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Saturday, March 2, 2024

Help! Should I Tell My Colleagues I’m on the Spectrum?

Dear OOO,

Is it worth trying to explain to colleagues that my bluntness stems from being on the spectrum? Or just acknowledge that my approach isn't everyone's cup of tea and just go from there?


I sometimes talk to young journalists trying to choose between two jobs. They talk to me about the difference in workload, prestige, paths for advancement, and a million other pros and cons. And more than half the time, I’d say, they’re surprised by my first question, which has nothing to do with any of the factors they mentioned: “Which group of people do you want to work with?”


Prioritizing relationships in the workplace from the start doesn’t come naturally to most people, in my experience; it certainly didn’t to me. But as I’ve gotten older, I realize that when I’ve chosen a “fancier” job over the opportunity to collaborate with people I admire, I’ve always regretted it. Many of us spend more time with some of our closest coworkers (whether remotely or IRL) than our own family members, so it’s worth making sure they’re people you genuinely want to spend time with and learn from.

This is all a preface to state the obvious: You need not tell anyone that you are on the spectrum if you don’t feel comfortable doing so, but I hope you find yourself in a job where you do. If you are surrounded by people who respect you and listen to you and care about you, they’ll want to know what makes you you, and knowing will only deepen your relationship. If you’re not sure if your workplace is inclusive enough, think about how other groups of people are treated: Is the office accessible for wheelchair users? Are people of color marginalized in group discussions or rarely promoted? Are women actually treated equally? If they don’t pass the test, and you are able to get into a position where you can trust your colleagues enough to tell, leap at the opportunity.

That said, I do not have autism, and I realize this advice, while not irrelevant, is less specific and thus less helpful than you deserve. As with all things, consulting friends or people in your professional network who are in the same situation can be really helpful. But one advantage of being a semiprofessional advice-giver is the ability to call up brilliant people and get their brilliant advice. So: Eric Michael Garcia is a terrific DC-based freelance journalist who covers politics and policy. He is also the author of We’re Not Broken, a forthcoming book about how social and policy systems can better serve people with autism. The book has an entire chapter about being autistic in the workplace, which draws on Eric’s reporting—and his own experience as an autistic person working in newsrooms of several prominent publications.


Eric’s answer to your question, Anonymous, was very clear: “I would never ever ever ever ever ever ever tell someone to disclose their autism at the expense of their job, or their ability to feel comfortable at work.” A subject he interviewed for his book told him she has never disclosed her autism without regretting it; he’s also heard plenty of horror stories about noninclusive workplaces. So he recommends looking for some of the markers I describe above and, if you decide you can’t be open, developing a strong support system of mentors and friends outside of work who can be a sounding board. If, on the other hand, you think your workplace is a safe space to be who you are, sharing can function as a sign of trust that strengthens your relationship as colleagues (and even friends).

Surprisingly to me, though, one of Eric’s foremost pieces of advice for coping as an autistic person in the workplace is basically the same whether you’ve told your coworkers or not. “You can and should always apologize when you’ve offended someone,” he says. “Either way, you can say, ‘Sometimes I can be blunt or too rude, but I don’t mean to cause offense.’” It’s inevitable that some people won’t like you for one reason or another, but you can always strive to be better to your colleagues by making amends promptly. Many miscommunications between autistic and neurotypical people, Eric says, result from mistaken impressions about how autism works. It’s not that autistic people can’t empathize, but that they have trouble processing. In other words, they may not realize when they’ve hurt people, but when informed, they will apologize. If they don’t, he says, “they’re just a jerk.”

Finally, remember that you’re far from alone, Anonymous. Eric points out that people entering the workforce now grew up with the Americans With Disabilities Act and the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act in place, which led to more autistic students graduating from college. That shift will force more workplaces to develop inclusivity protocols that mean something more than an entry in a handbook or PowerPoint, which is long overdue, but he thinks autistic people have a role to play in improving things, too. “We should want to live in the community, and that comes with social responsibilities,” he says. “When workplaces are being ableist toward us, they should change, and when we do something offensive, we should apologize and work to be better coworkers.”

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