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Six things that help me when interacting at work

I work as a data analyst, Monday to Friday. Some of the things that help me will relate most to "office" type jobs. I'd be really keen to share what helps people in other types of jobs though. Sign up to the newsletter at the bottom of this page and I'll send you info on how to get involved and share your story :)

It would be almost impossible to do my job with zero interaction. And completely impossible to do it well. So, given that most of my time is spent at work, managing the impact of those interactions is really important.

I didn’t used to. I was in a cycle of burnout for years. Until I found out that I am autistic… and then this all became very predictable.

Social interaction is exhausting. Mostly because, as an autistic person, this is very manual for me.

Working out what people mean, what to do with my face, why they just did something with theirs, when to make eye-contact, how someone is reacting to what I am saying.

In a neurotypical brain, all that happens automatically. For me, it takes up valuable computing space.

Add in the inherent unpredictability of a conversation, sensory issues caused by bright office lighting or noisy “collaboration spaces” (ick), and the possibility that one prioritisation meeting could lead to a sudden change of plan for the day, week, month… Well. It’s no wonder I’m broken by Tuesday.

Below are six things that help me manage social energy expenditure at work.

Thing 1: Asking about what is going to happen

Knowing what to expect is really important for managing my anxiety. With friends, you kind of know how things will go. At work, there could be a meeting on a totally new topic, with a totally new person, and there is still the expectation that you will be at your professional best.

Nowadays, if there is anything uncertain, I ask questions beforehand. If I know what will happen, where people are coming from, and I have had a chance to work out what I think about that… the meeting usually feels less draining.

I do something similar for workshops, away days, or work social occasions. I ask whoever is organising the event to share as much detail with me as possible beforehand so that I can mentally prepare. People are always happy to share, and it is always a huge relief.

More than once organisers have even made adjustments based on my preferences (e.g. who I will be with for group tasks, what ice breakers there might be…) Like many “reasonable adjustments”, this does not make a big difference to them. But it makes an enormous difference to me.

I have also done this for interviews. I have asked for extra information about who will be there, what roles they will take, and what I will be asked about. This makes the whole process more accessible.

Thing 2: Turning my camera off

I work remotely, so all of my meetings are video calls. If I’m meeting with someone I know well, or it’s a larger meeting where there is no need for me to be “seen”, I turn my camera off.

It takes a lot of energy to make my face work, on top of the verbal interaction itself. So, if people can’t see my face, that reduces the energy cost of a meeting. I usually explain why I am doing this. Sometimes it doesn’t really matter. Sometimes others appreciate the chance for a break and turn their camera off too.

The other way to approach this is by making some 1:1 meetings “walk and talk” meetings, which I do over the phone instead. It’s a good chance (for both people!) to get away from the desk, and has the added bonus of no video expectation. This only works if there’s no note-taking or documents needed, but I usually manage one or two a week.

I sometimes wonder what I would do on this point if I had to be back working in an office. Probably the biggest factors would be working on masking less, and reducing the number of meetings I have in the first place (see Thing 6).

Thing 3: Taking control if I can

If a meeting topic feels ambiguous, and there isn’t already someone leading it, I can just take the reins and impose a structure.

I might create a document outlining the problem and some key questions, share it round, and invite people to comment on it before the meeting.

This gives a structure to what could otherwise be a very open-ended conversation.

It means that (a) I know what others are thinking and can digest that ahead of time, and (b) we end up using the document as a sort of agenda in the meeting, so I know what to expect.

This is a useful strategy for getting something out of a meeting anyway, but with a much broader impact for me. The kinds of meetings I have done this for are: scoping out a new piece of work with stakeholders; problem-solving on an analysis method; team planning sessions.

Thing 4: Helping people understand why certain adjustments matter

I’ve been lucky to have very understanding colleagues since my diagnosis. I’ve shared a “how I work” document with my team, and given a talk as part of a “lived experience” series.

This has helped make sure that people’s expectations match what I feel comfortable doing. It makes it much easier to ask for things that I need, because there is some shared language.

It also means I can more easily ask certain people if I don’t understand small things, e.g. not getting if something was a joke, or if I didn’t know what someone “really” meant. These might sound trivial, but can weigh on my mind for days if I don’t check.

I know that I am extremely lucky. And that not every workplace is so understanding. If that’s an issue for you, there are providers that offer training for employers, if you think yours would be open to that. You could choose to disclose only to one trusted person who can help you with adjustments. Or to nobody at all, but find less direct ways to get what you need. Testing the water with someone you trust (either inside or outside of work) is a good way to help gauge how others may react.

I think all of the other adjustments in this article could be done without having to tell somebody that they are happening “because autism”. Many could go unnoticed.

Thing 5: Taking breaks

Deliberately forcing myself to stop and pause has had a huge impact. It gives me a chance to notice how I’m feeling emotionally, physically, how my senses are doing. Then I can make adjustments.

I have two recurring breaks in my calendar to do this, plus lunch. I don’t necessarily take much time, but even five minutes to check-in and adjust clothing, lights, proprioceptive inputs can mean shifting my course away from a sensory meltdown by 5pm.

Especially before and after meetings, I now take away the expectation of doing my usual work, and take more brain breaks. On days when I have lots of meetings, I don’t plan to do any “real” work in between. I just do bits and pieces, respond to emails, maybe the odd bit if I feel up to it. But ultimately, I know the meetings will be so draining that I need to break in between to get through the day intact.

If I don’t do this, I’m left drained, overwhelmed, tearful, exhausted, and feeling mentally and physically unwell by the end of the day. It’s not sustainable. I used to ignore all those feelings and just keep going. Now that I understand the causes, and the longer-term impact… I don’t :)

Thing 6: Having fewer interactions in the first place

Prevention is always better than cure. If I can reduce the number of interactions, I don’t need to compensate so much with all of the above, and so further reduce my risk of burnout.

I do a lot less work-based interacting in my current role than I did in my previous one… I’ll write at some point about how and why I changed my job post-diagnosis. Spoiler alert: one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.

Within both roles, these are some questions that have helped me reduce time spent in meetings:

  • Could I contribute thoughts in writing before or after instead?

  • Could I contribute via a 1:1 before or after instead? (groups are hard)

  • Is the meeting even necessary? (Sometimes things are left in the calendar out of habit; sometimes setting a reminder to check in with someone via email/messaging every X weeks is enough — they can flag if a meeting becomes necessary)

  • If it is a recurring meeting, could it be less often without hampering progress?

  • Could the meeting be shorter? Either in general or with a bit of written pre- or post-work to help get things going? A shared working document with some clear notes and questions so we’re starting on the same page?

  • Is this a meeting where I am only really needed for a small part of it? If so, can I arrange with the organiser to attend just for that part?

  • Can someone deputise for me or be trained to? Sometimes this is a great opportunity for someone who might want to get involved in a certain kind of meeting: win-win!

  • Can I achieve what I need to via some clear questions over email or Teams/Slack instead?

  • Can I delay this to a time when I have more energy? Often, it can wait…

  • Could I ditch this completely? I no longer feel pressure to go to things I don’t need to. Like socials, optional training, company meetings. In my last role, attending whole-department or company meetings really stressed me out. Even though I could hide in the background, something about a large group interacting threw me. I started to just look through the slides afterwards instead. Given I struggled to concentrate due to anxiety when I did attend, this was a more effective way for me to get messages anyway.

Lauren x


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