The Joys of Working Within Your Tribe4 min read

I love my work. I hon­estly do. The pay is crap, the hours are intense, but here’s the truly unbe­liev­able part: it’s the people who make it so amazing.

I know, right? That’s impos­sible; people are hell. But before you hit me with your, “You can’t be autistic if you enjoy working with people” adages, just hear me out.

I didn’t used to enjoy working with people. In fact, the number-one reason I chose my intended career path was pre­cisely because my naïve young mind equated my field with having absolutely nothing to do with people. Therefore, it would be per­fect for a bud­ding mis­an­thrope.

Boy, was I wrong.

No one both­ered to tell me that just about every human endeavour is marred by lots and lots and lots of other pesky people to deal with. *Sigh*

But I am good at what I do. I bring some fan­tastic skills to it, like stellar spa­tial rea­soning and visu­al­i­sa­tion abil­i­ties and a daz­zling stage pres­ence that packs my lec­tures when others’ are dwin­dling.

I could have gone on hap­pily for a whole career in my first posi­tion, just doing my thing, accu­mu­lating awards and an adopted family of geeky stu­dents, and being my dogged, overly-loyal self, if it weren’t for bad man­age­ment.

I’d had a gut-full before I unloaded my story to a new col­league I met at a work­shop. She was inter­esting, and we were incred­ibly pas­sionate about many of the same things. She also worked at one of the top uni­ver­si­ties in the city my hus­band and I were con­tem­plating relo­cating to with our new baby. The moment I revealed our thoughts on moving, she replied, “I need you! You’re hired. Come work for me.” So I did.

A few years later, and still hap­pily plod­ding along with that job, I had a second child. Very shortly after she was born, I awoke one late after­noon from a much-needed nap to find a mes­sage on my phone offering me my dream job.

The upside: it wouldn’t inter­fere much with my existing job. The down­side: I’d have to leave my six-month-old baby for nearly three weeks, then again for a few more long trips just after she turned one, and again, and again, and again, for so long as I had the job. I didn’t hes­i­tate to say yes.

My new col­league and I quickly dis­cov­ered we were very much on the same wave­length. Ideas, plans, and pro­grams coa­lesced easily and seam­lessly between us. I found myself in the extraordinarily-privileged posi­tion as right hand to two people who just got me and were hell­bent on keeping me around no matter what. They were my men­tors, friends, col­leagues, and employers — what could go wrong?

A little over a year ago, after I’d had a few weeks to try to digest the sug­ges­tion I might be autistic and read every­thing I could find about female pre­sen­ta­tion, my second boss rang me about some­thing he needed help with. It had absolutely nothing to do with our shared work, but was rel­e­vant to my area of exper­tise.

After I helped him with his query, I said I needed his insight, too. I asked what he knew about Asperger’s, because I was trying to figure out if that was the missing key to under­standing so many of my own strug­gles. “Makes sense,” was his reply. “Pretty sure I am, too, but I wouldn’t tell anyone.” Makes sense.

Sitting next to my first boss on the bus for a field trip we were run­ning around the same time, I asked if she knew where I could get an ASD assess­ment for my daughter. As we talked, I raised the pos­si­bility that I might also be autistic. “Yeah, prob­ably,” she responded. “I got my diag­nosis a few years ago, but I’ve never told anyone.” Probably.

These deeply per­sonal rev­e­la­tions were incred­ible in them­selves, but the way these rela­tion­ships blos­somed after my diag­nosis was mind-boggling. Our superla­tive rap­port got even better. There was no need to explain when one of us was get­ting burnt out or needed soli­tude.

There was no more fear of judge­ment for the dozens of little things we’d pre­vi­ously tried to hide. I respected their right to stay in the closet; I under­stood their rea­sons. In return, they respected my deci­sion to be out and proud, awk­ward AF around our stu­dents, and to openly dis­cuss my neu­rology with anyone who cared to listen.

I know I’m incred­ibly lucky to work so closely with two mem­bers of my tribe, but that’s not even the best part. Among the hun­dreds of stu­dents we work with every year, there are the few spe­cial ones we spy. The instant spark of recog­ni­tion between fellow tribe mem­bers. I try to be a great role model for all my stu­dents, but now I have even more to give to some.

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3 Comments

  1. This is amazing! I would love to find other people on the spec­trum to work with without having to worry about saying or doing some­thing wrong.
    I do own my awk­ward, though — got sick of trying to cover it all the time.
    Thanks for sharing your expe­ri­ence with this. I hope lots of other people have sim­ilar sto­ries!

  2. What a won­derful story! Yes, being able to work within my tribe here has been absolutely amazing!

  3. You are indeed very lucky indeed. After finding out my diag­nosis 4 months ago, I have unfor­tu­nately had my eyes opened to to this new world where there is stigma, neg­a­tivity and flat out igno­rance. Just have to take it day by day. I really hope that I find a job with people as awe­some as you have 🙂 lovely read.

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