💐


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s