A woman laughs in a meeting while typing on a laptop.
18 Jan

Tips for a great career year as an autistic employee

Many of us are returning to work for another year, which for autistic employees, can be a more demanding transition than it is for most. Although our focus can often be on simply surviving this return to work, we can and should feel excited and optimistic for the year ahead, whether we’re autistic or not.

In this post, we’ll take you through some ways you can set yourself up for a great year at work as a person with autism. We’ll also share some links to additional articles and resources designed to help autistic people succeed in the workplace, regardless of what stage you’re at in your career:

  • Identify your goals
  • Customise your work environment
  • Consider a mentor
  • Keep communication open  
  • Your next steps

Identify your goals

Perhaps this is your first full-time job (or first job ever!) and you want to make the most of it. Perhaps you’re feeling ready to try for that promotion or more senior role in your workplace. Or perhaps you feel stagnant in your current role and are looking for a career change.

Wherever you’re at career-wise, having goals can help you stay motivated at work and encourage you to learn new skills and ideas. These don’t have to be huge goals, or hugely complicated – they just need to relate to what you want to get out of your career and how you'd like it to evolve.

Many people find goal-setting overwhelming, particularly in the early stages of our careers. Here are some things you can think about when creating career goals:

  • Identify your strengths. Perhaps you’re incredibly creative, or your attention to detail is fantastic. Many of our strengths can be harnessed in the workplace, even if they might not seem relevant at first.
  • Identify your passions. What topics or kinds of work bring you joy or excite you? This could inform areas of professional development or even a career change.
  • Identify your weaknesses. This can be tricky, but it can help you to understand work that might not be suited to you. For example, if you find interacting with people you don’t know overwhelming, you might avoid jobs in hospitality or retail.

Regardless of how long you’ve been working, there are some key features any goal must have in order to be successful. SMART goals refer to goals that are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-Bound, and using this framework can ensure your aspirations remain in your best interests. You can check out a helpful introduction to creating SMART goals here.

For further advice around reflecting on your career, you can watch these wonderful autistic adults share their tips:

Consider your work environment

If you don’t work from home, then there are elements of your work environment that are out of your control. This can be stressful for an autistic person ,especially if you’re starting a job in a new place or your workplace environment has undergone some changes over the holiday period.

By understanding what features of a workplace environment encourage and prevent you from working at your best, you can begin to customise your workspace or ask your employer for reasonable accommodations that would make your work environment more accessible. The Disability Discrimination Act 1992 states that employers must consider if reasonable adjustments could help an employee with disability perform their job or perform their job better.

Most adjustments to a workspace that can better accommodate employees with autism are both simple and inexpensive. Here are some easy solutions to common accessibility issues in the workplace:  

  • Avoiding or replacing fluorescent lights and having sunglasses on hand to combat bright lights in areas they can’t be replaced.
  • Moving your desk/workspace away from crowded or common areas to reduce noise and wearing noise-cancelling headphones or earplugs.
  • Introducing flexible work hours or working from home to avoid commuting during busy periods.
  • Reducing strong smells (e.g. avoiding strong smelling cleaning products or air fresheners).
  • Creating designated quiet spaces that employees can retreat to for relaxation and regulation (e.g., an empty office).
  • Creating workspaces that be customised to suit an individual’s preferences (e.g., spaces to store stress balls, fidget spinners and sensory tools).  
  • Avoiding pressuring yourself or others to attend social events if you don’t want to(e.g., work lunches, networking events).

Consider a career mentor

We can all benefit from mentors at one point or another, particularly in our careers. Developing positive relationships with people who have been in your position or achieved the milestones you wish to achieve in your career can give us the skills, knowledge and confidence to succeed.

For autistic and neurodivergent employees, buddies or mentors in the workplace can be incredibly beneficial. Not only can this person support your career growth and progression, but they can assist you in navigating the social aspects of work and other challenges that might arise. It doesn’t matter if this person is autistic or neurotypical, as long as they can provide practical and appropriate advice and are encouraging and supportive of your goals.

Some workplaces (often larger organisations) have pre-existing mentorship programs that pair junior employees with more senior individuals within the company. These programs can be very helpful as they are often quite structured and mean you don’t have to find a mentor on your own. However, most organisations don’t have these formal programs in place, and there might be restrictions on who can mentor you and what they can offer.

Employee scan still receive mentoring even if their workplace doesn’t have a formal program in place. If you would like a particular person to mentor you, eitherinside or outside of your workplace, you’re more than welcome to reach out to them. This can be daunting, but can also give you the freedom to be mentored by whoever you like and to establish your relationship on your own terms.

You might also consider connecting with people in your industry outside of your workplace, either to seek occasional advice or to simply grow your connections. Attending networking events can be a great way to find mentors and meet like-minded people, but if you find these events challenging from a social perspective, you can also connect with people virtually (e.g., via LinkedIn).  

Keep communication open

Communication is key in all aspects of our lives, especially in the workplace. Effective communication is what allows everyone in a workplace to keep up to date, navigate challenges, celebrate successes and remain efficient. And when communication breaks down, the workplace can quickly become quite a hostile place.

Reflecting on how you like to communicate and be communicated with can help improve your comfort, confidence and relationships at work. Here are some things you can think about when considering your own communication preferences:

  • Do you have a preference for identity-first or person-first language (i.e., being referred to as autistic or a person with autism)?
  • Do you need more time to process verbal instructions, questions or comments? Or are there better ways for you to be asked questions or demands (e.g., via email)?
  • Are there styles of communication that confuse you or cause you to feel anxious? For example, does sustaining eye contact make you feel uncomfortable, or are jokes and sarcasm hard for you to understand, causing you to feel excluded?
  • Does receiving regular feedback help you feel reassured? Do you prefer receiving this feedback verbally or in written form?
  • Do you dislike engaging in small talk?

Once you’re aware of how you communicate effectively, you can better advocate for what you want and need from your co-workers. For example, if you require more time than others to process questions or demands, you could let your colleagues know that you’d appreciate some extra time to process what they are saying when they speak to you. Or you could ask someone to write down the tasks they’d like you to complete so you don’t have to worry about forgetting or misunderstanding what they’ve asked.

Sometimes, we can encounter conflict in the workplace, which although uncomfortable, is totally normal from time to time. Conflict is usually caused by breakdowns in communication that can be resolved through honest and respectful discussions between all parties involved. You can read our tips for navigating conflict in the workplace on our page ‘Making the workplace work for you.’

Remember, you have the right to feel both safe, supported and respected at work. Anti-discrimination laws protect people with disability from both direct and indirect discrimination when job-searching and in the workplace. You can learn more about what constitutes as discrimination in the workplace and what to do if you experience it here.

Your next steps

Although you might feel overwhelmed or anxious about the year ahead at work, know that you’re not alone. There are a range of fantastic information hubs and resources available to people with autism navigating the workplace, many of which are created or co-created by autistic advocates with lived experience.

Have you recently received an autism diagnosis? Be sure to check out the ‘Workplace’ section of 'Autism: What Next?' - our free digital toolkit with evidence-based information to support newly diagnosed autistic adults.

Here are some external sites that provide support to both neurodivergent employees and their potential employers, as well as educational and other institutions that prepare autistic people for work:

 For more information and advice for autistic people at work, you can check out the following articles:

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