This is Part I of a two-part post.
Can I be less autistic?
It has been a month since I started my new full-time job. Before I started, the question I had in my mind was “Can I be less autistic and go to work in an office like regular people do?” Will I be able to cope with the changes? Can I overcome my sensory challenges and dislike for social interaction? By the end of the month, the answer seems clear, “nope, I cannot be less autistic.” You may think it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy, however, before I knew I was autistic, I was having trouble working in an office environment. The difference is I can now observe and explain my behaviour and reaction whereas I couldn’t previously.
I rate my stress levels according to the 6 variables listed in the table below, which I’ll go through in the following paragraphs (not in accordance with order).
I’m actually earning less compared to what I was paid in the past, reason being I’ve applied for an entry-level post in a different field to my degree. The crucial point is that I’m being paid a fixed monthly salary so I no longer have to worry about whether or not I’ll earn enough in the coming months to pay my rent and living expenses.
Teamwork & Leadership
Many projects will involve teamwork although at the moment, I’m being tasked with items that could be done independently so I can’t really comment on the teamwork and leadership aspect. I didn’t have a great experience with teamwork in previous jobs because of poor leadership and communication (eg. division of responsibility is unclear). Habitually giving last minute notice is not a good sign either (this will however depend on one’s profession and the nature of job). Advance notice is always greatly appreciated.
Job description & nature
I have wanted to make a switch from doing legal research to social sciences but it hasn’t been easy. I am therefore grateful for the job because it means I could gain some practical experience in doing social sciences research. Moreover, I’m now working in the field of mental health which I have a personal interest in. I mean wouldn’t it be great if I could contribute to a project not as an ‘expert’ in the traditional sense as one would understand the term but as an individual with a personal experience with mental health issues? Although at the moment of writing, this is still a secret personal agenda as I’m still contemplating if I should discuss my mental health issues with my employer.
Commuting to work
If you have been following my blog for a while, you would know that commuting is one of the most stressful events in my life especially in this city and as a result, I don’t step out of my house unless necessary. Well, the best thing about this job is that the journey takes about 10 minutes (by bus) and 25 minutes (by foot). I may have gotten this job by a measure of luck, it is however no coincidence that I live a short distance away. I know colleagues who spend nearly 2 hours to commute to work (single trip) and this is where I differed from most of them and how my sensory challenges have affected my day-to-day life, most of the jobs I applied to are within walking distance or no more than a 30-minute bus ride from my place. The location is an important factor I take into account before applying for a job. After the first few days, I even find the 10-minute ride too much to handle, I’ve started walking to and from work despite the over 30°C (86°F) temperatures. The walk isn’t exactly a stroll in the park though for there is constant loud traffic, fast moving cars and the air is heavily polluted by exhaust fumes. In between loud cars and loud people however, I still find walking to be the ‘less evil’ option.
The first thing I noticed as I walked into the office during my interview was the bad body odour, the lack of air-conditioning and poor ventilation. Unfortunately, that hasn’t changed. And flies too, annoying little fruit flies.
Noises, you can imagine what it’s like in a typical office. Phone calls, door bells, paper shredder, photocopier and scan machines, the deep throbing sound made when the photocopier machine hits the ground, desktop towers, people walking in and out, conversations taking place at the same time across different parts of the office, people chatting and bursting into loud laughter, keyboard typing, and the meeting room makes a loud ‘creaking’ sound when the air-conditioning is switched on. I notice all of them at the same time in a loud volume. My hypersensitivity to sounds continue to be my biggest challenge.
There was another new colleague who started on the same day as me. This makes an interesting comparison as I could then observe how we differ in terms of social behaviour. In the first few days, we would go out for lunch together after 2pm. I told her it was too crowded at 1pm which she agreed. Later, I started bringing my own packed lunch to save costs and it didn’t take her long to reveal her social self as she starts getting familiar with the rest and goes out for lunch with them, whereas another colleague describes me as “the one who never joins them for lunch.” I took it as a joke and there was no hard feelings. I don’t go out for lunch in part because they always go at a time which is the most crowded and I have no interest whatsoever to deal with the lunch time crowd. Sometimes, others will drop by the new colleague’s desk and they would chatter or exchange banter, which can be a nuisance as she is just sitting behind me. In contrast, I am quiet, as I’ve always been described since I was a child. By way of illustration, around 3pm-ish one day, my boss was on his way out from his office, and he asked me if I had spoken to anyone at all. And in my attempt to crack a joke, I said, “no, you are the first person I’ve spoken to.” Funny how people like to make remarks about someone else being quiet or being less than social. It just goes to show how quiet people, introverts, and individuals who lack social skills are constantly being judged by the people around them for not living up to the standards of sociability. Is my quietness disturbing you and distracting you from work? Is my not talking freaking you out? If tables are turned, I would be making remarks about people being talkative or mocking them for being too needy they just can’t do anything or go anywhere on their own! Sorry, I don’t mean to be sarcastic and I don’t hold it against them even when they drive me mad especially when they switch on their social chit-chat mode simultaneously. It’s nothing personal, they are a nice bunch of people, albeit too social for my taste, and I’m just someone who is highly sensitive to noise.
The how to initiate small talk
Oftentimes, I get interrupted in the middle of work by colleagues who drop by my desk to talk to me. I’m fine with that, particularly if its work-related. Its unpreventable and it wouldn’t make sense to have to give me prior notice for talking to me. Sometimes I interrupt others too for the same reason. What I find interesting though is how people socially interact with one another in the midst of work. How do you tell whether or not someone is in the mood for it or whether it is a right time to do so during working hours. How do I tell if it is an appropriate time to engage in small talk during the middle of work? This is something I observe that other people do so without apparent difficulty, as though their minds are in-sync with each other like some kind of wireless technology, they both have their small-talk function turn on at the same time. An interesting observation aside, I’m not so concerned about this because I’m not a fan of small talk in the first place.
Sensory, Cognitive & Social Challenges
For someone who used to leave the house maybe once or twice a week or fortnight, this is a tremendous change. I’m still getting use to it or maybe I won’t. For more than 2 years, I led a reclusive lifestyle because I couldn’t cope any longer with the sensory demands of this loud and constrained city. I was lucky I had jobs that allowed me to sustain a living from home at that time. But I’m now depleting my energy everyday and there is not enough time for me to recover. It is only the first month into my job and I’m worried if I will be able to continue holding up. Add to the sensory challenges are the cognitive and social demands, which I will continue in Part II, as I think this is enough for one post. Thanks for reading.