Autistic Women in the Workplace by Barb Cook, M.Aut., Dip. HSc.

Typically, autism is viewed as a male condition with stereotypical preconceptions that all autistics must, for instance, be mathematical savants and their career paths are in IT.


In this article I want to highlight some of the inaccurate perceptions of autistic people, in particular women, look at the many benefits of employing autistic women and encourage autistic women to follow their employment visions, embracing what will serve them well. I also want to emphasise that even though this article focuses on autistic women, this advice and information is applicable to all genders and ultimately it is for you to decide what best works for you.

What should I do?

Deciding on a career path doesn’t have to start early and does not have to be set in stone. If you are just starting out on your employment path, ask yourself, what am I passionate about and compile a list. This list does not have to be employment-focused. It can be hobbies you enjoy, types of books you like to read, your preference between writing or speaking. Do you enjoy writing creatively or journalistic style? Are you introverted or extroverted? Many people on the autism spectrum are introverted, but find when they are doing something they love, can become extroverted.

When you have created a comprehensive list, you will start to see a pattern of preferences and styles you have. Often, we don’t realise until we objectively write down and evaluate our values and passions, that there can be particular employment pathways that we are suited to. This can even be with the food we eat! If you are a vegan/vegetarian for example, you certainly might not consider working as a butcher.

But there is also a flip side to this when you carefully consider your future. For example, it may initially appear to a person with strong environmental views, that they would not be suited to working in the mining industry. These industries are often viewed negatively in environmental terms, but, these very same industries have extremely high standards and legislation to abide by to minimise environmental damage to the surrounding landscape. A person on the autism spectrum may be highly valued in a position as an environmental safety officer due to their attention to detail, their moral views in upholding legislative environmental laws and finding creative solutions with ‘out of the box’ thinking in how to reduce environmental impact.

Now, these very same strategies in considering what employment best suits you, also work with people of all ages. If you have been job seeking or working for many years without job fulfilment, or have had a variety of jobs that never worked out, taking these very steps of re-evaluating what is important to you and your values, will help you to decide on how to approach your next career path.

As an autistic woman myself who is now 50 years of age, I have finally found my passion in working in the area of employment and supporting my fellow autistic peers in finding contentment through the right employment. After experiencing a lifetime of failed job positions and resigning myself to the fact that I would never hold down a long-term job, it wasn’t until I received my diagnosis at mid-life over 10 years ago that I could re-evaluate what I wanted to do and to do work that suited me and my neurology. I certainly didn’t expect to be gaining my Master of Autism in education and employment also at the age of 50, and it goes to show, when we learn about ourselves and what works for us, we certainly can grow and flourish.

I also want to emphasise that many women are not receiving their diagnosis, and more often, the correct diagnosis until they hit mid-life and are at breaking point. I want to highlight to women who are in this stage, it does get better with an understanding of yourself and support from peers who get you. It is something not to be contextualised as a negative, but a starting point of creating a life that now works for you. You have the opportunity to take hold of your future.

Employing women on the autism spectrum. A smart move.

Autistic women have a wealth of skills and talents to offer business. Some of these skills are viewed as ‘soft skills’ and are valuable in every workplace. The following are some of these skills and how valuable they are to the workplace from the standpoint of a person on the autism spectrum:

Leadership skills. Autistic women have a great capacity to be strong and ethical leaders. Many autistic women are inherently empathetic and compassionate and have strong values and standards, which are essential skills in being a good leader in managerial and supervisory roles. With high standards held for themselves, these skills assist in creating a supportive and inclusive workplace, not just for fellow autistic employees, but for all employees.

Teamwork. It is often stigmatised that people on the autism spectrum can’t work as a team. This is a fallacy. Many autistic women work well in a team environment when that environment is inclusive and supportive of all members. It may appear that the person is working independently, but upon closer observation, the autistic person may need a quiet environment to work effectively in and to reduce sensory stress, which will allow them to come together with the team at specific times to collaborate and to present work they have completed in an environment that was supportive of their specific needs.

Communication skills. Another poor misconception is that people on the autism spectrum are poor communicators. Again, with the right support and the acceptance of a variety of communication methods, autistic people can, in fact, be very effective communicators. Autistic women are inclined to support and help fellow employees who may be struggling and will reach out to them. As a high proportion of autistic women have experienced difficulties within the workplace culture, they can be an enormous asset in supporting new employees and helping navigate the workplace nuances and expectations. Having an understanding mentor within the workplace that intuitively gets you, can reduce anxiety and isolation significantly.

