This post is part of a series exploring the challenges of (and hopefully some tips for surviving) working in corporate America as an undisclosed autistic.
Oh corporate dress codes. The majority of workplaces in America have some sort of dress code whether it’s a retail job or super fancy corporate office. I’ve worked in several retail environments, and from my experience, their dress codes tend to be pretty straightforward. I may not love what I’m expected to wear, but at least there are clearly defined lines of what is and is not acceptable. However, many white collar workplaces employ a loosely defined and ambiguous term to describe their dress code- business casual.
When I first started this job, I had no idea what business casual meant. Of course I had heard the phrase thrown around. I could deduce that it was somewhere between everyday wear and professional attire, but that was the extent of my knowledge. As I usually do, I turned to the internet for some researching. Unfortunately, this method did not help as much as I would have hoped. Everything I found was still pretty vague. This did not work well for me. I need to know what the expectations are going into a situation. Vague answers and confusion is very frustrating for me. After going through a multitude of Pinterest boards and articles found through Google, I was able to get a good enough idea of what business casual was to put together some sort of outfit.
Upon starting, I actively paid attention to the outfits of the women I saw in the building. I made note of what kind of shoes they were wearing, the types of outfits, the length of skirts and dresses, the necklines of tops, and so much more. I studied the people around me to attempt to decipher these unwritten rules that it seemed everyone else understood just fine.
As an autistic woman in the workplace, vague dress codes like this (as well as other vague rules) are a source of major stress. I’ve been working here for over a year and a half and I still regularly panic in the morning about whether or not my outfit for the day is acceptable.
Aside from the confusion regarding what is and is not acceptable to wear, I find it very challenging to create outfits that fit within these guidelines that actually work for me. Due to sensory sensitivities, clothing has always been a challenge. If I end up in an outfit that is uncomfortable, I am almost guaranteed to have a meltdown at some point. Even if I don’t reach full-on meltdown, I will spend the day stressed and anxious. Often, I don’t even realize that the outfit I’m wearing is the source of my mood issues until I change into my super soft at-home clothes.
My sensory needs for clothing make finding any clothes pretty challenging, let alone clothes that fit within someone else’s guidelines. My clothes need to be super soft. I love jersey knits and other fabrics that seem to glide across my skin (I also love super plush, soft clothes but those are usually pajamas and rarely social acceptable to wear outside my house). I can’t handle any tags against my skin, though the tags need to be cut out perfectly because the remnants that usually remain are worse than just having the tag there. I feel best in clothes that fit closely to my body, but if they’re too tight, I panic. Internal seems need to be smooth or I will feel them against my skin all day. The list goes on, but even just these factors make it very difficult to find clothes that work for me, especially on my limited budget. Now that we have moved into winter, I’m having even greater difficulty picking outfits. I get cold very easily, so I need enough layers or clothing that is warm enough on its own to stay warm as I move between environments. This is challenging, though, because most layering feels to restrictive or creates weird creases that hurt.
When it comes to a business casual dress code, most of my comfy clothes, most of my outfits that allow me to make it through a day successfully, aren’t appropriate. Dress pants create painful creases near my hips and the boxy legs brush against my legs uncomfortably. They also tend to be too thin to keep me warm. Most of the blouses I see co-workers wearing are too restrictive around my arms or are made of rougher materials which makes it hard for me to wear them. This, combined with the ambiguity of business casual, makes picking outfits work a very stressful part of my day.
Dress codes are just one of many factors that can make the workplace challenging for autistics. Not only can the clothes required to work cause sensory issues, but, in many workplaces, the guidelines that dictate appropriate dress are unwritten social nuances. With enough studying of the environment, we can learn many of these rules, but it is an exhausting and never-ending project as it seems there are always more rules to learn. This made all the more frustrating because in many work environments, the only people seeing your outfit are your coworkers. It shouldn’t matter if I come to work in a power suit or pajamas, as long as I can get my job done. I know I would be way more effective if I could just show up in my super soft pajamas instead of constantly being distracted by the pain and discomfort my clothes are causing.