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A few years ago I was diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum. It wasn’t an issue until changes started to take place at work. Previously, I knew what my role was. I had structure and a framework, a variety within my routine and knew what lay ahead of me. I felt grounded, secure and safe. Important for someone on the spectrum.

For me those feelings of being grounded and secure in a workplace helps me remain calm, focused, happy and productive. When I feel safe, I’m able to manage anxiety better and remain confident and competent in the workplace. When my foundations shift, it feels like an earthquake tremor. Not healthy if that kind of feeling remains there consistently.

I see the irony as I share this with you. I run a platform called Courage Unravelled. I talk about stepping out of your comfort zone all the time. This is why I’m sharing this with you.

There are times when I step out of my comfort zone easily (at work) because I see that growth is warranted and needed. I know there may be anxiety or stress but if I can plan for it and prepare myself, then I know it’s coming and will deal with it. It’s when it’s sprung on me or when other people create change that seems unnecessary and I feel unable to control the outcome, then I feel exposed. Vulnerable.

For neurotypical folks (those who are not neurodivergent in some way), this happens too. It’s about intensity. There are neurological variations in our operating system (our brain) and how we function influences our nervous system output.

Mangers, team leaders and directors may have a challenging time trying to navigate their way through this at first, especially if they don’t know much about neurodiverse challenges. It’s not easy for someone to disclose to management about being on the spectrum. It takes courage because the person is preparing themselves to not be believed, to have their concerns diminished or dismissed, be told they have to change because their work role needs a level of agility, or not be supported at all. To find out, as someone on the spectrum, you are not supported in your workplace, is like putting someone (on the spectrum) in a one-person lifeboat with holes in it. The outcome isn’t good.

Imagine being in a senior position where your work requires high level of executive functioning and then you find things changing within you that you weren’t expecting. You weren’t who you thought you were and now believe it’s important to disclose the information because of this. Will you still have your job at the end of the meeting? How will you be judged by management moving forward. To my mind, it’s a big risk to take.

As a manager or team leader the first thing you can do is simply be open and listen when an employee discloses their diagnosis to you. Don’t say you are sorry. The employee doesn’t want (or need) to hear that. Secondly, ask what kinds of support the employee may need. It could relate to helping reduce sensory input. This may mean working from a quiet office space (open plan workspaces are generally not beneficial for people on the ASD), be told of changes ahead of time and to have change happen incrementally within someone’s work role. Ask at certain check points how the employee is traveling when changes start to be implemented. If necessary, find a workplace cultural agency or organisational psychologist who has worked with high achieving and competent individuals on the spectrum to discuss how to move forward so that all parties benefit.

Can people on the spectrum change? I find this to be an interesting question. Neuroscientists talk about neuroplasticity and the brain being capable of changing and learning new things. One of the primary traits of an autistic person is keeping rigid routines and fixed interests. For me, change can be slow and it’s not from not wanting to. I’ve spoken with two psychologists who both say changing habits and behaviours for an autist is possible and can happen with continued practice and reframing. This is positive.

I’m learning to manage behaviours and habits more. This means turning the volume up or down (metaphorically) on things that may challenge me, especially around sensory stimuli. I’ve found some simple strategies to manage sound interference and by doing this, it helps my nervous system remain regulated. Nervous system regulation keeps me calm and helps to stabilise and/or manage anxiety. For others it may help to manage depression, overwhelm and other behaviours that lend themselves to life on the spectrum.

Nothing changed the day I received the diagnosis; I was still me. Quirky and a different thinker. What the diagnosis has given me is the opportunity to view the world through a different lens. I understand my needs in the workplace and know what to do to remain a productive member of a team.  I identify and speak out about my needs in the workplace, monitor my close relationships, and how I interact with others. Things make more sense now. I’m grateful the diagnosis has given me a new-found perspective.

To find out more –  ADULTS AND AUTISM – Courage Unravelled