Turning up for work #autism


#3 in the Orphaned Identities series

(A photograph from my Orphaned Identities series.) 

I was recently commissioned by the Arts Council, to undertake a case study of my practice as an autistic arts professional, in order  to design a series of access measures – which may also be of benefit to others. I’m learning a great deal, some of which I share here in the hope that it will contribute to the conversation about access at work.

I research at the coalface of freelance work and in conversation with other autistic professionals. Patterns are emerging at this midway point in my funded work.

This study has thrown up something important. Namely that there can be a real difference in perceptions about what ‘turning up for work’ means when collaborating as a freelance.

In my own case I’m learning that my standards are high – perhaps usually so. Also that I need to be in direct control of my work flow, especially when a project is complex, and in circumstances where I have high responsibility for outcomes.

This doesn’t present a problem in projects with clearly defined roles with discrete responsibilities where a standard of expectation is reliably matched.  Through An Artist’s Eye was a perfect example of when this works well.

Autism is a professional asset. If you work with us you’ll often find meticulously organised people getting results, and meeting deadlines absolutely on time.

This is because we can often see the job that has to be done with great clarity. Myself, I work methodically paying attention to the parts, with an aerial view of the whole constantly in mind. Holding this level of focus is joyful and important to me. An athlete fresh off the blocks I’m running in full flow.

This is my rhythm and my method. And it works. This is so because my work and my being are as one.

So my commitment is absolute whether the work is a hard won commission with public funds, or a personal project like Orphaned Identities. I’m on it 100%.

I’m beginning to understand that a well designed project (autistically speaking) has controllable elements and can be worked through directly and systematically using flow, and also hyper focus whenever needed. While a poorly designed one has too greater reliance on third parties who may be remote, unavailable or seemingly ‘unreliable’ from an autistic perspective.

Such obstacles can seriously disrupt autistic flow on creative projects. And this represents disablement in action. Disrupting autistic thinking in a workspace, with the need for constant negotiation of terms (for example) or through distance and serial delays, has the effect of derailing purpose, and furthermore overloading functional capacity – and there’s absolutely no need for this with some careful thought to design with respect for access.

Chasing the tail of a consistently unavailable colleague (for example) can be extraordinarily stressful, not to say aversive.  Such practices are perhaps commonplace in freelancing – but can have an effect not unlike ‘trolling’ on an autistic person. The toxicity of poor design in the workplace for autistics can’t really be overstated.

Matching commitment can also be an issue, and there’s an element of luck, which has nothing to do with neurology. ‘Discipline’ can sometimes be lacking in freelance environments, which can present a minefield of wrong-footing.

Building strategies for survival is essential. And when I say survival I mean it in the truest of senses – not in the breezy way it’s used in magazine style journalism. A real dilemma that we face is that our non-autistic colleagues may not absorb the seriousness of socially disabling bias’ at work because we’re often so conscientious.

This raises the issue of training for our non-autistic colleagues. In conversation with my fellow professionals there emerges a powerful consensus among us that training must be autistic led if it is to be of actual benefit to autistic people – who after all should be the natural recipients of positive change.

As an individual in a freelance setting – my growing feeling is that designing my own access measures is essential to create the best fit for me, but that autistic led training for colleagues could be an excellent complimentary addition in future.

Currently this is all still very much a work in progress – but I’m immensely grateful to my autistic colleagues for their invaluable input into my thinking. Being able to situate our practices within community is a consummate survival strategy in itself. This is why the future direction of my research in this area will focus on networks.

The issues I raise are common to a growing network of autistic professionals – currently we suffer the demands to mask our ‘condition’ due to socially embedded expectations at work. This is seriously disabling and real access challenge in freelance situations.










Published by soniaboue

I am an artist.

7 thoughts on “Turning up for work #autism

  1. Your article is not only incisive, but it brings to mind several people: One high school student who was finally placed in an independent study and came into my writing center for guidance. Another was a software engineer who showed up in all the ways your article mentions. This was way before the days of “identifying” autism, so this person’s brilliance way overshadowed any difficulties we had interacting with him. Thank you so much for what you are doing. I plan to share your article on FB, if that’s okay with you.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Glad you’d found something positive about your being autistic, and, people with autism experience and see the world differently than “normal” (whatever THAT means???) people, and there’s nothing wrong with that, we all experience the world using our own different ways, and everybody should respect each other for that!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. TY – yes I love being autistic – working in neurotypical environments is the stressful bit. Respect is really important – I agree on that. Also taking time, focusing and truly entering into autistic spaces would help NT to understand some of these issues. We are the ones that have to adapt constantly – and this is what eventually wears us out. TY for reading and commenting.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Great post. Any vagueness in freelancing, shifting deadlines or morphing project structures really wind me up, and it is in discussing those shifts I am most likely to ‘uncloak’ (lose masking) and act obviously autistic. To those who don’t get it this appears as a real crack in my professional skill set, gives me the weird/unpredictable/moody label. Also lack of clear direction, if there is work to be done, also causes me extreme anxiety.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you Aspertrix – this is so important – it’s so often a minefield and based on ‘being nice’ ‘being professional in your manner’ etc. I’ve had those unmasking moments too and they can be devastating. Extreme anxiety – YES. It can wear out you ball bearings! x

      Liked by 1 person

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