Executive functioning / dysfunctioning at work

The workplace is a very demanding place, filled with a lot of sensory input and pressure. Not only do you have a lot of work to do, but you must meet targets to earn a living and keep your job. It isn’t like school where you get a do over, and depending where you work the pressure to be perfect is paramount.

For an autistic person, neurotypical workplaces can be a minefield of small talk, vague instructions and the pressure of masking to fit in with your colleagues. When you struggle with executive dysfunction, these pressures increase as it is as if you are working against a rising tide.

As someone who struggles with executive dysfunction, things like banter, sarcasm and small talk often throw me. I have a blank facial expression and can seem reserved, even though it is just me unmasked. I often space out and go into my own world to avoid the pressures of working life, though this is hard to explain to my colleagues.

Attention to tasks, switching between tasks and remembering minute details can all be affected when you have executive dysfunction, as well as the ability to speak eloquently and pick up on your colleague’s meanings/body language. Most workplaces, however, are designed so that you have to be well-spoken, have positive expressions, have good attention to detail and be able to pick up any task. No wonder so many autistic workers get burnout!

To accommodate an autistic employee in the workplace, employers can’t expect them to act neurotypical, as these expectations will lead to masking, and eventually burnout. Employers must see the disability for what it is, not an excuse but something that needs to be accommodated, and the correct accommodations will help your employee stay on task and produce good work.

How autistic workers can be accommodated

Employers and colleagues have to understand that executive functioning can be hard for autistic workers, and it is not their fault if they have this trait. Instead of penalising autistic workers for not meeting neurotypical standards, there can be things put in place for workers to thrive.

  • Giving tasks one by one with clear instructions
  • Give print outs of meetings so your autistic employee can refer back to what has been said
  • Use of a visual board
  • Give them a work space that has minimal sensory stimulation
  • Putting timescales and priority in emails so that tasks can be rearranged accordingly (we don’t know it’s urgent if you don’t tell us!)
  • Allowing movement and quiet breaks
  • Give training to other colleagues so that autistic employees aren’t discriminated against
  • Break the day down instead of having a list of what the jobs for the whole day will be
  • Allowing written communication such as email, instead of forcing your autistic colleague to be verbal all the time
  • Liaise with your autistic employee to create an organisational system which works for them
  • Don’t be harsh if they make mistakes! It is very easy to be distracted when you have executive dysfunction, so be kind and help your employee get back on task
  • Instead of springing new tasks at your employee and expecting them to adapt within a second, give ample notice that their schedule is changing and what it will change to. This could include adding an additional task, expecting your employee to join an impromptu meeting, working with new people or doing something completely new. Sitting down with your expectations, gives space for questions and time to discuss new accommodations
  • Be sympathetic and understanding if an autistic employee is overwhelmed and needs a break or extra help
  • Not expect or pressure your autistic employee to join in after work activities, as this can be very overwhelming, especially after a tiring day
  • Not criticise your autistic employee for having a ‘blank’ facial expression, being direct or not engaging in small talk. When you struggle with executive functioning, adding small talk and ‘correct’ body language can be extremely exhausting and can often distract the autistic person from the task they are doing, if they are focusing too much on ‘fitting in’.
  • Have regular progress and check in meetings, if this is beneficial, so that your autistic employees are getting maximum support and aren’t left to deal with problems alone.

By Luce Greenwood, autistic advocate and content writer. @coffeecupsbooks