An Unwanted Hill to Climb: The Challenges Autistic Adults Face in Social and Occupational Settings

As the parent of three diagnosed autistic persons, and as the founder of Life Guides for Autistics | NeuroGuides, I’ve devoted untold numbers of hours to serving autistic persons and documented around three thousand hours of direct one-on-one coaching with autistic persons in service through our non-profit organization.

In doing so, I’ve gathered a great deal of evidence as to the challenges autistic adults face in social and occupational settings.

Autistic persons, who have been a vital part of our combined social history and civilization, have been subjected to unwarranted, unnecessary discrimination and lack of appropriate engagement from the majority of neuro-typical humanity.

Based on anecdotal evidence, the overarching challenges facing autistic adults in today’s culture are four-fold:

  • an ongoing state of disconnection,
  • lack of understanding between autistic and non-autistic persons,
  • neurological processing differences,
  • and the reality of sensory processing disorders (and other co-occurring conditions).

For most autistic persons, there exists an overarching confusion about why others value social conformity in all cultural constructs. In other words, neurodivergent or autistic persons seem to operate in a state of disconnect from most social norms in a majority non-autistic culture.

This has nothing to do with any lack of empathy on behalf of autistic persons. I’ve witnessed the majority of autistic persons demonstrate a startling degree of empathic awareness and understanding while in the presence of other autistic individuals.

However, it seems when autistic and non-autistic social interactions occur, the union produces an oil-and-water reaction. Without any intentional outreach or purposeful understanding of differing perspectives, autistic persons are left in the cold.

How impactful is this first condition in causing challenges for autistic persons trying to succeed in life socially, occupationally, relationally?

Considering there are almost no aspects of human existence that are unaffected by human social constructs and interactions, the range of this conflict is unfathomable. This conflict unhinges nearly every attempt autistic persons make to be understood, adapt to social constructs, and get along with their non-autistic peers.

What is the antidote for this difference in human frequency, this dissonance in understanding which affects the social and occupational success of autistic persons?

Quite simply, it is the requirement for intentionality in harmony, and in opening new perspectives. Not on the part of autistic persons — who have done the lion’s share of trying to be understood, but on the part of non-autistic persons who must intentionally bring themselves into seeing life through the eyes of autistic persons.

Recently, an autistic adult revealed he’d been told confidentially, by a non-autistic peer, that his “problem” revolved around the fact he lacked “guile.” So, while autistic persons may be loyal, dedicated, and honest, prioritizing service to others over material gain, the very presence of their authenticity is regarded as a problem and an article of ridicule by those who reject such “niceties” in favor of winning at all costs.

Among all of the autistic persons I’ve met, and there have been hundreds, I’ve yet to meet one whom I would consider to be devious in character. Incompatibility aside, the reality is the guileful will naturally take advantage of the innocent. Autistic persons are perpetually at a disadvantage in such environments.

The high cost of the resulting discord is shared among all persons, not just the autistics. These unnecessary, wasteful misunderstandings strike at the bottom line for workplaces, and at the bottom line of relationships.

The next critical challenge faced by autistic persons is the lack of acceptance as their minds work in unique, often non-conventional ways.

The author Steven Covey, in his book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, wrote of a workplace interaction where one deep thinker was being challenged for not seeming to be “productive” enough. But as Covey implored in his book, this person once thought of an idea that made his company a million dollars.

Once, I listened in stunned silence as an autistic man tearfully revealed to me he’d been sacked by his large corporate employer because he’d disregarded protocols, chain-of-command in bringing an idea directly to leadership, an idea which would have streamlined a technical process, saving the corporation millions of dollars a year. To him, it was a concrete, logical thought — bring the idea to those who could engage it. In a logical world, it makes perfect sense. Sadly, in a setting that is averse to respecting differences in neurological processing, it cost one brilliant autistic person his job.

To borrow from the 1996 song, Pepper, “Cinnamon and sugary and softly spoken lies. You never know just how you look through other people’s eyes.”

