Autism and Workplace Anxiety

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In our latest tip sheet from DeafTEC and AccessATE, we discussed accommodations and safety for autistic employees. The tip sheet briefly covers stress management. Here, we will dive deeper into the relationship between autism and anxiety, how autistic employees might handle stress at work, and how you as an employer can help.

Anxiety often cooccurs with autism, which can affect an autistic person's ability to focus and do their job

Tip Sheet: Accommodations and Safety for Autistic Employees

Anxiety, as many of us know, is itself a reaction to stress and something many of us experience from time to time. Anxiety disorders, which last much longer than temporary worries and fears, are particularly common among people on the autism spectrum – in fact, they are the most common cooccurring disorder. Just as in allistic people, an autistic person’s anxiety can be especially triggered in the workplace. Generally speaking, there are four key areas that may especially relate to anxiety in autistic people.

The first is difficulty recognizing emotions in oneself and in others; this makes it hard to understand and process feelings of being scared or safe, which itself can be scary. It can also result in social anxiety due to difficulty with “reading” others, thus making social interaction feel risky and unpredictable. The second area is sensory sensitivities, which often accompany autism. Sensory processing disorders cause input like sound and touch feel “bigger” than they do to allistic people, making it easy to become overwhelmed, anxious, and unable to function.

Another difficulty is uncertainty, as mentioned in the tip sheet. Autistic people often thrive on predictability and routine. The inability to know what is coming next can cause anxiety on its own, and can cause further anxiety when it comes to having to try to guess how one might have to proceed in an unknown or unexpected situation. The final area is performance anxiety; many autistic people already “perform” (often called “masking”) to get along better with their allistic peers, which can be exhausting. In social settings, failure to perform might mean upsetting someone. At work, such failure can have much higher stakes, and the notion of it can cause a lot of anxiety. Additionally, a lack of guarantee of success can make autistic people reluctant to try new things or complete tasks. Many autistic people, when faced with anxiety, become more repetitive with their actions, seek to spend more time on hobbies and interests, and/or may become more insistent on routines, perhaps for fear of failure and of sensory input.

In the workplace, levels of anxiety can be especially heightened in employees with autism, due to the increased possibility of sudden changes and a lack of control of the environment. Unaddressed anxiety can lead to long-term issues, such as taking a longer time than usual to complete tasks, or not completing them at all, or needing to take more time off work. As an employer, you can help your autistic employees reduce and manage their anxiety by many simple means; just remember that the needs and solutions will vary by the individual. The first thing to do is ask in advance; autistic employees may already know their stressors from previous experience, and know what they need to avoid or handle them as they come up. As mentioned in the tip sheet, reduce uncertainty for the employee by providing specific expectations and instructions ahead of time, as well as a structured environment. When new or uncertain situations can’t be avoided, try gradual exposure, or “trial runs”. Allowing the employee to reduce sensory input with dimmer lights and/or sound-blocking headphones, for example, can have a positive impact as well.

Your autistic employee may also benefit greatly from having a mentor or buddy to kindly explain the nuances of the workplace. You might opt to provide more specialized training for the employee, and/or for their manager(s) and colleagues, or seek support from a specialist workplace adviser. It’s also very helpful to have regular performance reviews and check-ins, including and especially reassurance that things are going well; this provides a great deal of relief to performance anxiety. Finally, if the autistic employee wishes, you or the employee can disclose that they are autistic to their colleagues. Informing the team can help ease anxiety because it puts everyone on the same page, and can help them know what to expect.

Though autistic employees may be more likely to experience workplace anxiety, it’s important to remember that it is not unique to them; all employees experience workplace anxiety and stress at times. And, just as in allistic employees, anxiety can affect autistic employees’ ability to focus and do their jobs as expected, so it behooves employers to get involved. The means of mitigating that anxiety for autistic people is fairly straightforward and costs little to nothing; it is largely a matter of good communication between you and the autistic employee.

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