What’s in a Word: Asperger’s and Employers — A Case Study10 min read

When hiring indi­vid­uals with Asperger’s, employers often fail to rec­og­nize the sub­tleties of how com­mu­ni­ca­tion dif­fer­ences often derail the work envi­ron­ment.

This is the third install­ment of a series on Asperger’s and how var­ious antag­o­nists are making suc­cess dif­fi­cult for people on the spec­trum.

To read the rest of the series, click the links below:
Asperger’s and the APA
Asperger’s and Employers

Because of mis­con­cep­tions about what it means to have Asperger’s, too many adults go undi­ag­nosed. While it’s not the employ­er’s respon­si­bility to iden­tify or attempt to diag­nose employees, under­standing that con­ver­sa­tional and com­mu­ni­ca­tion dif­fer­ences can vary given one’s cul­ture, socioe­co­nomic back­ground, and neu­rology can lend to a com­pet­i­tive advan­tage and a more bal­anced, pro­duc­tive, conflict-free work­place.

Even better, a com­mit­ment to making room for people who think dif­fer­ently will improve the cul­tural cli­mate, diver­sify inno­va­tion, and increase pro­duc­tivity among employees.

A Real-Life Case Study

The fol­lowing is a case study which rep­re­sents how subtle dif­fer­ences in com­mu­ni­ca­tion can impact the cul­tural cli­mate of a work­place. Leah, a teacher with Asperger’s, recalls an inci­dent which nearly caused her to abandon her career. Names and details have been changed to pro­tect anonymity:

At a former job, a coworker– let’s call her Karen– once spent an entire year treating me with extreme hos­tility. I had no idea why, though. Because her avarice towards me was so obvious, it was noted by our supe­riors and an inter­ven­tion was sched­uled.

So, I set­tled into a chair in the assis­tant prin­ci­pal’s (here­inafter referred to as Principal) office, simul­ta­ne­ously feeling unnerved and relieved. Even though this was uncom­fort­able, I felt sup­ported by the admin­is­tra­tion. At the time, I didn’t know that I had Asperger’s, though I was always aware that I was some­thing very dif­ferent from the people around me.

Karen came storming in to the office and smiled at me, a sickly-sweet kind of grin I knew was not of the friendly variety. She always looked busy but pol­ished– a trait I envied.

It did not take Karen long to point her finger at me and accuse me of thinking that I was better than everyone else. This dumb­founded me because it seemed apparent to me that I was always the disheveled and dis­or­ga­nized one strug­gling to keep up with… well, every­thing. I was for­ever in awe at the mag­ical powers people had to keep their desks clean, remember meet­ings, or meet dead­lines.

This is how the con­ver­sa­tion went:

Principal: Leah, how does this make you feel?
Me (inter­nally): Like I am in the Twilight Zone, or like I am the sub­ject of sadistic and elab­o­rate prac­tical joke
Me: Confused. I don’t know why Karen thinks that about me. It is the oppo­site of how I feel about myself and everyone else here.
Karen: See?! I knew she would deny it.
Me: Could you tell me the evi­dence you have for claiming that I think I am better than everyone else?
Karen: And there you go again, belit­tling me with your snide remarks.
Me (inter­nally): Surely, my super­visor will see this woman is not rational
Supervisor: It is hard for me to watch this happen.
Me (inter­nally): Good, she’s going to defend me
Supervisor: You are manip­u­lating Karen and inval­i­dating her feel­ings, and I’m not buying it. You need to take respon­si­bility for your actions instead of deflecting.
Me: *shocked silence*

Internally, I’m trying rabidly to piece together what is hap­pening, but I can’t under­stand it. I had been so dis­tressed throughout the year, knowing how much Karen and her well-connected net­work of co-worker friends hated me, that I strug­gled to walk in to the building in the morn­ings. I sat in my car until I was a minute late, pan­icking and trying to meter my breathing.

I had been to a car­di­ol­o­gist thinking that I had heart prob­lems. After wearing a Holter mon­itor for sev­eral days, I was told that I was having stress-induced (but harm­less) pal­pi­ta­tions. I had expe­ri­enced panic attacks after sev­eral depart­ment meet­ings wherein the whole point seemed to be to lure me into a trap and then deride me.

