a parliament of owls

life with asperger's

Category: Discrimination

So You Say You’re Autistic

So you say you’re autistic, or have Asperger’s, or whatever. Well… You don’t look autistic. You look just like anyone else. You make eye contact. Plus, you seem to be able to hold up your end of a conversation. There doesn’t seem to be anything wrong with you, as far as I can tell. I mean, true autistics can’t talk. They hit themselves. If that’s autistic, you aren’t autistic.

Okay, okay, maybe you’re autistic in some way, but how autistic can you be, really? And what do you want me to do with that?

I mean, let’s say I accept that you’re autistic. Does that mean you expect special treatment? Like what? Am I supposed to ignore every time you’re rude to me or embarrass me in public? What about when you’re late all the time? You knew when we were supposed to be there at Y:00, but it’s like you just don’t care. You get involved in doing something on the computer and next thing I know you’ve lost all track of what you’re supposed to be doing. You’re an adult for Christ’s sake. You can get places on time.

And it’s like, you have no awareness of when you’ve driven a topic into the ground. You go on and on about X in the most excruciating detail. I mean, you don’t even realize I stopped listening 20 minutes ago. Or that other thing you do. You switch topics right in the middle of a conversation. No warning, no context, nothing. And then even if I am listening, I have no idea what you are talking about.

Yes, a car alarm just went off outside. Calm down. It’s not like the house is on fire. Stop that. Stop covering your ears. You look ridiculous. It’s just a car alarm. I don’t like that sound either, but you don’t see me covering my ears.

Back to what I was saying. Look, you have to get used to going out and talking to people. Real people, not people online. Yes, I know that takes a lot of energy for you. Not everyone’s social, but it’s important to be social, you know? You need to learn how to interact with other people and get along with them. Sure, they ignore you sometimes or act like you’re weird. I mean, you’re a little different, okay? I’m not going to lie, but so what? Everyone’s different.

Don’t try changing the topic. No, I don’t smell anything. I already took the garbage out; I told you I did. No, I did not wash out the can. I’m not going to wash it every time I take it out — nobody does that. That’s why it has a lid. Then turn the fan on. Point it away from your face if you don’t like the air hitting your face.

For crying out loud, have you ever tried living with yourself?

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Responding to /Neurotribes/

I’ve just finished reading Steve Silberman’s Neurotribes. This book creates the first comprehensive history of autistics, linking us to our progression of diagnosis and treatment in the West and to other cultural groups including the disability activist movement (within autism, first dominated by parents and then taken up by ourselves) and electronics / computer / ham radio / internet and sci fi-fantasy fandoms (which gave us a home among other eccentrics — my husband and I have long called sci fi-fantasy fandom our “tribe”). The first third or so of the book hit me hard — it was difficult to get through — because of the misunderstanding and mistreatment of people on the spectrum (dehumanization, extermination, institutionalization).

The overall narrative moves from how we were defined by others, through the lens of pathology, to become defined in cooperation with others as well as by and for ourselves. Some of the writing is feel-good glib (too neatly concluded, too optimistically joined — he loves a hero narrative) and the author definitely takes sides on some of our internal controversies (sides I usually agree with, but sides nonetheless). For example, not everyone diagnosed with autism feels comfortable with its being understood as either a major filter for our perception / cognition or as the/a crucial dimension of our subjectivity / social identification.

Why does this matter? Because, by extension, not everyone diagnosed with autism wants to be part of a community of autistics or wants to belong to a cultural group identified with autism. Even those of us who do have our limits. Silberman seems to think that these are by default good things, empowering things — he has an extrovert’s bias. Community is always already positive, desirable, even to the point of nostalgic fantasies of autistics meeting in conventions and grokking one another, sleeping in public near one another, stimming together in hallways — I can’t tell you how uncomfortable these descriptions of communal experiences made me (head for the hills!).

Despite discomfort with the rather emotional and physically embodied models of community Silberman evokes, I spend hours each week giving anonymous advice online to other autistics and their loved ones and benefit from feeling a part of that community because it has helped me to understand and accept myself. At the same time, my son would rather not be part of the community, or even think of himself primarily as autistic, but pass as neurotypical because that helps him to feel unremarked and capable. Both can be decent options as long as the clinical label isn’t used to exclude, reduce, and deny (as it has too often in the past and sometimes continues to do in the present).

