Before April came around, I’d been mentally conjuring up my plans for activism, amplification, signal boosting, the promotion of acceptance, and whatnot. As it happens, events have conspired against me, and I haven’t been as active in railing positively against the “awareness industry” (as fantastic new blogger Little Sparrow puts it) as I’d hoped to be. Long story. I’m sure there will be more posts this month on the subject of ‘awareness’ and, more importantly, acceptance, but right now I want – nay, need – to get really positive, on a very personal level.
I so often do myself a disservice. I make unreasonable comparisons between myself and others. I indulge in a nice line of internalised ableism. And right now, with my organisation undertaking a ‘review’ of various services, I’m feeling a little anxious. I think things will be fine. But I can’t be sure.
But a colleague said a lovely thing the other day that made me ponder:
“But you’re so, so employable!”
And just yesterday, I formally become a Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy (unless you work in learning and teaching in UK – or perhaps Australian – higher education, this may mean very little to you. But if you do, you’ll know this is a rather noteworthy piece of professional recognition). I’m feeling pretty good today, professionally-speaking.
And so it’s time to get on board with autism appreciation and acknowledge how bloody awesome I am. Sorry for the personal trumpet-blowing (it’s never something I’m especially comfortable with), but right now, after a tough, tiring few months, I need to give myself a bit of self-love.
What makes me such a damned good employee, then?
1. I can become interested in, learn, and focus on (almost) anything.
The fact that I was an “all-rounder” at school was something of a mixed blessing. During my earlier school years, I maintained my record as the straight-A student, but as puberty kicked in, social interaction got more complicated, and academic and personal demands increased, I began struggling to know where to channel my energies. I had difficulty prioritising, and experienced agonies over decisions about which subjects to pursue and which to “drop” (the Tyranny of Choice, folks). The fact is, I’m generally better when I’m focused on One Thing. One Thing in Depth. It’s why I loved my MSc year so much.
But what I’m focused on doesn’t actually matter so much. As long as it’s interesting to me, I’ll get excited about it, plough my energies into it, and do all that I can to make it work, for me and others involved. This means that, specific technical knowledge aside, I could potentially step to any number of new fields. It also means that, when I’m teaching, training, or speaking about what I’m working on, my passion will come through.
(An aside: there is a common argument that UK schoolkids are asked to “specialise too early”. On the one hand, I completely agree with this sentiment. How are you supposed to make life-changing decisions about what career you want to pursue, and thus, what subjects to study, when you know so little about what’s in store? On the other hand, I think people like me benefit from opportunities to focus intensely on one subject at a time, and then move on to another, potentially completely different one, when we’re ready. My specialisms tend to shift over time).
2. I care.
My strong sense of justice, and my ethical convictions, mean that these days I’m pretty picky about the types of organisation I’ll be willing to work for. But whatever job I’ve had, I’ve always cared about doing a good job. Perfectionism can at times be debilitating, and can seriously slow me down, but the fact that I always care about doing a good job means that I’m rarely complacent. It also means that I care about the people work with (my colleagues), and the people I work for – in my case the academic staff I work with, the students they, and I, teach, and the wider communities outside my organisation who benefit from the teaching we do.
3. I have excellent attention to detail.
Yes, I can be very, very picky and pernickety. But my attention to detail means that my teaching sessions, and the accompanying materials, are well-designed and meticulously thought through. It means that when someone needs to pick up a bit of teaching at short notice because I’m not able to deliver it, they’ve usually got everything they need to do a reasonable job of it.
It also means that when I’m supporting an academic colleague with their teaching, I ensure all bases are covered. Yes, this does mean I’m often guilty of “info-dumping”, but it means I always provide a firm foundation for further exploration. People can pick and choose which material to engage with, but there’s unlikely to be many glaring omissions.
It also means that I can design great information systems and keep websites spick ‘n’ span, and that I’m also a shit hot proofreader.
4. I’m a passionate, engaging teacher.
I have this on good authority from many of the people I work with. And I have a fair old whack of ‘official’ evidence in the form of qualifications, and written feedback – from staff and students – on my sessions. And I firmly believe that it is some of my autistic traits that make this so.
For me, coming out of the classroom after a really good teaching session feels just like coming offstage after a really good gig (man, I miss playing in bands!). The buzz is the same. The truth is, I enjoy performance. I’m always surprised when neurotypical folks think it unusual that autistic people would be interested in performing. After all, many of us do it all the time. I’m aware of copious autistics who are fantastic, commanding musicians, actors, comedians, performance poets, and public speakers. Yes, when masking, we may be “performing the role” of the neurotypical, and this can be bloody hard work, but performing in front of an audience when you’re well prepared and you know your material is a different matter entirely. It can be truly invigorating (although you may experience a slump in energy later on).
