Work: Thoughts Inspired by Finding Kansas

I'm reading Aaron Likens' Finding Kansas while I am revising my eBook A Spectrum of Relationships. I mention my project because I was updating the section on relationships at work when I reread Aaron's essay "Work" and found myself reflecting on how difficult workplaces can be for people with autism spectrum disorders. I certainly find workplaces confusing.

Aaron's struggles in the workplace feel all-too-familiar. The gray areas are annoying. The interactions with others are exhausting. Honesty often backfires, and kind people are too often punished for doing what seems right.

Because we seek to understand people, asking questions about coworkers is how we sometimes try to navigate and anticipate how people might interact with us. The problem with seeking information is that it can seem like gossip. Maybe it is "gossip" to others, but autistics are simply trying to learn the rules others seem to know intuitively. I end up wanting to avoid people, which is better than asking questions.

Personally, I end up feeling lousy in most workplaces — not all, but most. The more I have to interact with people, the worse I feel. Strangely enough, I don't feel the same way when I'm teaching, but part of that is because I don't try to be my students' friend. (Despite excellent student evaluations, I always score lowest on the "relationship" questions.) Outside the classroom, trying to navigate the workplace remains a challenge.

Like Aaron, I know we're supposed to work to earn a living, but no amount of money is worth avoidable physical pain and emotional exhaustion. That's hard for some non-autistics to comprehend. It isn't that autistic adults don't understand the need to work, but the pain, exhaustion, and anxiety are too unbearable after a time in some workplaces.

Parents and educators have asked me how someone with a doctorate could struggle with work. Earning a degree was not easy, but it was easier than navigating many workplaces. As readers of this blog know, school was often miserable for me, so I'm not trying to minimize the challenges on campus.

For all the misery of being a student, education is not the "real world" — it can be easier to be a student than an employee. However, I've also discovered that it can be easier to be an employee (or entrepreneur) in private industry than to be a professor in some fields. For me, being self-employed is better than being a student or working for others. Dealing with other people is difficult in any setting.

Aaron Likens was a homeschool student, based on what I've read. I've wondered if homeschooling provides the social experiences we all need to navigate the world. School generally is a safer place to learn social skills than most other settings. I met my wife in school. I found my skills in school. And I also learned that I dislike dealing with most people while a student. A handful of teachers guided me, showing me a path… curiously one where I can work alone, in peace.

Instructors try to create an intellectually and emotionally safe space for students. Most of us, myself included, give students second chances. We tolerate a lot because we know our students are still maturing. Admittedly, I also give my non-traditional (adult) students more space, because the return to college can be a struggle. School, therefore, is more forgiving than most workplaces.

I'm not going to argue school is always safe or ideal. But, for most of us it is an easier environment to navigate than the workplace. Consider the ways in which school can align with an autistic's needs:

  • Schedules are predictable, from the general academic calendar to each course's calendar;
  • Instructors are expected to behave like parents, protective of all students;
  • Specialists are available, not only in K-12, but also within disability services at colleges; and
  • Laws (and tradition) offer more protection in educational settings than most workplaces.

Most workplaces are not predictable. Supervisors might mentor for a time, but they expect employees to be independent. Forget finding autism specialists in human resources. And, when things go wrong (they will go wrong), the Americans with Disabilities Act offers limited protections. "Autism" is a disability, but many of our traits can still lead to dismissal — or quitting.

Maybe people can't understand the autistic experience. Maybe we're too "odd" for other people to comprehend. Even those of us able to appear relatively normal are just "out of sync" enough to leave others feeling something isn't right. Our 50 to 500 millisecond delays in social processing leave others feeling anxious. In school, we are often alienated from classmates — but many of us do well enough academically to achieve varying degrees of success. In the workplace, that alienation can destroy careers.

Careers we can pursue in isolation might be ideal. It is little wonder many autistics are attracted to careers that have minimal interactions with other people. I can write, program, and design websites. These are tasks I can do alone. It is possible to work for clients and never meet them.

Maybe reading Aaron's thoughts about work will help parents, educators, and caregivers understand how many autistics feel when we think about workplaces. Most people complain about workplaces; for us those workplaces might be too much to tolerate. What seems "normal" to others might be too complex for someone with an ASD.

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