Managing Whilst Autistic

Experiences of a late-diagnosed autist grappling with how to be an effective middle manager

I attended a webinar run by UK-based autistic-led support organisation Autangel, entitled Working While Autistic, which brought together four autistic people to talk about their experiences of employment, what challenges they'd faced and what things had helped. The panel (quoted from the event webpage) was:

“Charles Burns is a silhouette artist who was diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome at 40. You can read more about Charles’s work, and see examples on his website.

Mary Doherty is an autistic anaesthetist, researcher and founder of Autistic Doctors International.

Cos Michael is a regular host of our online talks and events. Having worked for the BBC and NAS previously, Cos now works as a speaker, trainer and consultant on autism and ageing.

Fergus Murray is a science teacher, who is also committee chair of Amase (Autistic Mutual Aid Society Edinburgh).”

I was struck by Mary's experience of working with autistic student and junior doctors, and in particular her observation that those who thrived were those who 1) had a passion (relevant special interest?) that would help get them through the hard times; and 2) who learned to mask but in such a way that they were able to treat the mask as a role they were playing that could be put aside when in safe situations alone or with trusted colleagues/friends. Since I'm late-diagnosed and only just learning about how my autism affects me, I'm grappling right now with how ingrained and unconscious my mask is: it's exhausting to be so ashamed of some of my natural tendencies (like stimming and special interests) that I can't properly indulge them even alone, so this ability to mask and unmask at will is something I really want to develop.

Cos's experience of working in a large and bureaucratic organisation that loves its open plan offices resonated strongly. She found that being open about her autism in such an organisation (even one supposed to champion autistic needs!) led to one-size-fits-all adjustments that were infantilising rather than empowering. The example she gave was preferring to give a direct verbal answer to a question rather than having to fill in a form: the employer's response was not to improve the processes but to take away the form-filling work and give it to her manager instead.

My employer is currently redeveloping the office where I'm based and while I would like to use “I am autistic” to add weight to arguments about how that new environment should look, I'm also aware that having those needs come from an openly autistic person can lead to them being dismissed: they are something that can be dealt with as an individual adjustment and therefore discounted from the overall design of the space.

Fergus, Charles and Cos all spoke of the value of flexibility in their work, Fergus having found a niche in private education (the only area that really permits part-time teaching with regular hours), and the other two as freelances. Charles mentioned the joy of being able to employ a PA as part of his business to take on the parts of running that business he finds difficult as an autistic person and focus on what he loves; this is counter to the common understanding of “running your own business” where society expects us to be a “businessperson” first and the actual work of that business only a means to an end. A business owner who is doing the operational work of that business is seen in some way to be failing because they should be focused on the business side.

It gave me a lot to think about! The webinar was recorded but I'm not sure if that recording will be shared more widely: if it is I'll try and remember to add a link here.

There was a little break-out session after the end of the main workshop, and those of us who wanted to were put into smaller groups to chat. I found this really affirming, hearing different people talk about experiences so similar to my own, but also those with challenges that I could help with and solutions for things that I struggle with. The thing that made me really sad was that this was my first encounter with a majority-autistic audience in a webinar that seemed to really be about me and there was no obvious way of continuing the conversations that began.

Context: this is an anonymised version of a response I wrote to the announcement that my organisation will, over the course of the next few months, phase in an expectation that all staff (no qualifiers given) return to working on site at least 3 days per week.

I read our chief executive's recent announcement of the next phase of our “return to normal” with sadness and a sense of inevitability. For over two years now, many of us at my organisation have worked hard to not only survive our new situation but thrive, keeping those services that did not require our physical presence on site running without a pause, even while public recognition from our senior leaders was given exclusively to those whose work remained visible on site. That recognition was deserved many times over — our colleagues working to look after our physical assets, to begin opening our buildings safely to the public and provide services for them to use, to make sure staff, visitors and the buildings were kept safe and secure, and much more besides, were asked to endure risks that those of us working hard in our kitchens and bedrooms were not. It also left many of us wondering if the work we did was valued at all.

For those of us with (visible and invisible) disabilities, personal situations or other circumstances which lead us to be more productive and creative when in control of our space, or spared from distracting sights, sounds and smells, or able to avoid the physical barriers to work that don't exist for our colleagues, working from home was a revelation. I am autistic, and until 2020 never fully understood how much of my potential was being sucked up coping with the constant barrage of sensation of working in a noisy, constantly-changing open-plan office like that in the building I work in. My support needs are low and I am a successful professional: I can't imagine the relief that must have been felt by colleagues more severely affected.

