SAP’s Nick Rankin and Specialisterne’s Peter Brabazon discuss how working remotely can be a different experience for autistic people.
A hallmark of a healthy and progressive workplace can be how it caters to and welcomes its neurodiverse employees. Autistic people, for example, sometimes require specific environments in order to best carry out their job, whether it’s having a lower level of lighting, reduced noise or greater privacy.
However, remote working now has upended how and where we spend the majority of our days. Nick Rankin, a senior support engineer at SAP in Dublin who is also autistic, says there have been pros and cons for him while working from home during the pandemic.
“People with autism can often have sensory issues like me, where the feeling of clothes can be annoying,” he says. “That is, I only wear tracksuits as I don’t like the feel of jeans or regular trousers. This is not good for interviews, that is turning up in a tracksuit, but really it shouldn’t matter as I can do the job.
“I know some autistic people have problems making eye contact with you as they can find it a bit overloading. I don’t have this problem and I am quite social. Because I am a social type, I miss going to the office as I used to do three days a week to work with colleagues and some of these are also my friends.
“But my colleagues have been good and a few of them have come to my house to visit and indeed even my boss has called in to see how I was getting on. I use Zoom – or something like it – a lot, but I find it’s not like meeting a person one-to-one. I think this is probably because I am not able to tell easily in a Zoom meeting when to talk and when it’s my turn to speak.”
Preparation and productivity are key
Rankin says that he has faced different challenges along his career path. He studied computer science at Dublin Institute of Technology and has a special interest in web development. However, he was unemployed for more than two and a half years when he was 25.
According to Brabazon, working from home can sometimes be a better option for autistic people. Working in your own space can provide quietness and fewer distractions. Anxiety can flare up, however, due to a lack of social interaction.
“This is particularly bad for some with autism, particularly those living alone, who have taken the instruction to isolate to the extreme and have had virtually no social interaction in over four months,” he says.
For Rankin, missing the office outweighs many of the benefits of working from home, though he knows that people who are less social than him have been enjoying it. He does sometimes enjoy the quiet, which can lend itself to more independence and better focus and concentration.
Getting the chance to work from home some of the time before Covid-19 was also good preparation, he says. “I had already been allowed, like a lot of us in SAP, to work from home two days per week and so I was prepared in a way.
“However, as I said, I still miss the office a lot and it’s great that colleagues are coming to me a bit. Also not having lunch in the very good canteen I miss, but at least I can cook for myself.”
If you didn’t get the chance to work from home before the pandemic, there are other ways you can make the transition a little easier. Rankin suggests having a good routine, for example.
“That is, set hours for just working while making sure to have short breaks,” he advises. “Then finish on time and relax by watching TV, going online, going for a walk or meeting a friend.
“It’s important to keep in touch with colleagues and also, for me, to make sure I get a good walk in so as to clear the head.”
Supports for autistic people
Brabazon founded Specialisterne with the goal of helping young autistic people and those with neurodiverse needs gain and retain employment. He explains that the main barriers many autistic people face when it comes to employment are linked to “sensory issues, anxiety and not having any previous experience of a workplace such as in a corner shop or local pub”.
“Therefore, the average age of young adults coming to us is around 24,” he says, “and although often having a third-level qualification, have nevertheless been unemployed for typically two years or more.
“Typically, they find it difficult to put anything on their CV that is job-related and, coupled with poor interview skills, find it very difficult to get that first step on the employment ladder. Then they may need certain accommodations, such as wearing noise defenders on their ears or wanting to be near or away from an office window. And while these are easy to accommodate, they may put off a potential employer, thus missing some real talent.
“Finally, to retain their first employment after the usual probationary period, they may need the occasional support of an understanding buddy or mentor and often the support service of a company like Specialisterne.”
If you are autistic and want to learn more about the supports available to you while working from home or looking for employment, Brabazon outlines a number of organisations. “There are many excellent organisations out there who may provide guidance, for example Aspect in Cork, Aspire in Dublin, the Galway Autism Partnership and Dóchas in Limerick.
“However, if an individual already has a relationship with a counsellor, psychologist or other specialist then I suggest that they contact them as they are already known to them. Also, Specialisterne is always available to help and we do not charge our participant candidates as we are part-funded by the European Social Fund and the Government’s Ability programme.”