But Silberman also champions the cause of neurodiversity and its value to society. Although that is often reduced to its practical benefits (ala Temple Grandin), maybe that is a start to others accepting that humanity benefits when we broaden our sense of who matters (all of us) and how we ought to treat them (with kindness and inclusion). For this and for the comprehensive history of autistics told here for the first time, this is truly a valuable book, one that expands our potential for understanding difference along a different vector than we usually think of and are more familiar with as a general society or as academics (race, gender, class, sexuality, religion, etc.).

Reading Aspies through a Conventional Lens

“All human beings look out at the world through eye glasses imposed upon them by their own neurology. Then, they assign meaning to the behavior of others according to the meaning that behavior would have were they themselves engaged in it. Most times the guess is correct, but sometimes – like when neurotypicals (NTs) are looking at autistics – the guess can be wrong.” Judy Endow

Often wrong, yes. Tell it like it is, Judy Endow. My workplace held a training session on diversity and inclusion today, conducted by a very well informed and personable national consultant, David Bowman of Boston. I asked him how to deal with this kind of misinterpretation, when people interpret the behavior of an autistic along convention lines.

I told him that I know from what others say later that on first meeting I can come off as standoffish (I’m inwardly focused, concentrate intensely, dislike interruption, feel uncomfortable with eye contact, run on either a logical / thinking or social / emotional track and at the office often opt for the former and sometimes withdraw from overwhelming sensory triggers like strong perfume or a loud voice). They can interpret this as coldness or arrogance, neither of which is in my character.

I told him I have tried to help people interpret me correctly by disclosing my autism but found that even most educated people don’t know what that means, which leads to more and sometimes worse misinterpretation (a colleague recently supposed that I don’t drive because I have trouble focusing — Aspies are hyperfocused when engaged in an activity that interests them, and survival in the moment is in everyone’s interest — it’s the sensory issues that are stressful).

He apologized that he didn’t have any help for me, saying this was beyond his expertise. However, he added what he said what he hoped was a compliment — that I didn’t seem autistic or in any way socially inappropriate to him — I interacted positively with others, and he’d been watching me carefully since I asked challenging questions. He’d guessed I was one of the PhDs he’d known would be there (but hadn’t wanted named so that didn’t bias him), because I’d made him think, but that was it. I have to say, I was relieved.

Social Assumptions: On Common Ways Aspies are (Mis)Interpreted

One of the core deficits Aspies have is a weak theory of mind, also referred to as mindblindness. That is, because we have a limited social imagination, we often don’t understand what others are thinking or feeling. Not only do we not understand it, but we also often don’t pause to imagine it at all. It doesn’t occur to us because we are dealing with the intensity of our own inner worlds. Our patterns of thought tend to be detailed, complex, and focused. When we aren’t focused on these, we’re trying to filter out invasive sensory inputs. Since our brains aren’t built to filter these, and since we tend to feel them more strongly, this can take a lot of energy. Socializing with others also takes a lot of energy. We have to do it consciously and self-consciously, so we often don’t attend to it — and this is not only because we’d rather put our energy elsewhere, but because we don’t feel a sense of reward when we do due to how are brains are wired. However much humans have evolved, we remain animals who are motivated largely by the stimulation of reward centers in our brains.

Although this Aspie deficit is often discussed, what isn’t often talked about is the deficit that many neurotypical, or naturally social, people have in understanding us. Too often, they make the mistake of ascribing conventional social and psychological explanations to our behaviors and utterances. These assumptions often directly contradict the fact that Aspies are not inherently socially motivated. I will give a few examples to demonstrate and hopefully enlighten.

Instance 1: Attention Seeking: Recently, a self-described NT male wrote to the main Aspie subreddit, which I follow, to complain about an Aspie woman who has stalked him for years. She posts about their “relationship” in social media and spends time analyzing him and his behaviors there. He believes she does this out of a desire for others’ attention. This seems a misguided notion to me. Aspies tend not to be motivated by social interest. We are not attention seekers in that way.

