I’m on the spectrum and lately I’m becoming more and more anxious at work. I like what I do, but I can’t tell if my boss is happy with my work and I’ve misread or misunderstood my co-workers so many times that I’m sure they think something is wrong with me. I’ve told them I’m on the spectrum and they’ve replied with things like “oh, that sounds hard” or one time a co-worker said, “OK. But you’re smart so you should be able to learn this faster.” I am smart! I know I’m smart! What's difficult for me is taking new instructions and putting them into action. I’m scared I’m going to be fired because I can’t work as fast as they do even though I’ve been told my work is more accurate. What can I do? I don’t want to lose my job!
Dear Privately Panicking,
I’m so sorry you’re feeling like this at work. The good news is, there are several possible solutions. First, I encourage you to formally disclose your autism diagnosis in writing to human resources so that you are protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act. You can use a letter from a therapist, or a copy of your diagnostic report.
Within your disclosure letter, request accommodations. Based on what you’ve written above, two accommodations that come to mind are having instructions provided in writing and having regular check-ins with your supervisor regarding anything you may have misinterpreted. Often these meetings are where the supervisor tells you what you did well or discusses areas of concern. If face-to-face meetings aren’t possible (or are not ideal because of their verbal nature), this feedback could be provided in an e-mail or other written form.
I also recommend bringing your co-workers' comments to the attention of your supervisor or to the attention of Human Resources. I’d like to assume they’re not trying to be malicious, but comments like that can build up to make a work environment feel hostile or unsafe. Comments like these are called microaggressions, and these particular examples are what many people call "ableist". In this case, your co-workers are expecting you to overcome your disability and act less disabled. They are choosing to believe you won't do certain things rather than accepting that you can't or that you need supports in order to complete your job.
After hearing these comments often, it can be easy to internalize the negative beliefs they exemplify. “I should be able to be fast” is an example of internalized ableism. It’s worth taking a moment to examine what is needed to meet your goals as opposed to just beating yourself up about it. Having a disability doesn’t mean you’re defective. It means that customized, thoughtful, and sometimes creative approaches to tasks are needed.
- Disclose in writing.
- Request accommodations. These aren’t special privileges; they’re what’s needed to provide equal access to success.
- Advocate for fair treatment in the workplace if it’s safe to do so.
- Be aware of ablesim and internalized ableism.
I hope this is helpful and reduces your panic! Remember we’re always willing to provide training to employers about autism in the workplace and, if you continue to have problems, it’s worth reaching out to the local Minnesota Center for Independent Living office to talk to their ADA specialist.