We will start this year’s Autism Acceptance Week series with a word about advocacy.
(Previously in the acceptance series: 2020, 2019, 2018, 2017.)
My work relationship with Cockroach Labs was the first where I had the opportunity to disclose upfront, with the entire workplace, that I was autistic. It was the first simply because I did not know about my position on the autism spectrum when I started my previous occupation, eight year before then.
And so I did. Although I did not know it at the time, this was my first contribution to autism advocacy.
At the time, I did it primarily as a test: if my future co-workers had a problem with it, I wanted to know that upfront and step out early. I was also upfront about my personal values, my fears, my conflicted relationship with US culture, with money and other things (ref). Thankfully, my test did not reveal any problem.
However, beyond that test I was also driven by a desire—a necessity, really—to explain to my coworkers “how to work with me” and outline a few basic facts about autism: that communication with me would be different, that I do not play by the same social rules, that we would need to be mutually patient, etc.
Ever since, I have stepped up about once a year, around Acceptance Week, to remind folk around me that the autistic mind is different.
I originally started doing so out of self-preservation: I often feel that I need to mold the world around me to prevent it from hurting me unintentionally.
Then, over time, I learned about the power of advocacy, and how to achieve this by making certain differences visible. To normalize talking about them. Making them non-weird. Shifting the Overton window. This visibility, this “continuous coming out process” is incidentally what ultimately made homosexuality an open and accepted topic in society and enabled gay marriage; I feel that it is now time for society to accept and celebrate neurodiversity in the same way.
There are quite a few things valuable about having an autistic co-worker, or so I was told.
One is hyperfocus, combined with a a strong desire to classify, inventory or describe situations at a high level of detail. Hyperfocus is not specific to autism (is very common with ADHD too); however the combination with a highly detailed analytical approach to activities is, in my opinion, pretty unique. This has obvious value on the workplace, especially in roles responsible for solving problems and building solutions (e.g. technical support, engineering), those responsible for devising strategies (e.g. product) and those responsible for extracting value from data (e.g. product, accounting, finance).
One should be reminded that the ability of an autistic person to perform analytically is not an “innate” or “unique” talent. The autistic person can—but does not necessarily̛—become good at analytical processing because they desire this approach for most situations throughout their life. They start practicing at a very yound age and become good at it simply from the sheer amount of time practicing.
Another trait is honesty. I find it pretty complicated to lie, so I just avoid it. Most autistic folk I know also avoid lying.
I only very recently learned that folk can learn to lie as an advantageous skill in the pursuit and exercise of social and economic power. I learned this by reading a book; I was fundamentally unaware of this before. Until then, I thought people lied just to be hurtful or to get themselves out of momentary trouble. The book I learned this from was pretty difficult to read and understand, so my working theory is that most autistic folk don’t know this and maintain a natural disinterest for lying. So we just stick to being honest when possible.
Systematic honesty appears to be, for some reason, a valuable resource on the workplace. (I don’t want to say it is valuable because it is scarce although I have seen this to be true in other places.)
Yet another valuable trait of autism on the workplace is loyalty.
This loyalty has two forms. One is loyalty to the social group. Autistic folk “do” relationships differently. I may write more on this topic later; for now it suffices to say the relationships are more intense. We have higher thresholds to commit to a person or a group, but that commitment is more solid. An autistic team member will thus do their darnest to invest into and elevate their team, oftentimes more intensely and durably than an allistic (non-autistic) team member with a similar personality and skill level.
The other form of loyalty is to the organization and/or the mission of the group—the “enterprise”, in the primary literal definition of the word. An autistic folk will be suspicious of a new project, or new employer, until they have analyzed its potential, its merits thoroughly. This degree of scrutiny makes it harder to hire or convince the autistic person to join a project. However, when the autistic person satisfies themselves of the validity of the enterprise, they are able to commit to it more strongly or intensely. This creates a form of momentum that is valuable to the group around: it gives the project more legitimacy.
There are many other autism strengths. (This was a link to results on a search engine; use it!)
An important task of autism advocacy is to teach these strengths, make them more visible, and celebrate them.
There are still too many folk who do not see autism for what it provides, and only see it for what it takes away—or fails to provide. But remember, for every autistic person who cannot communicate verbally at all, there is one who can do so more proficiently than average. For every autistic person who refuses to play the social game, there is one who learned to play it and even enjoys it sometimes. Autism is described as a “spectrum” for a reason.
Talking about the spectrum: it is not a linear spectrum, going from “not too autistic” to “very autistic.” It doesn’t work like that.
There is a meme floating around, which I think is somewhat decent:
By far, my largest challenge with autism on the workplace is that I lack an intuitive theory of mind, also known as “the ability to put oneself in someone else’s shoes”.
This challenge is particularly insidious because it regularly puts me at dramatic odds with co-workers. Let me explain why.
An allistic person typically develops theory of mind in proportion to their other intellectual and emotional abilities. Typically, as they get older. The unspoken “normalcy expectation” is that a person who appears to be intellectually astute also has astute theory of mind and thus performs in a sensitive, nuanced manner in social contexts. Conversely, the “normalcy expectation” is that an intellectually astute person who performs socially in a way that’s insensitive or blunt is choosing to be disrespectful, or choosing to hurt someone—in other words, assuming they know how to behave sensitively and observing they do not, one can reasonably infer that their behavior is a choice they are making.
Alas, that rational conclusion is mistaken in the case of autism.
An autistic person, eager to describe a situation in the way they see it, or responding honestly to a situation, or in a hurry to get out of an uncomfortable situation, may do or say something that makes sense to them, that is objectively adequate for the circumstances, but may be subjectively perceived negatively by someone else without them realizing this. And not only do they not realize so; they are simply unable to predict it can happen in most cases.
