As I am a late-in-life diagnosed adult on the autism spectrum I spent most of my life not understanding why I had such difficulty gaining and maintaining employment. Now with my diagnosis and subsequent self-education about Autism Spectrum Disorders, I understand how the autism played its part in this kind of “glass ceiling” that I kept bumping up against. But the other half of the scenario is the ablest attitudes and prejudices of non-autistic people—this unwritten assumption that everyone MUST fit the mold, and if they do not, then they deserve to be harassed and excluded.
Throughout my life, I have quit or lost jobs due to characteristics of my Asperger Syndrome/ASD that employers and/or co-workers took issue with and attributed these things to nefarious motivations: I have been criticized for “not being a team player” because I come to work to work, not to socialize and because I need quiet and solitude to get my work done. I have been accused of “being negative” because I am always pointing out ways to make improvements (something that I actually thought was being helpful and would be appreciated because it demonstrated that I have my employer’s best interest in heart). I have been called “insensitive, tactless, or blunt” because I misunderstand social dynamics or didn’t comprehend their vague, indirect hints, and because I speak plainly and from a logical, solutions-oriented perspective rather than from an emotional one. I have been accused of “being argumentative” because I ask too many questions and because I need to understand the “why” behind things in order for the policies or procedures to make logical sense to me. I have been told that I am “being difficult” or I have gotten written up for not following directions because I was confused or derailed by semantics. I have been deemed “incompetent” because I have a different learning style and/or learning curve. Employers have concluded that I am “not committed” or that “I don’t like my job” because I had to take too many sick days because I suffered from migraines (which I learned post-diagnosis are a function of my sensory issues overwhelming me). Pre-diagnosis, I wasn’t even aware of “sensory issues” so I had no clue what caused my migraines or how I could manage my sensory environment in order to minimize their occurrence. I think this knowledge, alone, has made a tremendous difference in my life, and I am convinced that I would have had been more successful vocationally had I only had known this information sooner.
I am very sensitive to smells, loud noises, bright or flashing/flickering lights, or increases/decreases in temperature. My sensitivity can cause migraine headaches, nausea, irritability, and impairs my performance. Because I know I'm sensitive to these things, I try to avoid them wherever possible. An example of work environment smells that cause me great distress include coworkers who heavily wear perfume and/or make up, or who drink coffee, smoke cigarettes, or are dog owners and who come to work with these smells on their breath, body, or clothing. If I am required to work closely with such a person (for example training or taking direction from them) I tend to lean away from them to avoid the smell. The co-worker tends to take offense because my body language is telling them that I think they smell bad or that I don’t want to be with them, thus my opportunity to connect interpersonally is hindered. Also, the smell and the resulting migraine headache or nausea that it causes me tends to distract me from even being able to focus on what I'm supposed to be learning or doing, thus my work performance suffers.
If I end up working in an environment where the climate cannot be controlled, and it's too warm or too cold for me, this also impairs my concentration and I can become very irritable and I might end up snapping at people when they interrupt me or break my concentrations that I am struggling so hard to maintain (which, of course, further alienates me). The same scenario can happen in an office with fluorescent lights that need to be changed and the lights are blinking or humming, or in a place where the noise level is just intolerable for me. It's important to note that what is or is not tolerable for me is very different than what is or is not tolerable for the average person. And this threshold can vary based on my level of stress or the quality of my sleep, nutrition, or wellness. For example, if I am coming down with the latest cold germs that are circulating around the office, even “regular office socializing” can be too much noise for me, and people end up thinking that I am a stick in the mud when I hush them or won’t engage in their conversations.
Most people cannot relate to what I'm going through. They seem to think that I'm being deliberately rude or difficult if I haven’t disclosed my diagnosis, or they think that I am making excuses, or seeking attention or special treatment when I do disclose my diagnosis. None of this bodes well for my interpersonal relationships with my co-workers and supervisors. I have overheard co-workers talk about me to new staff and refer to me as “she runs hot and cold,” which I have learned means that they perceive my mood or friendliness to be inconsistent. So it seems that once people have formed an opinion about me they influence new staff’s opinions of me in this way, so I don’t ever get a fair chance outgrow an unfavorable impression. Then, it isn’t long before I am called into my supervisor’s office and told that it just isn’t working out and given the “it’s just not a good fit” speech.
