4

The working aspie

typingThere’s a lot in the media at the moment about how low the employment rates are for people on the spectrum. While I know people with ASD personally who are having a real struggle finding work, I wonder how many people with undiagnosed ASD are managing to hold a job down or maybe even thriving?

My Asperger’s/Aspie-like traits have certainly influenced my career. Once I’d learned the rules of interviews – the ‘correct’ answers to all those weird interview questions that you’re not actually supposed to answer honestly – I managed to get jobs quite easily. I certainly didn’t thrive in most of them though, as I hadn’t twigged all those other rules that you have to follow in order to do well on a day-to-day basis.

Self-diagnosis has brought with it a much better idea of what works for me and why, and I try and manage my work in line with that as much as I can, although I still keep my self-diagnosis secret from colleagues. I’m fortunate that in my latest role – postdoctoral researcher – which I’ve been in since February, I can work mainly from home. I go onto campus about once a week. I don’t live nearby, and the commute wouldn’t be practical for anyone on a daily basis, but it’s manageable for a day here and there. I know that on that day, I’m not going to be productive beyond the first few hours. I’m in a shared office, and although my colleagues are lovely, they are pretty distracting. They usually come in a bit later than me (most of us are part-time, so work around other commitments), and there’s quite a bit of chatting. From that point, I do what I can, and figure that the time I spend doing research-related reading on the train makes up for what I don’t do in the office.

I also know that the day after going on campus, I function at about 50% of normal level. A lie-in will improve things, and it’s important that I don’t schedule anything too intellectual for that day. Initially, this job ran alongside another part-time job (a contract that’s now finished – this is the job that I was struggling with in the last couple of blogs I wrote, and I cut it down to part-time hours when I got this job) and sometimes the demands of that job, where I  had to be out client-facing quite regularly, were draining. I find university campuses easier to deal with than business environments. There are lots of people who don’t ‘fit the mould’ in academia, and being a bit odd is less of an issue than elsewhere.

My challenge is how to replace the part-time job that’s finished. I don’t want to replace the research job with a full-time role somewhere else because I really enjoy it and it’s adding some good stuff to my CV. I’m hoping to find some part-time university teaching, and am writing ebooks. I’ve also set myself up to do my old job on a freelance basis if the opportunity arises, although that’s more of a common sense thing than something I particularly want to pursue. There are a few bits of work coming up for that, mostly statistical analysis, at home. Just my sort of thing!

2

On diagnoses

Ever since I realised I probably have Asperger’s, I’ve wondered about getting a proper diagnosis. I now have a long list of pros and cons, but I’m increasingly feeling the need to have one, just for someone to back up my suspicions.

Cons

  • I’d probably have to pay as I can’t see my GP referring me – after all, I’ve managed this long without one
  • Once I have a diagnosis, I can’t put it back in the box. If people ask me in an official capacity, I’ll have to come clean and that’ll probably result in my being judged negatively
  • The actual diagnostics would involve me going over all kinds of evidence, including the numerous excruciating faux pas (is that a plural? My French is a bit crap) that I manage to make and try to push from my mind as much as I can
  • Ideally, they like a parent there too, so I’d probably have embarrassing stuff dragged up that I didn’t even realise I’d done
  • Maybe they’ll decide it’s not an ASD at all, and either diagnose something I haven’t got, or make out that I’ve made it all up or I’m being silly

Pros

  • I’d know for sure: it would be nice to have confirmation of what I think
  • Long term, I’d like to be able to be more open about it with people, but wouldn’t want to do that with a self-diagnosis: I’d want something more official first
  • I’d be able to take part in research on female aspies – there’s a shortage of participants for studies
  • I’d be able to be an advocate and perhaps increase understanding of the condition – on the other hand, while I tick all the boxes for social ineptness, sensory issues, spotting details, needing routine/predictability, having very strong interests etc., I’m unusual in that I’ve managed to live independently for periods of time, and maybe that would mislead people, given that most people with ASD struggle here.

My husband has said he thinks it’s a really bad idea to get diagnosed, because of potentially having to declare it. He’s particularly worried about issues with health insurance (which I don’t have and I don’t need as I’m in the UK), and my driving licence and possibly my car insurance – but you only have to notify the DVLA if a condition worsens or a new condition emerges, and since there’s been no change and I’ve always had it, including when I was learning to drive and taking my test, there isn’t a problem there. I’ve been driving 27 years; car insurers can charge more for a disabled driver if there’s a substantiated increased risk, but nobody seems to have heard of this happening.

