When / how to tell an employer about autism-like issues?
May 8, 2019 6:32 AM   Subscribe

I have always struggled in the workplace. Would applying a label help me get accommodations, or simply stop me from getting work?

I (30F) got a general personality assessment done a few months ago where I was diagnosed with complex PTSD. Apparently many of the symptoms overlap with those of autism, but my psychologist sounded pretty certain. At first I accepted that - but more recently I’ve started reading about autistic traits specifically in *women* and, boy, it’s like reading a pared-down autobiography. It’s ME.

Assessments for autism in adults are really expensive and out of the question. I don’t want to self-diagnose, and I’m not sure it would make much difference in my social life - my friends know I’m a bit weird and they’ve still stuck around. But applying the label to my work life suddenly makes everything, EVERYTHING make sense. I have been in and out of workplaces for the past decade and always struggled to hold down a job. This has always been a source of severe distress for me because I *love* my field of work and it’s basically all I want to do with my life. I’m good at it, I'm hardworking, I enjoy it. So why is it so *hard*?

In particular, open-plan workplaces can go to h*ll. I’m sensitive to fluorescent lights and *very* sensitive to background noise and chatter. I wear noise-cancelling headphones (or earplugs) but I’m still hyper aware of all the movement around me. Worse yet, if I can’t hear then people will come up and tap me on the shoulder and it’s like getting an electric shock - my nervous system goes into overdrive and it takes me ages to calm down. I often get so overwhelmed by it all that I literally can’t speak, or I speak in an exhausted, dead monotone - not ideal in meetings or teamwork (or for making friends). Some days I’ll spend the entire day just pretending to work, while I silently scream on the inside, and as soon as hometime comes and it gets darker and people thin out I start to be able to focus again.

Whenever it’s become apparent I’ve been struggling, I have tried to awkwardly ask for accommodations like

- a desk in a corner
- sitting somewhere darker
- having people message me before they come over to talk
- sitting in a different department that’s smaller / has fewer people
- working some days from home
- working later hours

and it’s never been received well. The reaction is always a cynical “Why?” and what do I say to that? “I have PTSD.” “What does that mean?” “It means… I had a sh*tty family and I’m broken and I can’t function like normal humans do?” is obviously not okay, even if I have a solid diagnosis. But saying “I'm autistic” might be more acceptable?

In one instance (I suspect an illegal one) they threatened to fire me, repeatedly, unless I “got better” quickly. That was traumatising and I don’t want to go through that again.

But do I need “proof” (i.e. a written diagnosis) in order to get accommodations made, especially ones that are seen by an employer as inconvenient? Is there a chance that an employer would just make it common knowledge and I’d be ostracised, or be treated as less capable?

Also, when do I say it? I’d want to be open from the start but I suspect that mentioning a need for accommodation in an interview would cost me a job, and mentioning it after an interview would be seen as withholding information.

I work in a fairly niche and "laddish" field that is predominantly made up of smaller studios that aren’t used to dealing with this sort of thing. Freelancing is common but it is almost always expected to be done on-site (it’s an unspoken rule that employing remote freelancers is a bad idea, unless they've proven themselves).

But once you take the workplace out of the work, I am perfectly suited to it. Please, hivemind, how do I navigate this?
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (10 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Where are you located? I'm in the UK and you can 100% wait until after you are made a job offer to ask for accommodations for disabilities, and I've never heard of anyone being asked to 'prove' their disability with paperwork.
posted by cilantro at 6:44 AM on May 8, 2019 [2 favorites]

In Canada, your doctor would simply specify which accommodations you would need without mentioning the diagnosis. I’d assume it’s similar in the UK, not sure about the US.

I would think that larger companies (with HR departments) would be better placed than startups to accommodate you. Also, at least here, companies with under a certain number of employees (I think it’s 50) aren’t bound to the same labour laws as larger companies. Something to consider.
posted by cotton dress sock at 7:29 AM on May 8, 2019 [1 favorite]

(So a letter could say something like, “anon requires a private workspace with minimal noise for medical reasons”, that’s about it.)
posted by cotton dress sock at 7:31 AM on May 8, 2019

I have similar spectrum/ptsd issues, and the official self diagnosis I go with is Sensory Processing Disorder because it's focused on the work-relevant parts and I don't have to go into the "well, Autism is a spectrum, and I'm highly functioning but have these specific issues I need help with, but this doesn't mean you need to treat me me any differently otherwise" discussion. Honestly I'm not particularly handicapped socially and that's what most people think of when you say Autism.

I work in a field where these symptoms are common (programming) and once I explained my issues I didn't have any trouble getting accommodations, so I don't have specific advice for other fields. But, I do think being as precise as possible when asking for accommodations would both make it more likely for you to get them, and make it less likely to get ostracized at a small company where HR can't keep a secret.
posted by JZig at 8:05 AM on May 8, 2019 [9 favorites]

What you are looking for is workplace accommodations under Title I of the ADA Act. Job Accommodation Network (JAN) are the experts and will be able to answer your questions and help you with this.

Understand that your need for accommodation is real and that there is ways for you and for them to navigate through this situation. You have a right to reasonable accommodation. Small organizations often need guidance so know that you may end up doing meetings where you lay out both what your needs are and also provide them with the framework or the resources that leads them through the process.

Good luck.
posted by zenon at 9:13 AM on May 8, 2019 [1 favorite]

I mean ... no. It’s very unlikely to help. The stigma around autism is very high. *If* you are successful at getting accommodations by disclosing, it will likely hamper any growth opportunities or inclusion in complex projects. (Truly ironic, since many autistic people are systems thinkers who excel at that.) Narrowly disclosed PTSD is more readily accepted. “I have PTSD, which means I startle easily and have sensitivity to light and sound. The accommodations that help me succeed are XYZ.” You don’t have to go into more detail than that.

While the ADA is supposed to guarantee accommodations, don’t think that it actually changes people’s internal perceptions. The way that people treat you post-disclosure is quite noticeable. Unless you want to make it a central part of how people think about you, I strongly advise against.
posted by stoneweaver at 4:26 PM on May 8, 2019 [4 favorites]

(From spellings and diction, I don't think OP is in the U.S., so the ADA is not applicable.)
posted by praemunire at 6:11 PM on May 8, 2019

I'm a member of an online community for autistic non-men in tech. Some folks have gone about disclosing and requesting accommodations from their employers. PM me for more info if you like.
posted by Sheydem-tants at 1:28 AM on May 9, 2019 [1 favorite]

I have the same issues as you in a workplace. Agile is the absolute worst. I have solved the problem by working from home as a freelancer. Is that something you could do? Or even telecommuting?
posted by Beethoven's Sith at 7:31 PM on May 9, 2019

Some depends on how in-demand your skills are. I've asked for this sort of thing not in the interview, but before accepting a job offer. They offer me a certain amount of money and I'll say something like, "That sounds good, but I will need [accommodation]" and see what their response is like. I'm lucky in that if they're not amenable, I usually have other options, and clearly stating this as a condition of accepting employment makes it easier to make sure it happens. Asking in the interview makes people seem high maintenance, and asking after starting work provides them with no incentive to provide it.
posted by metasarah at 6:01 AM on May 10, 2019

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