Working from home
It sounds great, doesn’t it? You don’t have to change into your stuffy jacket and tie. You don’t have to waste the best years of your life commuting through backed-up traffic. You don’t have to deal with Carol from HR coming up to your desk to pester you with her vacation photos.
Most people seem to agree that working from home is ‘the dream.’ After all, you’re in a familiar, cozy environment, with nobody stealing your lunch from the fridge, and you never have to change out of your pajamas.
Surely, if this is the ‘dream’ that so many neurotypical workers vie for, then it must be even more coveted by people on the autism spectrum, no? After all, the general perception of people on the spectrum is that they don’t particularly like being around people; that they thrive in solitude and silence. It’s “common knowledge” that people on the spectrum don’t like to socialize, and that forcing them to is a recipe to cause them to melt down and cause some kind of disruption. Logically, then, they would not only be more comfortable working from home, but they would produce better work.
Unfortunately, the truth of the matter, as always, is far more complicated.
The first thing that needs to be understood is that, while it is common for people on the spectrum to self-isolate, this isn’t necessarily an indication that they do not want to socialize. More often, it is an indication that socializing is difficult. There is a profound difference between not wanting to socialize and finding socialization a difficult activity.
All that glitters is not gold
The sad fact is that many people on the spectrum desperately do want to socialize and make connections with the people around them, but difficulties with communication, sensory overload from their environments, and trouble reading cues makes it incredibly hard to do so comfortably. With little recourse, people on the spectrum find themselves self-isolating rather than engaging in the social activities they so desperately want to. The result is a chronic, crushing sense of loneliness, often accompanied by feelings of depression as they wonder “what is wrong with them.”
Thankfully things are getting better, albeit slowly. Businesses are more and more becoming aware of the benefits a neurodiverse team of workers can have and providing the necessary accommodations to properly integrate people on the spectrum into the workforce. There are no set standards yet, and progress is made largely on a case by case basis, but progress is being made towards finding ways to better integrate adults on the spectrum into the workforce and into social environments.
Despite common conceptions, working with others actually helps people on the spectrum in a number of ways. Not only does it stave off the crushing loneliness that many who self-isolate feel, but it also does a great deal of good towards sharpening their skills with the help of peer input and review, as well as keeping adults on the spectrum on task, which can sometimes be difficult; especially if the autistic adult has a comorbidity such as ADHD. Getting out of the house and going to work can also help adults on the spectrum to establish a proper routine, which helps with general health and wellness. An established routine can help to organize the sometimes-chaotic life of adults on the spectrum, especially if they happen to suffer from executive dysfunction.
Alas, the current working situation has seemingly undone a lot of the progress that the past few years have seen.
Due to the pandemic, many adults on the spectrum are now forced to work from home, only communicating with their coworkers through email and the occasional zoom call. The same crushing loneliness that adults on the spectrum felt before when self-isolating has now become significantly worse as isolation is not just encouraged, but in many places outright enforced. Without even the opportunity to re-enter social situations, many on the spectrum find themselves on the brink of despair as they deal with soul crushing loneliness that now they are not even allowed to escape from.
Furthermore, from anecdotal evidence, programs like zoom or discord do not appear to be any sort of viable replacement for in-person interactions. Indeed, while people on the spectrum may have trouble reading facial cues and body language or understanding tone of voice, the problem seems to be highly exacerbated when your coworker is reduced to a tiny mishmash of pixels on a screen. If anything, zoom and programs of that ilk invoke feelings much like Tantalus must have felt when he was cast into Tartarus, as the social life that people on the spectrum want is dangled in front of them like the fruit of Tantalus’ tree, but as with Tantalus, is always just out of reach.
Working from home has other disadvantages as well. With more flexible deadlines comes a degradation of routine and schedule, which can have serious domino effects on the rest of these adults’ lives. Without active communication and peer review, the quality of work can suffer. And without a strict, dedicated environment for people to perform work in, people might find themselves distracted by their comfortable surroundings.
After all, since you’re working from home, you only have to turn in your work by the end of the day, rather than by the 5:00 deadline. Can’t you take a minute to watch that DVD sitting on your shelf, or read that book you’ve been putting off? Or perhaps you could surf the internet with none of the consequences you might face when going into work.
Distractions like these become even harder to deal with if the adult in question has an ADHD comorbidity; something that is incredibly common.
Working from home may provide the benefit of keeping you in a comfortable environment that you control, but it does not necessarily provide you an environment conducive to productivity and high work quality.
The truth of the matter is, while some people on the spectrum might do better working from home, capable of managing their distractions and finding comfort in solitude, many on the spectrum find such working conditions to be more harmful than anything else. It is fallacious to assume that adults on the spectrum are a single block when it comes to anything in life.
Adults on the spectrum need to be able to get out and socialize – both in the context of work and in the context of play. Continuing to lock them up, rather than empowering them to work better, in many cases is actually merely enforcing depression.