So why is she posting to social media? It is much more likely that this guy and her relationship with him have become a fixed fantasy, which is rooted in our tendency to obsess about our interests. She does have strong feelings about him and her “relationship” with him in the context of this fantasy. By asserting this fantasy in a social space, it becomes more real to her.

She may also be seeking agreement with her point of view. We Aspies love proving that our view of a system is accurate. It is not likely that she herself wants to be the center of attention (an alpha female or diva) or to promote a particular status for herself as an important person in the social world (in this case, a female victim wronged by a man). This is common in the behavior of some NT users of social media.

Usually, aspies are drawn to social media or other social venues for sharing interests to promote the interest rather than ourselves, although I acknowledge that through identifying with the interest we may be gaining the same kind of emotional satisfaction that a neurotypical might gain through others attending to them directly. As another example, I primarily use my own Twitter to share articles that I believe are interesting and have value. I share them because I want others to be interested in them, too. I want my interests to rise in importance in the world so that others follow them, fund / support them, and contribute to our knowledge about them. I do not share these on Twitter to promote myself or to alter the opinion others have of me. That could be an effect of my behavior, but it would not be an intended one.

Aspies are not usually interested in advancing ourselves ahead of others because social status, and social roles in general, do not produce much feeling in us. To feel that, we would require a social imagination and an attachment to it. If and when we are arrogant, it is because we value competence and knowledge, and our ability to exhibit both; we sometimes devalue others who can’t keep up (immature of us, but there you are).

If Aspies do want a particular social identity to stick, it is that of expert in our areas of interest. We want and expect our expertise to be respected. When others don’t respect our expertise, the feeling is often one of irritation because the exchange of knowledge (often felt as a flow of information) is interrupted. We have to take the time to establish how we know what we know so that we can focus on the interest again rather than the social context around it. To us, this seems a waste of time; it only produces frustration.

Instance 2:  Attachments: When my son was in kindergarten, his well-meaning teacher harmed him without realizing it. He had a strong attachment to his best friend, a girl who was also in his class. This teacher was concerned that they played together almost exclusively. They did not reject other children from their play, but they didn’t actively include them or attend to them, either. The teacher finally reacted to this concern when their bond upset another little boy in class, who was also my son’s playmate but did not get along with the girl (he was jealous of her relationship with my son). The boy’s parents were going through a divorce, so he was especially needy at the time. The teacher wanted my son to help the boy deal with his emotional needs through being extra attentive to him. She began to regulate when my son could play with his best friend, so that the time they spent together was limited, and sought to stop them from any play in which others were not present. This led my son, when he understood what was happening, to feel that he was not allowed to spend time with his most important daily person, which took away an emotional resource, and that something was wrong with the way he felt comfortable relating to others, which reinforced the feeling of difference he had already begun to develop.

What my son’s teacher had failed to understand is how Aspies bond emotionally with others. We tend to develop bonds with a very few other people and those attachments run deep. In Aspie culture, we often refer to them as “our people.” If we lose one of our people to death or a breakdown in the relationship, we can experience profound grief. We meet almost all of our emotional needs through pursuing our interests, but what remains we meet through “our people,” and not through relating to other people or to people in general. We have difficulty developing such deep, intimate relationships because of the energy they take (we are rarely willing to expend it), the barrier in emotional understanding with most people (they don’t get us and we don’t get them), and the need to compromise on a regular basis (most of us have difficulty wanting to meet the needs of others, but others have trouble understanding that we have certain needs on which we are unable to compromise without harming ourselves, even though these can have to do with things that seem unimportant to others).  There may also be some kind of chemistry, and not necessarily a physical one, that enables us to find the person so interesting that they become one of our interests; it doesn’t always happen when and as it seems it should. We can experience loneliness, but that is when we have an absence of this kind of relationship in our lives.

