By Larry Ross
As a job coach at auticon US, a majority-autistic company, my role includes supporting the mental health and well-being of our autistic employees. Considering there are an estimated 5.4 million autistic adults in the U.S., you’re likely to work with or manage an autistic colleague at some point during your career—whether or not they have disclosed their autism at work. In this post for Mental Health Awareness Month, I’ll share best practices and actionable tips for supporting the mental health of autistic employees.
Acknowledge the Structural Causes of Anxiety for Autistic People
Anxiety is often discussed as being correlated with autism in general, but it’s important to understand the specific factors that contribute to this anxiety. It’s not that anxiety just goes with autism—there are structural reasons why life can be anxiety-inducing for autistic people, who have to navigate through systems that aren’t structured to support them.
This starts in childhood after receiving an autism diagnosis, as the focus is immediately placed on the child to overcome their autism. It then continues through school, as many classrooms aren’t designed to support autistic students. And lastly, it extends into the workplace, where many autistic people are underemployed or unemployed because their support needs and abilities are overlooked by employers. If you stop to reflect, you can see that autistic people are living in a world that’s not supportive of them, and it becomes clear why this produces anxiety.
Understand Masking as a Source of Anxiety for Autistic Employees
Another cause of anxiety for many autistic professionals centers around masking—having to wear a metaphorical mask, walking around and not letting people truly know who they are as individuals. That leads to insecurities when asking for support needs and for help, and around disclosure in general. Because a lot of autistic folks who do disclose are discriminated against, whether by getting let go, being taken off the project, or things of that nature. Once you’ve had those experiences, that’s going to stay with someone, and it’s going to continue to influence their experience in other environments.
Address the Connection Between Mental Health and Work
In some workplaces, mental health is treated as something you should leave at home and not discuss at work. But that’s obviously not realistic. We can’t shut off how we feel at work—and work itself often is a source of anxiety and stress. Especially if someone is experiencing burnout—that is a direct correlation of something that is happening in the workplace. Employers have to acknowledge that the work environment does create anxiety, so being inclusive and equitable means making changes or allowing adjustments that will help alleviate employees’ anxiety.
Take a Compassionate, Action-Based Approach
Compassion is such an important component of addressing mental health at work. At auticon, the reason why we focus on compassion is because it’s actionable. You can see a direct correlation with compassion, as opposed to empathy, which is a feeling. Putting compassion into action means creating spaces to be able to provide support and being open to work through what is causing anxiety for someone. Then you can help identify specific suggestions and actions to take. Maybe that’s a flexible schedule, pushing back a deadline, or being able to hop off a meeting to get to an appointment.
Anybody can be compassionate and actionable when supporting a colleague’s mental health, even as a coworker, not just a manager. A lot of times, people see a coworker experiencing anxiety and think things like, “They’re just anxious because they’re always worried, that’s just what they do.” But that belief can be harmful, because then someone’s worries get dismissed and nothing is done to help them. To mitigate this, ask yourself, what’s an actual solution to help this person in the workplace feel better? It’s about understanding what you can provide for someone to be able to ease their anxiety, while further supporting their professional success.
Create a Supportive Foundation and Environment
DEI in general is absolutely foundational. It has to be implemented at all levels of the company. Similarly, supporting the mental health of autistic employees—and all employees—starts with the foundational level. You have to create an environment where if people are experiencing anxiety, or maybe they’re showing signs of burnout, they feel comfortable talking about it at work—and you already have tools in place to support them. You’re encouraging them to go to their doctor’s appointments and therapy appointments, to take their PTO, to take their lunch breaks and make up for them if they don’t take them. Those things need to be built into the company’s culture and practices before you have that conversation.
Take a step back to see what you’re doing internally and how you can better that. Look at managerial styles, look at ways of collaborating, and ask whether they’re supportive. The key is to create a supportive environment for people who are autistic and may have anxiety or be experiencing burnout—whether or not they have disclosed.
Support Each Autistic Employee Individually
With this foundation in place, then you are better equipped to support each person specifically. Take a solutions-based approach, where if you see something, you have solutions to be supportive. Everyone going through an anxious moment may not know what that is, but you create the space to provide suggestions and allow that person to process. There doesn’t have to be a resolution in that moment. It can be a working process where you acknowledge what’s going on and take an actionable approach to make it better, which might involve things like pushing back deadlines or decreasing their workload.
Providing outside mental health resources can be helpful in some cases, but I caution against taking a blanket approach—for example, handing them a pamphlet or giving generic advice like “take deep breaths.” If you think of it from the lived experience approach, if you’re 35 and you’re employed and you tell your employer you’re in burnout and you’re given a pamphlet, that’s probably similar to experiences you’ve had your entire life—where no one created space to listen, offered support, or made changes on the foundational level. Then that person isn’t going to want to disclose because they know their work environment isn’t supportive, making them work through workplace anxieties themselves. You have to be able to know the individual and provide tools and resources that will specifically be helpful to them.
If you’re having these conversations, being supportive, giving solutions, and earnestly trying your best, that is the best way you can be supportive of your autistic colleagues and their mental health.