by Emily Steinbach
The restaurant biz is never easy, especially when you’re a waitress with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). The atmosphere is generally chaotic and plenty of harsh customers can make things feel much more difficult. For those who are on the Autism Spectrum, working in the food industry can seem especially challenging, but it can also be also highly rewarding. Here are 5 harsh truths I learned in my time being a server with untreated ASD.
1. People aren’t always understanding
Most of the time, disabilities such as Autism remain unnoticed and are often not understood by others. This was something I quickly picked up on while starting out as a waitress. Due to the fact that I am easily overstimulated (especially having sensory issues), it was easy to get overwhelmed and make careless mistakes. To the untrained eye, those with Autism (including myself) might just look like a clutz, but I can assure you we are trying just as hard (if not harder) in the jobs we are in. Having others point out mistakes that are never deliberate can also be a real ego killer, leading to toxic shame or guilt. Trust me, there is a plateful of that on some days. It took a lot of time to develop a thick skin and a basic understanding that most people just don’t always “get” me. I’m okay with that.
2. Masking can be draining
Trying to appear “normal” or neurotypical for long periods of time can be extremely exhausting. In fact, I could almost go as far as to say that it can be even more draining than physical work or exercise. In my case, I was never truly prepared to find out how draining masking at work really was, until I came home exhausted after a “slow day.” Even waiting with one or two customers took the life out of me and I constantly had to retreat to the bathroom for a break. I figured that by acting like I wasn’t struggling with certain things that I would make more tips, but that usually wasn’t the case. Thankfully my boss was understanding, and let me take the time I needed to “recharge” when I needed to. At some point, I made the conscious choice to take down the mask
and let my true colors shine. I decided to start being myself, and they could take it or leave it. It was a huge relief, and now I average 25% in tips just for being myself!
3. The staff makes a big difference
Having co-workers and team members who understand me made a huge difference. In fact, if I hadn’t had such supportive staff, I probably might have left and given up when I first started out. In my experience, it is the staff and co-workers who are there on a daily basis that impact my experience rather than the customers who come and go. When there is difficulty with customers, or I noticed myself becoming stressed, it’s always been comforting knowing they’ve got my back and are there for me. Working with a staff that accepted my diagnosis and made reasonable accommodations allowed me to build up the confidence I needed and helped me grow as a person.
4. It‘s sensory overload (to the max)
Being a waitress can be challenging as it is. However, when there are clanking dishes, loads of talking, and orders being constantly thrown at you, it can be too much all at once. Trying to remember everything and keep my cool under pressure was a skill I had to learn, not one that came naturally. Sometimes the sensory overload made it difficult to focus, and other times it brought on full-blown panic. In order to deal with sensory overload, I splashed cold water on my face and used relaxation techniques (e.g. grounding). Sharing the workload with my boss and other co-workers also made a big difference and was especially helpful.
5. It never really gets easier
It took me several months to get the hang of becoming a server, and I still struggle occasionally. At times, navigating social situations can feel chaotic and challenging, especially when it comes to understanding body language and maintaining eye contact. I am grateful that my boss allowed me to bring in puppets though, as they’ve always been my main source of comfort. The puppets also helped me interact with the kids and took the pressure off me when socializing became difficult.
In conclusion, being a server with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) can be challenging, but it is also highly rewarding. Through my own experience, I have learned some harsh truths about working in the food industry, including the fact that not everyone is understanding of disabilities such as Autism. Masking to appear “normal” can also be draining and take a toll on both you mental and physical health. However, having a supportive staff, dealing with sensory overload, and finding ways to cope with social situations can make all the difference. Despite the challenges, I have come to love being a server and wouldn’t trade it for the world. It is important to remember that everyone has their own unique struggles and should be valued for their contributions to the workforce, regardless of their neurodiversity.
Emily Steinbach is a crisis volunteer at 988, and a bachelor’s student of psychology at CUNY University. She obtained online certificates from Harvard and Yale University and is the owner and founder of Mental Well Health. Emily is studying to become a clinical therapist and is looking to take clients in the future. She is also a proud advocate for anti-bullying and for those who struggle with disabilities.