To return to the opening example in Instance 1, sometimes, those people to whom we become intensely attached do not reciprocate. In cases of Aspie dysfunction, we don’t require this reciprocation. This is why Aspie have some elevated tendency to exhibit stalking behaviors. Since we live in our heads, we’re able to attach to the fantasy to the detriment of a relationship with the actual person who has inspired it. It’s to the detriment of ourselves, too, since this kind of social naivete can lead to being deceived, neglected, and abused. Most Aspies can probably think of a relationship in our lives in which their intensity of attachment was not reciprocated, even if it did not lead to actual stalking. We can probably also all think of relationships in which others have been much more attached to us than we were to them. Although neurotypicals also experience these things, they tend to be more common with us and more pronounced.

One thing that disturbs neurotypicals in getting to know us better is that we sometimes do not establish these kinds of bonds with the people to whom we are supposed to have them, given cultural norms (parents or siblings, peers with whom we hang out, people with whom we’ve worked for many years). For example, I have rarely experienced the sensation of missing any other person over the course of my life; I am able to leave a school, workplace, or group, and many individual relationships without that feeling either soon after or years later. That may seem a deficit. However, with the very few people to whom I have bonded, this is different. I prefer to interact with them daily. The world is not the same without them (and they may include other animals — such as a dog or cat — rather than only humans). My feeling of missing them does not diminish over time.

That said, for some years now, I have used Facebook as a way of connecting people from past times and places. I have attempted to change, to take an interest in people with whom I have enjoyed interacting in the past. I have found that this is surprisingly pleasurable, so perhaps we are able to grow in this area of emotional and social reciprocity as we are in others, such as in advancing our capabilities in theory of mind through observation and study (as I have — an important motivation for my studies of psychology and literature).

Instance 3: Group Bonding: When I joined the student counseling center staff at a major university (as a communications and IT manager), I felt a sense of difference from the social norm particularly strongly, because that work environment, as part of the Student Affairs division, had a culture in which a kind of student pep atmosphere dominated. We were asked to wear matching shirts for certain days and events. We were expected to be highly social, to want to participate in group activities, and to identify with the team. I could not produce those feelings. What is more, the emotional bond with the team was all the more important because of the special stresses of that work. Although the clinicians were trained professionals, the daily wear of clients’ emotions and the occasional wrenching crisis (a student suicide, criminal victimization, threat to self or others, or arrest) had an emotional impact. Without a strong sense of team, and of the social norms in expression and behavior that went with that team, trust was compromised and additional stress was introduced into the organization’s working atmosphere.

Although this was an unusual organizational experience, it’s nevertheless common that when I enter into a group experience, I often find an expectation that members will bond to one another through forming a shared bond to the group. This is an alien emotion; I am unable to feel it. My discomfort at the counseling center thus had a basis in Aspie “nature.”  As a rule, we are not joiners. We can have a strong sense of duty toward causes to which we belong: a workplace, a social mission, a profession, and we can emotionally bond with that idea of service to something larger than ourselves. We often identify with our interests and enjoy interacting with a community of people who share our interests, but our focus tends to be on the interest rather than the people themselves. One Aspie guide I have on hand describes us as “thing people” rather than “people people.” It’s reductive, and I prefer the term “systems people,” but not inaccurate. We tend to rate higher than neurotypicals on indexes of altruism and idealism and to value reason over emotion.

At the university counseling center, my sense of attachment was to the mission of providing counseling services and outreach to university students. I felt a passion to ensure that their development was supported so that they could pursue their educational goals and go on to live happy, fulfilling lives. This sense of mission was personally important to me (psychology and higher education are two of my interests), and I identified with it. I had a sense of duty toward students, since I continue to identify with the profession of college teaching, even though I rarely teach these days. I felt something for it and about it. But I could not feel something directly for the staff as a social group to which I belonged. I could admire individuals and enjoy interacting with them around our shared interests, but the group as a whole produced no fellow feeling. When this was expected of me, I felt uncomfortable, as if it both threatened to swallow me and spit me out.