The organisation asks us to live by a set of values, and I do my best. Two of those values relate to respect, fairness and diversity, so it's frustrating to see what, to me, is a clear imbalance in the changes to rules on hybrid working. Those whose physical or mental health, personal or family situation mean that they are happier and more productive working on site have the flexibility to do so up to 5 days a week; by contrast, those who are most effective working from home are free (from September) to do so no more than two days a week, and must work in suboptimal conditions for the remaining 3 days.

One argument is that those people still have a legal right to flexible working requests and reasonable adjustments. But by making one way of being the expected norm, those of us who don't fit that norm are made to jump through administrative hoops to justify our right to have our basic needs met. This doesn't just apply to the formal processes for agreeing such an arrangement: even if my line manager agrees to me working the majority of my time from home, other colleagues know only that I seem to be breaking the “rules”. Should I have to disclose my disability, one with significant stigma attached which may impact judgements of my capability and competence, just to satisfy a colleague I only interact with a few times a year that I'm not being given unfair treatment?

In my case, I only learned a few years ago that I am autistic. Until then, I had thought that everyone struggled constantly, as I do, to focus enough to be creative and collaborative in a busy, noisy open-plan office. When lockdown came in 2020, it was incredibly stressful, but at least I was lucky enough to have that offset by being able to work in a quiet, calm and stable environment: had I been obliged to continue working on site as well, I would certainly have rapidly burned out.

Instead I thrived: I knew that other members of my team would be struggling much more with the isolation and lack of stimulation, and worked hard to make sure we took advantage of the new technology being made available to us to continue having the social and collaborative interaction we all (even me) needed. For those of us living close to each other, I suggested we meet locally in small groups when it became safer to do so.

It was hard work, but I gladly did it, as did many of my disabled colleagues here and elsewhere, because I knew this was a way I could use the new found benefits of my situation and my lived experience to support my colleagues and our users at a very difficult time. I also wanted to prove that this new ability to work in a situation that fully suited me could benefit everyone.

It's particularly galling, therefore, to see the apparent desperation of the organisation's leadership to abandon that work, and to tell me that in fact I have not been creative, productive or social as I had thought. How could I be? I'm told I need to return to that open plan office to experience the benefit of these things. I've even heard thinly-veiled suggestions from colleagues that people working from home are simply skiving, and no attempt has been made by leadership to correct that misapprehension, instead focusing on how glad we will surely all be to get back to normal.

Normal did not work for me. I am a highly successful professional with a deserved and hard-earned national and international reputation in my field. It took a global pandemic for me to understand that others in my position did not have to fight the same constant headwind and to give me a taste of a situation where neither did I. I have so much to give and for the first time I don't have to give quite so much of it just pretending to be like everyone else.

Another professed organisation value expects us to innovate and adapt to change. Overall, the Library's leadership have done that throughout the pandemic, as have we all. It's sad therefore to see them rushing headlong now to discard the hard work and benefits of our recent listening, innovating and adapting by trying to return to the world of 2019 that no longer exists.

There are several distinct kinds of advice given to autistic managers, and while much of this is valuable, it often seems to focus on the autistic traits that are considered “disordered” and make it harder to “get on” in the (neurotypical) world. This is an attempt to catalogue those for future discussion. I'll probably have to come back and update it from time to time.

I've so far identified 5 types of advice:

  1. The advice which is given to neurotypical managers too. Managing people is a skill that doesn't come naturally to most people, so all managers will need advice and training at some point in their career. This doesn't stop being useful just because the manager is autistic: much of it is still useful, and it serves an additional function of giving us data to better understand the people we work with. But often it feels a little bit off for me, or is somehow harder to put into practice than it should be because I'm missing some key bit of information or intuition that apparently we're all expected to have.

  2. The advice on how to minimise the negative impact of your autism. This is usually taken to mean the impact on neurotypical people, directly or indirectly, and usually comes in the form of explanations of things that NT folks do but which don't come naturally to their autistic colleagues. Don't get me wrong, this is also useful, but it does mostly place the responsibility on the autistic person themselves to do the work of adapting to a world not designed with them in mind. Sometimes the delivery can be frustratingly patronising too...