As a part of the full-scale attack Karen had launched against me, I had been con­ve­niently left out of emails I needed to see (causing me to miss meet­ings and dead­lines), not invited to attend events that I orga­nized, and spoken to harshly all year. I was embar­rassed sev­eral times to be left out of the loop only to show up totally unpre­pared for sev­eral social and pro­fes­sional events.

Karen and her friends attended the lec­tures I was asked to present only to laugh at me during my pre­sen­ta­tions. I started the lec­tures hope­fully, thinking that they would see how hard I worked and how pas­sionate I was, be endeared at the work I’d invested, and change how they felt about me. It didn’t happen.

My depart­ment mem­bers and some other fac­ulty stopped their friendly con­ver­sa­tions when I walked into the mail room or lounge, or they whis­pered and then cackled loudly to make it clear to me that I was the sub­ject of their jokes.

Now, I was sit­ting in my supe­ri­or’s office, clearly behind on a con­ver­sa­tion they had already been having. This was a feeling to which I was very accus­tomed– being the sub­ject of a con­ver­sa­tion to which I was not invited.

Principal: Karen, would you be gra­cious enough to offer an example or two of times when Leah has belit­tled or con­de­scended to you.
Karen, grin­ning: Gladly. How about the time when I made those review games for the whole depart­ment, and she mocked them to my face?
Me: I have never mocked you. I lit­er­ally have no idea what you mean.
Karen: Oh, you did, and you know it. You made some off-handed com­ments about my lack of com­puter skills.
Me: I thought those were amazing. I thanked you.
Karen: You thanked me after you insulted me. You just don’t remember it.
Me: Oh, I remember that day. It was November 28. We were standing in the hall between second and third period, and you were wearing a teal sweater with brown suede pants and heeled pleather boots. Your neck­lace matched your sweater, but your ear­rings were red. The time was 10:17. You apol­o­gized for not get­ting them to me before first period. I flipped through the cards; then, I said, “Wow, these must have taken you all night. Thank you so much,” to which you smiled and said, “It was nothing.”

I thought this would clear up any mis­con­cep­tions. To my mind, adding more details about the memory would sub­stan­tiate and verify the facts and put my boss and my co-worker at ease. At the time, I had no idea that my memory was expo­nen­tially more detailed than most peo­ple’s, and that I was creeping people out with what I assumed was typ­ical recall.

Karen uttered an exas­per­ated “See!?” to my prin­cipal, who had a dark scowl on her face. I’ll never forget that look, a look I’d seen a thou­sand times. The whatiswrong­withyou, don’­ty­ouknow­better, arey­oure­al­lythisstupid gaze of someone who was not charmed by my eccen­tricity or endeared to my quirks.

My imme­diate super­visor heaved a sigh, buried her head in her hands, and started mas­saging her tem­ples. I noted the trash cans in prox­imity in case I needed to empty the vending machine cui­sine I’d had for lunch. Then, she gasped and looked at me, an epiphany like a fresh light­bulb on her face.

Principal: Leah, what did you think of the mate­rials Karen made?
Me: I thought they were amazing. I still use them all the time. I made a game out of them.
Principal: What was going through your head when Karen gave these to you? What thoughts did you have that made you making the mate­rials had taken her all night?
Me: Well, we were in a meeting until late. Karen has three chil­dren, and her dog had to be picked up from the vet. Her van was in the shop. She would have had to have gone to a store to get con­tact paper, card stock, scrap­book paper, and binder clips. She had to pick her chil­dren up from school, take her daughter to soccer prac­tice, and it was her day to pro­vide snacks for the whole team. She couldn’t have gotten home before seven, and I assume she had to pre­pare or at least eat dinner.

She cre­ated the exam­ples for the lit­er­a­ture circle cards her­self. I could tell because they had her stu­dents’ and her fam­i­ly’s names in them… and the dog’s name. Then, she added matching clip art to every card. That had to have taken three hours at least. Then, she printed four­teen copies of each set, with ten cards each, cut them all out pasted them to scrap­book paper to color code them– and then cut those out. That’s 280 rec­tan­gles. After all that, she lam­i­nated each set, front and back, with clear con­tact paper and cut those out. That’s 420 rec­tan­gles.

