With my new job in November, I was suddenly confronted with a different working environment than I was used to. This was by choice - I’ve long worked pretty independently, and felt I’d be more creative and productive when integrated into a team. What I didn’t understand was that this would be particularly difficult for me as a human on the autism spectrum. It’s made me think a lot about how much simpler it was to be autistic in my corner of academia than it is to be autistic in my current job.
Like most autistic people, I have trouble with change. I may successfully navigate it, but it takes a ton of energy from me. Adherence to routines and resistance to change are part of the autism diagnostic criteria, but I haven’t seen a generally accepted explanation for why, neurologically, that happens. My personal working model is based on the intense world theory and anxiety.
The intense world theory asserts that the neurological underpinning for autism is hyper-activity in the brain, which brings with it increased sensitivity, perception, and memory1,2. Taken together, that means that every experience is pretty intense for me, and takes a lot of attention and processing power. I typically assemble a sort of mental model3 that helps me understand what’s most important to pay attention to and try and filter out the extra input. When my environment or relationships or routines are the same (or very similar), I just have to update that model. When there’s bigger change, I have to write a new one4.
And change brings anxiety. When I can’t predict what tomorrow or next week or next month will look like based on now and the recent past, I feel unprepared and fearful. I doubt my ability to deal with the unexpected, and instinctively operate under the assumption that I will fail. Believe me, I’m working on this in therapy, and am quite good at fighting down those fears with logic and moving forward anyway. It’s always a fight, though, so it is always a drain on my energy.
I got through over a decade in academia without much true collaboration. Of course I always worked with people, but the pattern for my projects was that I’d go off into a corner and work for a month or two, then talk about that work with a collaborator (or send them results) and get a little feedback before going back to my corner. I’d mostly get comments on paper drafts, rather than working through problems together. Academia isn’t always like that, but my natural tendency to strongly focus and problem solve on my own met with little or no resistance.
I grew to hate this pattern. I’d make mistakes and then learn about them too late, or I’d get feedback on a near-completed project that would have been more useful at the beginning. I also was isolated enough that I couldn’t very naturally learn new tools and methods from people around me. I got glimpses of how powerful collaboration could while working with my community groups, and wanted to have my wage labor look more like that.
During my last postdoc I was trying to break my lone-wolf cycle, but I was burned out and changing an old pattern takes energy and help from outside. Even in my first job as a data scientist, I was far more interactive but ultimately a single data scientist working alone on projects. I saw this new job as an opportunity to finally experience teamwork.
I’m now on a team of four, with loosely comparable skills. We draw our work from the same list of projects (with nods to both interest and specific skills) and it is rare that I’ve worked on something for more than a day without either pairing or receiving feedback. Part of this is because I’m still training, but it’s mainly to ensure we have a common knowledge base and can produce better work overall. It’s a really good way to work.
But it’s a new way to work. I’m often producing pull requests5 that are inconveniently long for quick reviews, or getting hung up on details or wanting to address the root of a problem instead of applying a quick fix. And because we’ve got structured meetings, I can get feedback and correct my path before too long, but I’m still working on developing the instincts. This might just be a general new job struggle, rather than autistic.
I know my autism is a huge factor in the social aspect of the collaboration. Because I give and receive a lot of feedback on work, I spend a lot of energy working on tone - parsing everyone else’s and moderating my own. My company also doesn’t have the clearest hierarchy and workflow, so I’m quite actively observing group structure and dynamics. I spend energy trying to figure out the right timing for questions, the right time to add input, and navigating the interuptions that come from . The key to at least some of this is investing in the social relationships, which ends up taking energy6 and bringing me to the office.
an actual office
My last academic office was very isolated, and I hadn’t been there since March of 2020. After a solid two years of working from home, I’m now in a shared space with 15-20 people. And it’s a lot. The social interactions themselves aren’t overly taxing, but just being around people all day sometimes is.
The audio environment is difficult for me. I have trouble distinguishing different sounds from each other, so background noise is a constant struggle. When I’m focused I’ll have my noise cancelling headphones on, but when I’m chatting with a co-worker or in a meeting I’m pretty exposed to the rest of the noise. I’ve been experimenting with wearing earplugs, with mixed results.
And then there’s the masking I do just because other people are in the room, or could walk by. In any moment, I’m usually:
- self-correcting my resting face from murderous rage (seriously) to neutral
- monitoring my amount of fidgeting/dancing to keep it at a “normal” level
- specifically not making sound
- ensuring I do a minimum amount of nodding and smiling to acknowledge people
- hyper aware of the movements of people and who I will encounter if I get up These processes take up a lot of brain space for me. I can’t tell if it’s mostly because I live alone and am out of practice, or if I’ve always spent this amount of energy on it and I notice now because I have less energy overall.
adaptation or accommodation
I still think this is the right job for me. There’s a whole swath of work that I haven’t mentioned because it’s well within my skillset and doesn’t use excess energy. I’ve gotten universally positive feedback, and I also believe they’ll be accommodating of my autistic needs if I ask. The trouble is figuring out what I should ask for. I already work reduced hours - 35 hours over four days. But beyond that, it seems like every adaptation or accommodation is a trade-off where I gain something but lose something else.
For example, working from home is often an accommodation I need. It takes less energy overall, and I can do things like take meetings bouncing on my exercise ball if I really need to stim. But if I work from home all the time, then I end up putting more energy into social interactions and reading tone. Maybe I need to ask for a desk in a quiet corner, but I’m not sure there actually is a quiet corner in our current space. So In some ways, I might just need to adapt, or provide my own accommodations.
And then beyond that, I’m not actually sure what I need. One of my current struggles is I’m spending a lot of energy going through my life every day, but I’m never quite sure where it goes. It’s probably something to do with masking and being autistic in an allistic world… but is it sensory or social? Is it something I genuinely need to exist around other people, or something easily discarded without changing much?
And I’m resistant to making too big a deal of my needs. I’ve been told for years, either implicitly by society or explicitly by those around me that they aren’t important or worth paying attention to. I also have fears that if I do assert too many of my needs, those around me will start to get the impression that I can’t do the job, which is absolutely untrue.
Increased sensitivity, perception, and memory do sound like advantages - and they help me learn a lot about the world around me. I am frequently overstimulated though, and sensitivity means I often notice and over- or miss-interpret small changes. ↩
Someday I’ll do a post without footnotes, but today is not that day. ↩
Here, I mean something like a dictionary linking typical events to their meaning, or a computer program that (for example) checks things are ok with a partner based on the last 24 hours of communication. Sometimes I feel like I’m secretly a robot, beep boop. ↩
It’s a particularly poor way of dealing with relationships, but given the way I’m wired I’m not sure I can do much more than accept that the model is never static nor complete. ↩
If you’re not familiar, let’s say these are chunks of work requiring feedback to be complete. ↩
My coworkers are generally a good bunch and I’m happy to get to know them more, but right now it’s at the expense of my non-work social energy and I’m not so happy about that. ↩
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