Will anyone read my articles? Will anyone understand what I am trying to say with those articles? What will people think when they read my articles? These are normal feelings for a normal person to feel when they write an article. Did I say the right things? Did I talk too much or too little? Did they laugh at what I said because they thought I was “ha-ha” funny or “weird” funny? Those are normal feelings for a normal person to feel when they have a conversation with someone else. Do I contribute my share to my team at work? Do I help my team work more efficiently, or am I constantly slowing them down? When my team needs me, am I there to help? Those are normal feelings for a normal person to feel about their workplace.
Imagine writing those articles with barely any intuitive understanding of how people may respond, only that understanding gained from hard fought experience. Visualize trying to have a conversation without having any decent grasp on the social cues that most people use to guide their conversations in the right direction. Consider the difficulties others have in trying to navigate the meandering stream that is your team, your workplace, your culture. Try thinking about these three difficulties overlapping and happening at the same time.
That is an oversimplification of how people with Autism feel a lot of the time. However, I feel that those descriptions start to encompass the difficulties that I face every day. Trying to talk to others about how you think and feel is a daunting task for anyone. But add another level of difficulty on to that conversation because you know that you think differently than most people. That is why a lot of people with Autism, people that want to try and fit in, choose not to disclose their Autism to those around them. I guess most of the time people decide the pain of hiding who they truly are is less painful than talking about how different they are than others. I know I kept on making that exact decision for myself for years before I decided no more.
And the personal decision not to disclose often causes negative consequences down the line. As this article from Psychology Today states, 20 percent of people are unemployed and only 58 percent of people that are adults under 25 work for pay. This isn’t the first time I have heard numbers like these. And, as the article states, other estimates are much higher. But those percentages sound reasonable to me.
Picture yourself as being a person with Autism, sitting in an interview room. You try to form that bond with the hiring manager, even though it is hard for you to establish connections with other people. In addition, its incredibly difficult to look your interviewer in the eye when talking, which makes things worse. Even if you make it through the emotionally jarring interview process, you know that you are going to be constantly trying to understand the social dynamics of that new workplace. That is a tiring job for someone with Autism, whether that person is successful or not.
Even if you find the courage to decide to disclose to others that you have Autism, many of those problems do not go away. If the interviewer does not understand Autism, they might evaluate your interview like a normal person. That never goes well. While I don’t blame them, quite a few of my interviews have ended with a polite “we think you are a technical fit, but I don’t think you fit into our company culture”. And hopefully your hiring manager is present at a successful interview so you can also interview them. If not, you may end up in a situation where you don’t know how your immediate supervisor will react to your Autism. Even worse, you meet the hiring manager and they soon get reorganized within your company, with you working for someone who couldn’t care less about you having Autism. That sucks. Been there.
If you are incredibly lucky, like I have been in my last couple of jobs, your team’s management understands that you are different, but they need your help to be educated on how “you” are different. From personal experience, this is a good position to be in. But even in that position, I worry that I take up too much of their time with things that they consider to be trivial. You see, I do not intuitively know what is trivial to them, just what I have observed and learned from past conversations with them. Rarely is there any intuitive component to learning from these conversations, so I have had many conversations with people that started with words like “I remember you said”, had words like “I interpreted that to mean” in the middle, and words like “I’ll try and understand better next time” at the end. I do understand that happens to everyone, but I have no clue on what a good or bad level of that happening is.
And even those things are not the worst parts of how it feels like to be someone with Autism. For a lot of people with Autism, there is the anxiety. For me, that anxiety is fueled by my ability to analyze. In each of the situations I have outlined so far, my mind is racing, trying to analyze each of those possible outcomes and trying to select the best outcome based on limited information. If I am lucky enough to have found a pattern that helps me avoid analyzing some of those outcomes, that pruning is almost always based on previous experiences and my understand of those experiences. That means that I often make bad choices based on bad experiences or an incomplete understanding of those experiences.
