Being Social at Work
Work is complex and tedious. That’s why it’s called “work.” Being social at work can be even more cumbersome. Most jobs require some form of teamwork and communication; however, those that relate to Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) struggle more with social-communication than others (American Psychiatric Association, 2013). As such, being social at work may result in workplace stress (Hayword, McVilly, & Stokes, 2019). In a recent study (Lorenz, Frischling, Cuadros, & Heinitz, 2016), concerns around being social in the workplace was cited as the most common barrier to employment and most important problem in the workplace for people with ASD.
Tips for maximizing social success in the workplace
- Take an inventory of your immediate physical environment.
Is your desk situated near a busy corridor? Are you distracted in a workspace where your colleagues are constantly chatting? Accommodating a desk move to a quieter, more private space is typically cost-free and very helpful in managing overall workplace stress. Think about your sensory needs and ask about simple environmental accommodations.
- Make sure the right people know about your strengths and differences.
It is completely up to you to decide if/how/when you choose to disclose. Regardless of what disclosure might look like specifically for you, it is essential that your supervisor and close teammates understand your strengths and how you learn/collaborate best. Example scripting peer to peer: “Christine, I look forward to working with you on the Z project. In the future, can you please send me your agenda items before we meet so I am best prepared for discussion?” Individuals with ASD reported that having key people at work understand their ASD helped in their workplace success (Hayword, et. al, 2019).
- Connect with your supervisor frequently.
Having a set time to check in regularly with your supervisor can be incredibly helpful to ensuring you are on track and also identify issues before they grow too big. Even if it’s just 15 minutes once a week, this practice enhances communication.
- Find a work mentor.
Outside of your direct supervisor, it is helpful to have a peer to bounce ideas off of and learn from. A mentor is particularly helpful if they are in a very similar role to you as they may understand some of the nuances and technical considerations even better than your supervisor. Mentorship is also great for the mentor as it allows them to grow too. Having an initial conversation with your supervisor is a good place to start if you are looking to formalize this recommendation.
- You don’t have to be friends with EVERYONE in the workplace.
There is a common misconception in my clinical practice in which clients think everyone has to like them to be considered successful from a social lens. This notion simply isn’t true. Shoot for building rapport with one or two people at work and focus on quality over quantity. A few meaningful and trusted relationships will take you much further than more surface relationships with a greater number of colleagues.
- Plan a bit in advance for the watercooler chats.
Can I let you in on a secret?... A lot of people who present strongly in social situations think and plan in advance to be successful. Michelle Garcia Winner (2011), offers many “Social Thinking” resources that could be helpful. In addition, reviewing materials in relation to the “PEERS” curriculum (Laugeson & Frankel, 2010) may also be a worthwhile endeavor to enhance social success.
- Build Social Equity – and pay it forward with some Timbits.
Outside of direct communication to foster your social relationships, acts of kindness may also go a long way with your peers. Occasionally bringing in a treat, offering to pick-up others coffee when you get your own, or paying it forward with a favour, are all great ways to show your colleagues you care.
- Develop “cover stories” to opt out of the social.
Loud, busy and unpredictable staff cocktail hour doesn’t work for you? It’s ok not to force it. Alternatively, try to have some “cover story” ideas as to why you may not be able to participate (Laugenson & Frankel, 2010). Example, “I need to take my dog out after work so I won’t be attending the cocktail hour.” In a more formal context, it may be important to explore necessary versus unnecessary social pieces in your accommodations.
- Assess the job fit.
If you are engaged in the work that you are doing and doing it well, you are likely to experience higher satisfaction and esteem (Lorenz, et. al, 2016). Bonus points if you believe in the companies values.
- Take care of yourself outside of work.
Jobs are demanding socially and mentally. Talking to friends, family and mental health professionals about work stresses may be helpful. Making sure that your downtime is full of self-care that recharges you is essential.
In summary, know that you are not alone in feeling additional stress in relation to the social-communication demands at work. Exploring accommodations to negotiate some of the social, and connecting regularly with your supervisor is key. Prioritizing your health and mental health both inside and outside of work is imperative. Taking the time now to figure out the social balance that works for you is encouraged, as “work” constitutes such a large body of our time.
American Psychiatric Association [APA] (2013).DSM-V diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders.Arlington: VA: American Psychiatric Association
Garcia Winner, M. & Crooke, P. (2011). Social Thinking at Work. Think Social Publishing and North River Press, California.
Hayword, S. McVilly, K.R., & Stokes, M. A., Autism and employment: What works. (2019) Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders 60, 48-58
Laugeson, E.A. & Frankel, F. (2010). Social Skills for Teenagers with Developmental and Autistic Spectrum Disorders. The PEERS Treatment Manual. Routledge, California
Lorenz, T. Frischling, C. Cuadros, R. & Heinitz, K. (2016) Autism and Overcoming Job Barriers: Comparing Job-Related Barriers and Possible Solutions in and outside of Autism-Specific Employment. PLoS ONE 11(1):
About Sarah Southey, MSW, RSW
Sarah is a Social Worker (M.S.W.), and is an affiliate of The Redpath Centre. She see’s clients in Mississauga, Toronto and virtually. She has over 12 years experience working with adolescents and adults with ASD, ADHD, learning disabilities and mental health issues. Sarah focuses her counselling and research on helping people with ASD find and keep meaningful employment. Sarah uses solution-focused and cognitive behavioural therapy techniques in her sessions.
DISCLAIMER: This document reflects the views of the author. It is Autism Ontario’s intent to inform and educate. Every situation is unique and while we hope this information is useful, it should be used in the context of broader considerations for each person. Please contact Autism Ontario at firstname.lastname@example.org or 416-246-9592 for permission to reproduce this material for any purpose other than personal use. © 2020 Autism Ontario 416.246.9592 www.autismontario.com