The invisible struggle of people with high-functioning autism

The modern workplace still places a heavy emphasis on the bottom line; employees are perpetually evaluated on their productivity on a variety of metrics, and as long as they’re meeting their quarterly targets, no one is particularly worried about the worker themselves. This means that a whole host of mental health concerns can fly under the radar all in the name of making better profits for the company.

What is High Functioning Autism?

One group who have become particularly adept at covering up their mental health to keep a job are employees with high-functioning autism. This terminology is up for debate in the autism world, with many people preferring to refer to themselves as “low support needs” to demonstrate their independence. These workers are individuals who have an official diagnosis of being on the autism spectrum, but who have developed the coping skills of socializing, organization, and concentration to be able to hold down a full time job with little or no outside support from their employers or an autism talent management agency.

Why Individuals With High Functioning Autism Struggle in The Workplace

            As more and more organizations are realizing the incredible benefits that autism workers bring to the workforce, it is also becoming more clear that individuals with high functioning autism struggle in their day to day working lives. There are many reasons for this, including:

  • Negative stereotypes about their condition – many individuals with high functioning autism don’t tell anyone about their condition as they are worried about the negative backlash that may occur. This isn’t helped by movie and media representations of autistic people to be like “Rainman” or for neurotypical individuals to refer to themselves as “a little bit autistic” when they concentrate hard or mess up in a social situation. For individuals with the actual condition, it can be a daunting feeling telling co-workers and even supervisors so many keep it quiet and work hard to make themselves look and sound like their neurotypical colleagues.
  • Neurotypical social expectations – another struggle for employees with high functioning autism is the continual expectations that all workers will be able to engage in conversations and social settings in a socially acceptable way. If they have kept their diagnosis secret, workers with high functioning autism may come across as overly quiet or socially awkward as they are being held to the same standards as their neurotypical peers, especially when it comes to informal office conversations over lunch or around the water cooler. This can impact their professional relationships and make it harder for them to complete their work and meet their goals.
  • The need for flexible thinking – a final challenge facing individuals with high functioning autism is the constant need for flexible and adaptive thinking. Many autistic workers find success in data driven fields such as accounting and computer programming, but these fields also come with a constant stream of changes and updates that need to be incorporated. While individuals with high functioning autism have often worked out ways to help themselves cope with these changes and to make themselves more flexible thinkers, it will take much more brain power than their neurotypical peers and they will often end up burning out as they have to work harder to achieve the same results if they haven’t told anyone about their autism diagnosis.

How to Support Employees with High Functioning Autism

It’s clear to see from these challenges that one of the biggest supports that a company can give to their high functioning autistic employees is to make a culture where everyone is encouraged to share any mental health conditions that they bring to the workplace. This means asking awkward questions during the application and interview process, and posting autism friendly posters around the workplace to encourage autistic workers to step forward.

Once employers are aware that they have high functioning autistic employees, they should immediately undertake some whole staff training on autism awareness. This will help to break down some of the negative stereotypes that other employees may have about autism, as well as providing everyone with tips and strategies on how to make the workplace a fairer environment both for the productivity of the company and for the social situations that all employees find themselves in.

Finally, the big dream for any autistic employee is to be able to take their rightful place in society. While their condition may require some accommodations, they should be treated equally by both the management and the rest of the staff. When this truly happens, their invisible struggles will melt away.