What’s in a Word: Asperger’s and Employers – A Case Study

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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