An Aspie’s Adventures In The Workplace
I left school at the age of sixteen, in 1994. I had a small part-time job in a café then. This was my first proper job. At that time, I did not know I had Asperger’s Syndrome. Some people thought I was lazy and immature. No one really seemed to know what to do with me. Everyone was having “a wee word” with me, giving me bits of advice that I really did not know what to do with. After many failed job applications, I finally got a small, part-time job in a café in Edinburgh. I was very proud of myself. It finally felt like somewhere out there, someone apart from my parents had accepted me. I was good enough for something and someone else. After all, all my friends had managed to get part-time jobs, while they were at school. Why hadn’t I? It felt like I, to some extent, had finally caught up with them. I had finally reached the same level as everyone else.
So, how did I feel about the actual job? I was a bit nervous, a bit frightened, a bit excited, and really keen to please my new bosses and get everything right. Only, I didn’t, because of the people I was working beside.
I still get scared when I think of the boss of that café. Everything she said, or did, was right. She had all the responsibility to shoulder and wanted you to know it. Nothing I ever said or did was right in her estimation. I was never fast enough. I’d always missed little bits that I really needed to concentrate on. Didn’t I see what I was doing wrong? Now don’t get me wrong – it wasn’t so much that she said these things but it was how she said them and how often. There’s one word for this kind of treatment: bullying. Only, I didn’t recognise it as that then.
I was, as you may understand, very frightened. It seemed like everyone else was doing these things to me for my own good. So, what did I learn from this experience?
Not everyone who’s your boss is also your pal. Not everyone who’s your boss always cares about you. You should learn to recognise these things. You need to learn to assert yourself. A good example of this time would be about eight months into the job. I had to clean the toilets still. I didn’t have time to do them all. The disabled toilet looked ok as it was, I thought. I left it for that day. The next day, the boss spoke with me.
“Robert, I have just finished having to clean out the sinks in the ladies, as they were anything but clean. And I notice also that you never bothered doing the disabled toilet yesterday.”
I then tried to explain that, as I was running short of time, I had thought that the disabled toilet was clean enough.
“Yes but Robert, this had not been done!”
I thought, then, meek and unassuming, as I was then, that I deserved that kind of treatment. In part, this is still true, but I believe my boss’s response was completely wrong as well.
If you are employed to do a range of duties, then you should do that whole range of duties. If you find that you cannot, or don’t have time to, do one or more of them, talk to your boss first. And if they give you a response such as the one I got, keep a record of it. Because there are things that you can (and things that you need to) do about it. What did I learn from this experience? If no one else is going to simplify and straighten things out for you, then you have to do it yourself.
My next foray into the world of work came just over two years later. A place called Bankers Trust. Upon leaving college, I had sent my CV into every agency. One Wednesday evening in 1997, I got a phone call.
Could I start, as a data inputter, the very next day? I must have done a good job, too, because after about a fortnight of data entry, they no longer needed me for that. But one of the teams in there needed an admin assistant.
They knew I could do a job well. I had a little bit more confidence then. And I learned there a most important skill. Whenever you start a new job, relax. You need to pay attention and you need to listen to everything that everyone says to you. But, in order to absorb, you need to relax.
I was as nice and pleasant to them as they were to me. I listened, I asked questions, I did exactly as I was told and — here’s the thing — they liked me! I started to be congratulated on doing such a good job. And that, as many of you may know, is a very good feeling. What was it about this job that made it so easy for me?
There was no build-up to it. One of the most stressful things for us, as Aspies, is the feeling of anticipatory tension. We know something new is on the horizon. We won’t, usually, know what this “thing” is. We just know we need to be ready, and so we start to worry. This didn’t happen here, because there simply wasn’t time.
As good as my position there was, it wasn’t permanent. So, I kept on applying for jobs that were. And, in April 1998, I got offered a permanent position by what was then known as The Inland Revenue and is now known as H.M. Revenue and Customs. This was both exciting and nerve-wracking for me. I knew I had a month before I started, so I needed to be prepared. I started to get nervous.