Work ethic. Autistic women have some of the highest standards of work ethics which must be embraced as a crucial element of a dedicated and loyal employee. People on the autism spectrum make valuable long-term employees as they are dedicated to doing their job well, and when supported within the workplace to be the best they can be, they will often be the employee who will be the longest-serving. Respecting the autistic employee for the value and worth they bring, along with regular communication, feedback and support, guarantees success not just to the business, but builds a successful and meaningful future for the employee. It is a win/win for everyone.

Accommodations in the workplace.

Providing and accessing accommodations within the workplace is an essential element in creating a genuinely inclusive working environment. Employers must be open and dedicated to creating the best outcomes through the provision of suitable supports for all employees. Employees also must have the opportunity to effectively communicate their needs and supports that will aid them in working effectively, plus, implement any supports, strategies and tools they have acquired that will improve their working environment. Addressing these accommodations is a two-way street and should not be viewed as a 50:50 partnership. These supports vary dependent on the person’s individual needs. For example, you may only need to have noise-cancelling earphones to help you effectively work. These accommodations can be implemented by the employee, without the need for employer support. Alternatively, if the employee’s desk is positioned in a problematic sensory situation, e.g. under bright lights or near a noisy staff room, it is then the responsibility of the employer to work with the employee in finding a better position or find solutions to reducing the sensory overwhelm. Essentially, open communication between employer and employee will drive positive and productive outcomes.

Opportunity to grow.

With the understanding and coming of age in embracing neurodiversity within the workplace, inclusive practices are strengthening and allowing for a wider range of diverse thinking and creating positive growth within the business. Autistic women bring a unique strength, compassion and high work ethic to the workplace, that must be embraced and an environment provided for them to grow. These women, when supported and given every opportunity to flourish, become the role models of dedicated and loyal employees, they are the potential compassionate and moralistic leaders of our future and can be pioneers of a new way of thinking and evolving together that benefits not just autistic people, but every person within the workplace, creating a truly inclusive work culture.

Join me for Autism Working: a Live Webcast 4 March 2022

When understood and supported, autistic employees have been found to be both more productive and valued than nonautistic employees. Join me for a live webcast on 4 March alongside Professor Tony Attwood and Dr Michelle Garnettt, to increase your understanding of how to support autistic staff in the workplace.

About Barb Cook, M.Aut. (Edu), Dip.HSc. (Nut)

Barb is a registered Developmental Educator, current Deputy Chair of the Developmental Educators Australia Incorporated (DEAI), and an Autism and Neurodiversity Employment Consultant and Life Coach for neurodivergent adults (ADHD, autism and dyslexia). Barb holds a Master of Autism (education) degree with focus on employment from the University of Wollongong, where she is also a researcher and co-project lead in the area of self-determination and self-advocacy for adults on the autism spectrum.

Barb has extensive experience in working with adults on the autism spectrum and ADHD, in creating pathways in attaining life goals in the areas of self-determination and self-advocacy, education, employment, health and interpersonal relationships.

Barb is founder of the Neurodiversity Hub in Gympie Queensland, a space providing allied health services for neurodivergent people, including one-on-one support, therapeutic groups, workshops and presentations and an informal space to meet.

Barb is Director and Founder of NeuroEmploy Pty Ltd, a company providing a variety of neurodiversity specific educational and training programs for neurodivergent individuals, workplace staff, management and businesses.

Barb is founder of Spectrum Women Magazine and editor and co-author of the internationally acclaimed book, Spectrum Women: Walking to the Beat of Autism. Barb is a prolific writer on neurodivergence and employment and is published in academic research.

Barb is a highly sought after international speaker and presents on a variety of topics related to autism, ADHD and Neurodiversity.

Barb identifies as neurodivergent, being formally diagnosed mid-life with ADHD, Autism and dyslexia in 2009, and promotes a strength-based and person-centred approach in her life and work.

Barb is a passionate motorcyclist, and enjoys riding the love of her life, Ron Strom Burgundy, a Suzuki VStrom DL1000, who assists her with good self-care and an effective anxiety reducing and depression busting practice.

For more information on Barb and her work click HERE.


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