“You said you got a problem, right? You’re autistic, aren’t you?”
Those were the words spoken to me right as I was about to be fired from the best kind of job I could envision… being a dog walker. I’ll start from the beginning.
After having a meltdown while working in retail for a sportswear company and putting in my two weeks, I had to get a new job fast. For a week straight, I did nothing but apply to jobs until I finally stumbled upon something remarkable. There was a Craigslist ad for working as a dog walker in a dog boarding facility. Names will be changed and the companies involved will not be mentioned in this piece.
I applied via email to the facility’s owner, whom we’ll call Mike. After he gave me a tour of the property, which had his large white house, a giant oval dirt field resembling a high school track, a barn which housed the dogs, and the house behind the barn where the “farm manager” lived. Since dogs are extremely therapeutic for me when I have anxiety or need sensory stimulation, this job seemed like a dream come true, especially accompanying 50 of them at once in the field.
Since this was after I started to find the neurodivergent community and became prouder of my autism, I would tell the farm manager, “Pat,” that I was autistic. He really didn’t say much about it, which was good. However, bad things just started to happen without warning.
Although the other dog walker would be on his phone most of the time, if I used it, Mike and Pat would yell. Sometimes on Pat’s day off, he would see me in the distance from his window and text me to stay off the phone. It was apparent I was being watched just for the way I was born. I rarely socialized with them, so they had no logical reason to micromanage me.
Everything careened to an end when there were 68 dogs, and I had trouble remembering all their names. I feel that committing so many names to memory is a skill that’s rare to stumble across. Pat argued with me about 2 dogs that had the same name, where I accidentally put the bulldog Cody into cattle dog Cody’s kennel.
So after arguing with him back and forth, he said to me, “See the cattle dog? That’s a cattle dog right there!” which was followed by him lightly punching me on the arm. Feeling threatened, I said, “Don’t touch me please.” He then made a face at me and walked away.
Once he had his back turned towards me, I told him, “You know you’re being recorded, right?” In case anyone’s wondering, where I come from, it’s legal to record audio with one party consent.
“Hey, that’s illegal,” he replied. “You can get in a lot of trouble. Just go home. Don’t ever do that again,” he replied. So as I was leaving, Mike came in and passed by me as I walked out.
The next day was just a normal day’s work. At the end, though, things took a drastic turn. Mike asked me for my parents’ phone numbers to use as emergency contacts. This baffled me because I was there for over a month at that point. I hesitantly complied. Then we walked outside, where he asked me, “You got a problem, right? You’re autistic, aren’t you?” he asked in his Southern drawl.
“I wouldn’t say it’s a problem,” I retorted. “I have a bachelor’s degree and had to overcome many obstacles to get to where I am today. It’s definitely not a problem in my book.”
“Well, I can’t have you recording my employees. I got so many things to do here that it’s hard to keep up with you. I talked to a social worker because I want her to figure something out with you; otherwise, I don’t want you around these dogs.”
That struck a nerve with me because all I did was forget a dog breed. Although I did text, it was no more than the amount of the other walker. I went to the police and played the recording for an officer, and he certainly heard how hostile the environment was due to Pat’s yelling and the punch.
The officer offered to file a harassment charge, but I declined because I had the feeling that Pat wouldn’t be a long-term threat. After attempting to find a lawyer, a few told me that I did not have a case. It was disappointing, because I sometimes feared he’d treat someone like me the same way, and I would never want that.
Personally, I believe jobs should be tailored to one’s own strengths and preferences, because as long as the end goal is achieved effectively, the employee will find a grander sense of passion in their work.
If someone who reads this works in animal care, I assure you that we would make devoted employees (as long as animals are one of our special interests) who precisely follow the structures laid out for us. My situation could have been worse, but it’s imperative that such moments of harassment or potential abuse be recognized early so that they’re prevented later.