Autangel webinar: Working While Autistic

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.