Party Lines: Aspies at Work

by KLS

I’m having trouble at work. Not with coworkers, or the work itself, but with helping the administrative staff above me in the hierarchy understand that I mean to be respectful, only I’m prone to questioning things, to investigating them from the bottom up, and sticking to a version of the truth based on fact and reason rather than institutional policy. I mean to be respectful, but I’m constitutionally incapable of following the party line and, to be honest, more than half the time figuring out what that is. It’s not that the party line is necessarily misguided. It’s a shared story dictated by an organization’s leaders that everyone is supposed to adopt. It governs not only our organizational narrative, but also our semiotics, our communications, our most intimate relations in the lunch room. It governs short term project goals and long term organizational objectives. But what is the story we’re supposed to share exactly?

The trouble with party lines is, there’s the one we are told and the one that is really meant. Figuring out the indirectly expressed story of ourselves at work is difficult for someone with Asperger’s. It’s akin to when I first began reading scholarly argument in the humanities in graduate school. It took me a long time to learn to suss out the theoretical position of an author and the aspects of the ongoing scholarly or cultural conversation that the author was addressing in those terms. A novice might express a theoretical position in direct terms (e.g., “As a feminist, I…”), but the more sophisticated the writer and thinker becomes, the less such direct declaration becomes necessary, or even desirable. I’ve trained myself to analyze the indirect in writing, but in live social dynamics, I am much less adept.

One of the most commonly unexpressed organizational narratives I come across in employment these days, in both academic and business contexts, is that I am joining a flat organization, or one very close to flat (a matrix). Or if not flat–which is fine because flat has its problems with crossed boundaries and unclear lines of responsibility–then open to individual contribution, really open. Everyone is valued, no matter their rank or role. We are focused on excellence. Innovation is welcomed. This is a good story, and I buy it every time like the proverbial farm boy convinced to swap a decent milk cow for a bag of magic beans. Maybe the people telling the story are so convincing because they want to believe it, that they are capable of this level of confidence when, at the same time, they will be judged by those above them on what their employees do. After all, the peasant heaven at the top of Jack’s beanstalk had a goose that laid a golden egg and a singing harp — agents of distributed productivity. But it also had a giant who feasted on human flesh–and somehow the giant at the top of the food chain always comes across as the more immediate and compelling motivator.

It’s not that people with Asperger’s are fools. We’re aware that people don’t always say what they mean or mean what they say. But we want to belong to organizations because they are social mechanisms that make work and make it matter, and we want to believe we can interface with them successfully. To do that, we need a professional environment that enables challenge to received notions, that privileges reason over emotion, that is more about merit and method than about social relationships and who has the boss’s ear.

Above all, we need a structure above us that accepts suggestions for improvement, genuinely, rather than just leaving the box out to gather yellowing cards and dust. We need supervisors who don’t believe that these kinds of probings, questionings, and re-envisionings are a challenge to authority, but an opportunity for those with the power to decide to re-consider, even if they choose against change in ways large and small. Some of us can accept it when our suggestions aren’t acted upon, however well reasoned and researched. For an Aspie, that’s a sign of real emotional maturity, and I hope I’ve achieved it. But we need someone who gets both the depth of our expertise and the narrowness of our interests, and the unrelenting drive that compels them.

We might need someone, too, who can retrain us to work with their particular style, someone who is generous and humane, who treats their staff as eager contributors to a mutual project rather than as functions with duties to perform. That is a lot to ask of a hypothetical someone who really only set out to hire a function to perform particular duties, to get x done the way that have already planned for x to get done. Voluntarily, eyes wide open, who would go in for a perpetual critic? For someone who is unwilling to accept things on face value? Who sits at a meeting designated for hiring an elephant and asks whether it wouldn’t be better to hire a kangaroo if we really want someone who can jump?

Supervisors like this can and do exist. I’ve just come from one. If the soft money funding my position hadn’t run out, I’d be working for him still. He’s real, so real that occasionally we still do lunch.

At a less prepared workplace, by the time the party line is apparent, the real party line and not its publicly palatable version, an Aspie can be in trouble. An Aspie can seem not have to have been respectful, a team player, courteous, deferential, savvy, a networker, in on the joke. It’s at this point that, if workplace advice to Aspies can be believed, many of us disclose our condition at work for the first time. By then, the advice books and blogs say, it may be too late.

It might surprise people, but Asperger’s can qualify as an ADA protected disability, provided that the employee is qualified for the job. That’s because Asperger’s “substantially limits” one or more major life activities–not the ability see or hear but the ability to see a social landscape and understand the language spoken in it. Autism Spectrum Disorders were first perceived as covered under ADA following the Amendments Act of 2008, which expanded the definition of major life activities to include things like communicating,  thinking, and working. An estimated 75-85% of people with Asperger’s are unemployed, despite many of them wanting to work. There’s a Job Accommodation Network guide, sponsored by the Department of Labor, that provides employers with typical accommodations that can help their Asperger’s employees to succeed on the job. There’s case law, and there’s Federal policy behind Asperger’s as an ADA disability. But because Asperger’s is a hidden disability, and because many employers are reluctant to offer accommodations to employees unless forced, an official diagnosis is usually required in order to receive them.

An accommodation, to be clear, doesn’t excuse an employee from performing the duties they were hired to do. The accommodated employee still has to meet his or her responsibilities and meet the same expectations for performance as anyone else would in that role. The accommodation only eliminates conditions that disable the employee from succeeding, and the kinds of accommodations that help employees with Asperger’s are usually low cost and low effort for an organization. The benefit of having a focused and dedicated employee, often highly knowledgeable with specialized skills, could seem worth it.

But many adult Aspies don’t have an official diagnosis. For our generations, it was missed in school, at a time when people were less aware of the nuances of neurodevelopmental differences. Adults with ADHD are often in the same boat (although ADHD was an earlier diagnosis to gain attention). By the time we realized we were different, often in the process of getting our own children diagnosed, most of us had sailed along for so long without supports or accommodations, we didn’t pursue a diagnosis, which is time consuming, expensive, and can have repercussions on insurance and future employment.

To receive accommodations at work (I have requested receiving work requests in writing with direct deadlines and project requirements and a mentor on the job who can communicate any indirect social rules and stories to me, as well as point out missteps and miscues), I am in the process of seeking a medical diagnosis. I initiated this in early August, but the diagnostic results won’t be available until February. It’s a painful Catch-22 to be in, this wanting to prove I am respectful, only I sometimes don’t come across that way, even when I try my best. My supervisor has written to say that even though I say I have Asperger’s, I really only “believe it.”

I find myself wondering why previous supervisors have accepted me as I am, without the explanation of a disability–I’ve been successful and perceived as contributing; I’ve been valued even if and when challenging. I wonder what I would do in her position, if I would accommodate my employee anyway, given the low effort and lack of cost involved in the particular accommodations I have requested. Would that employee’s expertise be worth it to me? Would their well being matter? What would I lose if the employee’s belief was false, if she didn’t have Asperger’s at all but was mistaken or making it up?

I find myself wondering if there is a larger organizational narrative, at some corporate level much higher up, that gives the reasons why every employee must be treated the same, like twins forced to dress in matching outfits or hospital patients forced to eat the one lunch plate regardless of preference. I don’t know. Most of the organizations I encounter, including mine, say they place a high value on employee relations and on supporting their employees so that they can succeed in making a contribution. But, then again, I can’t help but question.