Essay: Autistic photojournalism student prepares to enter a workforce that doesn’t yet understand neurodiversity

Two years ago, I joined my student newspaper, ready to do work that I had dreamed of doing ever since I had entered college. I was 20, a junior and autistic.

I struggled with assignments that weren’t clear, with expectations that I was supposed to know things – because my neurotypical peers did – or understand how to capture emotion. I struggled to perceive certain reactions and emotions and how they were either positive or negative to the situation. I also, at first, struggled with making friends in the newsroom, finding that many of my peers communicated with each other with body language and tones that I didn’t understand or recognize.

As an autistic photojournalist, I do understand and recognize emotion to a certain extent. I can recognize it quickly and take a photo of it. I see moments in the field and take the photo as a means to describe my own emotions and curiosity of why humans react to certain situations in the way that they do and the communities they from. My lens is a means to fuel my curiosity. I see moments and details with the way people express themselves that my neurotypical peers overlook, including their gestures, their emotions, and the way people interact with each other.

But as I prepare to graduate this weekend from Columbia College Chicago, I may be ready but I’m struggling to find workforces that are ready for me.

Bianca Kreusel sets up a camera to shoot an episode of the student newspaper’s weekly broadcast. Kreusel, co-director of photography for the Columbia Chronicle, will graduate on May 12, 2023, from Columbia College Chicago. (Photo by Jackie Spinner)

While I have only cycled through three jobs in my life, including one as a photojournalist and photography director at my college newspaper, I always notice a similarity: I am the only autistic person that I know of in that space, and there are no accommodations for neurodiverse employees.

This is not surprising to me. Roughly 21% of people with a disability were employed in 2022, according to the United States Department of Labor. In comparison, in the same year, 65.4% of people without a disability were employed. That is about one in five disabled people employed, and autism is only one group under that category. 

Though we all don’t want to admit it, many employers have internalized ableism that prevents autistic people from wanting to work. Many workforces don’t campaign or try to recruit more individuals with autism, whether that is because accommodating employees can be seen as a nuisance or because workplaces just don’t want to give us a chance at all. 

Ableism is defined as discrimination in favor of able-bodied — or able-minded — people. Ableist individuals portray those who are being defined by their disabilities as inherently inferior to able-bodied people. This can include lack of compliance with disability rights laws, using harmful language to describe yourself or others such as “psycho” or “spaz” and not including disability resources in DEI strategies in the workforce. 

Those who may get into the workforce — like myself — are limited with resources to help us navigate a neurotypical world. A world that includes verbal and nonverbal social cues, knowing automatically why someone may be upset or how they’re feeling and having to make constant eye contact with superiors and colleagues.

Throughout my short time in the working world, I find myself having to mask — a common term used with those with autism in which neurodiverse people hide their authentic selves in an effort to gain greater social acceptance.

It is exhausting; it makes it difficult to constantly socialize with my coworkers, and when I don’t, I’m deemed rude or sad. In reality, I don’t have resources such as designated quiet spaces nor clear and concise directions on how to correctly perform my job. Instead, I have a gray area of unspoken rules and tasks I am supposed to “just know” or be expected to do without instruction. This might be easy and normal for neurotypical workers, but it makes working as an autistic person ten times harder.

As I begin my departure from college this weekend and ease my way into the industry, I find it difficult to find a workplace that caters to the needs of autistic individuals. Though many job openings on LinkedIn claim that they do not discriminate based on disability, with that one-in-five statistic, I have serious concerns and doubts about the ability of a workplace to be inclusive to neurodivergent workers.

I wonder about the newsroom or organization that truly would be accepting of me, if that place exists.

Autistic people can be good journalists and photojournalists because of our attention to detail. I cannot speak for every individual with autism, but schedules, deadlines and a clear set of rules to follow allow me to thrive. Though it may be hard for us to express ourselves in a setting with our peers and colleagues, I find it much easier to express my curiosity of human connection as well as express my view on our colorful, infinitely diverse world through my camera lens. 

Autism should never be a deterrent for workplaces currently hiring employees, and autistic individuals should never have to mask as a means of getting hired.

Workers that have autism have been “found to have fewer absences, are more likely to arrive at work on time, are more reliable and have dramatically lower turnover rates than neurotypical employees,” according to a published excerpt from the book “Generation A: Research on Autism in the Workplace.” 

Despite needing more support from their employers, neurodiverse individuals bring in a lot of skills that show unique viewpoints. 

Extra resources should not be viewed as an extra expense, but as a necessity for a thriving workplace. Not only do resources such as a designated, sensory-friendly room help autistic employees step away and calm down when work can become overstimulating, but many neurotypical employees can benefit from them too as a way to step out of a stressful environment and take time to calm down. Less stress means an overall healthier work environment.

Claiming your office space cannot obtain the resources that meet the needs of autistic people and that you cannot hire autistic employees is ableist. 

Furthermore, in order to be accommodating to those with autism, many steps need to be taken.

Keeping disability disclosement consensual must be clearly addressed. As someone who has experienced coworkers revealing my personal disability to others, I know this is a problem.

As a working person with autism, I would also like to see DEI training implemented into the workplace, as well as a clear process for requesting resources that should be readily available. Training should actually be included in the workplace and ideally should look like providing specific rules to employees, which include avoidance of certain language and abstaining from infantilizing autistic employees, as this is offensive and minimizes our humanity.

Furthermore, working alongside organizations that specialize in inclusive employment, like Spectrum Designs Foundation, is just as imperative, allowing autistic employees to raise their voices if their needs are not being met. 

Prioritizing the needs of autistic voices is essential because it truly reflects the goals of a workplace wanting to reflect DEI strategies, as well as creates total inclusivity for everyone. Autistic employees bring just as much skill and talent to the workforce as any other worker.

Including autistic people in the workplace is a key factor in inclusivity for everyone. DEI discussions are important, and it’s equally important to include neurodiverse voices in these discussions because we, too, matter and deserve to have a seat at the table. 

Bianca Kreusel is a Chicago-based photojournalist. An earlier version of this story appeared in the Columbia Chronicle. It is reprinted with permission. 

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