My job, meanwhile, is becoming less and less aspie-friendly. The direction the business needs to go (which I’ve identified – I’m doing a marketing plan right now) is for my role to include more face-to-face corporate business stuff and very little research, although research is what I was mainly taken on to do. I’m really not great with corporate environments; all those kinds of jobs I’ve had in the past have involved problems which I now know are ASD-related – getting the wrong end of the stick, not doing appropriate stuff, doing inappropriate stuff, totally misreading things –  so I need to get out! I’m applying for lots of academic jobs right now, which are a much better fit because eccentricity is almost expected, though I’ve not struck lucky yet. Fingers crossed…

 

0

My job

I have a job. A proper, grown-up job. It’s not unlike some of the stuff I’ve done in the past – the stuff I struggled with, eventually coming to the conclusion that the right place for me was academia, where I could have space, and autonomy, and where it’s normal to be a little bit eccentric.

This job is not in academia. A lot of what I do is not dissimilar – training rather than teaching, research for other people rather than pursuing my research interests – but the skills have a lot of crossover. It’s also the first job I’ve done with the (self-)diagnosis. It’s been interesting to experience the same old challenges, but have some understanding of why they’re happening. Interesting. Not much fun though.

I took the job partly because it was based working from home, with a day or so a week out and about. Working from home is great: I like the control, I like being on my own, I like being able to Get Stuff Done. The out and about stuff is harder. It’s not constant, so I can normally hold it together for the half day I need to. Occasionally it’s a full day, and the second half tends to be littered with instances of my verbal processing breaking down. I’d realised I had some verbal processing issues, but I can now see that they’re particularly related to stress and tiredness, I guess from camouflaging.

I have realised that I’m actually very good at camouflaging for short periods. I’m particularly good doing so in job interviews. I guess because I go prepared, because I’ve been briefed what to expect, and I’ve rehearsed the ‘right’ answers to all those silly interview questions, and written summary after summary of how my experience matches these or those criteria, I can often nail it. I can’t keep up that level of performance for more than an hour or so though, and I often feel a desperate need to escape afterwards.

At the moment, more and more client-facing stuff is being handed over to me. I often feel out of my depth. I don’t feel I have the expertise to provide the quality of service that’s expected. My boss is trying to spread himself too thinly, so as much as possible is delegated to me, but I’m not always the right person to deliver: he is. I think ultimately the business model doesn’t quite hang together.

I’m not sure I quite hang together either. When I’m out camouflaging for the day, or half-day, I find I’m very tired for the next day or so. In my spare time, I’m preparing for the next move, but I’m finding it quite tough, as the job is getting increasingly tiring. I look forward to quieter weeks, then find a load of stuff being added to my diary. In the New Year, it’ll be reasonable to move, given my career path (it would actually be damaging to stay too much longer even if it wasn’t so tough, as it’ll stop adding to my CV and begin to hinder my development in the direction I want to take long term).

I’ll do so with a lot more awareness of how I function (or don’t!) in certain situations, and the likely reasons.

0

Christmas: opening up, and escaping

bauble

 

It wasn’t my idea to host Christmas; my husband suggested it. The last time, a few years back, I found pretty tough; the difference is that now, I know what’s underpinning it all, and what I need to try and avoid. I like my family, but having them all there for almost a week is a bit overload. I was pretty glad to have running as an excuse to get out the house: I’ve run regularly for some years now, and often go to my local parkrun. There was one on Christmas Day, as well as the regular Saturday parkrun on the 27th.

There weren’t any major arguments, just little frictions. My husband and I tend to get up pretty early, and go to bed early, which didn’t always sit well with the rest of the family. I’d submitted my PhD thesis a couple of weeks before after burning the candle at both ends to finish it, then had a fairly hectic schedule with some work commitments, as well as having to do all the Christmas shopping and preparations. I’m afraid I was quite snappy with anyone complaining about their accommodation (although I did not, as I’d threatened, send anyone home for complaining). I felt on the verge of meltdown as I tried to go to sleep on Christmas Eve – in tears – but the parkrun seemed to get me back in a better mood, and I managed to keep going for the rest of it, although I probably wasn’t very communicative.