The Bankers Trust job was very structured. I knew what I had to do every day. I knew when it had to be done by. I knew whom I had to report to every day, when and why. That was what made it so easy for me to take to the job.
In H.M. Revenue and Customs, by contrast, I remember once being told by someone in the section I worked in that “We are all your bosses. You do whatever we say, whenever we say and you don’t question it.”
I was desperate to make a good impression, only there were no goalposts. There was nothing there to guide me and guidance is what all Aspies need. Advisors, teachers and the like who read this may sigh, smile and say that no one in life is going to take your hand and guide you. To say that is misunderstanding my meaning here. We are talking about guidelines.
At the time I got my job in H.M. Revenue and Customs, I did not know for sure whether or not I had Asperger’s. However, if you know for sure, then it is in your own best interests to tell your employer. That way, they can be better able, then, to shape the job to suit your needs. The decision to “come out” about one’s Asperger’s should always come directly from the Aspie themselves, because it is them who will have to live with it.
This writer’s advice would be to employ the strategy of, who needs to know? Why do they need to know? How is it going to improve your working life? That is my advice and these are the questions I would advise you to have at the forefront of your mind whenever you take on a new job. It’s knowing whom to trust. It’s knowing why to trust them. It’s learning to recognise the warning signals and signs.
In my first job, at the Edinburgh café, I was keen to please, keen to prove myself and to show what I could do. This was good, from the point of view that I came across well.
I came across as eager to please. The downside, though, was that this willingness left me very open to being taken advantage of. What I was doing was trying to please everyone. Therein lies a quick road to failure as it just isn’t possible. It also leaves you very open to being bullied.
So, when to recognise when you are being bullied at work? Is anything you ever do good enough for your boss? Have you had things properly explained to you? Are others in your team or group being allowed to conduct themselves in a similar manner and yet nothing appears to be done about it?
Do you find yourself repeatedly being given advice, or, “a wee word” about something you have not done? Does your boss (or the colleague, or “friend” who is doing the bullying) ever see your point of view?
One of the biggest problems the average Aspie has is that of personal disclosure. It is easy for us to start feeling we deserve the treatment we are getting. It is all too easy to fall into the trap of thinking that the bullies are trying to help us.
So, do we need to talk to someone? Well, the first question is, who? One’s boss is the obvious first answer — unless, of course, they are the bully! It is a good idea to keep a private journal of when incidents happen, where they happen, why they happen and who else (if anyone) was around at the time the incident took place.
It is important that you stick to the facts when recording each incident, as emotion can cloud your judgement. Once you have a few instances, ask your human resources department for an appointment. Some organisations allow you to take a companion in and, if you would feel more comfortable with someone else in the room whom you’ve talked with about this incident in confidence, then you can do this. Trade union representatives are also good at fulfilling this role. They will also help you out in many other ways, such as representation, provision of mediation services, raising a case against the person being accused of being a bully.
A strong side issue to this is, as an Aspie, learning to recognise when to interact with your colleagues.
Take note of any interaction that starts up around you. While getting on with your work, you can, silently and discreetly, observe your colleagues interacting with each other. This may be in a business context, or it may just be in general. Watch their faces. Listen to their tones. Watch their gestures. Listen to their choice of words. I heard a colleague of mine, who sat across the desk from me, mention something to someone else on the phone about a particular bus route she’d had problems with recently. It was a route I knew well. Thinking I was being helpful, I piped up and suggested to her an alternate bus route, which she could have taken.
She stared at me for a moment and then said, “What the hell’s it got to do with you?” I thought I was being helpful; she thought I was being nosey. She was offended; I was hurt and it made for a very awkward afternoon at work. The moral of the story? You need to look for silent cues that you’re being invited to comment. In retrospect, I don’t think I was given any.
By doing things like I did, one leaves oneself open to being bullied. And how does being bullied make one feel? Going by personal experience, it makes one feel sad, alone, like one is not worth anything, scared and perhaps even worse confused.
To conclude, how do I feel now about these experiences? While I hated them at the time, in some ways, I am glad I had them and have come through them, because it has helped me gain insights and coping strategies. It has also made me appreciate how being accepted makes one feel — accepted, confident and like you can do more.
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].