Returning to in-office work is more complicated for individuals on the autism spectrum.
“All my life I’ve struggled with the inability to work a full-time job,” says Cheryl, a 48-year-old university worker with a recent Autism Spectrum Disorder diagnosis. “I have always been under-employed in relation to my education.” Cheryl isn’t alone. According to a recent Forbes article, 50 to 75% of the 5.6 million adults with ASD are unemployed or underemployed.
When COVID hit, work changed for Cheryl.* “Everyone was sent home and we have worked remotely since then,” she says. “Working from home has made a night and day difference in my mental well-being, energy levels, and stress levels. I’m so much happier and more content. Yes, I still have lots of anxiety about the pandemic in general, but my daily normal life stress is practically non-existent now.”
“It’s been great,” writes Emily* on r/autism, a subreddit dedicated to autism information and support. “Having an excuse to avoid unwanted social situations. No physical contact with people I don’t live with. It’s been such a relief, I’ve just stayed in the comfort of my own home doing what I want.”
However, Dr. Stephen Shore, autism expert, and professor at Adelphi University, cautions against making generalizations when it comes to ASD. “If you’ve met one individual with autism, you’ve met one individual with autism.”
“There’s a stereotype that all autistic people prefer to work from home and therefore should be thriving during COVID,” says an Auticon representative in a 2020 texthelp article. Auticon is an IT consultancy with 19 global offices that leverages the cognitive benefits of autism to meet their client’s needs. They recruit and train adults on the autism spectrum, and currently employ over 200 individuals with autism. “The majority of our staff have not felt this way. Since the day we moved out of the office, the biggest complaint from our team is that they miss being together in the office and, if it were safe, they would prefer to work in the office.”
With COVID cases lowering in the US in the early summer, offices have begun to ask employees back to work, Cheryl included. “This month I began going back to campus one day per week. It hasn’t been too bad, but I find myself extremely exhausted at the end of these days. I chalk it up to my coping mechanisms atrophying from lack of use, I’m no longer used to talking to people and being away from home all day, and it wears me out.”
Emily also feels the stress of returning to work. “Clothes that I used to be able to tolerate wearing now cause me to meltdown,” she writes. “I’ve had to go back to the depressing and exhausting 9–5 routine. The world is gradually going back to normal but I’m terrified of leaving the house.”
“My university plans a full in-person return to campus at the end of August,” says Cheryl. “It terrifies and enrages me in equal measure. I don’t want to return to work in person at all. I’m desperately seeking a fully remote job with no luck.”
* Interviewees' names have been changed at their request, to protect their livelihoods.