Socializing Should Not Determine Autistic Career Advancement
One of the top reasons autistic people struggle in the corporate world is that our focus is different from our neurotypical counterparts in the workplace. When an autistic person goes to work for the first time, their primary focus is on their job. When a neurotypical person goes to work for the first time, their primary focus is on climbing the social ladder. Since nobody acknowledges or explains this fundamental difference out loud in most home and school settings, this unspoken fact can unintentionally set an autistic worker up for a lifetime of confusing and embarrassing failure.
When I first started working at 16 years old, my only focus was on learning how to operate the cash register at CVS, ring people out as fast as I could, and remember which number to dial if I needed help from the manager. I was laser-focused on doing my job efficiently and correctly. Smiling at people and offering small talk weren’t even thoughts in my head, and, of course, nobody thought to explain that those things were expected of me because most neurotypical people know and do them automatically.
For Autistic People, It’s What You Know, Not Who You Know
As I got older, I realized, through a lot of painful trial and error (and being fired–a lot) that I was not only expected to do my job correctly, quickly, and efficiently, I was also expected to effortlessly socialize with my customers and co-workers. It took me well over a decade to realize my brain was simply not cut out for that. It was either chat with the customers and mess up my job or do my job correctly and forget to speak to the customers. I could not do both.
In the neurotypical model of the corporate world, there’s a saying about how to get ahead and advance in one’s career: “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.” It took me a long time to understand the meaning of this phrase because it didn’t make sense to my literal, logical brain. Once I understood that moving up the corporate ladder, so to speak, was more about socializing and getting people to like me than actually doing my job correctly, the realization was like a punch in the gut. I knew then that I was at an incredible disadvantage because my inability to “be liked” made any career success or advancement completely inaccessible to me.
As an autistic person, my brain is focused on what I know and how I can implement my knowledge to be successful at my job. It’s not about who I know as I am incapable of neurotypical social behavior. I can emulate it for a short period of time (a process many autistic people use called ‘masking’), but it is exhausting and terrible for my mental health.
Socializing Exhausts Autistic People to the Detriment of Performance
When I was in the corporate world, I not only found everyday socializing with my neurotypical co-workers confusing and daunting, I was also expected to socialize outside of work to be considered a team player. This meant happy hour and company functions. When I was younger, I was able to mask for longer periods of time and get through it, but the process was still exhausting and draining for me.
For many autistic people, the socializing they are expected to do during the workday is already taxing. Unlike neurotypical people, who appear to seamlessly integrate socializing into their workday without thinking about it or suffering ill effects, autistic people have to “switch gears” in their brains each time they are interrupted from their focused task, making their workday much more draining.
The more an autistic person is drained of their mental and physical resources, the more their job performance might suffer and the more prone to burnout they may become. Furthermore, when the autistic person is expected to interrupt their tasks to socialize throughout the day, they may experience distress and agitation, which can lead to them snapping at their co-workers, which, in turn, makes them appear “difficult” to work with.
Career Advancement Should Be Based on Job Performance for Accessibility
To make the workplace more accessible to autistic employees, it’s important to take our unique brain function into consideration and make adaptations. In addition to other accommodations such as written communication, chunking information, flexible schedules, and work-from-home options, it’s also important to evaluate your autistic employees based on their job performance and dedication, not their social skills or willingness to participate in outside social functions.
When an autistic employee who is uncomfortable or mentally exhausted by social interactions is seen as a ‘problem employee’ or ‘not a team player’ and judged based on these assumptions, it can lead to a hostile work environment where neurotypical office bullies gang up on them. It can also lead to being passed over for promotions and even being fired for reasons an autistic person cannot help or change.
Even though we often don’t think about this in the corporate world, firing, passing over, or bullying an autistic person because they don’t socialize like a neurotypical person is just as unfair as doing these same things to someone without the use of their legs because they need to use a mobility aid. Just because a disability or difference isn’t visible doesn’t make it any less valid or deserving of reasonable accommodations.
This happens time and time again. On the way out, the autistic person gets thanks for their contributions and shame for their burnout behaviors. Thank you for shining a light on this.