  3. The advice to work around difficulties by avoiding responsibilities that might expose them. This might be helpful, but more on the level of career advice than job training, and needs to take careful consideration of the individual's unique range of abilities and not fall into the trap of making sweeping generalisations. Remember: if you've met an autistic person, that means you know one autistic person; don't assume because a challenge is insurmountable for some autistic people that it's insurmountable for us all. But don't force us to e.g. take on management responsibility just to justify paying us what we're worth either. Not being suited to managing people shouldn't be a barrier to a successful career.

  4. The advice on what adjustments can be made by those around you to make your life easier. This is really important and really nice when you realise it has happened, but it does rely on other people being aware of you and making changes to give you the space you need to work. It also requires good support structures within your organisation, or otherwise the confidence to take up space and insist on people meeting you halfway as you struggle through every day doing the #2-type things you're told to do, which isn't easy.

  5. The rare-as-hen's-teeth advice on how to effectively use the unique strengths bestowed by autism. There's a really interesting space where the advice given to (default neurotypical) managers is not the best advice for autistic managers in the same situation, and in fact the autistic manager can achieve better results by using a different strategy or tactic which builds on their autistic strengths. Neurotypical trainers may well avoid teaching these or even actively caution against them but they may still work best for us!

Of these 5 types, I'm waaaay more interested in #5 and #4 in the others, and they (especially #5) are the hardest to find. So that's what I'm going to look for more of!

This note contains some reflections that I might want you to know as someone who reports to me (or just a colleague). It's not absolute truth, simply a #WorkInProgress that I'll expand and update as I figure more of this out.

I need to understand your stress level on an ongoing basis to look after you and help you manage your workload. I am less able to interpret the non-verbal as you may be giving off about this, so I need to be able to trust you to be honest about your wellbeing. In return, I am always going to take you seriously and try earnestly to help when you do give me this honesty. If you wait for me to notice you're struggling you might wait longer than you need to. I will always be honest with you and tell you whatever I can. Lying about things just doesn't make sense to me, and if something is confidential I will always tell you that I know more but I can't tell you, and explain why if I am.

If you know the stereotypes of autistic people, you might expect me to be blunt and to value bluntness. In fact, I still have feelings and I know you do too, and while it may take me time to fully apprehend your feelings I will still try to be tactful, and I expect the same courtesy from you.

I welcome feedback and I value honesty, but be prepared to give me a lot more context with your feedback than you might be used to: I need you to be clear and honest also about the strength of your feelings and how big an issue you consider this to be, along with a reasonable explanation of why. You don't need to do all that work yourself though, as I will ask questions about what I don't yet understand, as long as I trust you to answer honestly.

Ok, so I've been starting to order my thoughts on this whole managing-whilst-autistic thing, and it seems to me to break down into 3 components:

  1. How can I modify my natural behaviour to fit better into a management position?
  2. How can I take a different approach to NT managers that builds on the unique strengths of my ND brain?
  3. What support and adjustments should I be asking for to help me?

So far most of the advice I've found, whether from autistics themselves or non-autistic professionals, tends to fit into #1, which is fine for what it is but suggesting that masking more is the whole solution is ablist and unhelpful. I've read about half of Malcolm Johnson's Managing with Asperger Syndrome and so far it seems to fit into this category. The author has an AS diagnosis, but it's very dated in its approach, and uses person-first language exclusively, for example.

Janine Booth's Autism Equality in the Workplace, along with a lot of the advice from mainstream charities and support groups, falls almost exclusively into #3. Also helpful, although very little of it even considers the possibility that some autistic folks might be managers and even good ones at that. FWIW, Booth's only mention of management is not to force people to accept management responsibilities as the only way of progressing in their career and attaining a higher salary, which is important but only half of the picture.

I'm still really struggling to find much on #2, which is incredibly frustrating. I think a lot of the problem is that it's only with recent changes to the DSM and related stuff that people are realising that there are adults out there in the “real world” who've escaped diagnosis by learning to blend in early and reach middle age before the toll it's been taking on us starts to become apparent. As a result, there's very little research or professional practice built up to suggest how to support autistic middle and even senior managers.

Hum, this is getting a bit long. Perhaps I need to start a whole blog to chart my progress on this...

Originally posted on BookFace 🙃

Enter your email to subscribe to updates.