This is the first of a series of posts about the aspects of something I call “Autistic Employment Collateral” and its impact. I hope it’s useful and that the parents of AS young people and AS young people find it validating. I will examine three traits each post through my own experiences and offer the practical strategies I have learned to use. *nb: all Autistic people are different, but hopefully some of my experience might help others with may have experienced similar.
The last five years I have shifted from denial to acceptance of who I am – and moved beyond the “collateral” that the world claimed from me. I have stress related illness (including blood pressure) from masking myself to make the world feel more comfortable with my autism and I am done with it. I will do my best not to mask anymore, unless of course I don’t feel safe, and then it may come back up.
I have also recovered from a trauma and associated brain injury that means I have a complex set of challenges I manage daily. I am tired of not talking about it and the world bullying me into a being just a commodity and not a human being first.
Happy to be a human being and a commodity, but on my own terms.
I also need to say these are Autistic (AS) traits. They can’t be turned off but can be harnessed into skills, but they are not deficits.
Many AS people are tired of being “normalised” as though the “unicorn” of normal is what we are meant to be modelled against. Unicorns are cute, but I don’t want to be one. I would wear unicorn slippers. Probably to work too. But I digress.
I am Jacqueline (Jacci or Jacqui), depending on what context you know me in.
I am autistic. Here’s an example of some the collaterals that the world has taken from me that I have tried to mask and now refuse to mask –
1. Eye contact drains me, and prolonged eye contact distresses me. Yet the western cultural world tells me to look people in the eyes. If I don’t use eye contact, people think I am being dishonest or shifty, when my senses are just overwhelmed and drained by looking at you in the eyes.
When I studied Anthropology, I was delighted to learn that not all cultures think eye contact is a good thing. I ended up being quite comfortable with working with Aboriginal Australians and having awesome conversations where little eye contact was had. Without the aggression of forced eye contact, the conversations were so meaningful and rich. I dropped the eye contact mask and I now tell people that I am not good with eye contact.
What I say to people now is, “I may look at the floor, or over your shoulder when we talk. But I am listening to you. In fact this is how I listen to you best”.
2. I see the world and process information visually (in pictures), in 3D detail in my mind’s eye first, then I convert them into words. Yet people think my drawing and doodling is distraction or that I am being rude. In recent years my career has become about helping organisations to represent complex systems and charts and visual representations. That is my autistic superpower.
In the past I was given minute taking roles because people thought I was good with words. There are people who are great at minutes, but I need to record the meeting and do it later. I am good with words, words are my passion, but it doesn’t start with words. It starts by images and a lot of them. I sort them out using words, arrows, shapes and I process the relationships between the images and through the words I hear or read visually.
But the words don’t come first and often I have frustrated employers who don’t understand that I need to understand the relationships of things before I write and that I am not just a “scribbling monkey” for their own personal use. I need to walk, move, draw, map the ideas before I can write them.
I once was bullied by an employer because I needed to walk the hall and draw the work before I wrote. They thought I was wasting their time and that I didn’t want to work or that I was “slacking off”. When they forced me to stay in my office and “just write”, I nearly ended up hospitalised with mental health issues.
In recent years I have learned to say to employers and even at interview; “I am a visual thinker. I can break down systems into images and representations and words for you, like you have seen in my previous work, but in that order, not the other way around. I need to walk and draw and mind map before I write and design”.
3. I do amazingly well at detail and logic and can focus on tasks for long periods, but people think I am being harsh or critical or nit-picky or, in the extreme example, they “diagnose” me with depression or anxiety. I see the world in complex ways. This is not a problem. I can relax. I know how to relax. I just don’t need somebody who isn’t autistic telling me how to fit in with their way of seeing the world.
In fact, let me distil this down. When you try and force me to lose the detail, you are telling me I am less. You are turning me into a problem. I do then start to develop mental health problems – panic attacks primarily. These are such that I must withdraw from the world and take time off, which can put me at a financial disadvantage and have long term negative health impacts.
The other issue is like the one at #2 in that I get shoved into an office and get too much detail thrown at me, because I am good at it. But it takes its toll and I need to walk, draw and talk to people to stem the constant flow of information in my head – unless it gets too tiring. Think of the matrix, yet you can’t unplug without conscious effort and to seek quiet or nature or meditate or engage in a mind stilling exercise that best works for the individual concerned.
But my mental health problems are caused by the world insisting I should “dumb it down” and that my expression of detail is unwanted. It is a rejection of my very person, my very humanity. When I employed for my detailed analysis and supported, these mental health issues abate, and I operate far more efficiently.
Now, I have learned to say to employers, “I can process a lot of detail for long periods. I can then analyse and distill it down for various audiences very quickly. However it takes a toll on me and I need to break up my duties so it doesn’t exhaust me. If I am allowed to do this, you will get large amounts of clear and precise work from me. So I am not ‘slacking off’, I am processing.”
Finally, let me conclude with this.
The mask is off. Women with autism have exemplary masking ability. That is because the world expects different standards of us as women to begin with and we are therefore better at it.
The mask is not a lie. The mask is a way of coping with a world that turns us into medical problems rather than see that our “issues” are superpowers when harnessed and valued correctly.
I will not put my mask back on. I have smashed it. It is gone.