Work Hard and Catch Up: Patterns in a Neurodivergent Career

I applied for a job that offered to pay a certain rate. They replied back offering me a different position at a different rate. A lower rate.

They found me to be impressive (good attitude, skilled writer), but under-qualified for the position, which seems fair. They wanted to work with me, to help me grow my skills, and grow into a position with them. They were being kind, and also trying to solve a problem on their end. That’s fair and completely understandable.

But it’s also part of a pattern with me.

Below the Minimum

The last job I worked tried to hire me on at a dollar below the minimum wage. When I pointed this out they laughed and said that they hadn’t paid someone minimum wage for so long that they didn’t know what it was anymore.

I remember thinking, “If that’s true, why was I changing that?”  I felt the creeping tendrils of that everlasting status of: Disappointment, edging in.

Trauma Fawning

To compensate, I decided to prove I was tough enough to tow the line like everyone else. I could work hard and catch up. Later, I’d come to understand that this was my fawning response to this social pressure to be up to the task, which I never seem to be.

Money is a pretty accurate indicator that this dynamic is starting. People meet me and cut their rates. They tell me what I’ll be paid and it’s always less than they’ll pay others. Often, my pay gets cut in some form after I start as well. People break their contracts with me constantly.

I once had a client cut both my hours and my pay in half after I’d been a major contributor to their site for seven months, only to have another client cut my hours in half within days.

When I asked why, the second client said that I was doing well, but that they couldn’t keep paying the contracted rate. The first person never responded.

Double Pressure, Half the Pay

Even earlier in my career, I found myself working for an online paper that withheld $300 from my check after I hadn’t met my quota. It was a 25,000-word weekly quota that I had always maintained I could never meet.

I was pressured into a managing editor position that I insisted I wasn’t qualified for and had been working 60 hour weeks writing as fast as I could, and attending staff meetings, editing meetings, training meetings, and editing work.

I had tried very hard to decline that position and was begged to take it to “help them out.”

True to Form

“We’re happy to let you grow with us,” they said. Then they cut my pay.

In my defense, this specific organization was scamming a lot of people.

Not every person who’s done this is scamming me, though. Several of them really wanted to work with me and give me a chance.

But I won’t measure up.

I seem to find myself in a place where I am both over- and under-whelming in my job performance. I don’t understand why, or how to have different outcomes, but I know that I’m tired of burning out, losing everything, and taking the hits to my well-being, my stability, and my self-image.

Which Came First

I think that part of this dynamic has to do with being autistic and having PTSD from years of abuse. I’m a pushover. My autopilot is always eager to take over and render me pathologically agreeable, enthusiastic to my detriment.

When I’m masking in public, my attention goes to controlling the way people feel about me. It takes a tremendous amount of energy to outrun being disappointing. I try to hide that I have executive dysfunction and that I struggle with ADHD. Telling people usually doesn’t help as much as hiding it.

Behind as a Core Trait

Cracks show, though. I think that being behind is a thing that I am. Does that make sense? So, whether you’re scamming me or trying to help me grow into what you need, I’m screwed because I’m always behind.

People also don’t seem to hear me when I say, “No.”

It is a specific PTSD trigger to have to assert myself because it often results in me losing everything: the job, the income, the relationships, the stability, the sense of my own capability.

I can’t be held to an expectation I don’t already meet. I can’t have my “no” taken away. It drives me off a cliff every time.

False Starts and Breaking Patterns

All these false starts make me feel like a loser. I want different patterns, and I’m taking responsibility for it by setting boundaries with myself. This is my accountability to myself and it is nothing personal to anyone else.

I have no idea what it will mean for me or my future, either. I don’t really have a sense of what the future could be like; it’s been a big part of my eternal stagnation. All I can do is my work in this moment and trust that little steps build to new patterns.

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13 Responses

  1. I feel that one accommodation that autistic and other neurodivergent people need in the workplace is a champion, someone who recognizes our unique and valuable contributions and then helps facilitate the conditions that allow us to contribute. This can be things like keeping us up to date on relevant office politics and the important news (including personal news about co-workers that’s useful for us to know) and helping us interpret the organization’s needs and priorities and helping us protect our hours and tasks. When I’ve had someone like that, I’ve thrived. Without it, I flounder.

    1. I agree with you. One of my closest friends was really struggling at her job until one of the other staff stepped up and began advocating for her. Things got way better for her after that and her job went from being untenable to fairly fulfilling.

  2. Thank you for sharing. People have taken advantage of me too. My current boss seems nice but there’s always the looming threat that people will turn on me just like the others.

    You made me feel a little less alone.

    1. I sincerely hope that this place stays friendly towards you. Thank you for reading my post. 🙂

      1. Thanks. So far things are looking up. My boss wants people to do a boring, repetitive task as a skill test… and he actually told me it’s okay to watch Netflix on another window during the task because it helps make it more fun. I think I’m pretty lucky here.