This is not unique to me. Aspies tend to hold social groups at a distance, and the more negatively impacted or less self-aware among us may come to believe that social groups are the ones holding us at a distance. We are most comfortable either in a leadership position or at the fringe. The middle is fraught with energy-draining embarrassment and confusion. The more an organization promotes conformity to a social behavior or dynamic, the more we begin looking for ways to opt out. This is not anti-social in Aspies, as it would be in neurotypicals; it is better described as asocial. However, this response and its manifestation are often (mis)understood by neurotypicals as antisocial.

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.

Missing Signals: How People in the Workplace Let You Know You are “Different”

My current workplace has made a major commitment to “multicultural competency,” embracing diversity and inclusivity in the broadest sense — the way only a mental health provider embedded within a major public university can. Now that I am “out” at work as a person with Asperger’s, you would think — if people were walking the walk instead of just talking the talk — that they would be supportive of my neurodiversity. Some are. But some aren’t even trying to break a sweat, and this post is devoted to one means in which they signal their discomfort with my difference — or, rather, with the behaviors that result from it.

Earlier today I attended a “Multicultural Competence Committee” meeting, in which other new employees and I were oriented to the professional and personal development we’ll do over the next year in order to grow in this area. Let me say that I embrace diversity and inclusivity wholeheartedly. I don’t know that at this stage in my development I require a formal intervention, but I’m willing to see what’s possible. At the start of the meeting, we were invited to share our complex identifications with one another. Several people went before me (I chose to wait), and I enjoyed getting to know them better and learning their self-understanding and how it had evolved over time. For most people, race and gender were important identifications. For me, they have always seemed imposed from without rather than accepted from within. I explained this, and a number of other identifications in which I’m invested when I noticed the Chair look at the clock. I realized I’d gone on too long and wrapped it up. It might have been a kindness if he had given a more explicit signal sooner, since we Aspies can work up a monologue when a topic interests us — and cultural identification (my own and others’) is one of those things for me. But he meant to be kind, and that counts.

So what does the next person do? Does she begin her own story straight away? No. Like many people I encounter who believe I’ve violated a social norm, she indirectly announces that fact. She starts her statement with something like, “Well, I could go on with my story for twenty minutes or more, but I’ll keep it short and focused. There’s a lot more I could say, but I’ll just say that…” Ah. Now that got through, even in my dimmest moment. She has called me out. She has complained. She has done this indirectly, and in a fairly neutral tone, so it doesn’t seem that I can challenge her — nor would I, really, since she has a point. But the why of it troubles me.

Why, with her knowing that I have Asperger’s, does she still feel so put out that she must say something to the group to make the moment worse rather than better? Couldn’t she pull me aside later, if she really needed to say something? And, ironically, why would she do this in a forum designed to promote the acceptance of difference?  A possibility is that even though she knows I have Asperger’s the social deficit it imposes so closely mirrors intentional lapses in etiquette or social awareness that her default response is to take exception. That’s why Asperger’s is often called an “invisible disability.” We look normal, but we’re not. When I get caught up in a topic of interest (some call it an obsession), I enter a kind of flow state. I am transported somewhere else. Because I’m a professional with decades of practice in the world of work, and because I want to be the most pleasant and least annoying companion possible, I usually remember before it’s too late — I follow the time, or monitor my listeners. That’s how I noticed the Chair looking at the clock. But it’s not a strength, let’s say, even with so much practice.

This can happen even when I am asked a question. The detail, specificity, and intensity of my answer can make other people nervous, bored, annoyed. That happened at lunch today. One of the new staff asked a question about a notice he received about his utilities. I explained the concept of power aggregation, how it had been a subject of local city / county voting (aggregated plans leverage the collective bargaining power of consumers to reduce rates) now that it was permitted under recent changes in state law. He accepted the information well, since he was interested in making a prudent financial decision about his utility plan, but the other people eating with us went afterwards into long sweeps of how the question was so complicated and detailed they could not possibly form an opinion on it. I had just explained all of that to him, and recommended in favor of remaining with the aggregated plan, so what were they really saying? Their response was over-the-top dramatic enough that I believe they were expressing their pain at having to contemplate the details they had previously avoided as too dull and/or confusing. But again, in the form of an indirect, publicly aired complaint.

