When I think about autism and employment I think about my own journey. I spent many years unable to work due to anxiety. I was unemployed and underemployed for many years. I did roles which were not suited to my skills but I aspired to full-time professional work. I finally achieved that goal in 2007 joining the Australian Public Service as a graduate.
Openly autistic and proud of who I am, I navigated the world of work and was quite successful. I have been promoted twice since then and earned a reputation for being a hard worker and an asset to my team. My current supervisor says I do the work of two people.
Mine is a ‘success story’ but not all autistic people do so well. Autistic women have some specific challenges around employment but also some great strengths. I want a world where employment is not remarkable for autistic people and where employers get to benefit from the skills and strengths of autistic women.
Autistic women can be incredible employees but often face challenges to enter the workforce and stay in work. Autistic women face the kinds of challenges that other autistics face but also some gender-based ones too. If you look at those who are trans and gender diverse (like me) there are further considerations to be aware of as well.
Some of the issues autistic women can experience in the workplace include:
- Misdiagnosis or no diagnosis. Knowing that you are autistic is a key part of identity for autistic people. Without an accurate diagnosis it is that much harder to get the supports required to thrive. Autistic women are considerably more likely than autistic men to go missed or misdiagnosed.
- Women generally tend to have less confidence in themselves and their capability at work. This is particularly challenging for many autistic women.
- Doubts as to their competence. While all autistic people can experience this it is particularly problematic for autistic women. Previous negative experiences at work can feed into this.
- Hyper-empathy. Picking up on the emotions of those around them almost as if by osmosis is a quality many autistic women have. I remember working in a team with a very angry colleague and I could sense her walking towards me long before I saw her because I sensed her anger. This can be a challenge in the workplace, especially as many people don’t understand this or are unaware of it – including the people experiencing it!
- Co-occurring neurodiveregnces and / or mental health issues. Autistic women often have other neurodivergent conditions such as ADHD/ADD or dyslexia. They are also more likely than others to experience mental health issues.
- Autistic women can have the full range of challenges that other autistic people have in employment too, such as sensory processing disorder, issues with interviews and applications, challenges in following long lists of instructions and difficulties with interpreting the social communication of neurotypical people.
A few strategies can be employed to support autistic women to thrive at work. These include:
- A manager who is approachable and available.
- A manager and colleagues who have a good understanding of autism – both generally and what it means for the individual employee.
- A work environment which is supportive and understanding where bigotry and bullying are not tolerated.
- An organisation with a willingness to employ autistic people.
- A work environment which is not sexist or misogynist and where women are involved at all levels of leadership.
- Respect for diversity and inclusion in the workplace being modelled by senior management.
- Availability of workplace modifications such as for sensory issues.
- Access to mentors / coaches.
Autistic women can do great things at work. To view autism as a disability or a deficit can be counterproductive when unlocking the potential of autistic women. The disability element of autism can be seen to be associated with societal determinants more than inherent deficits. By that I mean that autistic people are often disabled by the attitudes towards autism and difference in society and the implications of this.
When seen in terms of their strengths and when encouraged to utilise their various attributes, autistic people of all genders can be some of the most effective employees. This is borne out in the evidence from the evaluation of programs such as those offered by Specialisterne. Employers have found their autistic employees to be productive, professional and highly effective and proficient.
When designing employment services for autistic women there are some additional considerations required given that women face discrimination in society too. The concept of intersectional disadvantage is a really helpful way of approaching this given that autistic women face disadvantage as women and as autistic people. They may have other levels of disadvantage too. Understanding this can make all the difference.
Autistic women represent what has up until recently been an untapped resource for employers. Understanding how to support autistic women to succeed at work and how to support their managers to manage them well will benefit employers and autistic employees.
About Yenn Purkis (formerly Jeanette Purkis). Yenn is an autistic author, presenter and advocate. Yenn has six published books on elements of autism, has given many keynote presentations including for TEDx Canberra and represents on several advisory boards and committees. Yenn has had a number of media engagements including featuring in the ABC documentary Alone in a Crowded Room. Yenn is active in social media, publishing weekly blogs and a daily meme since 2014. Yenn was named the 2016 ACT Volunteer of the Year and has a number of other awards for community leadership. They even feature on a mural of local heroes in Canberra where they live. Yenn has facilitated a women’s support group in Canberra since 2011 and mentors a number of young people on the autism spectrum. Yenn also works for the Australian Public Service. Connect at www.jeanettepurkis.com