I’m An Autistic Woman, and this is How I Navigate the Workplace

BioKinetiX Brett: The opportunity to hear directly from Adults who are living with ASD is always a treat because of how rare it is. Jennifer Malia pens this piece discussing the challenges she faces inside of the work place, not just as a woman, but a woman with Autism.

Employment for Adults with Autism is a hot button issue due to the staggeringly low rates of job fulfillment for that population, despite how qualified and capable these adults are. I’m interested to hear everyone’s thoughts on this, if anyone has personal anecdotes to add…

Enter Jennifer:

Business people shaking hands outside of office building

PHOTO: DAN DALTON

What started out as a civil conversation between me and my former department chair quickly escalated into a heated argument. I stormed out of her office yelling some poorly chosen and insulting words that no one should ever say to a supervisor. I was a professor in the middle of an autistic meltdown, and I wasn’t about to stick around for what I knew would come next, an uncontrollable crying fit.

Imagine a switch turning on in your head that is completely out of your control. An explosive burst of emotions makes it impossible for you to control your impulses because your brain can no longer handle any rational thoughts. You can barely say anything at all, but you somehow manage to lash out at your boss, gutturally screaming insulting words. The fact that your job could be on the line or that you’re overreacting doesn’t even cross your mind until the volcano stops erupting.

Usually, the inciting incident that sets a meltdown in motion doesn’t seem significant enough to cause an intense emotional reaction. For example, any unexpected disruption to my routine like a change to my teaching schedule can be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.

While anyone pushed hard enough at work can have an emotional breakdown, an autistic meltdown is usually much more intense. Once the fight-or-flight response is fully engaged, very little can be done to stop it. The crying fit I avoided in my former department head’s office ended up happening in my own office, which continued to a lesser extent on my drive home, and even after I got home.

Imagine a switch turning on in your head that is completely out of your control.

I didn’t always know I was autistic, but I knew that I was different. I was a selectively mute child who rarely spoke in the classroom, but I didn’t stand out, because I wasn’t disruptive. Most girls from my generation weren’t diagnosed unless they had an extreme form of autism. Even now many girls who have autism spectrum diagnosis (ASD) go undiagnosed or are misdiagnosed. Only one girl for every 4.5 boys has an ASD diagnosis, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Recent studies have found gender differences with autism, which could explain the skewed gender ratio. I wasn’t diagnosed with ASD until my late thirties.

If you know an autistic woman at work, she may seem calm and friendly one moment and argumentative and angry the next. I sometimes feel like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. But I don’t hold a grudge against any of my colleagues, even when we’ve had heated arguments in meetings.

An autistic woman may also have trouble working in teams because she has trouble with empathy, as I do. I often belabor points in meetings even when I have no chance of convincing others of my viewpoint. If you work with an autistic woman, try to be patient, knowing that she will likely have difficulty with communication even when she has a lot of valid points to share.

Luckily, I didn’t get fired over those insulting words I said to my former department chair. She never brought up the incident after that, at least not in a direct way. One day, she offhandedly said, “I feel like there’s always been some tension between us.” My response was simply to agree and leave it at that.

She didn’t know I was autistic until a year later. She was in the audience at a creative writing festival when I read a personal essay I wrote for Glamourrevealing I’m autistic. She later approached me in the hallway outside my office to say, “Thank you for sharing your…condition.” She struggled with the last word, not sure exactly what to call it.

Another reason I have difficulty interacting with students and colleagues in the workplace is my prosopagnosia, commonly known as face blindness. With this condition (which two thirds of autistic people have, according to one study), I have trouble recognizing faces.

It’s especially hard for me to take class attendance when I can’t match the names on my rosters to faces. I often hide this embarrassing weakness by pretending that I know more names than I do. I ask students who come late to class to tell me their last names so I can find them easier on my roster. This helps me to cover up the fact that I don’t know their first names. It’s also difficult for me to talk to my colleagues whom I don’t see often because I can’t recognize them in a crowd. This is especially difficult to do if I see them out of context, such as a chance encounter off campus.

I have trouble looking people in the eye. I have to make a conscious effort to do it. Sometimes I end up losing my train of thought while trying to divide my attention between engaging in a conversation and making eye contact. But having a job that requires me to interact with a lot of people, I’ve trained myself to look toward, if not directly at, faces. Not focusing directly on faces certainly plays a part in my bad memory for them. I usually have good face recognition, though, for students who frequently meet me one-on-one in office hours or colleagues who have offices in my hallway.

I have trouble looking people in the eye. I have to make a conscious effort to do it.

If you know someone who is autistic at work, don’t assume that she doesn’t want to socialize even if she rarely initiates conversations. She might keep her office door closed most of the time because it’s easy to get distracted by any sort of noise, but this doesn’t mean she doesn’t want to interact with her coworkers. Most of my attempts at socializing happen in awkward moments in the doorways of my colleagues’ offices. I want to be more social, but I have a lot difficulty having a conversation that doesn’t have a defined purpose.

My ASD diagnosis helped me take better control of my autism in the workplace. I still have more than a few disagreements with colleagues and supervisors, including the occasional autistic meltdown, but normally I know my limits and remove myself from places and situations that threaten sensory overload.

My teaching evaluations are generally good, other than occasional comments about not smiling enough. I’ve improved my social deficits by using scripted language and recognizing my difficulty with empathy. I’ve also found ways to be more flexible with my routines and maintain better control over my sensory issues. I regulate my emotions with exercise, especially by practicing yoga and tae kwon do.

Despite the challenges in the workplace, I’ve managed to have a very successful career as an autistic professor and writer. My intense interest in literature led me to become an expert with a doctorate in my field. My excellent long-term memory and ability to record memories as videos in my imagination has helped me to write vivid scenes as a creative writer. I’ve also mentored and taught thousands of students and collaborated with many colleagues and administrators over the past 18 years.

We would all benefit from more awareness and acceptance of neurodiversity in the workforce. I might not walk around campus telling everyone that I’m autistic, but I’m not ashamed to talk about it either. One time, a student came up to me after class to tell me she was surprised to learn that I was autistic. She had come across my articles about autism by chance when she did an Internet search to find my contact information. She has an autistic brother, so we ended up sharing our stories.

Jennifer Malia, who runs the Facebook page Mom With Autism, is an English professor at Norfolk State University. She is currently working on a book about autism and gender.

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