3 Tips for Navigating Autism in the Workplace

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April is Autism Awareness and Acceptance Month, and I’ve always tried to express my support. I shared articles, participated in events, and cheered on autistic kids. It never occurred to me that I could be on the spectrum.

pencil paper and coffee cup on a table

I’ve held multiple communications roles, but sarcastic comments always flew over my head. I do relationship management for the Dell Women’s Entrepreneur Network, but I was struggling with social interactions in my personal life. The smallest disruption in routine was hard to handle. I suffered unbearable pain from bright lights and reflections.

When I was evaluated and diagnosed with Asperger’s, I finally had a name for my sensitivities. All of a sudden, I was the person I had advocated for in the past!

I was advised not to share my diagnosis at work. Indeed, young adults with autism are more likely to be unemployed and isolated. Thankfully, though, Dell has always encouraged bringing your whole self to work, and I carefully revealed this significant aspect of my life to my team. This risky move was met with overwhelming support, and we’ve all made changes so that I can be my best self at work. My team believes neurodiversity isn’t a hindrance, but an opportunity to approach things differently.

Sheila de Guzman and Alex Hartley

Here’s my advice for anyone trying to navigate autism in the workplace, especially those diagnosed as adults:

  1. Consult with a mental health specialist. Autism isn’t on a linear spectrum; it’s like a painting where some things are absolute/obvious or abstract/disguised. In fact, because we’ve historically assumed autism looks a certain way, many girls were not diagnosed or were diagnosed later in life (like me!). If you have a hunch, I encourage you to meet with a specialist to start your journey. It’s scary making that call, sitting in that office, and talking about your challenges to a stranger, but hopefully you’ll walk out with some confidence that you’re one step closer to an answer.
  2. You don’t have to do this alone. If you’re afraid to go to your family or friends, there are still many people who want to help you: specialists, communities, organizations, strangers, etc. When I had a hard time finding a psychologist to evaluate me, Dell’s Employee Assistance Program found a doctor and helped set up the appointment. Being vulnerable doesn’t mean you’re weak, but it does give you an opportunity to discover the strength of your support system.
  3. Say what you need. You don’t have to share anything you don’t want to; it’s your journey to own. For me, revealing my diagnosis provided context for my social interactions and workstyle. However, that may be too risky for some people. You can still express what you need without revealing anything. Use phrases such as “I may have misunderstood what you said. I heard xx, is that right?” When there are many changes, I try to be more of a leader so that I’m ahead of the situation and not surprised. I’ve even made adjustments to my workspace to reduce sensory distractions.

Finally, a word of advice to managers of employees with autism: Be patient and compassionate. If they ask more questions than what’s normally expected or they react in a way that’s unusual to you, choose to be more patient. Choose to have empathy for someone who doesn’t process social cues, language, or sensory information like you and is doing their best to be good team member. A supportive supervisor can make all the difference.

When I told my colleagues that I have autism, many said they never would have guessed. With continued awareness and acceptance, eventually we will get to a point where autism is no longer something to hide or disguise, and we respect each other’s differences and needs.

Want to work in an environment that allows everyone to be their best selves and do their best work? Check out our open positions!

And learn more about Sheila de Guzman’s story here:

About the Author: Sheila de Guzman

Sheila de Guzman is the program manager for the Dell Women's Entrepreneur Network. For the past 4 years, she has been the point of contact for hundreds of members worldwide. On the weekends, she cooks for friends, family, and charity with her boyfriend and rescue dog as taste testers.
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