In this article, I will be focusing on helping Aspies cope on a day-to-day basis in the workplace. I will be looking at how my first days in college helped prepare me for coping and interacting with my colleagues. The first area I will be looking at is how to relate to your work colleagues. This is an area I found particularly difficult. I was used to the regimentation of school. I was quite shy and I had no real experience of dealing with adults on what you might call an ‘equal’ level and had no one there to hold my hand and tell me what to do.
I did not know that I had Asperger’s Syndrome. I was just thought of as socially awkward by my parents and, it would seem, just about everyone else who came across me, or dealt with me in any way. Everyone was full of good advice and tips. However, no one really had the time or the inclination to help me get to grips with my problems. And why should they?
Asperger’s Syndrome was barely known then (1994). I was just thought of as being lazy, as being immature, bright but lacking in application. Everyone was doing his or her best to try and help me. Everyone was fed up with me for not trying. Everyone was bored of me not listening. Everyone had had enough of me being so self-centred and never taking on board any of the help or advice they tried to offer me. Everyone else in my class could get their heads down and get on with the job. Why should I be any different?
An example of this from that point in my life would be, one day in the computing class in school, towards the end of my time there. The teacher scared me. Always wanting to make an example of me for being so stupid. One day, there was a delivery of new computers. Everyone else was following instructions to the letter. I thought I was too. Only, something went wrong with mine and I got shouted at in front of the whole class. Ashamed and shy, I did not speak up for myself; I simply assumed the teacher was right and I was in the wrong. Another example from this class would be when we had to do a project on the Pascal programming language. I wasn’t sure what to do.
Everyone else seemed to know, no one else seemed to have any problems. Why should I be any different? I soldiered away on the project, not really sure what I was doing and too afraid to ask. I handed it in and hoped for the best. Weeks went by and I heard nothing from the teacher. Then, one day, she picked me up in class for not listening to her (which, to be fair, I probably wasn’t). Her words still ring out in my ears today:
“Your Pascal project was a disgrace, Jonathan, so you above all people, should be listening to me!”
That was it. No other feedback. So why do I mention it in an article about the workplace? Simple — you’ve got to learn to stand up for yourself. And so it was that I left school and went on to further education at Edinburgh’s Telford College in the autumn of 1994.
I mention this here, as it is a bridging period, shaping what was to happen afterwards. Library and Information Science — the course had been selected for me, as I like books. Just about everyone else there was older than me. Some were going on the course for professional reasons and some were (like me) unemployed. They all knew how to speak with each other. Those little signals, these little bits of body language that are supposed to give away so much about how comfortable people are in each other’s company. When I got into the room, they were all chatting away to each other, whether they knew each other or not. I looked at them all and thought, I do not know how to do this.
That’s right, speak with each other. Not just talk in each other’s presence. But actually relate to what each other were saying. But I didn’t say anything. I had always been told that you learn more by just knuckling under, keeping to yourself. My parents had taught me that long ago.
It’s something that they keep teaching me and keep telling me today, and it is a lesson I am very grateful to them for imparting to me.
But then, by contrast, this was also a period where my social difficulties were becoming more and more noticeable. People I thought of as friends were starting to get frustrated and fed up by what I suppose they saw as my immature ways, my stubbornness and the fact that I was not maturing and moving on in the ways that they themselves were.
And why do I mention this in an article about the workplace? Simple — this was a pattern that continued on well into my working days.
So, how did I feel around this group of people? Shy. Frightened. Unsure of myself. I had come from school, which is a very structured environment and one, which is supervised by at least one other person. They behaved as thought they were already friends. They laughed and joked together, shared looks with each other, bounced off what each other was saying. I didn’t know how to do any of that so just shrank back into a corner, into myself.
The college’s guidance team had been told I had some ‘difficulties’. I met with them regularly to discuss my progress. At the time, I was too shy, even to open up to them. The suggestions were all “what about this?” or “supposing we tried that”. They all sounded good but, to be honest, I don’t think I received any practical help from them at all. For the main part, there I was, in a classroom, with a group of people, all of whom were older than me, all of whom knew how to create a rapport with each other.
As Aspies, we are known to gravitate towards people older than ourselves. They are more tolerant of our misunderstandings and naivety. They are, to put it bluntly, nicer to us. But, when they are together, in a block, like this, it’s frightening. They knew how to do things I didn’t, like make eye contact and interact with people properly.