I like to keep myself amused in the classroom. One thing I’ve noticed about myself and other autistic people is that we’re not very motivated to do stuff that doesn’t interest us or seem useful to us. This desire to keep things interesting means I’m often looking for ways to vary or improve what I do with my teaching. But, as I like to see “the point” in something, I will rarely make change for change’s sake. If I make a change, it’ll be to keep myself motivated, or as an attempt to solve a problem.
Finally here, movement. I can rarely root myself to one spot when delivering because of my need to stim. I simply cannot keep still. But as I teach a subject that is practical, applied, and frequently conveyed best through interactive, “workshop”-style classes, my need to move about the classroom allows me to observe and engage with everyone in the space.
5. I have excellent command of the written word.
This is great for report-writing, disseminating research, giving constructive feedback to students, professional blog writing (yes, I do blog for work as well), producing instructions and guidance, and all sorts of other applications.
Yes, I can be a little long-winded at times. Brevity is still something I actively have to work hard at. Being autistic often means having to give myself constant reminders that it’s not always necessary to include All The Things.
But written communication is well within my comfort zone, and my attention to detail, interest in many of the subjects I write about (and interest in language itself), and the fact I care about my work, all mean I’m pretty adept at attuning my writing to the needs of my audience.
6. I can see connections, links, and patterns.
I am neither simply a “big picture” thinker, nor a sequential, piece-by-piece thinker. Yes, I appreciate detail; but I’m also constantly connecting minute, granular elements into complex pictures, networks and patterns. I don’t even need to step back – the connections and wider contexts come to the fore as I work through it all.
This links back to being able to get interested in anything. I’d almost go as far as to say that, for me, disciplines don’t exist; I see links between all sorts of apparently disparate elements. This is useful in teaching – especially as I teach such diverse groups of learners. I can pull in examples from all over the place, make them fit the context, make them relevant, and thus make whatever I’m teaching relevant.
It also becomes handy in diagnostics – identifying someone’s unique set of circumstances, problems, and needs, and thinking up ways to help them. Great for one-to-one support to colleagues and students. It means I can also broker interesting connections between people.
7. I will assume the best of everyone.
My dislike of hierarchical structures means that – social communication problems notwithstanding – I’ll talk to anyone. This doesn’t mean I’m not anxious about the interactions (I’m autistic, goddammit), but it does mean that regardless of someone’s standing or status, I’m unlikely think negatively about someone unless they give me good reason to do so, and I’m also unlikely to be nervous about talking to them simply because of who they are.
For me, it seems entirely logical to believe that no person, or group of people, is superior or inferior to anyone else. We’re all human, and to think that one group is “better” than another seems a perplexing notion to me. But because I am different from the majority, I recognise difference, and the importance of difference, in others. Our differences inform our experiences. They inform whether we are privileged or disadvantaged, dominant or marginalised. They cannot be denied.
That’s not to say I don’t have some biases. We all do; we can’t help it because we’re influenced by our lived experiences and the circumstances in which we had those experiences. But because I care about the people I work with and for, that’s something I’m working on.
Okay, so here are some other things about my autism that need to be ‘appreciated’…
It works both ways, folks. In appreciating all the ways my autism impacts positively in the workplace, I also have to appreciate what aspects of the workplace cause me difficulty.
And it’s important that those around me do the same.
I need the people I work with to understand, and appreciate, that I am often working far harder than they are simply to operate in a neurotypical-dominant environment. I am always fending off sensory and information overload. I am consciously having to analyse and process interactions with colleagues and students. And I am rarely afforded the “luxury” of being able to work uninterrupted, or choose exactly when to switch tasks. Often this is dictated for me, and not always in a way that is conducive to me transitioning smoothly between different pieces of work.
When I get angry about being interrupted mid-task, I need people to appreciate that I am not being intentionally rude. Of course I don’t want to be rude to people and come across as a complete arsehole. Autism, or any other “difference”, is still no excuse for being an arsehole. But please bear in mind that every day of my life I am expected, and required, to operate in an environment not ideally attuned to my particular operating system. And yet I’m still expected not to ever make other people uncomfortable. Given that an interruption has already caused great disruption to my brain’s functioning, it’s not always possible for me to remember my “script” of acceptable responses to that interruption. I need people to accept and appreciate that when they interrupt me, it will take my brain a long time to get back on task, and this can be very, very stressful. Believe me, I’m trying to be nice.
And so, given that I care so much about doing a good job, and about the people around me, I need them to appreciate that if I do or say something wrong, or something that upsets others, the chances are I will be ruminating over it, and feeling guilty about it, long after the other person has moved on, forgiven, and forgotten. It may be a small incident, and mean “nothing” to them, but the likelihood is, I will still be analysing and processing the incident for a long time after it actually happened.
So the upshot of a lot of this is that I need people around me to appreciate that I am almost always tired. And when I say I’m knackered, that means I really, really am.
I’m good at what I do. I’m employable, and far more than that. I am not merely a collection of deficits, deficiencies, and difficulties. I have undoubted strengths.
And like all autistic people who work, I want to be appreciated for these strengths, while also asking those I work with to appreciate my need for support, and undertanding.