Preparation for the workplace
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
It made absolutley no sense.
Only thing I learned in school was that I was a misfit to be teased and bullied. To keep my mouth shut in class and try to meld into my desk so I was not called on.
Only classes I spoke up in was English Lit and PE. I read books all the time and PE kept me active and out of the classroom setting.
In college, all I had time to do was trying to listen to the professors and trying to take notes.
Than trying to study & read the materials.
In my career training school, I think some of the guys looked after me a bit, recognizing my immaturity but drive to learn my chosen career.
I learned to slowley come out of my shell a bit. I learned to communicate in a way, asking open ended questions and investigating situations. But I never learned to really ‘socialize’ in a way that NT’s do. So called friendships quickly fell away, over time being osterized from the very groups I identified with.
I learned to isolate myself after work, to protect myself(according to doctors). I reveled in being solo on the job, allowing me much needed down time.
My entire life is a sham. A wasted life. I saw how others interacted but could not comprehend how to do any of it. I saw ppl developing relationships, marriage, family, 1.2 kids, picket fence and a dog.
Don’t mistake me, I tried going out to meet ppl, to hang with others in my career field, to explore who I identified with. But as I said before, it all fell away, not fitting in anywhere, being looked upon as weird. Being invisible and forgotten.
Heck, even at my retirement party. Only ppl there were ones i worked with directly and a few others who I had known who stopped by. My direct supervisors from my job site. Not even my own captain showed up. Every retirement party i attended, upper echelon commanders, captains and up showed up.
I left feeling I had wasted 30 years, even though I was very good at what I did.
It wasnt until i was almost 50 that I was diagnosed with major depressive disorder & ADHD. It would be another 3 years that i sought out additional test after i realized i was still so messed up, that i was diagnosed with aspergers. I was given my test results, a list of books to read and sent on my merry way.
Your article is of great quality and very useful. I am very sure that it is a great help for all Aspies cope on a day-to-day basis in the workplace.
Very interesting and relevant read.I have struggled with social awkwardness since a teenager and even more so through my adult working life,struggling constantly to keep down a job has been exhausting! Now at 45 i have been referred to a psychologist and then possibly a psychiatrist who is more knowledgeable with Aspergers.I am now finally looking forward to getting the help i should have had years ago!
Not all Aspies are lucky…
No Love For You
His coming into the world was not a welcome event. He was not planned and could not have come at a worse time. Our mother worked as a beautician out of the front room of our house, the house where we were way behind on the payments. His birth put her out of work for three weeks and assured foreclosure. She never stopped working but had to hide her tears so her customers wouldn’t see our distress.
We rented a small house about a block away and at 10 years old I was responsible for taking care of the baby and preparing dinner. I wanted to be outside playing but I was rocking the baby, who cried almost all the time, and cooking white beans that would burn if I left them unattended. I devised a method for feeding him by propping the bottle up and letting him feed himself. He began to loose weight and became frail. The doctor said I had to hold him when I fed him or he might die. I was the only one to hold him and I didn’t want too. But, he did begin to grow. When I got home from school I had to tend the baby and fix dinner. Through the window I could see the kids playing. There was a younger brother who followed me around in the house that I also had to look after. He was not as much trouble and I hardly knew he was there.
Elementary school was nothing much out of the ordinary…he did have to repeat fourth grade. In High School he was quiet and didn’t cause any problems but seemed to attract the cowardly bullies. Big mistake…I was much bigger than them. He never seemed to be involved, had no friends, was always alone. Had a little girl he would wait on our front porch to see as she passed but she paid him no attention whatever. They graduated him just to get him out and because he had a near perfect attendance.
He was able to find a job and worked there a year before the people didn’t want him around anymore. Found a couple other jobs but lasted no time. Then one day he went catatonic and we knew something was really wrong. He was diagnosed with Schizophrenia. After two months in an institution he was back home. He had a real need for friends, boy or girl, but had none. And…didn’t know how to get them. No matter how hard he tried people would simply turn their backs to him. He needed encouragement from someone, but would not take it from me.
After Mom passed away he was on his own, that’s what he wanted. He chose to live on the streets even though he was provided a place to stay and food by the responsible agencies. He never drifted more than three blocks away from the home place which was falling more in disrepair each day, no heat, no water. After his dog died, he lived totally on the streets. That was also becoming problematic. They were turning him away from the eating establishments. Then the grocery store, where he had traded for years, told him not to come back. No friend, even at home. If he had had just one female friend who cared, his life, might have been so different. But no love or caring was to be found.
Some people are loved because they are dear to their parents…he wasn’t…some because we feel sorry for them…he wasn’t…he was never really objectionable, but still, no one cared to care.
My presence seems to agitate him so I’ve had to watch from afar. It’s like I have failed him.
As I now watch him lying there unconscious, in the ICU being cared for by in a nice facility, with a wonderful staff, it is so sad he doesn’t know it. I wonder how many hundreds of other people would cherish a smile and a sincere hello, just so they wouldn’t think the world is saying “No Love For You”
While appreciating the message from this tale, I find it most frustrating in many respects to how others try and fail to deal with people in this situation. If you are too shy to talk,, how can they help? What could they do better? If you are too afraid to ask for help, how can people know that you need it? Like I say, it’s well explained from your perspective but how can others deal better with people in similar situations? Personally I think I’m somewhere on the spectrum but I have the empathy to know that others cannot possibly understand what is not voiced. Much the same as it is vice versa. And what frustrates me with these examples is a lack of any concrete advice to well meaning people who may be trying their hardest on your behalf but failing. Why? And how can this be changed?