My Dad perused my bookshelves, and wondered why I had so many books on Aspergers, so I told him the reason: because I probably have it. He was disbelieving, and kept talking over me every time I tried to explain, so I sent him off with the AQ test. He got 27, which was pretty much where I thought he’d be. He has some Aspie traits, but I don’t think he’s over the threshold (people don’t, as far as I can tell, think he’s weird). I think that gave him a better idea of the symptoms, so when I told him my score (42 most recently: it’s gone up 1 or 2 points as I’ve realised I do Aspie stuff that I didn’t originally think I did), he seemed to get it.

“Oh,” he said. “Oh. Right.”

He’s confirmed that I definitely stim – the handflapping, I think, which I hadn’t realised, although I know I occasionally rock, and have various fidgetty things I do. I’m not sure if he’s told my Mum.

Although I gather some Aspies struggle to adapt back after the festivities, I don’t. I guess I’m used to the house becoming suddenly quiet when my husband heads back to work (he’s away for several days at a time), and it was a relief to be able to get all the rid of all the Stuff – furniture, bags, noise – that had been a bit much over the previous few days. I was also feeling uncomfortable spending so many days not working, as it was difficult to concentrate with so many people around. Now I’m back to it: job applications, and re-writing chunks of my research so that it can be published in academic journals (fingers crossed).

And my husband, whose idea it all was? I think he struggled more than me. He’s an only child, and not close to his family (he was to his Mum, but she passed away before I met him), so having lots of people around, and people you feel you have to be on your best behaviour around (which I don’t!) was tougher than he expected. Next year, Christmas is at my parents’, and Christmas lunch will be at a local restaurant, which will take some of the pressure off everyone, I think. Hopefully it’ll also include a parkrun.

 

2

Taking things literally

neuron

One of the characteristics of Asperger’s is taking things literally. Generally, I’d say I have a good understanding of odd expressions – things like wearing your heart on your sleeve, or having a frog in your throat – perhaps because even those of us with oddly connected neurons pick these things up eventually.

Where I’m not so great is with one-off contexts. I often get the wrong end of the stick. So when my husband asked if his flask was in the cupboard I was standing by, I opened the cupboard, saw it was, shut the cupboard, and answered his question. How was I supposed to know that ‘Is my flask in the cupboard?’ means ‘Can you get my flask out of the cupboard?’

The end result is that, these days, the misunderstanding gets attributed to Asperger’s rather than my stupidity, although I think it’s a little bit stupid to ask one question when you want the answer to another one.

 

3

Managing

stress gif

It’s been a mixed week. Not long ago, I sent off two applications for jobs for after I finish the PhD. At the time, I figured I’d have it done by the end of September, and while the jobs would involve starting before that, it wouldn’t overrun that much as a result. Would it? And anyway, they were just applications, and the jobs were probably long shots.

Last week I got two invitations to interviews, on consecutive days, with all the preparation that involves – not just for what I say and do during the interview, but what I wear. I’ve not been to an interview for years, and none of my old suits will fasten (writing up involves a lot of cake).

I started some work on the 10-minute presentation for one of the interviews, but found it a huge challenge to sell myself in an area where I don’t have a huge amount of experience, so I thought I’d move onto the wardrobe. As I drove towards the out-of-town shopping precinct where I thought I could find some inexpensive, smart clothes, I was starting to lose it. After an afternoon of rack after rack of stuff that was too summery, too fussy, too expensive or just unsuitable, I had enough for one interview and figured I could cobble together enough stuff for a second (I wouldn’t wear the same top on successive days, but I wouldn’t have the chance to launder anything in between). It wasn’t much of a confidence boost – more a compromise.

I had a meeting with my supervisor about my thesis, and while it’s close to completion, it still needs a lot of work. And at some point over the weekend, I realised I was trying to do too much. In the past, I’d have carried on. I’d have risked a meltdown in an interview that I was underprepared for, and even if I’d performed well enough to get the job, I’d have struggled to settle into it with the thesis still hanging over me. I know this, because it’s exactly what I did with my first PhD, which I wrote up while juggling a succession of jobs; it wasn’t really up to scratch, and I was lucky to get through the viva with major rewrites rather than a fail.

