An article published on 7th May this year caught the attention of a lot of people. Titled “Offices can be Hell for people whose brains work differently,” it detailed various conditions, and how workspaces can take a toll on anyone who is considered to be neurodivergent. With that in mind, the question that should be asked in response is: for people on the Autistic spectrum, is freelancing the answer?
Just what is wrong with an office?
As the Vice article has already detailed, a lot can be wrong when made to work in an office. But just what is wrong in an office for people on the spectrum?
Laura James is the author of Odd Girl Out, a memoir detailing her journey through diagnosis. Describing her discomfort in an office, she said: “I found the unwritten rules too tricky to follow and the environment was just too much for me.
“I struggled in an open-plan office, the lights were too bright, the phones too loud and people eating microwaved food at their desks made me feel ill!”
Sensory issues – sensitivity to sound, smell, etc. – can impact an Autistic person working in an office. Sometimes this may lead to a meltdown; working from home can eradicate this risk.
Sarah Saeed is a freelance performer; she hosts a monthly neurodiverse comedy and poetry night, Lava Elastic, in Brighton. Lamenting her inability to conclude some tasks, she said: “I felt I spent a lot of time faking an ability to complete certain tasks and spent most time in any office jobs I had masking my extreme anxiety, finding colleagues difficult and being completely derailed by workplace politics which I couldn’t navigate easily (or at all).”
Masking means to suppress any hallmarks that would point to an individual being on the spectrum; this can sometimes have a hugely negative impact.
Starting out as a freelancer can be tough; it’s common to worry about making money, contacts, as well as things like taxes and expenses. It can, however, present extra advantages and disadvantages to someone on the Autistic spectrum.
Rebekah Gillian is a freelance writer and blogger. “Sometimes, I do worry not doing more to hide it puts me in a position of prejudice or judgement, but that hasn’t happened yet, which is good.
“In terms of advantages, I can see it helping if I’m ever blunt or straight-forward in emails, though I tend to have a script which stops this from being too much of a problem.”
Sarah Saeed already had some ideas about self-employment.
“I come from an entirely self-employed family, so it seemed feasible to be the equivalent of ‘your own boss’; all of my family have struggled with employers and being frustrated by the incompetence of less than logical and ineffective systems.”
There are additional challenges that an autistic person may face when going freelance, but they are also tied up with our workplace culture.
Just what is a slashie, anyway?
When we think about freelance culture, we may start to think about it in terms of what Emma Gannon and Elizabeth Day have written about; needing to be a multi-hyphenate, whether or not we are a ‘slashie’, passive income projects, presentism. The list goes on. Managing a routine – and therefore not letting your personal life morph into your work life – can be difficult. Add this to managing deadlines, juggling expenses, planning ahead – there is a lot to get your head around.
I asked Laura James how she was managing her routine: “Badly! My executive function skills are sadly lacking. I do try to write everything down and allocate time slots for each piece of work, but it’s a struggle.” When I asked if she considers herself to be a “slashie”, she continued: “Kind of. But mainly I’m a writer. That can be writing books, magazine or newspaper articles, copy for corporate clients etc but it’s all writing.
“I do quite a bit of speaking now too and help my husband run his two businesses, so there’s a bit of a juggle going on.”
Rebekah Gillian also agreed a routine is difficult for her to adhere to. She does not consider herself to be ‘a slashie’, although she is currently working on other side hustles.
To be open or not to be open?
One of the key questions that you will face if you are on the autistic spectrum, and plan to freelance, is: should I be open about being Autistic?
Sometimes there may be prejudice from just a simple label. (The ‘why’ is another conversation for another day.) To give you an idea: A 2016 YouGov survey run by The National Autistic Society suggests that 99.5% of the UK public have heard of Autism. Contrast this: only sixteen per cent of Autistic people and their families think that the public understands the condition in any meaningful way.
Added to this is that the harmful and continually debunked theory of vaccines causing Autism has reared its head again. Given this, the choice to be fully open about a diagnosis can be a tough question to answer.
When asked about this, Sarah Saeed said: “I have done the odd acting job since (Theatre) where I’ve been open about my diagnosis and what that might mean/look like in a rehearsal room. It has been handled really well by people around me, but creatives are very very different to the office and more corporate working world… which I never really lasted two minutes in.”
When asked the same question, Laura James said: “I ‘came out’ pretty spectacularly by writing a piece for the Telegraph and then going on to write a memoir.
“As soon as you google me a ton of autism stuff comes up, so I have no choice but to be totally open.
“I’m completely cool with that though and so far, everyone else has been too.’
Being freelance adds an extra level of control; you are under no obligation to disclose an Autism diagnosis necessarily. You can also work from home, which can avoid exposure to sensory issues such as what Laura James detailed. Rebekah Gillian said: “I’ve only officially spoken about being autistic with one or two clients when it was relevant to what I’d been commissioned for, but I think some of my regular clients probably know. For me, it’s never been something I’ve tried to hide, and if someone’s going to choose not to work with me because of my disability, I’d rather not work with them, either.”
What is the impact?
Rebekah Gillian said: “I’m definitely more stressed than I used to be.
“I thought freelancing would be the answer to solving my mental health problems, but I don’t think that was the case after all.
“On the other hand, I am a lot more confident than I used to be, and I’m not afraid to be assertive with people if I need to be.”
Having to sit at a computer and write can contribute to a sense of loneliness for anyone considered to be ‘Neurotypical’ – i.e. not on the Autistic spectrum. However, in writing for The Metro, Violet Fenn, an autistic author, argued that social media can and does increase sociability.
When asked if she had experienced isolation, Laura James said: “No. I love being alone! Having said that I have a revolving door or returning children and my husband works from home too.”
Along with the potential for isolation, the freelancer may experience stress related to the instability of work that may or may not be coming in. You will also need to be flexible when it comes to going to events when you can work and turn in pieces if you’re a freelance writer.
Would you recommend going freelance?
A huge benefit of going freelance is no longer having to work in an office, complete with the rigid routines, and the potential sensory issues. For me personally, this was a huge bonus. When I asked if she would recommend another autistic person should go freelance, Rebekah Gillian said: “I think it depends. Every autistic person is different, after all.
“Two of my siblings are autistic and I think they’d admit that they’d really struggle with freelancing as you really have to be able to self-motivate and learn new things, as well as talking to clients on a regular basis. If an autistic person came to me and said they were thinking about it but they weren’t sure whether they’d be able to, I’d definitely tell them to give it a go, though. What’s the worst that could happen?”
If you are thinking about going freelance if you are on the spectrum, but are not sure, that last piece of advice is the best you need. It may not be something for everyone, but it is worthwhile considering. Freelancing is the answer, for some on the spectrum, in combatting issues found in the workplace.