Techies with Asperger's? Yes, we are a little different...
Solving fiendishly intricate tech problems? Love it. Office politics and subtext? No thanks
Shortly after being told I have Asperger's syndrome, I stood in front of 30-odd people, my work colleagues, telling them I have Asperger’s and what it means to them and to me. Some were like: "Meh, whatever!", some were busy looking their watches: "Is it lunchtime yet?" I could feel my job slowly ebbing away.
It was like crashing your car, in slow motion. You can see it coming but it takes its own sweet time. It wasn't my idea to make the disclosure, I hated doing it, and I really don't know what HR were thinking. (Does anyone, ever?)
My diagnosis had come about via a very non-standard route. During a course I attended I scored off the chart on a personality test in certain traits. At the end of the class and the teacher and I got talking. There were lots of questions along the lines of "Do I do this? Do I do that?"
Then she dropped the bomb. "I only do this as a stand-in for when the lecturer is not available. My day job is working with people who have ASD and I think you may have it."
On further questioning, as to her validity to make that call, it turned out she is one of the UK’s few specialists in the field of diagnosis. Fast-forward two months and I had more offers of help than I knew what to do with.
The outcome of all this was that within six months I was gone. My boss and I had never seen eye to eye, and this was the perfect way to get me out. Now he knew all my weaknesses, my Kryptonite, if you will, and could get me in an obsessive/defensive mood and then give me a hard time while I was still trying to fight my corner.
He would purposely drop things on me at the last minute and expect me to adjust everything to fit in the changes, and then complain because something else wasn't done. He would be purposely evasive and vague in his requests, for instance, he would organise a meeting and not tell me what was being discussed, among other gems, so I would fret and get obsessed about the meeting beforehand.
This was despite the fact that I had Welfare to Work the unions and the backing of my mentor.
"Jeez!" you may be thinking, “As an Aspie, I am screwed.”
Don't fret. There is light at the end of the tunnel. To be blunt, I walked. It was the best thing I ever did. Going for a travel refund that same day, where it said "reason" I just put: "Walked out of my job and thank God I did." The guy behind the counter remarked: "You must have loved your job.”
After I got past the "sod this, I am outta here" anger, I found a job for a company that has a more enlightened view of Aspies.
My life now is completely different. I have become a relative expert in my field and have been given the opportunity to travel the world on business. In short: it is All Good. I am not saying I no longer have issues – I do. But the company worked with me to help me, and my manager is genuinely there to help me – even when I don't always see it as help.
Advice for Aspies
Here is my hard-earned advice as an Aspie who has been on both the positive side and the negative side of having the condition.
Understand that we are private people. We have very narrow, very focused interests. Usually these interests are solitary things where we don't have to interact with other people; this is why so many of us work with computers. We don't mind having a chat, just it has to have to have some perceived value in it. Small talk doesn't do it for us, unless it about our niche subject.
Some people seem to think most of us are so rude as to just not talk. When you see films with autistic characters, such as Rain Man, you have to understand these people are light years away from most of us with the condition. Sure, we share characteristics but neither the same intensity nor level. We just quietly do our stuff and left to our own devices get on with what's at hand. Aspies as well as NTs (neuro-typicals – or "normal people" to you) all exist somewhere on the spectrum. That is why diagnosis can be so difficult.
But although I may not be able to add much to a non-nerd/tech/work conversation, I do like to be included. Please just don't expect much eye contact. We do it on occasion but to us it feels odd and unnatural. To be blunt, if we hold eye contact for more than a second or two we feel we are staring.
Advice for managers
We like routines. Routines are our lifeblood. Without a routine we are going downhill fast. Work with us to create a routine. Please don't, if possible, ask us to deviate from it. This causes consternation and a feeling that the world is out of kilter. We don't multitask too well, but we do one task at a time and do it well. We achieve the same or more, only in a single-track function.
We like to know specifics: "When you get five minutes, can you look at this?" does us no good whatsoever. Not that we have a problem with it, but we struggle with the concept without specific parameters. That's like saying: "When you have nothing else to do, see if you can maybe look at it, if you're in the mood."
A better way to deal with it would be to say: "Can you please have this task x completed by the end of the week.” We then have a time frame and can understand the relative time in which the task needs to be completed. It's all about being specific. This also applies to emails. If you want an optimum answer, be specific and ask direct questions that can have direct answers.
The coffee machine is probably better at politics than we are
We don't like change: we detest it. Deviation from routine – or just being moved onto a different task – can ruin the entire day. In a previous life when I had to move desks I got completely freaked out for an entire week obsessing over it. By the time we sit down we know exactly what we want to achieve and once we are in a task, being asked to drop that is not good.
Our trust is dealt with in 1s and 0s. Because we tend to be intensely private people, we rarely trust without it being exceptionally hard won. Our trust is either absolute or absent. Grey areas are for NTs. Trust to us is everything. If we trust you we will always go that extra mile and share what we have. Should the trust be broken, we will scurry back into our mental shells and you may well never see the real us again. I jest not.
Subtexts? We have heard of them. We have an exceptionally hard time understanding subtexts and hence, sometimes, humour. It is also why we suck really badly at office politics. The coffee machine is probably better at politics than we are. This is why it can be dangerous for us to attend meetings where people are talking "around" an issue or playing politics. We may not fully understand the mound of the smelly stuff that is being flung around and may end up agreeing to things we shouldn't.
We obsess. I don't mean: "Oh, I am running a bit behind schedule." We completely and utterly obsess about things, so much so that we can make ourselves ill. I obsess and ruminate with the best of them.
Unfortunately, this obsessing is always on the negative side. If we get an email that is "kicking off" and playing the blame game we more than likely will become obsessed with it and start to think it was our fault. In my experience there are two basic ways of dealing with this. Make sure you know what we are up to and if we start fretting and getting agitated just ask us if need help. If we trust you, we will share.