On Embracing Neurodiversity in the Workplace
I thought I’d be content to go throughout my life without an official diagnosis for Asperger’s. I am almost 50 years old, have earned a doctorate degree from a top graduate program, and have a satisfying life with family, a handful of good friends, and passionate interests. Imagine my surprise when my most recent work environment forced the issue of a medical diagnosis for Asperger’s.
Without one, it is not possible to legally secure workplace accommodations for this disability. An Aspie can ask for them (I asked for written guidelines and deadlines for major projects), but if an employer declines to volunteer them (as mine did), that is the end of the discussion, even if the accommodations are free-to-inexpensive, enhance productivity and success, and, well, for want of a better term, are the humane thing to do. In my case, the medical diagnosis is taking so long to get (I started in early August and am still testing in November, with results expected in February), I left that workplace to start my own business. I’m continuing to pursue it as insurance against the future. In the meantime, I’m struck by how my leaving might have been avoided, that is, what my employer might have done to successfully retain me.
My most recent employer was a mental health provider embedded at a major public university. I’ve had a couple of decades working at the university in a variety of positions (doctoral student, teacher, administrator) and met with a lot of success: awards for teaching, invitations to return from previous supervisors, compliments all around. The university ought to be a good place for Aspies — human resources says that lots of Aspies work as faculty and graduate employees. The university embraces diversity and advocates for the integration and success of everyone, including those with disabilities. This is not just an occasional value, but one that is expressed daily; it’s a major initiative of the still relatively new Chancellor’s.
But the fact is that the mental health unit for which I worked within the university had the most trouble handling my Asperger’s traits of any employer with which I’ve worked across my lifetime and certainly at the university. The administrative team there placed a premium on social competency, especially the social masks and rituals that represent this for highly conventional people. The director in particular placed a premium on extroversion, expressing the belief that coming together at social events was a demonstration of workplace affinity. Disagreeing with a colleague, even on a point of fact, expressed however professionally, was viewed as placing one’s opinions over others, as being inherently non-collaborative. We had to wear matching team shirts with unit logos to events.
Although I was given a private office (for which I was grateful), my office was one that was off of a lunchroom and group workspace that was actively used. The walls were so thin that counselors could not meet with clients in it, since they might be disturbed by the regular conviviality there. My supervisor once remarked she had chosen that office for me because she sensed I wouldn’t interact with others otherwise. As it was, I had to work with my door closed most of the time, or I wouldn’t have been able to think. It was often so loud that I had to wear headphones with the sound off just to dull the noise. Like many neurotypicals, she misunderstood my need for low sensory stimulus as a lack of sociability, even though I voluntarily went to lunch with coworkers nearly every day.
What does it mean to embrace neurodiversity? First, it means doing so after establishing, in the case of a staff member such as myself, that the person is qualified for the job and capable of performing it satisfactorily. Second, embracing neurodiversity in the workplace means an employer must assume the Aspie employee is goodwilled. That is, that even when the Aspie seems to do something inappropriate or express something in a challenging way, the Aspie has not necessarily meant to go astray from the expected and the usual. If an Aspie errs, the supervisor can pull the employee aside for a private, non-confrontational discussion, with guidelines for doing better if the situation comes back up. The assumption, again, is that the Aspie has no ill will; the understanding is that the Aspie has a social deficit that sometimes leads him or her to err.
This error, by the way, is often not of the kind that is against company policy or evidence of a failure to perform; it’s a behavior that, to varying degrees, doesn’t fit a social norm. It might include grooming habits (I hope not in my case!), conversational style, body language / movement (such as stimming — when I stand still, I pivot at the waist, allowing my arms to swing), or other coping mechanisms (for example: I sing under my breath in stores as a means of dealing with social anxiety — something others can misunderstand as talking to myself; I doodle in meetings to focus attention — something others can misunderstand as a lack of attention). This is an incredibly important accommodation, one that costs nothing but ego and patience and saves much, in enabling the company to gain the Aspie’s expertise and to retain a qualified employee.
In my case, my qualifications to do the work well weren’t in question. I’m good at what I was hired to do, even if it used only a subset of my skills. I enjoyed the work and my co-workers. I believed in the mission whole heartedly. But, here’s the rub: Despite being supportive of others, funny, a good listener, a creative contributor, a hard worker, and I think generally a kind presence, I have certain rigidities of character and modes of expression that can ruffle feathers. My rigidities, common among Aspies, are these:
I don’t tend to accept any policy, procedure, belief, or statement of fact without analyzing, questioning, and critiquing–I research everything extensively. I don’t accept anything on authority. To the good, I often do what I’m told anyway (I believe in the value of hierarchy) and I don’t always express my critique, but I have an informed basis for my every opinion.
I need my expertise to be respected. When I offer an informed assessment, I need that to be heard and considered. I’m not a spontaneous, off the cuff, impulsive person. When I assert an assessment, I’ve put hard study into it.
