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  • Saskia Müller

Looking Back on Getting Fired for Being Autistic

Since it's almost the two-year anniversary of being fired for being autistic, and I have lots of new followers, I thought I would share my story again. 


My story is not particularly unique to the autistic community. In fact, almost all autistic people I know have had something similar happen to them at least once, and usually many more times than that. It is what makes so many of us terrified to disclose our diagnosis or “just be ourselves”. It is also what keeps so many of us from becoming and staying employed.


Late diagnosed autistics and other neurodivergent people often struggle to provide previous work references, especially from prior to our diagnosis. Not because we are incapable or bad at our jobs, but because of not being provided or not knowing we needed accommodations to be as successful as everyone else. Or in many cases, just downright discrimination. 


Every employer I have ever had has been toxic and abusive in some way toward me because of the presentation of my autistic traits, even before I knew I was autistic. Asking me to provide references from toxic employers that traumatised me is not much different than asking any other abuse victim to provide references from their abuser. Yet it looks bad on me if I don’t want the people who traumatised me to have any say in whether I get to be employed or not. It looks bad on me if I even tell people they abused me at all.


I have been employed at a great company for almost a year now but have dealt with the worst mental health struggles I have ever had because of the impact of my last employer. So please read my story, and keep it in mind when you are asking autistic or other neurodivergent people for references. 


 

Why don’t I want to give my previous employer as a reference? Because they were toxic, abusive, and discriminatory. 


My boss was very much a “figure it out on your own” type of person and refused to teach me things, but if someone else taught me how to do something, he would freak out and say it's the wrong way. He would also scream at me if I asked too many questions. I explained a thousand times that if I am asking for help or instructions on how to complete a task then I have already attempted to figure it out on my own. Most of my coworkers had worked there for over a decade, so they just ignored him and tolerated it. But it was a small business and he was the face of the business, so he got away with treating people how he saw fit.


No matter how good I became at my job, how many hours I worked, how many of his messes I cleaned up… it was never good enough. I was always doing things just wrong enough to get berated by him. He would tell me to do something he knew I had no experience in, would give no instructions, and then get angry if it wasn’t exactly how he wanted. For an autistic person, this is maddening and traumatic. I didn’t understand why I couldn’t just read his mind and know exactly what he wanted like “all his other staff members”. (Newsflash: they didn’t.)  


I started having awful seizures within 2 months of being there and I hit a boiling point. I was breaking down every day before work because I was so stressed and so overworked.

 

About 6 months into working there, I was drowning under the impossible amount of work I was being assigned and no one would listen to me that I needed help because it was too much. “That’s just how it is,” I was told, knowing full well I should not be working 6 days a week, 9 hours each day with no break.


My shop manager has an autistic son and she would talk to me about him and was always so sweet. She only worked with me once a week, if that, but would always be accommodating if I truly needed it. Given this fact, I assumed that she would be understanding and be open-minded. I had been open about my autism with her without any issues.


I was supposed to be working a couple of towns over in the summer and I couldn't handle it. I went to my manager and explained that things had to change. I sent a message to her and the boss and explained that when I got the job I had explicitly told them that I was to stay in one shop and one shop only. As an autistic person I can't handle change like that and I need a set routine. I explained how the current rota was unsustainable for me and how it had brought to the surface many struggles for someone who is autistic. I couldn’t do 54+ hour weeks without breaks, and I certainly could not keep going out of town.


I was told I was being dramatic and I'd be fine.

This was my last straw and I finally reached my breaking point. 


So one morning when I was supposed to go a couple of towns over for work, I ended up having a violent meltdown at the train station. The poor ticket inspector sat down with me and helped me text my partner and my manager, and tell them I wouldn't be coming in for this reason. They had been warned in advance that something like this would happen.


You’ll never guess what happened.


She never replied to my messages, instead, contacted the boss and my partner and let her know that I had been fired. It was only 3 hours later when my boss replied saying the work was obviously too hard for me and I was being let go of since I was clearly not capable.


“But the Disability Act!” you might be screaming…


Here is a dirty little secret about the disability act: It does not apply to businesses with less than 15 employees. That’s right. Businesses with 14 or fewer people can discriminate all day long, and in most cases, it is perfectly legal.


I couldn’t speak as I sat there having a meltdown both internally and externally. Unable to defend or advocate for myself. I had gone completely nonverbal, which is common for me and a lot of other autistics in high-stress situations.


The whole experience of working there, the way I was taken advantage of, and how I was fired left me with trauma. It destroyed my confidence and my motivation. I had a full-on identity crisis realising I needed therapy, which made me so ashamed. Even though I was happy to be free of that place, the experience broke me. I completely shut down for months and fell into the worst autistic burnout I have ever had in my life. My mental health has struggled to recover ever since and I am still trying to claw my way out of burnout.


The kicker of it all? I was so good and efficient at my job BECAUSE I was autistic. When I first started working there I was a fucking rockstar. I excelled! The reason I was able to keep my different duties organised and managed for so long was from the traits that my autism has given me. The reason I was able to complete tasks faster than the other staff or create new, more streamlined systems they hadn’t considered had everything to do with me being autistic. 

Instead of utilising my protocols company-wide so that everyone could also be more efficient as a team, they punished my efficiency by taking away tasks from everyone else and assigning them to me because I could “just do it faster anyway” and they “didn’t have time to learn”. They knew I struggled to say no regardless of how much I already had on my plate, and if I did say no or said I was too busy to do something, I was treated terribly for days. 


They loved taking advantage of my autistic traits and gaslighting me when they thought I was just a pushover. Then they had to acknowledge they had been taking advantage of my disability and I became an inconvenience to them, so they got rid of me.


So no, I can not give my previous employer as a reference. Unless it is to refer them straight to hell.

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