Autism Disclosure at Work

Jessica Sales Cohen, J.D.

Jessica Sales Cohen, J.D.

About the Author

Jessica Sales Cohen, J.D., is the associate director of the LifeMAP program at AANE and is also a LifeMAP coach. She obtained her B.S.B.A. from Boston University and her J.D. from Northeastern University, and has extensive experience advising clients in matters involving disability discrimination, employment, and special education.  Jessica also has significant personal experience with Autistic profile.

For Autistic individuals, the issue of whether, when, and how to disclose their autism to an employer can cause anxiety and confusion. There can be many pros and cons to the decision, and it is not always straightforward. A general disclosure without consideration for the reasoning or desired outcome can lead to unsatisfying, and even negative, results. A thoughtful, targeted, specific disclosure, however, can lead to productive discussions, greater understanding, and potentially helpful accommodations. The only certainty is that the choice should always be made by the individual and never forced upon them.

Finding the Right Fit

The best place to start thinking about disclosure is often before it is needed, during the job search. Finding the “right fit” job that leverages one’s strengths can significantly reduce the likelihood that an individual will require accommodations, while increasing their overall satisfaction at work. Although it is likely that any individual (neurodivergent or neurotypical) will need to develop some skills in a new job, specific characteristics of a given job can stand out as highly favorable or complete deal-breakers. For example, if a person struggles to interact with others on the phone or is uncomfortable managing rapid instructions or quick deadlines, a receptionist position or an environment described as “fast paced” might not be a good fit. By contrast, if a person is meticulous and enjoys highly focused work, an opening for a copyeditor or one encouraging “detail-oriented” applicants may be more appropriate.

Beyond the tasks themselves, one must equally consider environmental factors, such as the office size, pace, hours, and even the anticipated commute, which all impact an individual’s success and satisfaction. LifeMAP coaches frequently work with clients to examine past successes and challenges, and pinpoint factors that should be considered moving forward. By doing so, we are able to target areas where our client can work to build skills, while also carefully reading job descriptions for overall good fit and red flags. The individual can use this information further to prepare a targeted application or cover letter, and to identify questions to ask in an interview.

Developing Skills

Once employed, one might identify challenges on the job such as meeting deadlines, juggling appointments, managing sensory overload, or interacting with coworkers. These struggles, although commonly stressful for Autistic individuals, are not always unique to them or obvious to those around them. In many cases, a person can work to identify these issues as they arise and adapt to their environment, minimizing areas of challenge by developing skills, often without any immediate negative consequence in their employment. An individual can learn to utilize technology, which has come a long way in supporting a range of areas including organization, time management, communication, and even auditory processing.

Autistic employees can also seek to identify allies at work to whom they can informally look for guidance about workplace culture and norms. They may also reach out to supervisors with specific requests, such as wearing sunglasses to offset the impact of fluorescent lighting or wearing headphones to counter noise, without ever having to disclose their autism. LifeMAP coaches regularly support clients in analyzing areas of difficulty, identifying possible allies in the workplace, and developing strategies to manage areas of challenge or advocate for environmental adjustments, ultimately avoiding the need to disclose and request formal accommodations from their employer.

Disclosing to Seek Accommodations

There are times when adapting to the work environment is not enough. It may be very difficult for an Autistic person to complete the application and interview process to obtain the job in the first place, or they may be simply unable to compensate for specific challenges, such as communication breakdowns or dysregulation caused by sensory overload, solely by developing skills. Under those circumstances, an Autistic individual may wish to disclose their autism and request accommodations in the workplace. Even then, it may not be clear exactly what, and to whom, they should disclose.

Before disclosing to an employer, it is extremely important to first identify the challenges experienced and carefully consider what specific accommodations would be needed to allow the individual to perform essential functions of their job. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities in the employment setting, and requires an employer with 15 or more employees to provide reasonable accommodations to qualified individuals with disabilities when such accommodation would not cause an undue hardship. The law, however, does not expect an employer to ascertain the needs of each individual and formulate accommodations in a vacuum, but rather requires an interactive process between the employer and employee.

As such, it is important for an individual to do the work of understanding the components of their Autistic profile before undertaking to disclose their autism to an employer. The person must be able to articulate how their autism impacts them in that work environment specifically, and what modifications or accommodations would be useful to ameliorate the effects and allow them to do their job. They must also decide to whom this information should be relayed – one employee may determine that it is best to disclose to their supervisor, who has the most direct knowledge of their position and work performance, while another may be more comfortable reaching out to a Human Resources employee. In any event, the individual should be prepared to engage in an interactive process, where the employee provides information about how they can best be accommodated, and the employer considers requests and offers accommodations and modifications that are reasonable given the size and nature of the business.

Disclosing to Be Yourself

Even without challenges, some individuals may choose to disclose their autism to employers and co-workers because it is an integral part of their identity. They may feel that they cannot, or should not, be expected to live authentically without being open about their neurodiversity. If this is the reason for disclosure, it remains important to be clear about the purpose, meaning, and realistic implications. Although an employer cannot discriminate or retaliate against an individual because of their disclosure, revealing one’s autism may alter the perceptions of co-workers and supervisors alike, and may prompt questions or conversations with those less familiar with the profile. If, however, an individual is able to identify and embrace the strengths and potential challenges associated with their autism, they may welcome these discussions as an opportunity to create a broader understanding of their profile generally, dispel any potential misunderstandings others may have specifically, and to get to know their co-workers on a more personal level.

Regardless of the forces prompting consideration of disclosure, it is important to think carefully of why, when, how, and to whom one might discuss their autism at work. A LifeMAP coach, together with trusted friends and family members, can provide valuable support with this decision, but they should never pressure an individual to disclose if they are not comfortable or ready to do so. Ultimately, it is up to the Autistic individual to give careful consideration to the reasons and potential implications, and to make an informed decision based on their individual needs and employment goals.

Find out more about the LifeMAP coaching program or schedule a free informational call.

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