How can we design a workplace culture that accommodates the autistic community? Autistic freelance writer Mette reflects on her experiences.
I’ve spent a lot of time investigating how I work best as a neurodivergent person. Gradually, and with great caution, I’ve recently settled into a fully freelance career as a writer.
Freelancers are self-employed or independent workers who are hired by companies on an ad hoc or part-time basis. They don’t have the same benefits or security as full-time employees, but they do have a level of autonomy and freedom to choose their work schedule and routine. There are a number of positives to having a freelance career, such as flexibility, self-sufficiency, and independence, however, these are balanced with a level of uncertainty, insecurity, and a lot of invoice-chasing.
Is freelancing an "autism-friendly" occupation?
As a freelancer, my current career doesn’t conventionally align with my neurodivergent need for routine and consistency. My income varies greatly from month to month, my days are always subject to change, and I can’t rely on straightforward briefs from clients. And yet, I enjoy a fulfilling and varied career spanning fields and industries, using skills I’ve developed over years spent both in and out of education. It feels counterintuitive to enjoy this, as previously, I would have never believed I'd find comfort in such a changeable career that appears to go against almost all my autistic characteristics.
Whilst unreliable, erratic, and often unbearably stressful, I’ve found that freelancing presents me with a relatively autism-friendly occupation. I have a level of control over how I organise my time, I can work from home and lean into my nocturnal working hours, all whilst making the most of quiet midweek high streets. I see no future for myself in a conventional full-time job, and I’m quite content sharing my freelance lifestyle with my autistic foibles. It makes sense to me.
This is not to say that this is a pain-free career, or that being autistic doesn’t clash with being a freelancer. It’s a challenge, and involves worry and anxiety found in the universal call for a stress-free work culture. Not every commissioning editor is flexible, and not all jobs are accommodating. In the past, making the decision to disclose my diagnoses to employers was judged on a case-by-case basis. I have the privilege of “passing” as neurotypical, and can choose not to share if I feel uncomfortable, which isn’t the case for all autistic people. My behaviours conform to the expectations of the professional sector, and I have the outward capacity to camouflage my behaviours to appear neurotypical. Whilst this comes at the cost of my wellbeing, I am able to make a reasonable living in an environment designed for a non-autistic population, which is a huge advantage.
Less than a quarter of disabled autistic people are in full or part-time work
According to the 2020 ONS report, just 21.7% of disabled autistic people are in full or part-time employment, a statistic that makes me an anomaly. Why is this the case? Sensory overwhelm, unwritten social rules and lack of proper education or training in the workplace leads to an incredibly challenging environment for autistic people; it creates a culture of not listening to autistic people and their needs. Facilitating an accommodating workplace is doable, but requires time, attention, and a budget.
For me, it’s not about forcing disabled, autistic people into work, but instead it’s a case of making those spaces more accessible to a population overlooked and neglected across industries. Making reasonable adjustments and accommodations for autistic people with the capacity for work is the bare minimum for creating an accessible work environment. HR departments and small businesses often don’t have the scope or budget to accommodate additional needs, and whilst that shouldn’t be the case, it is the current reality.
Freelancing was never presented to me as a viable option, or a reasonable alternative to the traditional nine-to-five job. I went through the education system with difficulty, struggling with friendships, lack of support, and my mental health. When I arrived at the world of part-time work at the tender age of 15, I very quickly learnt the value of money and how incompatible my neurodivergence was with customer-facing roles. I spent eight years in the service industry alongside my education, transitioning from a café to a deli, from there a pub, and then onto retail. Each role provided its own challenges, and looking back, many of those were rooted in my then undiagnosed neurodiversity.
Following verbal instructions has always been a challenge for me, I struggle to process orders and often have to write down directions to help myself understand them. The rapid changes of circumstance in the service industry caused an untold level of stress, as the first port of call for customers, I often took the brunt of anger and frustration. It wasn’t unusual for me to make mistakes, or lose confidence in my ability to complete tasks to a high standard. My executive functioning would often fail me, and I’d get overwhelmed by unexpected noises or bright lights in public spaces.
How can we re-imagine a future of work that accommodates autistic people?
Creating an autistic-appropriate work-life balance should be an option for all neurodivergent people with the capacity for work. I’m very fortunate to have a professional (and personal) support system in place providing me with guidance and advice on how to approach my career, something I’m immensely grateful for.
However, many don’t. It’s important to recognise that being able to work is both a privilege and a feat of capitalism. The relationship between productivity and profit is complex, and leans into a nuanced discourse about disability, neurodivergence, and the question of who is “of use”. For the time being, we exist in a system that requires a steady income to uphold a reasonable standard of living, a facet of our society that reaches into a conversation of poverty, purpose, and privilege. Even at its best - our system is flawed. We’ve hit a record high for the in-work poverty rate for the 21st century, with an increase of 17.4% of working households living in poverty in the year leading to March 2020. It’s just not fit for purpose.
The question remains: how can we re-imagine a future of work that considers, accommodates, and celebrates autistic people in their full selves? Whilst challenging, freelancing has provided me with a reasonably accessible and autistic-friendly career, something I would never have thought of as an option. Having the opportunity to work with the correct support is essential, something that is clearly not happening for the vast majority of autistic people. It’s time to listen, to take lived experiences into account, and take action.
To get support in your workplace contact Access to Work.
METTE is a writer, collector, and curator working at the junction between print, audio, and interdisciplinary projects. Receiving an autism diagnosis at age twenty one she has a vested interest in representation and accessibility.