So, what did I learn that applies to the workplace? Keep to yourself until you have studied people enough to learn by rote how to interact with them. Watch out for those little cues and giveaways — these are things you can only learn for yourself. People may or may not like you, but when they see how great your levels of self-discipline and self-motivation are, they will respect you and your abilities. And how did I discover this?
Mainly through trail and error. I learned when and when not to open my mouth through looking at and listening to these older people. They weren’t my relatives. They weren’t my parents. What they were was a group of people who were there, like me, to learn a new skill. Where I had immaturity and naivety, they had life experience and communication skills. So, they were teaching me something.
This made me focus a lot more on watching their group dynamic. Things changed after that summer, when I went back to college. I just assumed that I would be dealing with the same lot of people in class as I had been before. That turned out to be wrong. It taught me one very important coping skill for the workplace — nothing ever stays the same.
I walked back into the course classroom to be greeted by a whole raft of new faces. These people were my own age. They behaved in a way much more similar to me. Well, at least, in the way I liked to think I behaved. I smiled and relaxed as I entered the room. This was going to be alright after all.
It was really only about this point that I started mixing properly, as a teenager. For now, I was happy just being in a relaxed atmosphere, amongst people of my own age. And what did I learn from this? Simple — how to interact with my peer group. This was to prove of vital importance, in my future work career in general.
There is good reason for this. When I left school, there was no way I was prepared for the workforce. At that stage in time (1994), and in my life (16), there was no way I could, reasonably, have been prepared for the workforce. Some people wanted to help, but no one actually seemed to know what the hell was actually wrong with me. This is, I am sure, a situation that at least some of you are bound to have found yourselves in. That is why I felt it was important to address it here. To let you know that you’re not the only ones. That there’s someone else out there who has been through this, too.
And so, what have I covered? I have covered much of my first few months in college. I included this here as this was, really, my first notable experience of dealing with adults outside of the (in my case, up until then) normal frameworks of school, or the home, or the social settings of church and so forth. It was, in short, the first time where I had been put in a position where (save for the tutor) the adults and I were on equal footing. It was scary, but it helped me learn to talk to them as equals.
You might then ask, how relevant is this to an article on the workplace? In one word: very. The workplace will be, in many cases, the first place where you will be on equal footing (or, at least, as near as dammit equal footing) with people who will, at least in some cases, be many years older than you. What did I learn from this, that I could apply to the workplace? Well, I learned when and when not to talk. A strange thing to say, perhaps, but in this (at least at first) very alien environment, I learned how to appreciate, and often successfully interpret, the silent, and sometimes physical, cues people give each other when interacting. This was to prove very useful in my first few days in my first proper job.
Ok so, you may now be asking, how does this all tie together? Well, if you’re in your first job, or about to start your first job, you will, understandably, be nervous about it. You will be nervous about fitting in, nervous about getting things right, nervous about all manner of things. And justifiably so. I know, because I’ve been there. What I hope I have done here is to show you how, just by relaxing and learning how to be yourself in front of people, you will make the job easier for yourself.
You might now be asking, how much relation does this have to Asperger’s? Simple – I have Asperger’s. I have been that person. I’ve been (even just recently) the new boy in the office, learning the ropes. And how have I coped with it?
By being friendly and polite. By trying hard not to try too hard (more on this in the next article). But also, purely and simply, by allowing myself to make mistakes and to learn from them. If you keep trying so hard not to make mistakes, that’s when you leave yourself at your most vulnerable. So, in college, I had the chance to take note, find out more about myself as a growing adult, take advice from people and – most important of all – learn what not to do.
ROBERT LAING BIOGRAPHY
Robert discovered he had Asperger’s at the age of 20, quite by chance. His mother had been given Tony Attwood’s first book and recognized within it characteristics and situations similar to these encountered by both Robert and herself as a parent.
Robert has felt moved to write about Asperger’s – both his own experience with it and also the help that is available out there to others – now, because there are more people both being born with it and also being diagnosed with it retrospectively, in later life. He wishes to offer help and advice to others, just as others have done for him.
Aside from Asperger’s Syndrome, Robert also writes for a variety of website and print publications on subjects such as music, books and the local area in which he lives.
Robert has done a considerable amount of research into the average Aspie diet. He is sure that both parent and Aspie alike will find something to relate to in both this and future articles and welcomes feedback from both. He can be contacted for this and other writing matters at [email protected].