The comical, stereotypical instance of this situation is a person asking their partner, “do I look good in this outfit” and the autistic partner responding “I don’t know” (because they do not know how to evaluate outfits) or “you look fatter” (because the shape of the outfit exacerbates certain areas of cellulitis). If the question was an indirect way to ask “do you find me attractive”, the given answers are tragi-comically inadequate, even though they are adequate objective / literal answers to the specific questions asked.
Sadly, my experience of the mismatch described above on the workplace gets me in trouble at least a couple times each year.
The common symptom of this happening, from my perspective, is that I am going about my day, thinking about doing my work properly and helping all my co-workers in the best way I can, and then a manager comes to me with “we need to talk”; and the talk is really about how a co-worker reported that my behavior—usually, my “way to communicate”—was “inappropriate”. Then the manager refers to a conversation I have had in one of the preceding hours or days, and explains that I “should have handled this differently.” Then my turn comes and I explain that I had a completely different experience of that interaction, where everything appeared to be fine and that I regard my co-worker in highest esteem (which is true for most co-workers), so there is no way I could possibly ever want to be disrespectful or insensitive to them.
Then the manager says “yet you did” then I say “ok, and I am sorry” and then I proceed to approach said co-worker and present my apologies.
Meanwhile, as the manager is talking, I commonly have a panic attack. I start sweating profusely, and I feel like my heart is going to stop, and my brain starts replaying all the minute details of all the preceding days to re-interpret everything else I have said or done to double-check if even more problems are coming my way that I haven’t noticed yet. Then three or four days follow where I cannot sleep at night nor relax, with more waves of panic attacks and worry. It is emotionally and physically exhausting.
In an ideal world, my co-workers who see me expressing myself towards them or others in a way that they don’t like, or that they think is “socially inappropriate”, would give me a sign—a private message, a frown emoji, whatever—that I was doing a faux-pas, and then I could correct myself immediately, and then everyone would move on.
Instead, some folk assume I am out to hurt them, then they actually get hurt by what I do or say, then they get doubly hurt that I don’t seem to notice, and then when I eventually am made aware of the situation by a third party I start to feel guilty I hurt someone, and by that time the situation has become misery all around, with a high organizational overhead to clean up the mess.
This youtuber has an experience somewhat similar to mine:
I tried to counteract the above by studying language, sociology and psychology, and consuming a large amount of written and visual resources about relationships and emotional management.
Unfortunately, this did not provide me a good theory of mind. Instead, I have developed a gigantic catalogue of situations and adequate outcomes for each of them. If I focus on a single person or a group, I am able to refer to that catalogue reliably and minimize the amount of friction or misunderstandings. This conscious deliberateness is somewhat taxing, but for a small group, or a group of folk whom I know already (and for whom I thus can trim the amount of possible situations to analyze), and for short durations, it is not too difficult.
Scanning through a detailed, explicit catalogue of situations is not scalable, however; for larger groups, it simply breaks down. I either make gross mistakes inadvertently (see section above), or I simply avoid the group altogether to avoid taking risks—which appears as stand-offish and is, objectively, limiting me in opporunities.
Likewise, navigating the catalogue of social situations consumes my energy over time, and there is a point at which I am just too tired to do it correctly. Then I need time to recharge, alone; if I don’t, I stop caring to use the catalogue and revert to my natural self.
Which is like this:
My issues with social nuance always make me feel like this:
Oftentimes, I think about it thus: what reason would there be for someone to not consider me to be an insensitive jerk, an undesirable social “a-hole”?
This is an existential question that keeps me up at night. I am particularly sensitive to it because I have seen certain folk, the last few years, considerably extend the scope of what is considered unacceptable social behavior: “cancellation culture” and all that.
What do I have in my defense?
What do other autistic folk have in their defense? Especially white males, who presumably are dripping privilege throughout their life, but are disproportionally affected by autism?
Phrasing a good answer to this is still, in my case, a work in progress. It is hard to make any good case when folk start caring more about their experience of interactions (the “impact” of what is said and done) than the intent.
My defense, as it is, is merely circumstantial. I do my best to step in and defend my peers pro-actively. I make conscious efforts to educate myself about the history of various populations and systematic oppression. I speak up in cases of discrimination and inequal access to opportunities, to break the silence and embolden others to join their voices to mine. I spend time and effort to help others, even when it is not directly useful to me.
I did not always do all these things; I merely learned over the years that my efforts to be a good citizen go some way towards giving legitimacy to my claim that I am not a distasteful a-hole.
Making this case clearly is an important part of autism advocacy.
Is it polite to ask someone if they have autism?
Is it polite to tell someone they might have autism?
These are also important questions. If autism advocacy is to succeed, the topic of conversation should be open. But how to go about it tactfully?
I find it personally useful to think about it in a similar way to one’s sexual preferences. It is both an important and relevant topic because it strongly informs how people relate to each other. It is quite socially legitimate to want to exchange this information.
However, as for sexuality, certain social rules apply. There are certain stigmas and uncertainties to account for. Also, because sexual preference and one’s position on the autism spectrum are legally protected characteristics, it is actually illegal to enquire about them on the workplace—especially if there is a power differential.
So, what to do?
This is another situation where I do not have a good answer myself. My best recommendation for now is for autistic folk to be forthcoming with the information. Self-disclosure is, in my experience, mostly beneficial.
Also, this Youtube video might help:
Today was the personal angle; throughout the rest of this week, I will share more viewpoints and experiences related to autism beyond my own.
Feel free to reach out to me to share your experience of autism or autistic co-workers, or if you have additional thoughts about how to do autism advocacy.
- Wikipedia, Theory of Mind.
So what do you think? Did I miss something? Is any part unclear? Leave your comments below.