Why Autistic People Can Struggle in the Workplace
Why masking, fatigue, emotional regulation, and communication can cause issues.
Posted November 18, 2022 | Reviewed by Devon Frye
- Autistic people are often particularly suited to some roles, to the extent that they are specifically targeted by some companies.
- On the whole, however, autistic people tend to face problems in the workplace, like interpersonal issues or sensory overload.
- Workplace issues may lead to autistic people leaving jobs, being overlooked for promotions, or experiencing work-related mental health issues.
- Seeking out support can help alleviate workplace stress.
Research finds that autistic people tend to face problems in the workplace,1 including changing careers regularly and struggling to navigate workplace relationships. We know that autistic people can be particularly suited to some careers, to the extent that some large companies specifically take steps to hire autistic people. So why do so many autistic people struggle?
Based both on my own work with autistic clients and on research on people’s experiences in education and the workplace, I've found that the following themes repeatedly emerge.
1. Difficulty following rules.
Autistic people tend to respond well to set ways of working and routines. This would appear to be a bonus in the workplace—and it can be, but the rules have to make sense.
When an autistic person develops a routine that they strictly adhere to, it makes sense to them at some level. When they have to fit into a routine that someone else has developed, and the rules seem arbitrary, it can be especially hard for an autistic person to accept, likely due to the cognitive inflexibility that is a characteristic of autism.
My client Diane once told me, “If something doesn’t make sense to me, I can’t follow through. The thought of sticking to rules that I think are stupid makes me physically ill and gives me huge anxiety. My parents have tried to explain that I just have to follow the rules, even if they don’t make sense, but I find it almost impossible.”
2. Difficulty dealing with change.
Autistic people often become very stressed when confronted with change. In the workplace, there’s potential for change to happen overnight, often in a way that is out of the autistic person’s control. The anxiety of trying to cope with change can lead some people to leave their job altogether.
Another client, Martine, described herself as “unable to deal with the change in procedures and management." She told me, "I’d been perfectly happy up until that point and then everything—from when we were expected to be at work to who we had to report to—was different. I thought I’d adapt over time but it seemed like a totally different job to me. I ended up leaving when my stress levels became unmanageable.”
3. Interpersonal problems.
The social and communication problems often experienced by autistic people can make it hard to form relationships at work. Whether it’s facing difficulties in socialising after work or struggling to comprehend office politics, the social pressures of work can render the whole experience unbearable. Another area in which autistic people can struggle is working as part of a team, particularly if they have expertise in a specific area that they find difficult to include others in.
My client Angela described herself as very blunt. "When there’s a job to be done, I see no point in wasting time with niceties or taking ages to explain a concept," she explained. "I find it very hard when other people don’t understand me and I like to get the point as quickly and succinctly as possible. I’ve been pulled up about it in every job I’ve had. And it’s not helped by the fact that I have no desire to socialise with colleagues after work.”
4. Wrong career choice.
If someone is lucky, there will be an alignment between their career goals, opportunities that allow them to pursue those goals, and the reality of their careers. However, without knowing exactly what a career entails, an individual may not know whether he or she is truly suited to the chosen career.
This is potentially true of everyone—but autistic people may be at a particular disadvantage because they may have little idea of the types of things that are likely to cause extreme problems. And when someone is autistic, simply learning more about the job and getting used to the career they've chosen isn’t necessarily going to make parts of the job more manageable.
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5. Fatigue and masking.
Autistic people often have problems with sensory processing. Add this to issues with emotional regulation and communication issues, and it's easy to understand why autistic people tend to become easily fatigued. Many jobs place emotional or sensory pressure on employees to some extent, which can leave autistic people feeling exhausted. In addition, many autistic people will mask their autistic traits in the workplace; constantly having to put on an act is tiring and stressful.
My client Anya told me, “I really liked my job in retail, but I was absolutely shattered at the end of the day. There was nothing in my life but work and lying in bed. I know other people at work didn’t experience the same thing.”
6. Difficulty progressing.
Autistic people have brains that tend to like to get deeply into a subject. When they’re at a level in their career where it’s difficult to progress, they can end up becoming frustrated and disengaged. What's more, some autistic people may be held back from progressing because of interpersonal problems.
Deena told me, “I’ve always had this problem at work where I get stuck in a middle management, project management type of role. I’m really good at my job, and great at project management, but I don’t think I relate well enough to people to be promoted to a higher management role that involves people management skills. I also don’t network enough. So I’m stuck in these roles which are not intellectually challenging enough for me, and which don’t allow me to really use my brain, and I get bored and move on.”
How Autistic People Can Better Navigate Their Careers
Although the level of support available will depend on the industry in which you work and where you’re based, many larger companies will have a duty of care regarding staff mental health needs. You may feel awkward about asking for the right type of support—but if employers and colleagues don’t know you’re struggling, they’re not going to be able to offer you any support.
It might also be important to look back on your past employment history; what’s the implication of staying silent? Many autistic people love aspects of their job and, with the right help and support in other aspects, they can continue to pursue a career path that is right for them. Some others might find, as they learn about autism, that it’s time to think about pursuing a different path.
1. Chan, W., Smith, L. E., Hong, J., Greenberg, J. S., Lounds Taylor, J., and Mailick, M. R. (2018). Factors associated with sustained community employment among adults with autism and co-occurring intellectual disability. Autism 22, 794–803. doi: 10.1177/1362361317703760