During a conversation with a former team leader of mine at work, the question arose about how many autistic adults I thought worked with the company (a large company of more than 10,000 people).
There were four of us when I joined the workplace autism group (SASN); that figure has increased since, but is still lower than expected for a workforce of this size.
I was then asked that if there were more autistic employees within the company, what did I think was stopping them from coming forward, even just to the SASN?
The first answer past my lips was that they might not know they’re autistic; my rationale being that if they were high-functioning enough to hold down a job, then maybe they had learned early on to mask and camouflage their autistic traits. Or maybe they didn’t understand what autism was and so never suspected that they had it.
The second answer was the one that was based on the presumption that there were autistic adults out there who knew they were autistic. They hadn’t come forward because of fear.
Fear of what others would think.
Fear that colleagues would treat them differently.
Fear that their line management would suddenly doubt their ability to do their job.
Fear that they would never be able to build a career/gain a promotion within the company because of their diagnosis.
Fear that everything would change.
Autism, particularly the high-functioning end of the spectrum, is very much an invisible disability, and is still largely misunderstood by people, sometimes even those who know an autistic person (it is such a varied condition, no two of us are the same).
As the world shows us time and time again, it is a common reaction to the unknown to fear it; and speaking personally, part of my reluctance in being open about my diagnosis was the fear that other people would be afraid of me. I worried that they would start to see me as unpredictable, unreliable, or even incompetent. Even though at this point I’ve worked on site for five years and feel that I should have proven myself by now, there is still a lingering doubt that when people find out that I am autistic I will suddenly become ‘less than’.
Even now, after laying my diagnosis bare for the world to see, there is still a part of me that is afraid. Not a particularly small part either.
I am comfortable talking to my colleagues about being autistic. Not that this happens often, but occasionally something is mention and the answer directly involves it.
For example, when new apprentices were joining the team on shifts, I was giving them a quick tour when they asked me what time I set off from home for a first shift. In the past I would have come up with a lie based upon the times I knew others set off, but in an attempt to stop hiding my diagnosis I told them the truth; that I set of ridiculously early because I am autistic and can’t tolerate the thought of being late. They didn’t even bat an eye, and as far as I know there has been no whispering behind my back.
Yet I am still afraid.
I know that people lie, deceive, and talk about others behind their backs in unflattering and sometimes even cruel ways. And while I have yet to experience anything other than positive responses to my diagnosis, I am scared that behind my back, when I’m out of earshot, or in offices far away from me, people are talking about me in a negative way. Not necessarily that they are being nasty or mean, but rather that through a misunderstanding and lack of education about autism they are putting me in a ‘box’, penning me in with limitations that they think I have, or picturing me as the token disabled worker employed by the company to meet its equality and diversity quotient.
There might not come a time when I don’t harbour these fears, but I hope that through raising awareness, educating the workforce across all levels, and open and honest communication, these fears will become less and less grounded in reality; until they become a shadow of the way things used to be, rather than a reflection of what they are.