Autistic Burnout Guide | Part 4 | 3/12/2021
Disclosure of any neurodivergent condition, especially in a workplace setting, may appear to be a straightforward matter to neurotypical people. However, the effect that the ease or difficulty of such a process is farther reaching and of greater impact than it may seem. While the act of disclosing and the potential trepidation of doing so can weigh heavily enough, those compelled, for whatever reason, to withhold from doing so are bound to masking their true selves. While manageable in isolated, occasional instances, the masking process inevitably drives autistic burnout among autistic individuals over time.
For those in particular who work full-time (or close enough) as part of an organisation, masking will be constant, in turn diminishing both the individual's capacity for productivity and optimum work performance and emotional wellbeing. In spite of this, though, autistic employees have chosen to persist with masking, rather than to disclose their condition among their work colleagues and managers.
According to lived neurodivergent experience, in this instance that of The Neurodivergent Coach founder Samantha Nuttall, two key considerations emerge in establishing one’s readiness to take the step towards disclosure. One is the concept of acceptance, and the other relates to trade-offs.
As confirmed by research, acceptance in a workplace is as significant a determinant as any in both an employee’s satisfaction and performance. For neurodivergent people, acceptance can be achieved by contrasting individual strategies, depending on perceived wisdom of disclosing or withholding, based on attitudes observed within an environment:
Irrespective of disclosure strategy, a trade-off is inevitable. Most obvious of all, electing to mask their autism and avoid disclosure increases the prospect of an individual succumbing to autistic burnout, as their performance declines, mental health suffers and even physical health declines, essentially as a consequence of pursuing success in spite of being their complete, true selves. While occupational successes may materialise, in this instance, they are a product of a strategy most likely unsustainable, as the anxiety of maintaining a facade of a kind takes its toll.
Insights have indicated several common challenges experienced by autistic people in the workplace, when it comes to both masking and safely disclosing a diagnosis. Here are a few:
Anxiety around disclosure safety
One of the foremost issues regarding masking is clarity over whether or not there’s actually any need to do so at all. Often, employees will be unsure if it is safe to disclose an autism diagnosis to their managers (or close colleagues) within that organisation, especially if they have not worked there for long. In one example, an employee was observed to have been masking at the beginning of a new role. Fortunately, personnel within this organisation informed the employee that they were safe to be themselves and be open about their diagnosis, where the perspective was that openness and knowledge of an autism diagnosis was essential for understanding and aversion of conflict.
One of the clashes that has a tendency to arise between some autistic individuals and their neurotypical colleagues, is in directness of communication. As many western corporate cultures expect the tone of one’s message to be somewhat softened, some autistic employees have encountered a challenge in tempering a natural inclination to communicate directly and to the point. For some, the need to regularly rewrite emails to soften the language and maintain a veneer has been real, and part of a surefire recipe for autistic burnout.
While virtual meetings offer a degree of space and separation that in-person meetings cannot provide, one challenge identified by autistic employees is masking when ‘stimming’ with their hands, without being seen by the computer’s camera. Stimming (self-stimulating) is a typically repetitive action that helps autistic people manage emotions and cope with an overwhelming situation. Autistic workers may negotiate this either by having their camera turned off, or by using an external camera, which enables ‘safe’ stimming outside of view and negates a need to feel self-conscious.
Performance evaluation & Career progression
Masking challenges can manifest more readily or less readily for an autistic employee, depending on the nature of their position. They most likely present themselves where success in a role is disproportionately driven by engagement in meetings and conforming to expectations in demeanour, rather than where success is determined by black and white outcomes of work itself and achieving specific goals. Importantly, this does not mean an autistic employee is only suited to the latter job type. Conversely, this underscores the significance of supporting safe disclosure and visibly permitting employees to be themselves at an organisational level.
Similarly, the challenges masking poses for some autistic employees have been found to weigh progressively more heavily when promotions are pursued. This relates to the greater weighting generally afforded to social hierarchy in more advanced roles, as well as the higher likelihood / frequency of interpersonal interactions.
Beyond the trade-off discussed, there are several other key drivers for autistic individuals to either disclose an autism diagnosis, or withhold from doing so.
Improving working conditions
Transparency about autism and what it means creates an opportunity to make working life easier. Broaching the subject sparks a discussion between the employee and their manager/boss about potential reasonable accommodations in a workplace, especially if a struggle in particular areas is identified.
Anti-discrimination laws offer protection from unlawful discrimination, wherever an employer is aware of a neurodivergent condition like autism. It is classified as a disability under Australia’s anti-discrimination law.
Through the process of diagnosis disclosure, a collaborative, two-way opportunity presents itself, while managers assist in an autistic employee’s growth and success, the employee has the opportunity to educate their manager(s) about neurodiversity. This could constitute a more in depth discussion on why accommodations are necessary, how the employee works best and how they can optimise their strengths for the organisation’s advantage.
One source of hesitation to disclose an autistic diagnosis is, the actual or perceived (from the individual’s viewpoint) management views about being autistic. If an autistic employee were to correctly assume negative attitudes towards autism/neurodiversity more broadly, it is reasonable to expect stress would ensue, thus only propelling autistic burnout. The prospect of discrimination in that workplace also becomes real, whether it relate to projects or opportunities for promotion which.
Is it necessary?
While it may not naturally occur to an employee, the kinds of workplace accommodations that any neurodivergent person could feel inclined to request of their managers can typically be pursued without the disclosure of a diagnosis, given that they tend to be granted to any employee, at least in a genuinely satisfactory workplace environment.
A potential negative effect of disclosing to colleagues is an employee becoming subsequently underestimated. This can arise through misunderstandings about an autistic employee’s working ability, mistaking a need for accommodation for reduced capacity to execute at all, leading to a negative, underwhelming working experience overall for an autistic employee. This alludes to the value of autism and neurodiversity education within workplaces, to ensure that as well as acknowledging and resolving their challenges and obstacles as best as possible, the strengths of autistic employees are also understood and harnessed to organisational advantage.