Autism in the workforce: I am Autistic, I am not broken

By: Rick Jacobs

 It is palpable, that moment when you tell someone or a group of professionals you are on the Autism Spectrum. As if you just vomited on their shoes, they get a look of shock and concern. Their speech patterns change. Their facial expressions alter. You are no longer the same person that was hired or that started the conversation.

Often, you hear things like “I never would have guessed,” “You don’t look Autistic,” or they simply start talking to you like you suddenly became a five-year old with a limited vocabulary and a hearing problem.

I am Autistic, I am not damaged, I am not less intelligent. I am just a little different than you are. I see things differently, experience things differently, and struggle with social conventions. 

I understand the complex, hyper-detailed volumes of information that I am surrounded by. I don’t understand corporate culture or how to conform to workplace norms. I understand strategy, nuance of facts, projections, and planning. I don’t understand the look on your face or if you are joking with me or not. I am flat in affect when listening and processing, which may look like I am checked out or not paying attention.

I am super sensitive to my surroundings and have intense feelings, but I don’t let them rule me. I seek facts, I want to know that what I know is true and correct, not that I am right. I have intense intuition and gut feelings, I just don’t act on it until I have examined the facts, seen the possible options and outcomes, and have a plan for mitigating potential issues. I love stupid loud crazy music concerts, but a loud social gathering or cubicle space stresses me out, so no, I don’t want to go to the bar to hang out after work.

The problem with being an older Autism Spectrum person in a corporate world is that you are either weird or a problem employee because you don’t socialize like everyone else or you are a special case that everyone must tiptoe around and tread lightly. I am also often seen as not promotable, because of the belief that I might not understand how to connect with people. Actually, I connect very well and quickly, except I am also very aware of BS and will call it out. Don’t lie to me. I know.

Also, apparently, the only place an Autism Spectrum person has in a business is being the eccentric mega-CEO, a computer programmer, or a janitor. I am a leader. I am a mentor. I am a trainer, a creator, a statistician, a strategist, an educator, and I am super aware of my own bias so I am accepting of everyone until they prove they are not safe to trust.

What do I want as an Autistic employee? I want safety. I want to be trusted. I want the same opportunities that everyone else has. I want to succeed and put all of my God given, Autistically enhanced superpowers to work. But, I also want to be mentored, led, and groomed to leadership and management.

What do I need? I don’t have to be right, I am happy to be wrong, as long as I can be told how I can be right – I need facts, truth, and an opportunity to understand “why.”

I need rules, parameters, and lanes. But I also need to be allowed to be proactive and creative and to know when it is OK. I need to be heard, but I also need to be challenged so that I know that I am safe to move forward with buy-in. 

I need confirmation that I am doing a good job, but please not publicly. I need to be treated like everyone professionally, just afforded some eccentricities that are afforded to others in different ways. My wearing headphones isn’t because I am isolating myself, it is because I am isolating the conversations of 100 people that I can hear from 50 feet away, distracting me from working.

I want, I need, to be like everyone else – I already know I am not, and it has hurt me all of my life. I want friends, I am easy to friend, but I need to feel safe, which is much harder, because so many have befriended me for sport. I need the same opportunities that everyone else has, because I have been pigeon-hold because of my differences.

I say this because I see companies endeavoring to “hire more Autism Spectrum” people, as if we are a piece of equipment or an affirmative action case. I am glad they have identified the value of Autism Spectrum folks, but look at the jobs they are offered – computer programmers, IT specialists, systems analysts. We do more than that. We do need help getting jobs, but it isn’t the job that is the problem, it is your hiring and then your culture.

We don’t do well with personality tests – we don’t like binary choices because we can see the other options that are more reasonable or that both may be the case under certain situations. We don’t do well in interviews because we don’t make eye contact or, if we do, it comes off as intense or even creepy. We don’t do well with group interviews, we either dominate because we are unaware or we don’t contribute at all because we are listening, evaluating, processing, and overwhelmed.

Once you hire us, if we feel safe and supported, we work our ASSES off. We love to work, but we need a strategy and purpose. We need autonomy, but we need direction. We need to understand your culture and what the parameters are. We will see issues before they arise. We will understand the ramifications of one action on a number of systems and roles. We will recall conversations, rules, policy, research, statistics, and their relationship in an instant and on demand. We will also tell you when we don’t know something and, twenty-four hours later, we can give you the history, the variances, the impacts, and the current state of what you asked about. We will become your resident experts on all things, and how all things interact, but, because we hate inefficiency and unnecessary redundancy, we will also tell you where to save time, money, effort, and where you can find solutions – or how to build it. We see systems. We create systems. We are world builders and technicians. It is what we revel in.

I am Autistic, not broken. What it all boils down to is we want, need, to be treated like everyone else, just not so loudly, please.


The above article was originally published by Rick Jacobs, September 25, 2019 on LinkedIn

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Jennifer Allen

After an extensive career broadcast marketing, Jennifer and her husband searched for answers when their oldest son hit the kinder years with great difficultly. After finally learning that their oldest son had Aspergers Syndrome, she left her career in television and became a full time mother to both of her sons. Jennifer elicited the participation of her sons and together they produced several independent programs including a children’s animated series titled Ameriquest Kids (now distributed by Landmark Media) as well as her documentary and book titled, Coping to Excelling: Solutions for school-age children diagnosed with High-Functioning Autism or Aspergers Syndrome. The need for more information encouraged Jennifer to elicit a team of autism experts to provide weekly, original content to a website free to anyone seeking to live their best under the diagnosis of High-Functioning Autism/Aspergers Syndrome… appropriately titled: Aspergers101.com.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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