The words are especially true of autistic persons as they struggle mightily, often painfully, with the dance of appearances seemingly a masterclass being taught by neurotypical persons.

Contrary to our prevalent warped cultural narrative, autistic persons are, in fact, not defective. Autistic persons are not broken in some way, are not afflicted, not an outcome of vaccine injury. Most autistic persons are not yearning to be fixed. What they are is differently-abled in how their unique minds operate.

This neuro-distinctiveness among autistic persons lends itself to an uncanny ability to process differently from the majority of their neurotypical peers. In all fairness, it may not be a better form of thought process. Still, if it is respected, nurtured, and not intentionally or otherwise suppressed, it may prove transformative to business, to communities, and beyond.

Finally, in working directly with many autistic adults over the years, I’ve not encountered a single autistic person who’s not demonstrated some aspect of what is referred to as Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD). Regardless of the more technical aspects of this neurological condition, the simple fact is SPD causes stress, anxiety among autistic persons at home, in the workplace, and beyond.

Imagine for a moment, a co-worker who is quietly working on projects at their desk, and then later, they force themselves attend a company party. At the party, they are subjected to loud music, jostling co-workers, bright lights, shrill music. The co-worker suffers a meltdown or shutdown, is unable to be consoled by others, leaving the party in tears.

Do you think it doesn’t happen? It happens all of the time with autistic persons and is quite costly to them inter-personally and occupationally. In fact, I’ve known many autistic persons who always ride upon the edge of a potential storm of sensory overload when they are away from their safe sensory environment.

Most autistic persons, especially those who have become adept at “masking” or hiding their neurological differences, find ways to circumvent their sensory challenges. Some are not so good at it, and they spend much time bordering on burn-out or falling into the deep well of burn-out.

Perhaps a hundred years ago, in a quieter era minus cellphones, the often breaking through of thousands of noises, electronic interruptions, autistic persons were much more able to find a sense of regulation, peace in their homes, workplaces, other settings.

Today, most autistic persons live their waking moments running through an endless maze of sensory overloads. One of our organization’s autistic clients lived haunted by the routine trash truck dumpster emptying large metal bins, which happened like clockwork every Wednesday. The loud, banging noises blocks away would drive him into his closet to hide under a pile of clothes.

While simple, inexpensive workplace accommodations might blunt such sensory intrusions, most workplaces and their neurotypical leaders remain blithely unaware of the sensory sensitivities of autistic persons in their workplaces.

Sadly, in my workplace advocacy roles, I’ve encountered business leaders — who faced with basic, virtually no-cost accommodations for an autistic worker would instead force a firing, endure costly litigation, and the loss of community respect rather than take the higher road to a constructive outcome for all.

As we continue to forge onward in the service of autistic persons, this one thing remains clear; a sea change is now within reach of all who would accept the neurological differences of autistic persons. It is time for us to begin rolling back our long history of misunderstanding of these unique individuals. It is time for us to reach out for a new perspective, an understanding which will bring us into a sense of harmony, in recognition that there is a place for all minds, all human persons in our culture.

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8 Responses

  1. I agree.

    All of my problems at my old workplace stem from when, for reasons that were never adequately explained, it was decided that we must move from “old-fashioned” cellular offices to “modern”, open-plan office accommodation.

    At a stroke, I lost my quiet little nook where I was able to shut myself away and work very productively … being routinely given the highest appraisal markings … and was thrust into a bank of desks where I had no space to call my own, being constantly surrounded by other people coming and going, their incessant telephone conversations (neurotypicals cannot begin to conceive how difficult it is for an autistic person to cope when they are hearing only one half of a conversation … never mind six such conversations going on at once … they don’t understand that we can’t just “ignore it” the way they do … it’s THERE, so we take it in … ), their workplace banter … I was unable to concentrate, unable to focus, unable to work. My appriasal grades took a nosedive and I was told I had a problem. I said that the problem was I’d been taken out of a working environment that suited me, and put in one that didn’t suit me. I said give me back a little office of my own and I’d be fine. They said no-can-do. “It has been decided” that we must all work like this … and everyone else is doing fine … so I must learn to work like this too.

