Exploring the Work Life Experiences of UK Autistic Women
Objectives: The research sets out to explore the work life experiences of autistic women in the UK.
Methods: The research has followed a qualitative research strategy, adopting an inductive approach. The epistemological orientation is interpretivist and the ontological orientation constructionist. Identity has been extracted from the interviews as a major theme and provides the conceptual framework for the research.
Semi structured interviews were conducted with 35 autistic women of varying ages and occupations in the UK with experience of seeking or obtaining work. Participants were recruited via the research pages of the National Autistic Society, Research Autism, and through social media outlets such as Facebook, Twitter and online autistic communities such as ‘Wrong Planet’ where autistic women could be found. Participants were able to select from a range of interview options including a face to face interview, telephone interview or to answer questions via email.
Results: Working, and having a defined work identity was very important to many women. However, participants typically described their work identity as a performed act, in line with Goffman’s concept of dramaturgy. Participants felt they needed to perform in the workplace to fit in, and to do this they spent years ‘learning the rules’ in order to perform. This performance not only involves behaviours but may also involve their physical appearance, which may be at odds with the autistic woman’s home persona. Although a daily struggle, participants were often clearly successful in their performances, however the autistic women highlight the physical and mental exertion of their work combined with the need to ‘act out’ an additional performed identity to fit in. Autistic women are also often stigmatised in the workplace and many had mixed experiences about disclosing their diagnosis at work, with strong evidence of participants’ perception of being ‘othered’.
Conclusions: The research demonstrates the overwhelmingly positive effect of receiving a diagnosis, enabling the women to enter a process of reframing and reinterpreting past experiences. The autistic women studied were able to see both positive and negative patterns within their employment and were able to consider the impact of their autism identity. Autistic women are working in a wide range of occupations, some not previously associated with autistic people and their strengths, which may help widen the career choices of autistic women. The prevalence of stigma in the workplace also has implications for human resources professionals, policy makers, legislators and legal professionals, trades unions and employment support organisations.