Karen was crying by the time I was fin­ished. My prin­cipal gave her a look, then me a look, then they exchanged a look. It was another look I had come to know well– the blessh­er­heart look. Somehow, answering that ques­tion had solved every­thing, but I had no idea what was hap­pening. The inter­ven­tion ended with Karen apol­o­gizing to me, for every­thing, really, and hug­ging me awk­wardly. I under­stood zero per­cent of what had hap­pened.

It took me a full decade of reflec­tion to under­stand what hap­pened, and I’m still not exactly sure. Here’s my best guess, though:

The assis­tant prin­cipal, a former spe­cial edu­ca­tion teacher, had prob­ably real­ized I had Asperger’s. Maybe Karen had, too? I was a com­puter nerd, and I was the go-to when some­thing tech­nical was amiss.

Karen was older and technologically-averse, and she had been one of those people who was always asking for my help. When I said it had taken her all night, she assumed it was con­de­scending. Maybe? I often say things, honest and kind (to my brain, at least) things, and watch the friendly smile of my con­ver­sa­tional partner melt into some­thing neg­a­tive and uncom­fort­able.

Even still, I doubt my inter­pre­ta­tions. This is just one of a mil­lion social dilemmas that haunt my sleep­less nights. The ques­tion, against a thou­sand sce­narios, is always, What did I do wrong?

Leah was unaware of exactly how dif­ferent she was from most people, and most people were unaware of how Leah was dif­ferent. Leah was using her innate empathy, assuming others were wired like her, and reading coworkers the wrong way.

Leah didn’t realize that her evi­dence and facts were being per­ceived as gaslighting or con­de­scending to others, and her failure to speak to the emo­tional labor of their invest­ments. She didn’t realize that com­pli­menting someone on the time they spent on some­thing was not the love lan­guage of her neu­rotyp­ical co-workers. The love lan­guage of the autistic is not in some­one’s apti­tude or atti­tude, but in the time spent working on some­thing. To them, pas­sion is reflected by time invest­ment (hence the hyper­focus on spe­cific inter­ests).

The innate empathy of Leah’s co-workers was unre­li­able in mea­suring her inten­tions. Karen thought that Leah’s fact-based approach was unfeeling and con­de­scending. Most likely, there were other times when Leah had said some­thing that seemed “off” to Karen, like Leah was playing mind games with her. Neither employee intended to be hos­tile, but nei­ther under­stood their dif­fer­ences.

People with Asperger’s in career posi­tions often find social­izing with the cus­to­dians and the cler­ical staff much more easily-intuited and nat­ural. This is because the com­mu­ni­ca­tion dif­fer­ences between socioe­co­nomic classes are vastly dif­ferent, and as edu­ca­tion levels and socioe­co­nomic class rises, levels of subtly and sub­text increase.

The “raw” lan­guage and the values of someone with Asperger’s is appre­ci­ated by people from cul­tural back­grounds and poverty back­grounds, seen as more authentic and lacking in pre­tense. People with Asperger’s do not have an iden­tity grounded in social belonging (like neu­rotyp­ical iden­tity), and so they have no internal ranking system.

Adults and chil­dren, rich and poor, Black and white, and every­thing in between are on a level field of impor­tance in autistic sen­si­bility. Not real­izing the dif­fer­ence in per­cep­tion, they often fail to per­ceive the seniority and subtle power struc­tures in their work­place. Unaware of their place in these unspoken power dynamics, autis­tics are often seen as dis­re­spectful and self-important.

Challenging a policy or direc­tive will be seen as insub­or­di­na­tion and willful oppo­si­tion to neu­rotyp­ical employers; how­ever, to Aspergian sen­si­bility, it’s the most respectful way to con­tribute to a pro­duc­tive work envi­ron­ment.

Employers can’t know when an employee is on the spec­trum; how­ever, they can adjust their per­spec­tives to allow for giving employees the ben­efit of the doubt when con­flicts arise and two people appear to be on dif­ferent pages.

To read more about how employers can make their work envi­ron­ments more accom­mo­dating for neu­ro­di­verse employees, click here.

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