        1. It’s great that they give you that outlet to keep you engaged. Fingers crossed for a happy future for you here.

          1. It’s going pretty well! Thank you. I’m considering myself lucky to have this job. And my boss says I’m teaching him a lot about how to improve the onboarding process for new hires, especially neurodivergent ones. I even get to write some of the how-to documents, and I love doing that. 🙂

  3. I wish I knew the answer to this problem. I’ve experienced similar situations. In my case, people valued my work, but I usually could only get hired as a temp. This also became a form of exploitation. It led to instability and occasionally homelessness, and eventually my health was wrecked.

    People say, “Get a helper,” but there isn’t any help if you’re undiagnosed and very little chance of being able to get a diagnosis where I live, when I’m a middle aged adult. If I can’t solve my problems by masking and coping, they don’t get solved.

    Medical professionals were no help, they just labeled me as having anxiety. I couldn’t get them to consider autism, I think it’s because I’m an older adult.

    What I really wish for, is more attention paid to what happens to undiagnosed adults. I think we’re being ignored, where I am, by professionals who think autism is only in children. They have confused adults masking for survival with not being autistic. They must think if you can work, you’re fine. They’re not accounting for job instability and poverty caused by ableism.

    1. I’ve asked for a helper/advocate and I’ve been told that it isn’t something adults get to have. “No one will accommodate that. It isn’t a thing.” Multiple career coaches have said that directly to me. And at this point, I find it difficult to trust medical professionals anymore because they seem only able to lead with stigmatized beliefs about my body and my neurology. So yeah, I hear you and I’m sorry about your struggles.

  4. I feel this so strongly. The overwork and under acknowledgment. The gaslighting of the overwork in “You are a workaholic” like it’s my problem and then encroaching on boundaries or plain ignoring them.

    These things I’ve found are red flags and I think examples of DARVO and it’s really soft attacks so they are hard to identify.

    1) “They wanted to work with me, to help me grow my skills, and grow into a position with them. They were being kind, and also trying to solve a problem on their end”
    I’m not sure that they were being kind. From my experience (if similar) they were being manipulative to get what they wanted, which is underpaid skilled labour.

    2) “I was pressured into a managing editor position … begged to take it to ‘help them out.’ ”
    They needed your skills and didn’t respect you boundaries, and instead wore you down.

    3) “People also don’t seem to hear me when I say, ‘No.’ ”
    This is so common for me. They take No as a comment rather than a requirement.

    (Apologies for commenting on your words specifically in case that’s confronting. It’s actually projection of my own experience where I’ve felt similar so perhaps a comment on myself)

    They do hear you but they ignore your boundaries to push their own. They rely on social manipulation in order to make their load easier or manage strategically. But your health is not a priority. The autistic people I know and work with however this s not the case. If there is a problem then we will solve it, including (and especially for those of us with trauma ie: all of us) we will solve others before our own.

    I think the answer is to train in saying “No”. To do things like “put your oxygen mask on first” – which is code for looking after your personal mental health and protecting it above all, working within your capabilities, offering advice not service, and knowing your worth. These things are incredibly hard for autistic people, as we struggle to identify social manipulation even when exposed to it as much as we are. I have to acknowledge that the ability to say know comes from privilege. That’s not always possible for people and has not always been the case for me either.

    Everything you say makes sense to me. I’ve heard it in pieces from other autistic and neurodivergent friends who are manipulated into trading their mental health and wellbeing for burnout. We get manipulated into helping and “putting out fires” for others out of empathy. But those fires never stop happening and in fact if you look hard enough you can see a pattern of carelessness towards us and payment in small offerings of social inclusion. That manipulates me a lot, the idea that I have done good for someone and will get a millisecond of social inclusion and praise. Having done a good deed and received my dose of good will, I swing back out into the night until I hear another cry for help. Why Because my continued social experience has told me that people like me don’t fit in, and don’t deserve inclusion. I don’t have friendships rather I have people that I am useful to.

    “Because he’s the hero Gotham deserves, but not the one it needs right now. So we’ll hunt him. Because he can take it. Because he’s not our hero. He’s a silent guardian, a watchful protector. A dark knight.”

    Full disclosure I understand that this is somewhat self aggrandisingly dramatic, but I wondered by this Dark Knight quote always made me cry. Not because I have illusions that I am batman, and not for some romantic ideal that I am a super hero. But for the notion that I have objectified myself so much that I have come to the conclusion that I
    a) don’t deserve friendship or connection
    b) am only useful as an object of output
    c) that any pain that comes from trying to exist in the structure of a neurotypical society is just a tax for being me
    In actuality that is both imprinted-self-ableism and depression from trauma.

    So I’m doing my best to protect my boundaries and time. It’s a work in process. Like creating communities where we can advocate for each other.

    Thank you for this incredibly resonant piece of writing.

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