From targeted bullying, indiscreet shaming, cruel nicknames and blatant rejection, Ashlea McKay endured years of nastiness in workplaces where her autism was either unknown, or wildly misunderstood.
During one job before being diagnosed with autism, Ms McKay was given the nickname "Crazy Ash". It was her colleagues' way of differentiating her from another worker with the same name.
The 34-year-old from Canberra told Yahoo News Australia she was given the name because she would sometimes become so overwhelmed she would have what she now recognises as an autistic meltdown.
"I’d commit the big workplace no-no and cry. I’d also ramble off unfiltered views on whatever I was thinking in that moment," Ms McKay recalled.
"I now know those moments were autistic meltdowns – a loss of emotional control that occurs when autistic people become overwhelmed or are under sensory or emotional stress for too long."
In another workplace, Ms McKay said she unknowingly developed a reputation for being difficult because she often said no, asked a lot of questions, directly communicated her feelings and paused to think before responding to requests.
"That was heartbreaking and hard to understand," Ms McKay said.
Targeted by workplace bullies
In a previous role, colleagues would regularly talk about her right in front of her face, as though she couldn't hear them.
"They’d say awful things about my work ethic, personality and existence in general. They’d say I was ‘too weird', ‘too quiet’, ‘not normal’ and ‘afraid of hard work’," she recalled.
While working as a user researcher in another pre-diagnosis role, she was not allowed to interact with the public because she "wasn’t seen as capable of doing that", despite the job being largely people-facing.
"Talking to people about their thoughts and feelings around products and services is what I do and had been doing for a while," she said.
One day she overheard co-workers ridiculing her over the interactions she was allowed to have when greeting research participants.
"I heard my colleagues laughing amongst themselves making jokes about how I had been ‘practising my social skills’ that day," Ms McKay recalled.
"I felt sick, but I had no idea what that feeling was called until I felt it again after my diagnosis. It’s ableism closely followed by a gut punch mix of shame and humiliation."
'Thriving' in post-diagnosis job
It wasn't until seven years into Ms McKay's working career that "everything changed" and she was diagnosed with autism in April 2016, aged 29.
"I got to rebuild as myself for the first time in my entire life now that I finally had the right framing for the way I experience the world," she said, explaining it took an additional two-and-a-half years to properly adjust.
After a subsequent job search that lasted three years, during which she was upfront about being autistic, she landed a job with professional services firm Synergy Group Australia, where for almost two years she has been "thriving".
"I still experience meltdowns at work but they’re getting rarer, less damaging for my well-being and when they do happen, it’s not a problem or a performance issue," she said.
"When I get overwhelmed, my actions are viewed in the context of me being autistic and it being a completely ‘normal’ thing for me."
Not hiring autistic people is a 'huge waste'
She earned her first internal promotion in her 12-year career at the end of 2020, further attesting to how important having frameworks that create a safe and non-judgemental work environment are.
Information technology consulting business Auticon, which works exclusively with autistic adults, supports autistic professionals and educates businesses about how to manage neurodiverse teams in the workplace.
Autistic employees have a myriad of typically under-utilised skills, particularly in fields of software engineering, quality assurance and testing, data analytics and cyber security, CEO Bodo Mann said.
Not only are autistic people huge assets given their ability to solve problems in different ways to the neurotypical, employing them in professional roles can take a huge load of pressure off the welfare system, Mr Mann said.
"It is a huge waste for mankind, and certainly for countries, who are not utilising that intellectual horsepower and that cognitive strength," he told Yahoo News Australia.
Ms McKay said she was not oblivious to how fortunate she was to work at a company that support and prioritise her well-being.
The encouraging environment has given her the confidence to apply and subsequently fulfil volunteer positions, including a seat on the Australian Computer Society’s (ACS) National Diversity and Inclusion Council (NDIC), and being made the Diversity and Inclusion Lead for her service line of digital and technology.
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