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Succeeding with Autism: Mental health in the workplace

Book open Reading time: 3 mins

The best things about being at work are:

  1. The shared calendar
  2. People give you puzzles to solve
  3. Social interaction has defined topics

Hello I am Jess, I am female, 23, and autistic. I graduated from Oxford with a first in Chemistry, and am now working as an Aerospace Defence Engineer at Rolls-Royce.

My first week involved:

  1. Learning how a gas turbine works - reasonably straightforward
  2. Learning acceptable conversation topics while making coffee - This is a complex function dependent on multiple factors including; month, day of week, time of day, type of beverages being made, recent sport events or trending TV shows, number of people in the kitchen and their position, gender, approximate age and weight. You also need to consider, whether any party is married or has children, pets, ageing parents, has a garden, plays sport or is the “type of person” who listens to Radio 4…

Somehow, everyone was surprised at “how quickly” I picked up engineering, but no one gave me any credit for the first time I participated in “kitchen banter”…

A common feature of Asperger syndrome (the “high functioning” end of an autism spectrum disorder) is a dependence on routine, structure, and knowing plans in advance. As such I found the dynamic, fast-pace university world very difficult. At university the only certainty in the day was lectures, and meetings were almost always organized at the last minute, “let’s get coffee now?”.

In contrast, at work, the majority of face-to-face interactions are organised and displayed on a personalised calendar. Any edits to this are easily visible to you at your desk and as a proposed time change which can be either accepted or rejected. For me, this was far less stressful than the, ‘gonna b hr ltr dissertation taking ages :(‘ messages I was used to receiving at university, when I had carefully planned my working routine around one or two specific times. The structured flexibility at work now makes me feel much more relaxed about changing times and dates in my personal life, and has generally helped to give me the confidence that a change in the plan can be a good thing (although I still have a tendency to internally freak out when people are more than a minute late to meetings).

I also think work meetings are a great way for autistic people to socialise in a safe space. You can share ideas with others on specific topics, with a specified desired outcome and for an amount of time that is clearly defined. Since starting work, I’ve found I’m much less lonely (yes, being autistic doesn’t mean you don’t get lonely) because I have daily social contact, with minimal stress involved.

When I’m not being a social butterfly in my meetings on performance engineering, I’m usually solving really engaging and cool puzzles. These are the kinds of things I would usually do in my own time anyway, except that someone is paying me to do them, and I generally get positive feedback or constructive criticism at the end. Ideal, right?

The workplace can be challenging to cope with for anyone, especially for people with learning disabilities. The workplace is still a predominantly neurotypical environment, and I often struggle. Nevertheless, on the whole, work has been an extremely positive experience for me. I tend to have a lot of fun, and am given the space to be creative, plan, think, and try to achieve my full potential. Also, with all of the discrimination laws in place, I often feel safer talking about my disability at work than I do socially, because at the end of the day, if you’re good at your job, 90% of people aren’t going to worry too much how your brain works to get there.