Autism and mental health, part one: how to look after your mental health and find a job when you are on the autism spectrum

Friday, 5 April 2024

There’s no sugar-coating that the job-seeking process is exhausting and frustrating. For people with autism, there are some extra challenges you might face in this journey. That’s why it’s so important for people with autism to implement strategies to look after their mental health while job searching.

This April is Autism Awareness Month, and we’re highlighting that everyone has a right to employment, including the 31% of people with autism who are unemployed.

We know that good mental health can be life-changing when it comes to employment success. Everyone is different, and it’s important each and every person receives the tailored mental health support they need, including people with autism.

In this two-part article series, we’ll unpack some strategies and tips on how people with autism can look after their mental health while finding and keeping a job they love. First up, we’re embarking on the job search journey.

Disclaimer: we understand that there is no one right way to refer to autism. Every person has their own personal language preference, and these preferences are valid and should be respected. In this article, we will predominantly use “people with autism.”

Looking after your mental health while job searching if you have autism

Having good mental health doesn’t mean you won’t face any barriers or go through challenging times. But if you implement strategies to look after your mental health, you will recover quicker from the setbacks. You will be less likely to come head-to-head with autism burnout, and more likely to be able to self-regulate against sensory or emotional overloads and manage stress during the job search stages.

Here are some strategies to help people with autism manage their mental health and reduce stress while looking for work.

Set small, realistic goals

There’s a lot of work that goes into searching and landing a job. Trying to reach the ultimate end goal of meaningful employment is stressful for most. If you have executive function disorder, this might be even more overwhelming. It might be difficult to sort through the competing tasks you need to finish, or impossible to visualise the end goal. You might feel upset or discouraged when that goal seems so faint and far away and the path there is muddled and blurry.

The good news is, there are a lot of small steps that go into finding work. When you break the task down into achievable, realistic goals, it becomes easier to visualise the journey and stay on the path.

When most people are breaking down the job search process, it might look a little like the below:

  • Choose a job industry
  • Research job opportunities
  • Write cover letters and resumes
  • Email applications
  • Prepare for interviews
  • Complete interview

If you have autism and find executive functioning challenging, you might want to break this down even further into smaller, more manageable tasks. For example, if you were making your bed, you might break it down into getting your sheets off the clothesline, taking all items off your bed, putting the fitted sheet over the mattress, laying the top sheet on the bed and tucking it in, putting your doona and pillows inside their covers, then laying those on the bed as well.

If you were trying to figure out how to choose a job industry, this breakdown might involve:

  • making a list of your skills, strengths, and weaknesses
  • considering topics you are interested in and activities you enjoy doing
  • knowing and understanding your values
  • taking note of your non-negotiables – boundaries you are not willing to budge on
  • talking to a trusted friend, family member, or professional
  • taking a career test
  • making a list of job industries discovered so far
  • researching each industry – careers, pay, location, qualifications, opportunities
  • crossing out the industries you don’t like and highlighting the ones you do
  • researching volunteer opportunities in the industries you like so you can test them out yourself.

When you write things down in step-by-step lists, it can take away the stress of having to visualise and sort through the mental gymnastics of what comes next. You might like a physical, ordered list where each task can be ticked off. Or, you might prefer a mobile notes app, where you can backspace the items you’ve already completed so they are no longer a distraction when figuring out what comes next.

Setting these small goals can play a huge role in reducing stress and improving your mental health. There is no one right way to go about breaking down tasks and making executive functioning a little easier, so it’s important to experiment and see what works best for you.

Focus on the things that make your autism a strength

It can be frustrating and demoralising to try and find work in a culture that caters to the preferences and strengths of neurotypical people. The recruitment and interview process can often seem like a test of your social skills. This can feel unfair when you know you would ace the job, but might struggle with the social connection required to pass interviews.

As a neurodivergent person though, you have your own strengths you can bring to the recruitment process. Rather than spiralling and fixating on what you might find hard or not be able to do, focus on what you can do. Some things, you might be able to do better than a neurotypical person.

  • Research the company: Put those hyperfixation skills to good use and spend time learning everything you can about the company you want to work for. Find out their values, mission, and vision. Learn what is important to them, where they started, and where they’re going.
  • Memorise example interview responses: If you are good at remembering information, consider pre-preparing and memorising some example answers. Think of moments in your life that demonstrate your skillset, translate them into paragraphs, and memorise what you have written. Don’t be afraid to ask for help in figuring out how to explain your examples.

Positive thinking can have a big impact on reducing stress and managing mental health for people with autism. It doesn’t mean you ignore your problems or pretend they aren’t there. It simply means you approach each situation with a more productive mindset; you spend your energy focusing on the things you can change, learn, improve on, and do well at.

Build a support network

If you’re struggling with any step in your job search process, don’t be afraid to reach out for help. This isn’t a journey you need to embark on alone. There are many services here to help people with autism manage their mental health and traverse the employment rollercoaster.

Talk with a mental health professional

It might be difficult to talk about how you’re feeling, but talking to someone can be incredibly helpful in managing your mental health. Mental health professionals are here to help you understand your feelings, validate your experiences, and create strategies to manage your mental health.

Connect with a Disability Employment Services (DES) provider

Disability Employment Services (DES) providers are the experts in autism and employment. They are here to help you understand your goals, find inclusive workplaces, access training, and help you prepare for interviews. If you need some adjustments to complete an interview, they can advocate for alternative interview methods that will allow you to perform at your best.

Not all Disability Employment Services (DES) providers are the same, so it’s important to find the right one for you. Here at EPIC Assist, we are a not-for-profit provider. We understand that looking after your mental health has everything to do with your employment success. To equip our job seekers for success, we provide a free mental health consultancy.

Be okay with the learning journey

Your job search is unique to you and it’s okay to be unsure where you’re going or feel lost. You might stumble here or there, take a wrong turn down a side alley, or try something and realise it isn’t what you thought it would be. That’s all part of the learning process.

As you begin your job-seeking journey, come prepared, ask questions, do your research, and always advocate for yourself (or connect with someone who can for you). All you can do is continue to be yourself, and that person will be a fantastic addition to a team somewhere. You just need to discover where. It might take time, and the waiting and rejection might hurt some days, but it’s worth waiting for the right job.

Ready for part two?

Congratulations! You’ve landed a job.

Even in a workplace you love, it can sometimes be hard to learn to balance your mental health, autism, and workload. Read part two of our autism and mental health series for some tips on finding your footing at work so you can be your best.

Part two. Autism and mental health: in the workplace.

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