    I put up for it as long as I could … and then I left.

  2. Ahh yes, masking and eventual resultant burnout; I left a couple jobs because of that & got fired from a couple jobs because of that.

    1. I am probably neurotypical but have these same workplace problems and also had to leave jobs because of similar situations. And that was before the environmental poisoning that caused brain differences that made things much worse, but easier to understand what clients with brain differences were going through.

  3. I’m not certain whether I’m saying the following to emphasize a point, as an expression of feelings, or as declaration of universal truth, but that, “Sadly, in my workplace advocacy roles, I’ve encountered business leaders — who faced with basic, virtually no-cost accommodations for an autistic worker would instead force a firing, endure costly litigation, and the loss of community respect rather than take the higher road to a constructive outcome for all.” brings to mind that the longer I live the more I see that neurotypicals are fundamentally defective, those people have issues.

  4. Oh god, the “not having guile” comment is something I have had at my first and only job with contract.

    Coworkers honestly believed I appeased too much to the boss we had, when in reality I didn’t have the language or the blueprint to stand for myself and other coworkers against abusive practices (in this case it was “some of my coworkers weren’t paid all of their salary at the date this boss was supposed to”). To make it worse, I was the “golden child” this boss favored, so resentment against me was a thing.
    I knew perfectly this wasn’t a reliable environment, but being assumed as basically a bootlicker was hurtful of them. Needless to say, I didn’t have the blueprint to stand for myself against their assumptions either.

    (To make the infantilization further, once these coworkers were talking about +18 toys and when i joined the convo to not seem “aloof” -something that has been commented on me as a problem-, they were like “but you’re so studious, why do you know of these things”. So much for attempting to mask with them, lol.)

    Anyway. They weren’t safe people to disclose my autism to, because they were the kind of people that “support” autism in theory but are so ignorant they don’t have a blueprint for people like me, thus taking my legitimate needs as something to be either infantilized or nonexistent (given my high-masking, “passes-as-NT-except-when-she-doesn’t” presentation).

    I only lasted 3 months with me quitting that job, the interactions alone were too much for my mental health.

    I had the fortune to live in a safe environment where it didn’t matter much if i resigned, but imagine if I was the sole provider in that household (for example). I often think of autistics who don’t count with this safety and fear of what has been of them, considering what others have already written on the subject.

    Non-autistic people (even the psychologist of that job i had) really underestimate the stress of communication itself in us. They Don’t Get It. Hopefully with this article it finally crosses to their skulls and sinks how gargantuan of a task it is to remain head above water when communication in itself (and lack thereof) is what’s set to drown you. Even if they don’t mean it. ESPECIALLY when they don’t mean it.

    (I know the article also accounts for sensory issues and processing issues, but i really want to drive home how NT-AS Communication Issues aka “Double Empathy Theory” alone is insidious enough on its own, considering my experience and that of some other people.)

    …i apologize for the long-winded comment that basically turned into a vent. Idk where else i’ll be believed.

  5. I wonder if one reason workplaces are reluctant to accommodate people is that having different needs than other people have is seen as being picky or even wanting special treatment. This belief is reinforced in the media. I can cite several examples. Sadly, one is in an episode of NCIS. One of the prospective new candidates to join the team (spoiler: he didn’t make it) claims to need to take a nap every few hours. His condition is treated as a nuisance and as something made up. Another instance is in The Woman in White. The heroine has an eccentric, selfish uncle who is very particular about everything and sensitive to loud noises. A third instance occurs on a British show, Death in Paradise. A character on that show has numerous allergies, stress and anxiety, and a lack of social skills. Although he is portrayed somewhat sympathetically, he is also portrayed as an annoying character. While none of these characters are portrayed as autistic, they all have unusual needs, are not afraid to advocate for themselves, and are portrayed as selfish. I’m sure one could find more examples. Such media portrayals reinforce the misconception that people who advocate for themselves are being selfish. This is a problem.

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