Monday, March 7, 2011
Autism: Peers and Colleagues
I have reworked the introduction to the section in A Spectrum of Relationships dealing with peers and colleagues. I hope this introduction is better. I'm not going to repost the entire chapter at this time, only the introduction.
Colleagues and Peers
For some people with autism spectrum disorders, colleagues and peers are the closest non-familial relationships in their lives. Autistic individuals with occupational or academic success often find their success because of an ability to hyper-focus on a topic or skill of special interest. This focus is one aspect of “autistic perseveration,” a near-obsessive interest in an object, concept, topic, or activity.
The reason I chose to discuss peers and colleagues in the same section is simple: workplaces aren’t that different from school — especially high school. Schools and businesses are social settings and our peers and colleagues cannot help but form opinions of us. Because they come into constant contact with us, our peers and colleagues base their judgements on observation, not one or two impressions. Perceptions of you affect your ability to form closer relationships, including friendships, with peers and colleagues.
I’ve read various definitions of “colleague” and “peer,” so it might be useful to clarify the terms as I am using them in this text. I use “colleague” as a broad synonym for coworker. When I use “peer” I am referring to someone of similar age and background as the subject. As a university instructor, all the employees of the university were my colleagues and deserving of respect. However, my “peers” at the university were the doctoral students and the junior members of the faculty within my academic department. Peers are a smaller group, generally, than our colleagues.
Some autistic individuals do not judge their peers and colleagues, but many of us do. My discussions with autistic students and workers indicates most of us judge peers and colleagues on their skills and knowledge, while we are being judged on personality traits and social skills. Our peers and colleagues ask themselves the following questions, among others, when forming judgments:
• Are you an optimist or a pessimist?
• Do you handle stress well or poorly?
• Do you help or hinder others and their projects?
• Do you share credit or take credit for accomplishments?
• Do you defer to superiors or challenge them?
• Are you a leader or a follower?
The preceding questions are only some of the criteria peers and coworkers use to decide how close they want their relationships with us to be. For people with ASDs, the answers to these questions is not always clear. We are often poor judges of how we are perceived, if we remember to consider perceptions of us at all.
Most people naturally gravitate towards optimists. They want to work with peers and colleagues likely to help everyone succeed in the eyes of a teacher or supervisor. Confusing for me, and others with ASDs, is that peers and colleagues don’t seek someone who blindly follows instructions and respects all authority figures. We are judged on a “sliding scale,” therefore. We have to balance being independent with working as a team, for example. We have to balance respecting the boss or teacher with carefully offering different opinions. Our peers and colleagues respect someone who can offer new ideas to superiors, without causing conflict.
What I can state, definitively, is that no peer or colleague wants to be friends with a negative, anxious, disorganized person prone to conflicts. If you want friends, you have to master when to keep negative thoughts to yourself. And yes, I know keeping silent is a problem for autistic individuals.
Colleagues and peers are closer to us naturally: they share at least some traits and interests with us either as students or coworkers. From our earliest schooling in kindergarten, if not earlier, we are among people close to our ages with whom we share daily experiences. Common experiences continue well into adulthood, at which point we work on projects with coworkers instead of sharing homework assignments.