a parliament of owls

life with asperger's

Tag: work

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.

Asperger’s: The “Invisible” Disability

I can almost always tell when people think I’m a little off, or a lot off for that matter. They get a look like they’ve expected to swallow fresh milk but it’s turned sour in their mouths instead. Sometimes someone who’s overheard the exchange will make an excuse for me, or attempt to cover over whatever it is I’ve said. The verb “smoothing” comes to mind, like I’ve just disarranged the couch cover in front of honored guests. That’s when I feel most visible.

Often, no one in this awkward social moment is aware–except me–that I have Asperger’s Syndrome. I am most at risk of being inadvertently exposed as lacking socially when I am concentrating on a topic of interest. Then, all of my cognitive energy is coursing into thinking about that subject, and none of it is left for expressing my thoughts about it in a socially careful way. It does not occur to me that I will express my opinions too forcefully or too bluntly. It does not occur to me that for others in the conversation this is a social dance with as many ritual mating gestures and noises as island birds’–instead of what I experience: a direct conduit between logically engaged brains all focused on the pursuit of accuracy, truth, solution.

It is not that I don’t care about the feelings of the other people with which I’m talking. I do care. I’m a person who values kindness over nearly anything: intelligence, correctness, ego. As soon as I’ve understood that I’ve disturbed or upset someone, I am alarmed, embarrassed, unsure. To be honest, sometimes I’m also frustrated, especially with people who are overly sensitive about their pride being hurt. Those people tend to fall into one of two groups: people who are used to others deferring to them because of their status and people who are used to thinking of themselves as the smartest and most informed person in the room.

It’s a commonplace that people with Asperger’s don’t defer, and in the workplace, that can give us difficulties with supervisors. A lack of deference, however, is not necessarily a lack of respect. People with Asperger’s tend to want structure and be oriented to follow rules; it’s hardwired into us. Our love of patterns is an expression of our love of order. This translates to the workplace as an inherent respect for a supervisor. A supervisor is a giver of rules. A supervisor serves as an important organizing node in the workplace’s structure. Now comes the “but.” A supervisor also needs to be corrected if he or she is mistaken, because a misinformed supervisor disrupts order even more than mistaken co-workers or subordinates. A mistaken supervisor can set bad project parameters, for example, or put into place processes that don’t work as effectively and elegantly as possible. And here’s the thing.

People on the spectrum tend not to be loyal to people. We are loyal to our organization, and even more importantly, to its mission. We are idealists by nature. We are all about work, and when we devote all of ourselves to work, it has to matter. It has to mean something. It has to get a real result. Anything that gets in the way of that needs to be corrected, even at a cost to ourselves.

Bear with me through this apparently unrelated for instance.

When my son was a toddler, he did not care for action figures. He would not play with anything that had a face. These toys simply did not interest him. This concerned me, because I would watch other children his age, say, another little boy, excited about holding a superhero and zooming around with it as if he were the one flying. “Normal,” socially-oriented little boys might gather their superheros together to fight a bad guy, talking all the while about who had the better superpower. My son identified with machines and operations instead. He was a bulldozer, or even the brains behind the operations of a busy train station. He was focused on what these toys did, and how they did it, rather than on any personality with which they might be imbued or how they related to one another as individuals with inner lives.

Now, fast forward a couple of decades or more. Take this same child and plunk him down in a workplace. When working, he is not primarily interested in the people with whom he works as personalities, as individuals. He will relate to them as mechanisms within an operation. He will focus on what they can accomplish together toward a specific work product and the objectives that inform that product. What would he say, if he could, to the timetable in train station if it malfunctioned, sending the trains onto the wrong tracks at the wrong time? He would provide it with a correction. He would ensure that order was restored and organizational goals were met.

And this provides me with a good metaphor: track switching. Those of us with Asperger’s are capable of track switching, just like trains. I can be running on a mental track that is all about the best and correct way of accomplishing a goal at work, devoting all of my energy to it. And then, I can switch tracks to a social course, in which I am thinking about how other people around me are feeling and what they may be thinking about what is going on between us. These tracks do not run in tandem for me; they are separate, distinct mental tracks. What’s more, although the social track matters, because of my intense interest in certain subjects, like the subject of my work, when I am running on the work track, it matters much more to me. It is not easy for me to leave it. And if I am forced off that track abruptly, by someone getting angry, for instance, I am utterly derailed for a time.

Over the years, I have learned that it is sometimes desirable, before moving to the work track, to run for a bit on the social track: to make small talk (which usually bores me), to set up an assurance that I intend to be collaborative, to offer that there are many solutions and that the one I’ll present is just one. Unfortunately, that doesn’t solve the whole problem of interacting with others well in the workplace, or of being made suddenly visible as someone with ASD when I would prefer to be as invisible as Liu Bolin. Although Asperger’s is often called a “hidden” or “invisible” disability, that label can be misleading. Given the social deficit which is the essence of my Asperger’s, I know that however much I try, eventually I will say something too bluntly or go on at too much length. I will question when I should agree, I will state an opinion when I should have none. With Asperger’s, it is impossible to truly remain invisible.