Autistic Employees Find New Ways to Navigate the Workplace

When Chelsia Potts took her 10-year-old daughter to a psychologist to be tested for autism spectrum disorder, she decided almost as an afterthought to be tested herself. The result came as a surprise. Like her daughter, Ms. Potts was diagnosed with autism.

Ms. Potts, 35, thought she might have had anxiety or some other issue. A first-generation college student, she had earned a doctor of education degree and risen through academia to become a high-level administrator at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. But after her visit to the psychologist, she had to figure out how her diagnosis would affect her work life.

“Initially, I was confused, and I did keep it to myself,” Ms. Potts said. “I had a picture of what someone with autism looked like, and that did not look like me.”

She considered the ways she had compensated in the past in an effort to hide her disability and come across as a model employee — a coping mechanism known as “masking.”

For years, she had angled to meet with co-workers one on one, because she felt ill at ease in group settings. She reminded herself to smile and appear enthusiastic, knowing that some people found her speaking voice overly serious. She also tried to avoid bright lights and noise in the workplace.

After wrestling with her diagnosis for six months, Ms. Potts met with a university official. That conversation “was one of the most difficult experiences of my life,” she said.

“I’m telling someone something I’ve never really told anybody outside of family,” she continued. “I felt very vulnerable. I felt shame. I realized how hard it was for me to voice what I need and why I need it.”

But the meeting led to positive changes for Ms. Potts: She received some accommodations, including a more flexible work schedule.

A number of large employers across the United States, including Microsoft, Dell and Ford, are taking steps to make workplaces more accessible and welcoming for neurodivergent employees as the number of autism diagnoses rises.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that one in 36 8-year-olds in the United States has autism. That’s up from one in 44 in 2018 and one in 150 in 2000, an increase that experts attribute, in part, to better screening. In addition, 2.2 percent of adults in the country, or 5.4 million people, are autistic, according to the C.D.C.

An increasing number of autistic people are also identifying themselves publicly. Ms. Potts is one of many TikTok users who have shared their diagnoses online using the hashtag #autistok.

Last year, the singer Sia went public about being diagnosed with autism as an adult. More recently, the author Mary H.K. Choi described in an essay for New York magazine how, at age 43, she developed a great self-understanding as a result of her diagnosis.

Autism activists have praised companies that have become more accepting of remote work since the coronavirus pandemic.

Workplaces with too much light and noise can overwhelm those who are autistic, leading to burnout, said Jessica Myszak, a clinical psychologist in Chicago who specializes in testing and evaluations for autism. Remote work “reduces the social demands and some of the environmental sensitivities” that autistic people struggle with, Dr. Myszak added.

But navigating the job market remains a challenge for autistic people, who are more likely to be unemployed or underemployed, according to advocacy groups. And autistic job candidates hoping to make good first impressions might be reluctant to disclose their diagnoses or ask for accommodations upfront.

“You don’t want them to see your flaws,” said Haley Moss, 29, a lawyer and disability activist who has autism, likening the interview process to a first date.

Back when Natalie Worden-Cowe, 32, was a professional musician, she struggled with the networking side of the business, a key to landing gigs. When she decided, a few years ago, to switch careers and became a software engineer, she had trouble making it through job interviews. Her professional life changed when she discovered Microsoft’s neurodiversity hiring program, which was established in 2015.

The company’s program was modeled after a venture created by the German software firm SAP, and has since been adopted in some form by companies including Dell and Ford. So far, the initiative has brought in about 300 full-time neurodivergent employees to Microsoft, said Neil Barnett, the company’s director for inclusive hiring and accessibility.

“All they needed was this different, more inclusive process,” Mr. Barnett said, “and once they got into the company, they flourished.”

Mrs. Worden-Cowe, who was diagnosed at 29, noticed the difference at Microsoft during the interview process: She was given extra time to answer questions and downtime between meetings with company employees.

“Neurodiverse people sometimes need a bit more processing time, or they might need the questions written down,” Mrs. Worden-Cowe said.

Once on board, she was given a job coach to help her with time management and prioritization. Microsoft also paired her with a mentor who showed her around the company’s campus in Redmond, Wash. Perhaps more important, she works with managers who have received neurodiversity training.

The Microsoft campus also has “focus rooms,” where lights can be dimmed and the heights of desks can be changed to fit sensory preferences. Employees seated in the open office may also request to sit away from busy aisles or receive noise-canceling headphones.

“Agendas are sent in advance,” Mr. Barnett said. “Everyone’s communication style and preference is noted.”

Mr. Barnett rejected the misconception that such accommodations cost companies revenue, efficiency or productivity. Rather, he said, they improve the workplace culture and the staff’s overall well-being.

Wendi Safstrom, the president of the Society for Human Resource Management, a nonprofit organization, said that more employers should make an effort to recruit neurodivergent people and educate their work forces about them. “If they’re not willing to change with the times, they’re going to be left behind,” Ms. Safstrom said. “The war on talent is real.”

Ms. Moss, the lawyer, said that human resources departments had shown a willingness to change. “In most cases, they already have autistic employees who have not disclosed,” she said. And yet, she added of autistic workers, “a lot of us don’t get promoted.”

More employers should place neurodivergent people in leadership roles, Ms. Moss said — in essence, to redefine the image of a boss. “You can be someone who communicates outside of what is considered normal and be a fantastic executive,” she said.

For Murphy Monroe, communicating at work was never a problem. Highly verbal, Mr. Monroe, 50, excelled because he could quickly memorize statistics about the organization he worked for and its competitors.

Having been told since childhood by therapists that he was probably on the autism spectrum, but having never being tested, Mr. Monroe tried to avoid the matter. As a teenager, he knew he was different and was “scared, actively, of not being able to hold a job,” he said.

He studied theater in college and pursued a career in education, spending 17 years as an admissions officer and executive at Columbia College Chicago. Like Ms. Potts, the administrator at Miami University, Mr. Monroe came up with strategies to navigate the workplace, including being shadowed by a trusted colleague who helped him pick up on social cues he might have missed.

“Do I have anyone I need to apologize to?” Mr. Monroe would ask after meetings. “What just happened?”

“I chew on my fingers,” he added, referring to a form of stimming, behaviors that help some autistic people manage sensory overload. “I would sit in a meeting with the college president or in front of a board and not be able to stop myself from making myself bleed. These are occasions where it’s nice to have someone in the room with me, to tap me to leave.”

At one point, Mr. Monroe did tell a human resources manager that he thought he might have a version of autism that made him overwhelmed by sensory input, especially lights. “She looked right at me and said, ‘You are not autistic,’” Mr. Monroe recalled. “From that moment on, for many years, I didn’t think about it.”

But after he watched TikTok videos of people talking about their experience with autism, Mr. Monroe made an appointment with a psychologist in 2021 and received confirmation of what he had long suspected.

That self-knowledge has changed how he approaches his current job as the executive director of the Actors Gymnasium, a circus school in Evanston, Ill. “I had this real desire to just be open at work,” Mr. Monroe said. “I just dove in. I bought a gold autism pin off Etsy and started wearing it all the time.”

He also gives himself accommodations, like days away from the workplace to recharge and dark curtains in his office. He tries to be sensitive to his co-workers as well, he said, allowing them to adjust their schedules or duties in ways that make sense for them, whether they are neurodivergent or neurotypical.

In short, he is trying to create the atmosphere he would have wanted back when he was masking to get by. It’s the kind of workplace that many autism activists hope will become more common.

“For me to be completely my authentic self while I am running a joyful enterprise,” Mr. Monroe said, “it makes me feel like I’m the luckiest guy ever.”

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