These co-workers also know that I have Asperger’s. I wonder if I was less tolerant of their differences what kind of indirect comment I might make about them in public? That kind of comment would certainly be less socially acceptable to make. And so we find that there is still a ways to go in understanding and even further toward acceptance.

Asperger’s: Discriminating Difference

What does discrimination look like? What does it feel like? Each experience of discrimination (racism, sexism, agism) has its own inflections, based on the ways in which the perpetuating culture provides a basis for supposedly validated judgments against particular groups. So when we talk about what Asperger’s discrimination looks and feels like, we’ve got to explain it as a particular form, from the inside.

One dimension of what Asperger’s discrimination feels like is a rejection of or reaction against introverts. Recently, a quiet social movement has begun to express the positive bias in our culture toward extroverts, and a corresponding negative bias against introverts. Susan Cain‘s book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking (2012) both crystallized the movement and catalyzed it to go further. Educational method, for example, has come to place a premium on collaboration (what Cain has elsewhere, in a NYT column, called “the rise of the new groupthink“). This pedagogical bias toward extroversion has become identified with participatory and authentic learning: students creating knowledge with other students as they work together to identify and solve topics or problems in common. Students who are adept in collaborative settings are sometimes assumed to be more advanced or mature than those who aren’t. Conversely, those who prefer to work on their own are sometimes labeled as deficient; they must be encouraged to change, even assigned to change, through social process requirements around their learning work.

Vanessa Quirk’s “In Defense of Introverts” is inspired by Cain’s work, and reflects well on how this matters to educational design, even the physical design of contemporary classroom spaces.

“The paradigm of the extrovert has become so accepted, that most people aren’t aware of its reach – or how our architecture has developed to meet its demands. Consider how the classroom – or the workplace – has changed in response. From students working autonomously in rows or employees in cubicles, there has been a huge push to create group-oriented spaces meant for collaboration, interaction, and conversation. As Sarah Conin notes in her TED Talk, ‘Our most important institutions, our schools and our workplaces, they are designed mostly for extroverts and for extroverts’ need for lots of stimulation.'”

Are all people with Asperger’s introverts? Maybe. Probably. By definition, we lead intense inward lives, obsessing about our interests, processing, processing, processing before emitting a response, often scripted. Our imaginations are extremely active and, well, compelling, and the world outside can provide sensory and social overload or, equally unsatisfying, limited cognitive stimulation. On the other hand, we’re often highly sociable and can enjoy the company of others, especially kindred spirits. We are not necessarily withdrawn from the world by predisposition, not as people might assume, given the verbal deficit and social withdrawal that are more commonly associated with Classic Autism.

But I don’t think I’m going out too far on the limb of generalization to say that it’s unlikely someone with Asperger’s will want to work in teams all the time for solving problems. We can work in teams, and we can even enjoy it in collaborative bursts, but we want our own areas of knowledge / expertise and responsibility. We want to be able to go back to our corners to reflect and puzzle. We don’t want our process of building inward systems disrupted, unless the person with whom we’re working can contribute actively and effectively to the modeling. We don’t want to get sidetracked or engage in small talk. The work is the thing, not the experience of working with other people on it. We don’t want anyone slowing us down or pulling in a different direction. Many of us are attracted to industries where these predispositions are embraced: academia, engineering, IT, writing and the arts.

There’s research evidence, much of it recent, that suggests that innovation is often the result of individual rather than group effort, and that group effort alone, when it does contribute, is not enough. Brainstorming is not the most effective method for advancing into new territory. Even open-plan offices, the kinds where people sit together with the old Dilbert cubicle walls taken down, have come under critical fire; according to Cain, 70% of American workers inhabit these. Open-plan offices are supposed to provide environments that foster collaboration. You’ve only got to lean over, roll your chair, or stand and deliver. But they’re noisy and distracting environments, too, and ones that don’t allow knowledge workers a place where they can take a thoughtful break doodling or sit with their eyes closed unobserved. They can lead to hits in productivity. For an introvert, they’re stressful, bottom line. But in American knowledge work culture, the private office is most often seen as a gift of privilege, to possess one is to possess status. To request to move to a private office can be perceived as overstepping. The desire to work alone or on one’s own is often equated with not being a team player or attempting o make one’s own decisions or cut others out of the loop. There is something subversive or suspect about the introverted worker who asserts a need for private, for quiet, for a room of one’s own.