The advantage I have now is that I recognise where things have gone wrong in the past, and I understand why. While some of my academic strengths probably come about through Asperger’s, so do my workplace weaknesses. My first post-doc job needs to be somewhere I can do well so I can build on it in the future. I can do OK in the right environment, with the right level of effort, I think (I’ve got some books to help me out too) – but that’s simply not viable while I’ve got so many balls in the air. 

To be shortlisted for 100% of my (2!) applications shows that I can tick the pre-interview boxes. There will be future opportunities. And trying to work while finishing off a PhD is a challenge for anyone, on the spectrum or not. I’ve withdrawn both applications so I can focus on completing my thesis to a good standard. Both my supervisors were understanding about withdrawing and made encouraging remarks about my success in being shortlisted, and other people I’ve told have thought it’s a sensible decision to pull out (some who know about the Asperger’s, and others who don’t). I know it was a decision that I had to make as I was on track for a disaster at some point. Now I can focus on getting things sorted out at an appropriate rate, and make sure I have time to prepare for interviews AND to get plenty of tips from my ‘Aspie at work’ books beforehand.

Other news: I haven’t mentioned the Aspergers to my family yet. There was too much other stuff going on. But I did realise that my unconventionality really doesn’t stand out; there’s lots of subtle eccentricity in my family, which for the most part (in Aspie-appropriate small doses), I rather like. 

0

Finding tribe

Football team

This week, I went along to an Asperger’s support group. There were about 12 people there, I think: 3 Mums, and the rest were Aspies from various points along the spectrum, mostly young people but a few around my age. There was a lot of comparing notes: I actually spent more time talking to the Mums than to the Aspies, because I wasn’t sure who was who and whether there were ‘rules’ about who sat where. One of the Mums was describing her son’s experience of AS/A levels after good GCSE results (in the UK, GCSEs are school exams taken at 16, then there are AS levels and A levels taken at 17/18). It’s common for people with Aspergers to struggle in secondary school (post-11) because of the need for more organisation, and study skills that they might not have needed in junior school (up to 11). Many still do fine at GCSE, particularly if they’re bright, but A levels are another thing altogether.

Post-16, I really struggled to get to grips with the content and the organisation needed, and to follow what was taught in class. My A level results aren’t that bad, but they certainly aren’t what intellectually I might have got if I’d had NT learning abilities and organisation. And I had a chat with a Mum whose son has had a far more dramatic struggle to bridge the GCSE-A level jump than I did.

I felt lucky to have my brain. It might not be wired as it ought to be, but I’m very fortunate to be high-functioning enough to get through stuff. I can live independently, but most of the people there couldn’t, even though they came over as being bright and articulate when we chatted about their interests. There wasn’t really anyone similar to me there that evening, but the Mums were saying that there were other members who weren’t there who were comparable. I’m definitely going back to more meetings. It’s nice to have a social event where it’s OK not to talk all the time (although some Aspies are quite chatty: I find that hard, but part of that I think is because I’ve often had negative responses: I bore people, or lose track of where the conversation is and get weird looks).

At the end of the evening, we talked about diagnoses. Some people there had been diagnosed, others weren’t planning on getting one because they didn’t want the negative connotations of the label. My response? I said I wasn’t sure, because of possible negative reactions, because in many ways it’s a positive thing, not a disability. Although there are some things I find tough, I don’t think I’d be completing my 6th degree (which is also my 2nd PhD) if I wasn’t Aspie.

I’m still undecided, though. I applied for a job the other day where, if you met all the essential criteria and ticked the disability box, you were guaranteed an interview. Would that mean I had more chance of getting the job? Or would it mean that I had to spend the time preparing for and going to the interview despite there being other, better candidates, and me not having much chance of success?

This weekend, I’m off to visit my parents, so it’ll be interesting to see what their view is on all this. I haven’t told them yet, although Dad and I had a chat about the Uta Frith documentary a few months back. They’re generally OK about stuff like this; I think they’ll find my theories interesting, and perhaps be able to make better sense of some of the stuff I’ve done in the past. As a child in the 70s, Asperger’s was pretty much unheard of, so there was never any likelihood of a diagnosis back then. But what about now?