In the third part of this series on aspects of my life that are impacted by autism, I’m turning the spotlight on work. I’m 44 and my work history has been a rollercoaster ride of false starts, emergency withdrawals and failed enterprises. Whilst I’ve never been fired, I have a tendency to flee when the going gets tough. And eventually, it always got tough.
Despite two undergrad degrees, 2 post grad diplomas and a PhD, it’s only in the last 5 years that I’ve managed to hold down a good job. I feel like I’ve found my place but the fear of it going wrong is strong and the potential for promotion is pretty slim given the struggles I face. I work in academia now, an occupation that has its fair share of autistic folk. Although it’s a good fit for my neurology, there’s much that I’m just not able to do well. Here’s a list of the challenges that many autistic people (but not all) might face in the workplace.
Meetings. Every job has them and mine has a lot. It’s not the one on one meetings that I struggle with so much but add a third person or ten and it all goes wrong for me. To start with, there’s the sensory stuff. It’s a certainty that someone will have perfume or some other scented product on and this is enough to make me feel an undercurrent of nausea that doesn’t go away. Then there’s the noise. I have hearing superpowers, so if two people are whispering at the other end of the table, I might not be able to make out what they’re saying (although sometimes I can and that can be pretty interesting!). The buzz of their conversation feels like the background sound of a power tool that someone two doors down the street is using. I can’t focus with that noise. Lighting can be a problem if I haven’t been able to face away from glare. Aside from the sensory stuff, I see EVERYTHING. The raised eyebrows exchanged between two people in response to what’s being said will distract me while I try and figure out what it meant and in the meantime, I’ve completely lost the thread of the main conversation. It takes a lot of effort for me to figure out who is who because I have face blindness and even though I’ve seen you for 5 years, unless I work directly with you, I won’t remember who you are. The challenge of paying close enough attention to the tone of voice people are using so I can make sense of what they’re saying because this doesn’t come naturally to me. I can do all this – but the cost of it is that I will have crippling stomach cramps before and after, sometimes for up to a week. Meetings suck.
Communication is another major challenge for me. Phone calls are horrible because the only cue I have is someone’s voice and it’s just not enough information for me to figure out what someone means. And phone calls can’t be scripted beyond a point prior to the call because I don’t know what the other person is likely to say. This means that on the phone, I miss the cues for when it’s my turn to talk, I talk over the other person, I blurt out stuff that on reflection, was not necessary and I can’t remember much of what happened afterwards. Likewise, corridor conversations or tea room chatter unnerve me. I’d rather hide in the toilet.
Whoever invented team work was not autistic. The very word ‘team’ derails me. I’ve tried to be upfront about this in my work, but really, team work seems to be the characteristic most desired in many work places and I’m crap at it. I’ll either shut up and say nothing and be miserable because I didn’t express my ideas and therefore couldn’t care less about the project. Or I’ll rap endlessly on my vision and how to achieve it, mindless of the fact that other people need to be involved. Do they? Do they really? Can’t I just do it myself?
Presentations are out. Just. Out. Standing in front of a group of people while trying to control the shaking that wants to overtake my body, is no fun. In my job, this is a pretty big deal because I’m supposed to present my work at big conferences. I’m hoping no one has noticed that I’m failing to do this.
My job is also supposed to involve applying for Grants and writing academic articles – two things which cause my brain to switch from superpower strength to that static sound that used to hit the television when programming ended for the day (yes, I’m that old). Maths does the same thing to my brain. It doesn’t work. It just turns off.
All that sounds as though I might not be well matched to my profession, right? Thankfully, there’s a whole bunch of stuff that is a great fit for my neurology. I teach online and I do great at it. My students tell me so. I email as if it’s my mother tongue. I research at the speed of light. I speed read. As much as I can figure it out, I think I work about 2.5 times faster than the average person. This has nothing to do with intelligence, so I’m not blowing my own horn here. It has to do with my brain and the super focus it can enter into. The rest of the world drops away and it’s just my brain interfacing with the written words. It’s kind of beautiful.
This last year is the very first year I have worked full time other than a two year stint working from home where my boss was basically my support worker (thanks Amanda). Going full time means hiding is harder. When I was part time, I could pull it together to go to a meeting safe in the knowledge I could take to my bed for a couple of days to recover. These days, if I go to a meeting, I have to work again the next day. So sustainability is a big topic for me right now and trying to figure out how to navigate work by playing to my strengths is my number one goal. I am the sole provider for my family because my husband needs to stay home and care for our autistic son. So I NEED to work in a way that I never have before.
And it’s probably complicated by the fact that many of my colleagues have seen me participate in meetings in the past, chat in the corridor (ok, not often) and talk on the phone. Only they didn’t see what happened afterwards. My diagnosis has allowed me to understand that a neurotypical person doesn’t always find work torturous and I probably should have the right to not place myself under such severe stress in my job each day if that’s at all possible.
Being autistic has definitely proved a challenge for me work wise as it has for many of my tribe. And despite the language of inclusivity that most employers throw around, work without face to face meetings, phone calls and team work is still not seen as a very viable option. It may sideline me. Even so, being sidelined is better than being a hot mess and if I can find the courage, I may just push a little and see what the inclusive policy means in practice. Or I may hide. It’s a toss up.