I resist having work that is put into my hands taken away without good cause. Work is important to me — not just in order to achieve career advancement or because I get paid to complete it. I care about the substance of what I’m doing, and it interests me. It is more important to me than status or being well liked.
I expect others to follow regulations and agreements as they are stated and written. The university asks employees to take an online ethics course every year. The university publishes manuals of policy for a number of areas. Each unit has its own policies. I expect everyone to follow them, and I do my best to follow them myself.
On top of this, I more than believe in being accurate and truthful. I am driven to be. So I won’t fudge numbers, and I won’t lie. I can withhold from disclosing things, but not if I believe it is going to cause harm.
I am inclined to tell the truth, even when that’s not socially expected or comfortable. For example, I once offended colleagues at a conference when giving a paper because I critiqued a certain feminist stance. I’m a feminist, but I’m open to critiquing everything. I don’t feel inclined to offer unwavering support of any position just because it’s politically strategic to do so. In friendly conversation, I’ve learned to be less forthcoming. For instance, if someone presses about family plans at holiday time, I’ll eventually reveal I don’t have much of a relationship with my family of origination, and that I’m good with that. In fact, I’m better off. I know that is going to make the person asking uncomfortable, but, well, they asked, and usually, now that I’ve amended my too forthcoming ways, they’ve asked twice and seemed genuinely concerned or interested.
This could all be code for being an unbearable boor, but I don’t think I am. I try hard to be respectful of others’ time, to listen to and incorporate their understanding and ideas, and to stay with what’s relevant and useful rather than marching to my own drummer. I believe in being useful, and I’m devoted to kindness as a practiced virtue. But again, and I’ll acknowledge this, that on the points I’ve mentioned, I’m not that flexible.
Although I’ve learned to choose my moments and to soften my language, if I think something is mistaken or broken, I say so. My way of doing so is often direct. I’m not very good with all the social rituals people perform in those moments to save other people’s egos. I don’t build relationships well through small talk, so I often don’t have the personal relationship with a boss or a coworker that might cushion the impact. I focus on logic and reason. And again, the most problematic thing seems to be that I don’t speak like this unless I have already done my homework. I don’t promise that I have the only point of view or the whole story, but on the particular point of exception I raise, I have strong evidence and I’m clear on why the issue matters (or should matter) to the organization. Because of this, I don’t give up readily when someone assails it, no matter who they are, unless they can show me where I’ve missed something. I can stop arguing and save it for later if needed, but I’m not likely to back down.
I’ve had many people tell me that if I were a man, this style of interrelating in business would be much more welcomed by others. Aspie women tend to have more masculine behavioral traits, and there’s some evidence that we have brains more physically structured like men’s. More generally, Aspies have a blind spot in their ability to envision how they are perceived by others. This is where our theory of mind deficit shows most glaringly. If we tend to focus little on what others are thinking and feeling, we focus even less on what they are thinking and feeling about us. We’re puzzled by their reactions, and puzzle about them at length long after things have gone better or worse than we assumed.
Most often in the workplace, the people who have difficulty with the kinds of traits I’m describing aren’t coworkers but supervisors. When Aspies seek accommodation for high functioning autism as a disability, it is often after they have had conflict with a supervisor.
Let me say that I have been fortunate in many of my supervisors over the years, perhaps for different reasons. There are supervisors who are willing to accept an eccentric or challenging employee when that employee is also exceptionally talented and able, meets deadlines consistently, and is willing to go the extra mile. There are supervisors who see themselves as eccentric and challenging, and find those traits in others amusing. There are supervisors who are incredibly generous and open-minded, and accept a broad range of diversity in their employees. There are supervisors who tolerate whatever they must, dragging the weight of the world behind them and just grateful that others are there to help with the lifting. There are supervisors who are remote enough that whatever they do experience of the odd or challenging doesn’t much affect them, so long as the work is done and done well, measured by whatever means of tracking they have devised. There isn’t only one kind of supervisor who works well with Aspies — fortunate for us, there are many. The supervisors who do less well are those who place a value on simple obedience, social conformity, and extroverted demonstrations of loyalty or sociability or who themselves aren’t ethical, competent, or invested in the work. I have learned how to suss out these last three, and haven’t put myself in the power of an incompetent, unethical, or non-work oriented supervisor for many years now. They’re the worst of the lot.
The bottom line is this: When an employer commits to neurodiversity, that commitment entails some training, some personal commitment (especially by supervisory staff), and some sacrifice. If it was natural and easy to do, it would not have to be enforced under federal law or expressed as an organizational value backed up by policy. Embracing diversity of all kinds, especially around disability, means reconditioning how we think about one another’s needs in the workplace and extending ourselves to meet them so that we can gain the benefit of a diverse staff. It also means opening up our hearts and committing to being humane even when we feel personally discomforted or challenged. Difficult, yes, but I hope, and I have to believe, worth it.