Mahlia galleryTo disclose, or not to disclose?

My work is based around arts-led advocacy work around neurodiversity, which openly translates a positive and impactful message. I work with a variety of mediums, mainly visual art, but also writing, installation and video – all of which creates a dialogue with visitors at my art exhibitions.

Though I speak very openly about being autistic in my artistic career, and this is the core foundation of being an artist, I haven’t always disclosed to my managers and work colleagues in more formal employment settings

How does that add up, you may ask? Well, firstly it’s important to state that disclosure is a complex issue made up of many facets – all of which are different for each individual – not to mention how the context of the role and industry adds further intricacies into the mix. This blog focuses on my personal views and experiences of disclosure. I also wish to add that I’m employed in formal employment settings in addition to my art, as I have a portfolio career.

At the very outset of any job, I always ask myself ‘what will I get from disclosing that I’m autistic?’

As simple as it sounds, this questioning is helpful as it enables me to be clear in terms of what I want and need from my employment. I also feel that this enquiring nature hones back to the point that being employed is an exchange: your skills and services, in return for remuneration and other benefits.

I personally find that being autistic is private to me. I share this information with those I choose to. Having said that, I’ll always ensure that I tick I have a disability at the recruitment stage, so this information is held at a HR level. This again is only held with HR – anyone who interviews you, or your future managers and work colleagues won’t be privy to this information. I find this reassuring that it’s known at some type of level, but then I control who to tell further down the line. This can be as you start your new job, later on in your employment journey - or perhaps never.

I’ve only felt the need to disclose being autistic when asking for reasonable adjustments (which I have done) – or if I’m struggling

People often ask if I’ve disclosed at the interview stage, but I’ve never felt it to be relevant here – you may not get the job, plus you may not wish to work for the organisation. It’s all too soon.

So, going back to my original question of ‘what will I get from disclosing that I’m autistic?’ - I’m ultimately checking if it will be helpful to disclose, and whether it will make an actual difference to me. And this all depends on various factors: the work environment, modes of communication with colleagues, social structures – and the company culture as a whole. For example, it may be the case that I have a colleague who talks out loud to themselves and disturbs me. I then have the choice of asking them to be more conscious of the impact they are having – or I might decide to wear headphones. Either option may be enough. For context: being autistic, I struggle significantly with overlapping sounds (whether this is talking, the radio, people moving around or otherwise), as I’m unable to filter out and ignore these sounds. I hear them profoundly. This affects my concentration and essentially my ability to work. The severity and frequency of the situation is something I have to weigh up too. Do remember of course, the autism spectrum is just that: a spectrum – and there may be many people who are completely unaffected by overlapping sounds.

One reasonable adjustment that I initiated came about from a job I started where I was feeling exhausted a lot of the time

I didn’t think too much about it in the moment - new jobs in their very nature are all-consuming, as everyone and everything is new. I always knew that the lights in my shared office were bright, but I didn’t realise how much of an impact they were having on me. Two months into the role, I knew that I had to do something, as I was able to distinguish more clearly that the lights were strongly affecting me, and not just the new-job-overwhelm. I was feeling shattered and drained by 11am and experiencing low-level pain in my eyes – pain that would sometimes spread into headaches – particularly if I was already tired or stressed.

There was one light switch that turned on all the lights in the small office, and my request involved explaining that I’m on the autistic spectrum; how this affects me from a sensory perspective, and what I thought the solution could be (I figured a dimmer switch could be implemented where the brightness could be adjusted). In the end there was an extra light switch added, so that the each of the two light switches turned on half the office lights, and we only used half going forwards. I cannot tell you how much of a game changer this was for me! It transformed everything and I no longer struggled, felt pain or exhaustion. Amazing, right?

Having worked in a variety of work settings has given me an understanding of what does and doesn’t work for me. And that’s the thing: as I said before, it really is a spectrum, and what I need is likely to be different to what someone else needs. I’d always encourage you to work in different settings to experience these personal learnings. I feel this has increased my confidence and knowledge to know what works – and to then be able to ask for such changes when I feel I’ve needed them.

So, to disclose or not to disclose? Ultimately, it is very personal

Disclosure depends on a combination of how you are affected in the workplace, the type of role you are applying for – and many other factors. But I hope hearing about my experiences is useful to you, as it’s often these real-life case studies that can help shed that extra light and give support.

And remember – not all environments will work for you, and no amount of adjustments can change that, so sometimes you have to consider if you’re a good fit at an organisational level. And it’s totally OK if you’re not. No one job is ever your only option. And it’s vital to remember this to keep moving forwards.

Mahlia Amatina

March 2021