Of course, all of this is very frustrating for me because it feels like I am being gas-lighted because I am so misunderstood, and this causes me a great deal of anxiety. Every job I have had, I started out with the greatest of enthusiasm and the desire and intention to do well, but soon this social miscommunication or cultural clash comes into play and then the people I work with get irritated with me. Often times this irritation turns into passive-aggressive hostility towards me. I understand that this hostility is a type of peer pressure that is intended to change my behavior; but what is not clear to me is exactly when and what I have done wrong, or how I ought to have behaved. So I am at a complete loss to know how to please people. If I ask them (even when I have disclosed my diagnosis) I am met with attitude and comments like, “Oh, come on, you know what you did!” So this just increases my anxiety, which in turn, increases the likelihood that I will make even more social faux pas because everything I do requires specific attention and focus…nothing comes naturally to me…and the more anxiety I have, the more it interferes with my ability to focus! So I end up in a rapid downward spiral that I don’t know how to pull out of. I end up getting fired or I quit. And then I end up being heartbroken and depressed for several months and too discouraged and demoralized to even consider applying for another job.
My Asperger Syndrome/ASD has even hindered my job search process because of my literal thinking: Until very recently, I didn’t understand that the ad is just a “wish list” of what the employer would like potential candidates to poses, so if I did not have every single one of the qualifications and job responsibilities listed then I would not apply because I thought that I was not qualified for the job. I am sure I would have been more successful vocationally if I had only known this simple fact sooner! And to think of all the frustration and low self-worth I could have been spared if I had only known this years ago! I’ve developed a cognitive distortion that I am worthless (despite the fact that I have four college degrees and made Dean’s List almost every semester) because I would search thousands of jobs and very seldom find any that I thought I was qualified for. Volunteer organizations would gladly talk me on board because they are happy to train a person if they are missing a few skills. So all these years I gave my labor away for free instead of spending that time earning a pay check because I believed that no one would bother to pay me for my labor.
I am fortunate that my husband has been able to provide for our family so that I didn’t need to work to survive. I believe that if that had been the case, I would probably be mentally ill. My hubby and I had long ago discovered that there seems to be an inverse relationship between my quality of mental well-being and my employment status. So we agreed that I should stay home and focus on my well-being by indulging my creative interests or volunteering so that I am in the best shape possible to and raise our children. (This decision has often met with scorn from our parents and family members who accuse me of being a “play-girl” or “selfish” and accuse my husband of being my “sugar daddy”)!
Post diagnosis I have made the following observations:
Despite their claim to not discriminate (as employers declare in their application paperwork), many employers actually do discriminate. One way in which hiring practices are discriminatory against a person with ASD is in the resume screening process because negative assumptions are made about a candidate’s work ethic if there are gaps in employment, or if the candidate has several jobs that were only held for short periods of time. I know this because as a member of the PTO, I was selected to serve on my town’s public school system’s search committee for a new Middle School Vice Principal where I was privy to the selection process. So I now understand why I seldom even get called to interview despite how many jobs I apply for. I had been told “it’s a numbers game” but in fact it is truly a brick wall because I have held many jobs for very short stints of time and I have big gaps in employment.
If I do happen to get lucky and get called to interview, I seldom get called back for a second interview or offered a job. I believe this is because the very nature of the job interview process is very biased against anyone with an Autism Spectrum Disorder or an anxiety disorder because of the need to maintain eye contact, the need to be succinct, and the need to social multi-task and not get derailed by semantics. Also, due to my deficient short term memory and my weakness in processing auditory information I usually end up forgetting one or more parts of an interview question (when I am in the kind of interview commonly given when one applies to public schools in my area), where the candidate is not allowed to take notes. This results in a poorer interview performance and a lower rubric score, which decreases my candidacy for the position.
I have discovered that disclosing my diagnosis results in the presumption of incompetence and the under-estimating of my abilities which results in a lack of opportunities by potential employers or volunteer organizations. I am a lot more capable than people are willing to give me credit for once they become aware of my diagnosis, and this has had a detrimental impact on opportunities for me. I believe that the is due to the fact that the general public is still too ignorant about the entire autism spectrum, so when they hear the word “autism” they automatically think of the misinformation and rhetoric that Autism Speaks has been publicizing since 2005. So in effect, I am “handicapped” by the rhetoric and stigma because it interferes with my ability to find work or volunteer positions at an appropriately challenging level for my abilities, so I am confined to underemployment if I am fortunate enough to find employment at all.
The argument could be made that even the way employment positing’s are written with all the odd jargon is discriminatory against people with ASD because of our language impairment.