The introverted worker, as many writers have now pointed out, sometimes encounters the bias American culture has against shy people in professional settings (to witness this bias in action, just Google how many career advice sites provide help for the shy in particular). To be shy, or reticent to express oneself in company, is often associated with being professionally passive, unable or unwilling to assert expertise or to gain necessary resources or to fail at persuading others of the value of one’s work or ideas. For men, shyness can be undesirably feminizing. For women, it can be socially rewarded, but ultimately subordinating. The shy of either gender are not management material; they do not, can not, rise to the top, whatever their brilliance, work ethic, or record of contribution. Fortunately for introverts, not all of us are shy, and fortunately for those of us with Asperger’s, our social deficits don’t render all of us shy, either. In fact, we might be perceived as too assertive or too insistent on engagement, carrying an argument until we believe we’ve proven our point or talking about a subject of interest long past its interest to others. We can often give a great, if scripted, presentation about our interests.

Although–it’s also true that some of us don’t make eye contact much if at all, and many of us drop speech or have delayed response to others. It can take us time to process before we respond, and other people can lack patience for that — or just feel it’s incredibly awkward. We can avoid social contact when it’s uncomfortable. All through my tween years, I made my friend buy things for me when we went to the store. I couldn’t stand to face the cashier. I still avoid store clerks. If they head toward me, I have to fight the urge to run. The more uncomfortable the situation, the more these behaviors manifest. Worst yet, if we claim we are introverts, we are often assumed to be shy, and so encounter the bias against shyness.

In addition to encountering biases against introversion and shyness, people with Asperger’s encounter a widespread cultural bias against nerds/geeks. U.S. culture, perhaps Western civ in general, has come a long way in accepting nerds/geeks since The Revenge of the Nerds (1984), which was perhaps just the beginning, along with Weird Science (1985), of celebrating the brainy, odd other. Nerd/geek girls are still fighting more of that good fight than boys. With the rise of computing and digital consumerism, particularly media, being nerdy or geeky has achieved its own kind of cool (we earn, we make things others like, we celebrate our difference and our sameness together — thank the Gods for the world wide web). Good looking people now regularly participate in cosplay. This is not how it was when I was growing up. When I was growing up, playing Advanced Dungeons and Dragons was for social oddballs, usually culled from the AP or gifted classes. We wore glasses. We didn’t get a lot of action. We expected to be successful academically, but not socially.

Even today, however, my son talks about the popular kids who inhabit jock culture. He’s resentful of their popularity and uncomfortable around their loud physicality. Every now and then, some hybrid soul rides the fence between worlds, but it’s not common and the world of conformist school society usually forces a choice. There’s not the kind of happy blended ending for these kids that one finds in teen series and romantic comedy. Who would choose to be a geek or nerd rather than one of the in-crowd?

I know a man who is a geek on the inside (he wanted to be an oceanographer), but was cursed with being too good looking. He married a cheerleader. They have two gorgeous kids and live in a beautifully decorated home. He works as a civil engineer and she teaches subjects at school that don’t require much intellect. He and I used to talk across the lawn outside while doing yard work. He’s tied himself for life to a vapid lifestyle (her favorite hobby is scrap booking) and a woman who can’t fulfill him mentally, but fortunately there’s more to marriage or I think he would have driven into a lake by now.

It’s just as well. Deep within nerd/geek culture is a tendency to discriminate against others who are athletic, popular, socially facile, and/or good looking. We don’t trust people like that, even though some estimates place them at 75% of the population. And maybe, in Aspie culture, the same thing can be said about Aspie reactions to neurotypicals, even though there’s more of them than us, or around 99% of the population (or more– some say we’re 1 in 500, not 1 in 100 or 1 in 88, which you’ll also see). Like all in-groups, we have defined our out-groups and we have biases against them. It’s not the better part of human nature, but it’s human and it’s natural enough.