A couple of years ago I was diagnosed with being on the autism spectrum. Recently I met with management to discuss this and how, due to changes starting to take place at work, these changes were starting to make me feel unsure and unsteady.
Previously, I knew what my role was. I had a framework, a variety within my routine and knew what lay ahead of me. I felt secure and safe. Important for someone on the spectrum.
For me that feeling of safety in a workplace helps me remain calm, happy and productive. When I feel safe, I able to manage anxiety better and remain confident and competent in the workplace. When my foundations shift, it feels like an earthquake tremor. Sometimes the plates can shift to 3 on the Richter scale. Other times it can be about a 7. When it gets to that point, it’s very unhealthy, especially remaining 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 the intensity as a neurodivergent’s brain is wired differently. 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, 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 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? Interesting question. I’m exploring this. I believe adults have a better opportunity to do this as regulation of emotions and behaviours may have improved from when they were a child or teenager. For me, change can be slow and it’s not from not wanting to. And it moves beyond the courage to change. This is different.
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, as usually people on the spectrum can be fixed in their thoughts and behaviours.
The question is, to what extent can change happen – because of this fixed personality trait? It’s also dependent on how far along the spectrum someone is. When you meet one person on the spectrum, you only meet that one person on the spectrum. There are no two people alike. Skillsets and talents abound with people on the spectrum but there is usually one or two special skills that really stand out.
I’m learning that it’s more about managing behaviours and habits. Turning the volume up or down once you are aware. Managing sensory inputs and keeping the nervous system calm and stable helps to manage anxiety, depression, overwhelm and other behaviours that lend themselves to those on the spectrum.
Being honest with myself, I still don’t think it sits well with me despite being given the diagnosis two years ago. Nothing changed the day I received the diagnosis, I was still me. Quirky. At the same time however, everything did. The way I view the world, the hyperfocus at work, daily interactions with others and the relationships I have with people close to me is now viewed through a different lens. The autism lens. Things make more sense.
What I’m grateful for is that the diagnosis has given me a solid supportive ledge to stand on to help me gain a birds-eye view of my new-found perspective. I remain open to a growth mindset and will continue to cultivate courage in all its forms because I know how important it is to personal development.
If this is you or someone you know or care for, I would love to hear your perspective as, while there may be similarities, there will always be differences. That’s why it’s a spectrum.
Sana Turnock is a speaker, courage mindset facilitator, storyteller and podcaster on courage and growth mindset related themes in business and life. To learn more or enquire for bookings, visit (home) Courage Facilitator| Mindset Speaker| Courage Stories (courageunravelled.com) or (services) Business Mindset Trainer | Keynote Speaker Perth | Sana Turnock (courageunravelled.com) or (podcasts) Courage Unravelled Podcast with Courage Mindset Trainer Sana Turnock