Autistic Burnout Guide | Part 5 | 3/12/2021
In this case study, an autistic corporate project manager works in an autonomous and flexible role. They work under a manager with whom understanding has been developed, where the manager makes themselves available to address the autistic employee’s queries and concerns in a timely manner. Here, we outline the key burnout drivers arising for the autistic employee, along with the solutions implemented in partnership with their manager.
The individual in this case was prone to what is often referred to as an ‘autistic meltdown’. One driver of this was a depletion in energy levels, in which functional capacity diminished by the middle of the last day of a full-time work week. The solution devised alongside their manager was to allocate time off each Friday afternoon, with a view that recharge time would be vital for maximising overall working capacity and productivity despite reduced hours.
Meltdowns are embraced without judgement as an inevitable reality, which may materialise in the form of crying or incoherent sentences. The safety of the individual to endure the experience is assured, where the manager offers support by listening and/or offering the individual an opportunity to retreat to quiet space. In fact, the provision of ‘space’ conceptually extends to mental space, as well as physical. Prior to any meetings, the individual is provided all questions or points for discussion in advance, to construct a response and alleviate concerns of poor or underwhelming contribution. This structure optimises their performance and permits them to be more effective. With such management of meltdowns, the prospect of an onset of autistic burnout is diminished.
The low-energy levels encountered by the autistic employee in this case were also identified as arising from insufficient mental processing time, where the space necessary for processing information before responding to questions or contributing thoughts, suggestions or feedback was lacking.
Eventually, the individual realised that they needed to meet with their team and discuss this, explaining that often, they need more time than others to stop and reflect on what has been said, adding that pauses can be misinterpreted as a lack of comprehension, or lack of concentration. It emerged that the employee’s co-workers, in these situations, thought that they were being supportive in their responses, though hadn’t properly understood the problem, or how they could help.
A mismatch in communication styles was identified as the core issue, which then led to the team workshopping ideas for ‘meeting in the middle’. The team settled on a ‘safe word’ for the employee to use whenever they needed processing space during meetings. As for client-facing environments that called for greater discretion and subtlety, a visible signal was determined; to turn over phones on the table.
In hindsight, the autistic employee in this instance realised that they should’ve spoken up sooner, and saved anguish at work, given this course of action opened a door to a solution that would enable them to work and collaborate with a team far more effectively.
One critical benefit of knowing support will be in place is that the individual is prone to fewer meltdowns than they otherwise would be, due to a feeling of psychological safety and reassurance. The other key benefit of such support is faster recovery from a meltdown if one does occur, to the extent where it is possible to rebound from a meltdown within an hour, minimising their negative impact on both overall wellbeing and productivity at work.
Another benefit is the growth in confidence experienced by the autistic employee. As indicated by this case, this can reveal itself in two ways. One is the trust the individual develops in their managers and colleagues on a day-to-day basis, while the other is the self-belief they are able to form, leading to anything from a higher standard of performance to growth into a leadership role, reflecting maximised potential.
While the support of management, including direct reports, are unequivocally critical for employees enduring any form of autistic burnout, the individual’s manager in this case makes sure to encourage colleagues to provide the same support, such as providing space when needed, or to clarify any misinterpretations where they may occur (which can cause the autistic employee to feel unnecessarily overwhelmed).
Additionally, this extends to clients, where the individual who may, as in this case, have an altered schedule and can be safely and comfortably transparent with them. This underscores the high importance of a strong, cohesive organisational culture, where team members have each other’s back and are well equipped to demonstrate empathy. Crucially, further to this, while it’s important for organisations to have the culture of embracing diversity and inclusion and to build capacity to accommodate differences where needed, it needs to be visibly evident. As previously discussed, masking is a fact of life for many autistic (and other neurodivergent) employees across organisations. While an autistic employee may understand masking to be their most viable strategy for retaining their employment in some environments, it is incumbent on organisations with a culture of support to make this as clear as possible, to remove doubt. This way, autism / neurodiversity disclosure need not be seen as such a risk or gamble, and the employee is not compelled to anxiously fear rejection and suffer unnecessary autistic burnout.
Listening to their employee, learning from this process, and imparting these lessons across an organisation are key to supporting autistic and all neurodivergent individuals who may work within it. Such a culture of support, ultimately, acts as a competitive advantage when it comes to attracting and retaining capable talent from the broadest possible pool.
Policies & Procedures
An Israeli study researching the implementation by supervisors of autistic employees of reasonable accommodations within an organisation, highlighted the importance of Policies and Procedures. It illuminated that without constant professional consulting from an external support agency, managers and supervisors would struggle to adequately implement reasonable accommodations needed for autistic/neurodivergent employees. From an accommodations standpoint, key characteristics include:
Why accommodations are a must-have policy
Observations from the study referenced here also highlight the following points as to why reasonable accommodations are important: