The Joys of Working Within Your Tribe

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 Responses

  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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