If you know someone with Autism that is doing better than average, chances are they can mitigate some of the issues that come with Autism with some of the positive aspects of Autism. For myself, while my seemingly never sending stream of analysis can be paralyzing, it can also be very useful. In my professional job as a Software Development Engineer in Test (or SDET for short), being able to analyze the applications that I write test automation for is a very big asset. Without spending too much energy, I can quickly digest either source code or documentation for a project and understand it without too much effort. As I go, I form a list of questions that help me clarify my understanding, sometimes down to a very fine degree of understanding. Using all that information together, I can quickly generate an analysis of that project’s strengths and weaknesses, providing risk/impact/benefit assessments. I can then take those assessments and generate a solid plan on how to mitigate those tests with manual testing and test automation, providing ideas on how to measure the efficiency and coverage of those tests to my management. All this good stuff comes from my ability to analyze.
And yes, I believe that I do a great job and that job contains many tasks that I am very well suited to executing. But it is also something I cannot turn off. I can lose myself temporarily in things like my writing, my music, and my movies. But when those are not there, my mind starts swirling again trying to analyze everything around me. And it is not only the current things that my mind analyzes, but things that have occurred in the past couple of weeks. I will be out walking our dog when I start to think about all sorts of things, unable to just enjoy walking our dog. To be clear, it is not our dog’s fault that I don’t always enjoy our walks, it is mine. I just cannot stop my mind from racing around like a hamster on drugs trying to run a four-minute mile in three minutes.
So how does all of this relate to anxiety? For me, as those different scenarios are playing out in real life, my mind is racing to analyze that stream of data as I am living through it. Sometimes it feels like I continuously have a set of sports announcers in my head giving me a critique, questioning every word that I uttered and every expression and micro-expression that I emoted.
Was I looking at the right places during the conversation? Did I maintain enough eye contact, or should I add some more in for good measure? Did I now just add to much eye contact, so I am staring at them like a creep? Ooh, they are wearing a nice piece of jewelry that sparkles. Crap, I looked at the bright shiny thing instead of where I should be looking. Did they notice? Even worse, did they notice that I looked there and think I am checking them out? They just crossed their arms. What does that mean for them? If I don’t know what it means for them, what does it mean for most people?
That level of noise coming from your own brain is hard to drown out. As we are all influenced by what we are experiencing, that noise becomes part of the data that I use to shape my conversations and actions. And because my experiences are incomplete and that clatter is not always trustworthy, I have lots of questions.
Without the tools that a lot of other people have at their disposal to answer those questions, I am then left with the bulk of those questions left unanswered. To make things worse, if I reach out to others to try and answer those questions, I am not sure which of those questions it is socially acceptable to ask people. There is no “one level”, just the various levels of friendship or professionalism that they have in their interactions with me. It is frustrating and induces more anxiety. And that adds more anxiety back into the process.
But, as with most things in life, I have a choice. I can give up, I can fight to maintain, or I can fight to overcome. Every day when I wake up, and many times during the day, I can choose one of those three positions with respect to my anxiety. I can leverage my love for music to help me drown out most of the analysis noise, leaving me with the useful analysis that helps me do my job properly. I can provide myself a well contained environment that is healthy but static, so that I don’t try and analyze the movement and behavior of things as they pass through my workspace. I can take the proactive step of learning how to breath properly and meditate. While I never get into a meditative state, it does help me find some manner of inner peace. Each little bit helps.
As to those questions at the start of the article? I have a close group of friends and family whose opinions I trust. I don’t have to make my articles work for everyone; I just need to focus on getting my message across to that small group of people. By narrowing my focus, it helps me drown out some of that noise. On conversing with others, if I am engaging with someone frequently, I usually warn them that I have Autism and can (and will) talk for hours. Most people are understanding, and after the usual bit of apprehension, realize that I am just trying to find something to talk to them about to make them smile or laugh. Often times they know someone with some form of Autism and they will then ask for some help in relating to that person. With respect to my team at work, I just make sure to overcommunicate and use reflective communication to ensure that I am understanding things properly. And yes, I use the I-phrases like “what I heard” and “what I understand”. After all, I am asking for their help, not accusing them of doing something wrong. In a fair world, we would both work equally on that communication. But the world is not fair, so I need to be the one to focus on how I communicate.
That is why every day I choose to wake up and be as positive as I can be. Even on the bad days where I seem to feel the weight of the world on my shoulders. I can either let that anxiety drag me down, or I can be positive and try and make a positive impact on the world and the people around me.
You see, if I don’t push back against my own anxiety, no one else will. It’s all up to me.
So what do you think? Did I miss something? Is any part unclear? Leave your comments below.