Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Autism goes to work

Maybe the weekend before last, I'm not even sure, I had to go to a cat handling class for work. I was told it was to be very casual; don't even wear your scrubs, just come in whatever you have on. It should only last about an hour, just some basic information about cats.

Jack (I figure that's a generic enough name I can use it in its entirety) was the guy who ran the class. It was just me and 2 other people. If I'm with just one other person I try to feign eye contact and smile a little bit, but when I'm with a few others I usually do my usual no eye contact, no facial expressions, no talking. I listen as best I can and try to blend into the background. I don't like to call attention to myself, so I stay quiet, and that's what I did there. I did notice that the other two people were very talkative and asked lots of questions. I had already done cat volunteer training, so between that and the fact that the training was very basic (this is a cat, it has 4 legs and a tail, it says meow...), I already knew everything Jack told us and just listened quietly.

I thought I did fine. I didn't call out. I had no outbursts of echolalia (common at work, because I'm anxious). I interacted with the cats Jack brought out and talked to them. I didn't interrupt anyone. I didn't say that I was kind of bored when asked how the training was. All those things I'm supposed to do that take work on my part, right?

Well, until yesterday. My boss called me into her office. She checked that I was at the training. I said that I was. She said, "Jack said that you were really rude and didn't care at all what he was talking about."

What! I was shocked. He was talking about cats! Of course I cared! Even if I already knew the information, I still listened and heard everything he said.

My boss asked, "Did you know everything he talked about?"

I told her that I did, but that I listened. She said I must have said something offhand. I said well, to be honest, I don't think I said a word the entire time. She said "That's what I said. Lydia doesn't talk; how can she be rude?" I told her that the others there were asking questions and interacting, and that I was just quiet, and maybe that's why he thought I didn't care. She told me not to worry, that I wasn't in trouble, and to go ahead and start feeding cats.

This frustrates me immensely. First of all, when my mom tells me if that if I just try hard enough I can "blend in," these are the situations I'm talking about. My lack of eye contact, odd mannerisms, and lack of speech (or odd questions, when I do talk) make me stand out. This is a perfect example. People thinking I'm rude and inattentive is a very common occurrence for me. I'm a lot of things, believe me, but I really don't think I'm almost ever rude.

After thinking it over and talking to Leigh, I emailed my boss and asked if she would tell Jack that I have autism, and that sometimes I come across in ways I don't intend. Of course, she never responded, but that's to be expected.

I hope she does tell him, though, and between you and me, I kind of hope he feels like a jerk.


  1. It's good that your boss seems to get you, after some time.

    There ought to be a really good book out there called: "Taking Autism to Work".

  2. And, yes, it can be so hard looking like you're paying attention when you already know basic information, and not looking like you're rude.

  3. Oh, this makes me so sad! Damned if we do and damned if we don't. It's enough that others misread us and our intentions but, then to have to clean up and explain or clarify them later it's too exhausting. I'm so sorry. It's why I don't think I can handle having a job right now unless one was just so carefree and I didn't have to work any interpersonal stuff out. I'm still praying for that to come along.

  4. It's hard enough getting this right when you don't have Autism. It must be excrutiating for you. I hope he feels like an idiot if your boss tells him.

    Maybe your best approach to the whole situation could be to use the written word. You are extremely articulate here and write clearly and succinctly. How about an open letter to all your colleagues? You could ask your boss if it was ok by her for you to give everyone you work with a copy of a letter. In it you could explain that you have Autism, that you love working at the place you work at and with the people you work with. Then you could do the - this is how I come across and I am sorry if it seems rude but I am trying not to say something inappropriate etc. (you'd do it much better than I could). You could also possibly highlight your biggest issues - noise and stress or whatever you think is best. I would finish with how much you enjoy working there, how great your colleagues are etc and how you would like them to understand why you may sometimes come across in a way you really don't mean as you like and respect them so much.

    NT's like to be complimented!!!

    You may think this is a dumb idea, in which case ignore it. I can handle it!

  5. It is a good idea.

    Yes, people do benefit from positive feedback, whether it's a compliment or (more frequently) a reassurance that they're not doing something terribly wrong.

    I would probably put the letter the other way round.

    How much you enjoy working at the cat place, and how nice your co-workers have been.

    Then kind of put a Lydia dictionary.

    (I wonder if your boss went the third person approach with this, "There's this autistic woman I know who loves cats" and then intrigued Joe that way).

    And then sort of add ways they could help.