The Life Autistic: What Your Coworkers on the Spectrum Want You to Know

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If you work with people, some of them are going to be different. You’ll feel it, sense it, but you might not be able to put a finger on it. Autism doesn’t just scream the kind of difference that anyone would pick up, and chances are, we’re trying hard to mask it.

But we’re concerned about reactions like:

I can’t tell if he’s engaged or not; he’s barely looking at me when we talk.

She gets really frustrated during these brainstorm sessions, so I might have to stop inviting her. 

I don’t know why he feels the need to show off his impressive vocabulary.

We’re pleased with her work, but we don’t know how she’d handle stress like this.

Here’s what your coworkers with autism want you to know:

We love structure

Who doesn’t? If you ask me, people aren’t structured enough! Order is our comfort, so we’re going to feel better in work environments that are run clearly, transparently, where there are predictable cadences. If you throw us in a meeting that’s too long, lacks a clear agenda, and doesn’t have specific actions — we’re not going to enjoy that.

We hate surprises

I’ve told people that I wouldn’t attend my own surprise party, and that’s 100% true. Things happen by surprise, sure, but you can help. If you need to “speak with us” out of the blue, it helps to tell us why. (Don’t: “Hey, can I speak to you for a minute?” Do: “Hey, I wanted to offer you some feedback on that presentation. Can we talk for a minute?) If you’re in a spot to offer context and explain a why, please do!

We don’t hate people

Social interactions are a “high-spend activity” for us. I know — I KNOW — it’s hard to tell if we just “want a friend” to come up to us and save us the trouble of making social effort. Personally? I enjoy that, even if I can’t always summon the energy. Sometimes we can! We’re not sitting off to ourselves because we don’t like you — we’re just careful about our social energy, and it’s hard for us to expend that.

We don’t always see our quirks

Until someone told me that I run my hand through my hair a certain way before making a point, I’d have never known I do that. That’s pretty innocuous. But when it’s using oddly elevated vocabulary, not reacting to something that calls for emotion, or being abrupt in conversations — we’re not trying to be jerks; it might just be quirks.

We care about our work and others, in quiet, different ways

On my latest work trip, I realized that I’m going to be more well-respected than well-liked. That’s ok. It’s a downer, but it’s reality for many of us. We might not be the ones you can go drinking or late-night dining out or enjoy a lot of free time with. Work gives us a framework to show our qualities in a different way: by helping others, sharing our expertise, finding ways to solve problems, or even expressing timely gratitude and lightening tension.

 

 

 

The Life Autistic: Five Ways to Survive The Crowds

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Folks, I’ve got stories. This will be the first of many.

Last week, I traveled to Austin for work to attend and help with a mega-summit. It felt like hundreds of people, and many of them were those I’d finally be meeting in person vs. virtually for the first time ever.

I heard that even for regular folks that this was overwhelming.

What about in The Life Autistic?  Well, I survived, didn’t melt down, and I kinda enjoyed it.

But had it not been for these five things, I’d have been an utter wreck.

1) Plan your presence 

As soon as I knew the group would all be staying at one hotel, I booked mine at the opposite end of town, got my own car, and got a flight in a day earlier than everyone.

Why? While I put out the impression that I was pulling a ‘diva’ card, I needed to ensure I could limit my “passing by” time. To where I know I wouldn’t have an extra conversation in the hotel or nearby, or that I knew I could detox to music in my own rental to and fro.

By planning my where, I gave myself ample time to unwind, recover, and recharge.

2) Have something important to do

I’m going to thank my boss and my Senior Director for this one!

While I left enough work on my plate to keep me busy, I was blessed with an urgent request that took me almost a day and a half to turn around.

“Oh hey, H2, you sure look busy.”

“Yeah, sorry, I got this urgent item from [so-and-so].”

It made for the best reason to focus and be selectively social.

3) Opt in, not out

I was one of the first five people in the building for one reason: to find a corner seat.

That way, I could gauge the lay of the land, retreat as needed, and park while I reset before going out and socializing. Opt in, not out.

And don’t get me wrong, I’m “almost charming,” so I was happy to make some connections and chit chat.

I was open about telling folks, “I’ve got about five minutes of mingling before I peter out.”

4) Spend, but don’t overdraft

Sure, it would have been fun to attend one of the big karaoke nights they all planned.

But I know my limits. Fun is fun, but not when I’m done. 

After a busy day, and after stretching my limits with an entertaining dinner, I knew I wouldn’t be up for any activities after dark.

You can spend your energy just fine in The Life Autistic, but overdrafting is perilous. 

5) Escape

I have another post on this, but don’t be afraid to escape.

Don’t try toughing it out if you can’t. It’s not worth it. Awkward situations worsen. Find your exits. Eject yourself before you wreck yourself.

 

The Life Autistic: Please Don’t Ask Us to Do *This*

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I’m pretty decisive.

When it comes to things I want to do, for the most part, that decision tree grows from seed to sapling, to full-fledged tree pointing to one BIG option that says DO THIS.

And it’s done.

But decisions are both a perk and a peril on The Life Autistic.

Mrs. H2 collects these things called Calico Critters – they’re cute, it’s a thing, and there’s tons of them, varying by size, rarity, species, etc.

There are too many.

For me, the decision is easy: don’t buy them.

But what Mrs. H2 asks is something we autists dread:

Making someone else’s decisions for them.

It’s the worst.

If I wanted to ensure I’d do something wrong, it’d be “Dealer’s Choice.”

From time to time, whether I’m on a business trip or elsewhere, I’ll be asked to “pick up Critters” to bring home.

YEAH, BUT WHICH ONES — THIS IS NOT A DECISION I CAN MAKE.

Even with innocuous stuff, it’s a peril.

“Oh, just bring back whatever.”

But what do you mean whatever? What if it’s from somewhere you don’t really like? What if I get the wrong thing off the menu? What if you make a decision when I’ve already committed to—

Look.

Just don’t do that to us.

If you really don’t care, you make the call.

We can make our decisions.

Making yours is a bit much.