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Youth participation
Friday 04 September 2015

Starting a new job when you’re on the spectrum

If you're preparing to start your first job or begin a new one, here is some brilliant career advice from a fellow job-seeker with autism.

Starting your first job or beginning any new job can present a number of challenges for autistic people, whether you choose to disclose your disability or not. I will shortly start my third ever job as a job as a qualified lawyer. I previously worked as a trainee solicitor at another law firm and before that, I worked in retail. I believe that both jobs helped me to develop important skills, both for the world of work and for life more generally.

I have shared a few of the things I have learned through in the world of work below:


There are times when any job will seem really tough

When I worked in retail, there would be days when queues at the tills would snake around the shop, the lift would break down between floors and the phone would be ringing off the hook with orders, queries, complaints and whoever knew what else. On top of this, I would still have a to do list as long as my arm, including finding time to clear an overflowing fitting room,  replenish stock and hit credit card application targets.

As a trainee solicitor, there was a different set of demands, although they were no less pressing. Deadlines for tasks would change at short notice, clients could be demanding or difficult to please and the hours could be gruelling.

I’m not saying any of the above to put anyone off the idea of working, although I can see how on paper both jobs sound quite nightmarish! I think it’s important to appreciate the reality that jobs are demanding and can be, but are hopefully not always, stressful. More than that, it’s useful to appreciate that the above scenarios would be stressful to anyone, not just someone autistic.

That’s not to say that they might not be more stressful to an autistic person or to dismiss the fact that work can be stressful. In my own experience, however, I have found that just “cutting myself some slack” and accepting that I am not unique in finding certain activities or situations stressful is helpful. Appreciating that I am not doomed to fail because I find the prospect of dealing with an angry client less daunting is a relief, even if it doesn’t help solve the problem.


There are times when a particular problem at work will have nothing to do with you

Another challenge that any job can pose is working with a variety of different people. You may find yourself working with a lot of different colleagues, some of whom you get along with, some of whom you don’t. Some may be easy to anger, others may be too laidback, some may give straightforward instructions and others may be about as clear as the Sphinx.

"It can be very easy for an autistic person to blame themselves for failing to do a task properly at work, but again it’s important to remember that the problem won’t always lie with you. It is possible that a colleague’s instructions were unclear, they are are feeling stressed, or struggle with giving clear instructions. If you can, whether during or after a difficult interaction, try to be kind to yourself and remember that mistakes may not be your fault."

Likewise, it is important to try and be diplomatic: even if you suspect that another person may be in part to blame for a misunderstanding; very few people like to be blamed for something going wrong! If you are able to take criticism on the chin without risking being penalised for it, do so. Be proactive and try to suggest ways to avoid the same issue in the future, for example by asking questions to clarify instructions or by suggesting a different time to discuss a task when a colleague is less busy and less liable to become flustered.


There are times when your autism will make your work more difficult

It would be unrealistic to say that there will never be times when your autism makes work challenging. When I worked in retail, the sounds and smells and constant chop and change would often be difficult to deal with. In my training contract, I sometimes found it hard to keep my perfectionism in check.

Whether you are “out” as autistic at work or not, it’s important to acknowledge these challenges to yourself and, if possible, address them. If your employer knows you are autistic and is supportive, try to talk through possible adjustments that could be made to your environment that would have a positive impact. For example, would it be possible for you to work somewhere quieter or with softer lighting?

Likewise, if you aren’t “out” as autistic, try to think of ways that you can help yourself at work. For example, just a simple awareness that you find something challenging can be helpful and can allow you to be more forgiving towards yourself. I accept that I find it hard not to fret over the tiniest details sometimes and that I am probably the only person who gets stressed about these things, as I typically get very positive feedback from clients and colleagues. This might not make it easier to be a perfectionist, but it does at least alleviate the concern that other people are critical of a behaviour which is, probably, invisible to them.


Working is rewarding

It would be wrong to focus only on the negatives of the world of work. Working can be rewarding for a number of reasons.

It can be really satisfying to see how much progress you have made during your time working at a particular job. When I started working in retail, I hadn’t been diagnosed as autistic but I knew I was different to other people. I found it very difficult to know how and when to interact with people and found myself constantly agonising over social interactions with customers and co-workers.

"Looking back, I realise that working really brought me out of my shell and helped me to put a lot of my life into perspective."

For example, before I started work I was terrified of answering the phone and would do anything I could to ignore a ringing phone. This was naturally not an option at work. While some phone-calls were quite innocuous, others were less easy to predict. Some, for example, were from irate customers, but all calls had one thing in common: they weren’t as scary as I’d imagined and even when I clammed up and couldn’t think of what to say or I tripped over my own tongue, no-one aside from myself seemed to notice or care.

I’m not saying that that kind of trial by fire, real life “immersion therapy” is to be recommended but for me at least, it helped pull me out of an inward looking funk I had gotten myself into where I fretted over every little thing I did or thought.

Likewise, my first job helped me to realise something that, while negative sounding, was actually a major relief: to most people, I was inconsequential. To someone trying to buy a pair of trousers, I was just the (hopefully polite and friendly) salesgirl. I wasn’t odd, off putting or a nuisance. This minor revelation really gave me the courage to try new things in life more generally and to take more chances meeting people. This was because, even if things went horrifically wrong, the chance was that other people would be too focused on their own lives and thoughts to bear me much mind!


Be kind to yourself

It’s important to remember that while it might be helpful to learn new skills “the hard way” by taking risks and performing tasks that might seem daunting to you, you shouldn’t silently struggle on in a job if it is constantly stressful and unenjoyable.

Work offers an excellent opportunity for autistic people to develop their social and life skills, but it’s important too to find the right job that will help you thrive.