Redefining Success: A neurodivergent understanding of ‘work’

Being autistic you experience the right to work – or even not to work – in different ways. The first is through the application process and the decision whether or not to disclose your autism to your employer. On the one hand, being autistic colours our experiences of everything around us so how we answer questions like ‘How do you perform in social situations?’ might be different from that of neurotypicals.

Disclosing at an interview or on application forms can have pitfalls and can shape the employers perception of you. If you are to disclose, how do you do that? ‘Well, I cope well in some social situations but in others I might need to stand in the corner on my own. By the way I’m autistic’. I know one person who used to work in an independent café and tried to disclose their ASD to their manager, to be met with the response ‘It’s not really bad, right?’. This attitude was reflected on one particularly busy day when they tried to ask for five minutes on their own, only to be told that that any quiet time would be deducted from their lunch break. After asking for ‘reasonable adjustments’ on multiple occasions, they were fired and underpaid.

In preferable, albeit deeply flawed scenarios, scholars and even some autistic charities, preach the virtues of neurodiversity as being good for business. ‘Neurodiversity is a competitive advantage’ proclaim Harvard. These are well intentioned yet stand by the market logic that autistic people ought to be defined in terms of their profit-making abilities. There’s a famous article by Simon Baron Cohen, where – to his credit – he says that the neurodiversity movement “recognizes that genetic or other kinds of biological variation are intrinsic to people’s identity” but argues that the movement ignores the more ‘disabling aspects of autism’. This is a common misunderstanding, so let me clarify:  we know that as autistic people we struggle with certain things, but we are not flawed. People with neurological differences are not broken copies of normal people, any more than we are mathematical machines. Often, being disabled is defined more by the conditions which society puts in place which force us to struggle, than by individual weaknesses.

To me, the crucial aspect missing from Cohen’s analysis is autonomy. If you’re an autistic person who instead of working, spends your days going to fitness socials, or volunteering or even just engaging in a hobby, your considered an unproductive member of the community. If you are in a job which you struggle with, well, looks like you chose the wrong career path…better luck next time, kid! All the while data scientists and engineers are touted as the autistic ideal, while Tesla and Google get to tell everyone about their oh so accomplished neurodivergent employees. I argue that we ought to be dismantling the barriers which prevent autistic people from finding meaningful work, while granting them the autonomy to decide how and if they want to be part of the economy.

There is a difference between impairment and disability…

“With impairment comes personal challenges… disability, in contrast, is the political and social repression of impaired people. This is accomplished by making them economically and socially isolated…The disabled community argues that these disadvantages are thus not due to impairment by its nature, but due to a cultural aversion to impairment, a lack of productive opportunity in the current economy for disabled people. Disablement is a political state and not a personal one”

Sunny Taylor, The Right Not to Work: Power and Disability

Taylor goes on to argue for her right not to work. She’s a painter, who due to her disability paints by holding the paintbrush in her mouth. She does sell her paintings but doesn’t support herself with that money. She feels questions about that are a test to see if what she spends her time doing is a ‘legitimate’ hobby or not. She’s not denying her impairments. No neurodiverse or physically disabled people deny that they have tasks which they struggle with. Autism, for example, can come with certain allergies, or sensitivity problems. When we talk about not wanting to pathologize people, we don’t mean denying that autistic people struggle in social situations. However, not wanting to be around others is different from finding socialising difficult. These are both options which autistic people should be allowed to freely choose. Sadly, much of the business world and the psychiatric world treat these as indistinguishable from each other, and in need of remedying.

 In his article Baron Cohen cites some autistic peoples struggles to communicate as a problem that the neurodiversity movement are failing to address, but this is nonsense. As stated, autistic people can struggle to communicate. Additionally, many of us prefer to listen than to speak, or only interact with people we feel comfortable around. I still struggle with corporate language and when harshly spoken to; I struggle to focus on the content of the speech. I often need to ask people to repeat things several times occasionally, and you know what? I’m surprised more people don’t! That’s not meant to be accusatory, but to highlight how one of the biggest challenges faced by autistic people is neurotypicals reluctance to interact with those they perceive as ‘different’.

All these are barriers to autistic people finding and enjoying work. Even if you don’t work, the type of language and modes of communication you might face when going to a bank or a job centre, may not be accommodating if you struggle with social anxiety. There’s an idea called the ‘double-empathy problem’ which states that because neurotypical onlookers view autism in terms of how it looks, and not in terms of how people experience their autism, empathy between autistics and non-autistics can break down, especially in tense scenarios. The way people who know I’m autistic behave to me often ranges from oversensitive – ‘let me explain every word I say to you’ – to ignorant – ‘well you should have been listening if you didn’t understand’.

