Aspie on a mission: The paradox of being an autistic individual who doesn’t look autistic

I dislike open-plan office and shared working spaces due to my sensory issues. I was required to work in the office for my previous job even though the job nature doesn’t call for one to work from an office. I have thought about revealing my autism to my then employers and request for reasonable accommodation to work from home. I remembered trying to convince myself that I wasn’t asking for special treatment, that my needs are justified, genuine and stem from a neurological condition, I shouldn’t have to feel bad for having to ask for reasonable accommodation. This is in spite of knowing that I am only exercising my legal right which my employers are bound to provide (what is reasonable though is another issue). This is the stigma people on the spectrum face and in the case of those like myself who don’t look autistic (pun intended) and are (in lieu of a better term) ‘higher functioning’, there is an extra hurdle for me to prove that my need is genuine. Why does it feel like I have to degrade myself in order to justify my request for accommodation? What does this have to do with being autistic? Whatever happens to humanity, helping one another and kindness? Never mind autism, if someone has a problem and there is a simple, reasonable solution to that problem, shouldn’t we help?

A recent research suggests that shared working spaces may worsen instead of improve co-worker relationship. My initial and immediate thought after reading was, “Great, this supports my claim, working in an open-plan office is distracting and makes people anti-social.” On second thought however, I suspect it actually weakens my claim. I was asking for reasonable accommodation based on my condition which makes me hyper-sensitive to noise but the research suggests that an open-plan office is distracting to everyone, not just to those on the spectrum. Something doesn’t sound right here and I’m thinking about my nemesis and the argument is going to run along the lines of, “Since the problem is not unique to your condition, everyone finds it distracting to work in the office, there is no justification for reasonable accommodation.” Here we go again, the refusal to see beyond the surface and lumping of everything together with “Everyone is a bit autistic/ Your problem is typical.” And my rehearsed response to that, if I can keep calm and remember it, was mentioned in the previous post.

With so many misconceptions and misunderstandings about the autism spectrum conditions and people like me, the borderline autistic/neurotypical, I often question myself does it really matter which side of the line I lean more to? Autistic or not, why should that be a pre-condition for addressing my request? The same time an employer questions an employee why the employee should be allowed to work from home, isn’t the employee also entitled to question the employers their rationale? If everyone finds a situation as difficult as I do, why hasn’t anyone question or challenge it? Being on the spectrum and the sort that doesn’t stop reflecting, I often get carried away and stuck on the questions I pose to myself. Professor Digby Tantam describes this eloquently in the Introduction of his book, Autism Spectrum Disorders Through the Life Span, which strikes to the heart of how I feel:

“People with ASD, and their carers, think about things that most of us take for granted. They think about how long a minute is, as in ‘just a minute’. Or they wonder why street furniture is numbered, and what happened to the missing number. Or why there are so many different types of electricity pylon. These are, of course, some of the more obviously weird questions. But some questions that people with an ASD ask go deeply to the heart of many philosophical questions. ‘Why’, for example, ‘would someone want to be my friend?’ or ‘What does a girl want in a man?’ Clinicians who try to grapple with the questions that a person with ASD puts to them, if they are able to empathize with the emotional intensity that lies behind these questions, will find themselves having to question their own values and life equally carefully.” (bold my emphasis)

Yes, people on the spectrum have emotions ~ I have emotions, sometimes with such fervour and intensity that is too much to handle even for myself. If, remembering the people who have passed away is a reminder for us to treasure what we still have, I propose to venture that the autism spectrum exists to remind, challenge and question the values of humanity and societal norms. Everyday is a mental struggle to confront what is normal. Autism taught me that being different is neither bad nor wrong. With autism, I learn not to take things at face value and for granted. I don’t always communicate verbally, sometimes you need a level of emotional intensity in order to empathize and communicate with me.

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