Autism in the Workplace: What I Learned as an Intern
July 19, 2023
By: Vanessa Bliss
Transitioning from college to the workforce is a difficult process for anyone, but there are even more challenges that come with it when you’re autistic. Even if you have a great educational background or an impressive resume, there are certain skills to be successful in the workplace that may not be intuitive to autistic people. Being a good employee requires effective time management and organization, knowing how to accept feedback, and being able to regulate your emotions, which are all skills that can be difficult for autistic people. On top of that, most of the time we aren’t even taught those skills; we are just expected to know them.
For a while, I had a difficult time finding a workplace that would be the right fit for me. I didn’t quite know what I was looking for, or what to look for, but I also just didn’t know how to advocate for myself when I was actually in the job. I was incredibly discouraged by the prospect of not just finding a job, but finding a place that was supportive and would allow me to grow my confidence. But that all changed for me when I got into BroadFutures.
BroadFutures is a Washington D.C.-based internship program for neurodivergent young adults. Participants in the program get placed in a paid internship with one of the many companies and organizations partnered with BroadFutures. They also attend weekly training sessions at the BroadFutures office that teach skills for success in any workplace. Through the drama curriculum, interns practice skills such as flexibility, making small talk, and interviewing in a fun, low stakes environment. BroadFutures also knows the importance of mental health and how it affects everything we do daily, so there is also a wellness curriculum. The wellness curriculum is one that I particularly appreciated because, in today’s world, “hustle culture” is glorified and people are praised for working nonstop without pausing to take care of themselves. I learned yoga and acupressure techniques and made a plan for myself to use some of them in stressful situations in the workplace. During my internship I would even start my day at my desk doing some breathing and acupressure and I found that it helped start my day on the right foot.
I am grateful that I was able to have the opportunity to receive individualized assistance with developing skills in the workplace. But I also wish that everyone who is autistic got an opportunity like this. One thing that I did not necessarily expect to have gotten out of my time at BroadFutures is that it made me very passionate about advocacy for neurodivergent individuals in the workplace. It drove me to want to help others that are like me who have had trouble finding employment because of how they function and go through life every day. I definitely would like to mentor autistic people like myself on a larger scale in the future, but for now, I want to sum up what I learned during my internship and give some advice here.
I would say that the top three things autistic people can do to set themselves up for success at a new job are:
Having a plan will help with your productivity, which is not only good for you, but good for your team too. Everyone always appreciates an efficient coworker. Additionally, because autistic people miss the nuance that is often in neurotypical communication, it is good to talk with your supervisor about how you will receive direct feedback. A scheduled end of the week check in can help with this, and you can help facilitate the feedback by emailing your supervisor at the end of each day letting them know what went well that day and what your challenges were. Lastly, having a work friend is nice because it helps make for a more positive experience. It is good to have someone caring and trustworthy that you disclose your disability to so they can help you out if you want to introduce yourself to other people at the office or want some gentle but honest feedback if you miss a social cue.
I can definitely say I came back from my BroadFutures internship more confident than I was before. I am more excited about starting my career instead of having it be a main source of stress in my life. I know I will always have challenges at work, but now I know how to navigate them. I am looking forward to seeing where I am in my career ten years from now. I hope I will have moved up and grown while helping someone else become confident in the workplace too.
Vanessa Bliss is a young professional from the Washington D.C. area. She recently graduated with a BA in Theatre Arts and a Communication minor from McDaniel College. Vanessa is currently starting her career in marketing and communications while performing in local theatrical productions. You can view her work on her website vanessagbliss.com.