Autism and mental health, part two: How to look after your mental health in the workplace when you are on the autism spectrum

Thursday, 18 April 2024

The workplace can be an empowering, exciting, and inspiring environment. In the right company, you are afforded opportunities to grow, discover your passions, and realise your potential. At the same time, it can also be chaotic and unpredictable.

For most people, these interruptions will just be a small bump in the day—you sort out the inconvenience, then get straight back to the grind. But for people with autism, it can significantly impact their productivity and, more importantly, their mental health. If left unmanaged, it can result in autistic burnout, stress, illness, and job loss. That’s why it’s so important for people with autism to implement strategies to look after their mental health while at work.

This April is Autism Awareness Month, and we’re highlighting that everyone has a right to meaningful employment, including the 205,200 Australians on the autism spectrum.

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.

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. We’re in part two of our journey and exploring how people with autism can look after their mental health in the workplace.

Disclaimer: we understand 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 in the workplace

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. Here are some tips to help you find your footing at work so you can be your best.

Structure your days

For many people with autism, change can be very stressful and harmful to their mental health. You might feel overwhelmed, anxious, or disorganised when something unexpected creeps into your schedule, or when someone doesn’t follow the rules you have developed.

Unfortunately, in nearly all workplaces, there is always the possibility of sudden change. But there are steps you can take to make your workday more predictable and improve your mental health.

  • Request a comprehensive list of your job duties before you start a position. That way, you can understand everything that’s expected of you and will be less surprised when something new pops up.
  • Create visual supports to help you understand what needs to happen and when. This might include a timetable, colour-coded tasks, folders, or items to indicate usage/importance, and lists.
  • Set yourself dedicated times to do specific work duties. For example, if you work as a receptionist or in administration, this might look like: 8:00 am – check and respond to phone messages. 8:30 am – check and respond to emails. 9:00 am – collect the mail and deliver it to appropriate parties.  9:15 am – write a task list for the day. 9:30 am – start the first task on your list.
  • Take regular timed breaks to stretch and snack.
  • Ask your manager to give you as much warning as possible when there are changes to your schedule. This might include alterations to work hours, meetings, staff days, training sessions, changes to the workplace setup, or special occasions.
EPIC student, Brayden at work at IKEA
Brayden is on the autism specturm, and establishing a sense of routine was key to him finding his footing at IKEA. Some people with austim have difficulty adjusting to sudden changes in workplace arrangements, so it’s important that employers accommodate this and help create new routines.

Reasonable adjustments

Most workplaces are designed with neurotypical people in mind. If you have autism, there may be some aspects of your workplace environment that make it challenging or perhaps unbearable to complete your job.

Whether these challenges are because of communication differences or a sensory overload, you don’t need to mask and grit your teeth in silence. Your mental, physical, and emotional health is important, and workplaces are required to make changes to support your success.

These changes are called reasonable adjustments. Reasonable adjustments are workplace modifications or role adaptions that assist an employee to work effectively and safely. Adjustments can be identified and made at any point during employment and are at no cost to the employee. In most cases, they are also free or at a minimal cost to the employer.

Some adjustments to support people with autism might include:

  • noise-cancelling headphones to block out background noise in a warehouse or busy office
  • switching lightbulbs to ones that don’t flicker
  • removing ticking clocks or other objects that create unnecessary sounds
  • visual aids, such as flowcharts and diagrams, to break down processes and directions
  • sensory stimulation objects (e.g., a fidget spinner) to help calm anxiety and meet sensory needs
  • uniform changes to mitigate sensory sensitivities
  • flexible work hours (e.g., job sharing, compressed weeks, part-time, etc.)
  • gaining access to important documents, agendas, and details ahead of discussions or meetings
  • “do not disturb” signs or digital functions for when specific tasks require intense concentration
  • a screen filter for a computer to make the screen seem less bright
  • desk partitions in an open-plan office to reduce distraction
  • regularly established movement breaks to regulate the body and mind.
a man stands next to a window smiling and his arms folded
Peter is on the autism spectrum and has found his productivity at work has increased since introducing noise cancelling headphones.

Consider disclosing your autism

People choose to disclose or not disclose their autism at work for many reasons. Some might disclose their autism early in the job application process to access specific accommodations for the interview. Others might feel more comfortable building trust and a rapport with their colleagues and manager before disclosing.

Whatever the case, disclosing a disability is a personal decision, and one that only you can make. If you are finding yourself constantly masking—forcing yourself to maintain eye contact even when uncomfortable, or attending loud networking events that make you ill—it might be worth disclosing your autism. In most cases, masking is unsustainable and can severely affect your mental health and wellbeing.

How do I disclose?

Disclosure doesn’t have to be a big ordeal. Start by telling your employer you have autism and explain briefly in one or two lines what that is. Explain that you might work differently in some areas of your job. Then, describe what adjustments will support you to work at your best.

There are ways to be upfront about your autism and needs while highlighting the strengths.

  • “I am sensitive to noise and work better in a quiet space. It makes me more productive.”
  • “I process verbal instructions differently from others and might not hear or remember when a lot of directions are given at once. I understand better when instructions are written down. This is because my visual skills are stronger than most and I am very detail-orientated.”
  • “I get into extreme states of hyperfocus where I’m very creative and productive. But if I’m interrupted when in this state, it can take me a long time to get back on track. It helps when people send me emails or leave notes with their questions, rather than tapping me on the shoulder.”

When in a supportive workplace, disclosing your autism allows you to access adjustments so you don’t burnout and can manage your mental health. If you choose to disclose your autism, your employer is legally obligated to make any reasonable adjustments that will help you complete your job role.

Connect with a Disability Employment Services (DES) provider

If you are having trouble keeping up with your current job, there are free services here to help you. Disability Employment Services (DES) providers are the experts in autism and employment. They are here to be your advocate and help your employer understand what they need to do to support your success.

When you have all the tools you need to succeed at work, your mental health is much easier to manage.

Through the Work Assist program, you can access free, professional support from a Disability Employment Services (DES) provider, such as EPIC Assist, to help you keep your job. This assistance could involve a comprehensive workplace assessment, advice about job redesign, workplace modifications, support in the workplace, and interventions such as physiotherapy or counselling.

In most cases, your employer is included in these discussions so you can access the best support possible. However, if you have chosen not to disclose your autism, you can still request assistance from Work Assist.

EPIC Assist is your local disability employment specialist

Here at EPIC Assist, we understand that everyone is different. When you connect with us, we will help you access the specific tools you need to look after your autism and mental health at work. Whether you’re looking for work or struggling to keep up with your current job, get in touch with us today to find out how we can help you reach your employment goals.

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