One example that always gets given is pretend play. Thinking in terms of neurodiversity, a child may prefer to observe other kids playing without necessarily joining in themselves. I have always been and continue to be an observant learner. The problem is we track progress on neurotypical developmental timelines and act like its strange when autistic people divert from that. For all the options Covid takes away, I think the new world presents an opportunity to give people -autistic or non-autistic – more choices about how and where they work, as well as giving us a chance as a society to reshape how we interact with people under stress, and how we decide what work is meaningful or not meaningful. This leads me to discuss the issue of independence…

Independence is a flawed measurement of success…

Continuing this idea of how we measure development, I would like to specify that I consider myself relatively privileged. I enjoy my job and feel supported there. This is by no means the case for everyone. In Wales where I’m from, the TUC believe that many autistic workers face “daily discrimination”, saying that their research shows that many employers are unwilling even to make even the smallest of adjustments to their workplaces. They go on to say that fewer than 100 companies have signed up to the positive about working with autism charter.  However, while I have a large degree of independence and intend to get more, there are other traditional measurements that I’m quite a while from achieving. Sunny Taylor adds, “Independence is perhaps prized beyond all else in this country, and for disabled people this means that our lives are automatically seen as tragically dependent.”. In my case, while I’m able to go practically anywhere by public transport, I still don’t know if I will ever be able to drive, which many regard as a cornerstone in being ‘independent’.

When I did outreach work for autistic adults I met some people, who were better with directions and talking to people than I am but needed some assistance in cooking their own food. The point of the neurodiversity movement is to question whether being ‘independent’ means being able to perform household chores without assistance or being able to choose your friends. Considering this throws the employment question into a different light. An autistic employee might need help getting around but be great at their work. In so many cases though there’s a bar to entry for valuable professions where traditional measures of independence are used as a judgement on how the individual will perform in the workplace. If you manage to overcome those hurdles, you risk being talked down to by people who treat your perceived lack of ‘mobility’ as an excuse to speak to you in an infantilizing or patronizing way. 

As noted, I’ve only seen scratches of this in my current role, and much as intention doesn’t mitigate the problem, it’s nearly always been a case of easily corrected bias rather than anything malicious. On the contrary, overt bias is something which particularly exists in certain media circles. Its an industry more obsessed with mitigating the risk of anything going wrong, than you would expect. Being an autistic person in a newsroom or at certain PR companies very much consisted of being ignored and being given begrudging excuses of how putting me on a story or letting me tail a journalist would be ‘too complicated’. What right then do armchair commentators and media pundits like Toby Young have to label autistic people unproductive members of society if they don’t perform as ‘efficiently’ as some of their neurotypical counterparts, or don’t ‘work’ in the traditional sense?

I bet some of you are thinking ‘Well, I had to make adjustments to get to where I am. You can’t expect everyone to roll over for your personal needs’, but this ignores the fact that as well as there being neurotypical-centred expectations of independence, there are also neurotypical centred timeframes for when these milestones should be reached. Autistic people, like everyone, do try and learn new skills to better themselves. However, while a lot of neurotypicals might learn to drive at 18, some autistic people might not get their license until their late 20s, especially by the time they’ve built up the confidence and passed. I didn’t have any long-term work until the age of 24, and when I was much younger I took a long time to adjust to the sensory environments that encircled me during primary school. There’s a really interesting discussion to be had another time about neurotypical vs. neurodivergent time, yet the timescale on which you progress through stages in your life can effect everything from relationships to career prospects to education. What you can and can’t do at a certain stage in life can have profound impact on what opportunities you are offered and how you are treated.

An Atypical Perspective…

Ultimately, although the theming of this blog has been work and employment its messages apply on a grander scale.

The first thing we need to do is respect the choices of autistic people even when those choices seem inconvenient or not age appropriate. Workplaces in particular can make themselves more receptive to these choices by providing different working options, allowing people to choose their hours, or even democratizing their processes so autistic people don’t feel pressured. Reconciling how autistic people experience the world with the demands of ‘standard development’ means listening to them about what they can and can’t do and providing meaningful alternatives when an autistic person can’t handle certain circumstances or situations. It’s never letting a neurodiverse individual overhear themself described as “hard work” or “far behind,” and remembering that an inability to communicate doesn’t mean inability to understand.

More than that we need to do away with certain ideas of what success is and how to measure it. By certain measurements I’m sure you could consider me a failure. I’m 26 and I don’t drive, I don’t yet live on my own, and I’ve never really been in a proper relationship. And yes, I struggle with those feelings of worthlessness put upon me by a world obsessed with ‘achievement’ but overcome those moments by reminding myself that I’ve got time to achieve all of those and more, if I want to. Often, autistic people have to camouflage in reverse by detailing everything we struggle with and everything we don’t like about ourselves in order to secure access to certain benefits or support opportunities. In other cases, we have to pretend to be as ‘ordinary’ as possible in order for people to respect us as normal. Either we’re not autistic enough, in which case we don’t need support or we’re too autistic, in which case we can’t be respected as adults.  This creates a system where ‘success’ is continuously out of reach.

Ultimately, neurodiversity means just that: diversity. Some autistic people will never take an interest in cars or sports. Some will learn to paint but always struggle to communicate through body language. Some will understand emotion far more easily through the medium of song than through speech. Some will defy concepts of gender and sexuality entirely and identify as non-binary or asexual. There are enough resources in this world to accommodate for all of these, and with the help of autistic people there can be even more. The world requires all kinds of minds!

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