S~low

I had a ‘delayed‘ response to finding out that I’m autistic because I had been labouring under the misconception that being autistic means avoiding or not wanting social interaction, which are fine by me given my introverted and at times, misanthropic personality. This misconception meant that I wasn’t aware of and therefore, never considered the sensory implications and executive function aspect of my condition. I got my diagnosis in 2009 but it wasn’t until 5 years later I read The Complete Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome that suddenly everything that has happened in my life makes sense. And when I referred back to my assessment report, I realised the significance of some observations which I had thought were minute and irrelevant. For example, it was observed:

“It took her slightly longer to process and answer the questions directed by the examiner.”

Apparently, there is an ‘explanation’ for this.

“During the diagnostic assessment the adult client may provide responses that appear to indicate empathy and ability with social reasoning, but on a more careful examination it may be clear that these responses, given after a fractional delay, were achieved by intellectual analysis rather than intuition. The cognitive processing required gives the impression of a thoughtful rather than spontaneous response.” Tony Attwood, The Complete Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome

I find this interesting and rather unbelievable. Don’t people think before they give a response? Do people not think before they say? What does even a spontaneous response mean? How is that possible? What’s the thought process that go through these people’s mind? I cannot fathom.

Below are a couple of reasons I can think of that may contribute to my slower processing time during interactions.

The use of intellect rather than intuition in social situations

It has been noted several times in the book that individuals with autism use their intellect and cognitive abilities rather than intuition to socialise. It makes me wonder what it feels like to be a neurotypical. Apparently, when I tried to emulate the persona and behaviour of my class monitress when I was 11-12 years old, I was using my intellectual abilities to socialise by camouflaging, observing and adopting a social role and script.

Poor executive function & difficulty switching attention

Autistic individuals may have problems with switching attention from one task to another. Some may find it difficult to stop the activity at hand and move on to a new activity unless they have successfully completed the activity at hand. This may prove challenging in employment situations where one is often required to multi-task. Starting a new task can also be challenging due to an impaired executive function. It can be time-consuming because of the mental effort it takes to plan and structure. From writing my essays in schools to writing my blog posts, I probably spend more time than is necessary to plan and structure my outline, which is why you probably notice that I seldom address autistic issues in my blog because these kind of posts take up a lot of my time and mental effort. Individuals who struggle with organisation will require considerable mental efforts and therefore longer time to process and switch attention from one task to another.

Sensory overload

When someone demands attention from me or interacts with me, they are at the same time competing with the environmental factors and external stimuli for my attention. And being a hypersensitive person to sensory experiences especially sounds and movements, it takes conscious effort to focus and listen or else I get distracted. The same thing happens when it’s my time to respond. I need to exercise conscious effort to focus and stay on track. By the time the interaction is over, mental exhaustion hits in.

TMI 

I think the side effects of an impaired executive function and tendency to sensory overload is to get overwhelmed by too much information. Put simply, my brain is like a web browser with too many open tabs, I need time to process information. The video below by The National Autistic Society (UK) is a great example of both TMI and sensory overload.

Little philosopher / thinker

It is said that girls with Asperger can sound like ‘little philosophers’, with an ability to think more deeply about social situations than boys. It has also been noted that people with ASD think about things that most people take for granted. I find this to be true in my case. When I was about 23, I worked with a colleague and we used to share book recommendations. One of the books she recommended was Tuesdays with Morrie, she said it was thought-provoking because it made her ponder about life, to which I was extremely puzzled. What do you mean the book made people ponder about life? As a child, I thought about life’s purpose. I grow up thinking about the meaning of life and I’m still thinking. Do people not ponder about life?

Alexithymia (Emotion blindness) & Lack of self-awareness

Alexithymia, an impaired ability to identify and describe emotional feelings. Questions like “how’s your day?”; “how are you feeling?” are difficult for two reasons. First, I need to ascertain if this is just a question the other party asks out of courtesy or is s/he genuinely interested in an honest answer. The second challenge is finding the right words to explain how I feel. There is also the question of self-awareness. I struggle with hypothetical ‘what if’ questions and answering questionnaires for psychological assessments because of the gap between ideal and reality ~  what I’ll do or who I perceive myself to be may not be who I actually am. Yes, I’m talking about myself as if I don’t know myself.

The other day I had a meeting with my boss. She asks how things are going. My mind was thinking if I should go with the quick answer (fine, thank you) or something closer to the truth but I just blurted out “ok” after all, she always greet people with “how are you” so the question seems to be out of a habit and even though I knew she would listen if I have any problems, maybe that wasn’t the right time. She sensed the hesitation so I clarified if she was referring to how things were going in terms of work or otherwise? She knew about my current plight so I wasn’t sure if she wanted to hear any further or whether further talking would help. After a few more prompts, I admit I’m still worried. Yep, I can turn a simple question into a complex mental exercise.

Other reasons

Autism isn’t the only thing that defines my identity, which is also shaped by other factors such as education, family, cultural and upbringing etc. etc. Here are some other reasons (non-exhaustive) I can think of that contribute to my need for a longer processing time:

  • depression
  • fatigue
  • lack of confidence (don’t trust instinct)
  • afraid of making mistakes
  • low self-esteem
  • cynicism
  • need for clarity (often asking “what do you mean by this/that?” because I can’t comment on things in general or without a context)
  • refusal to take things at face value or for granted
  • stupidity (considering it took me 5 years after my diagnosis to appreciate the implications of the condition, talk about autism awareness! I know nobody here is going to tell me straight to my face I’m stupid, I take it upon myself to do so. Depending on how one defines stupidity, I do seem to take a longer time and twice the effort to get things done.)

S~low & Hard Functioning

In the context of employment, it isn’t difficult to see why I would have difficulties securing employment. Most job adverts require “ability to multi-task”, “great organisation skills”, “work under pressure” and I have worked in positions like these but what I find really annoying are the times where the ability to “work under pressure” is not so much due to the job nature (e.g. in ER or the stock market) but is quite unnecessary and can be avoided if only other people cooperate and not succumb to last minute deadline and better effective management from the above. I know I’ve never been put in a managerial position so that’s easy for me to say and I can leave finding employment for next discussion. I do wonder though if my slow functioning has not somehow rendered me somewhat low functioning. Again, that depends on how you define low functioning but in a society and education system which measures success by one’s ability to keep pace with the rest, being slow is certainly hard functioning. I wish society and workplace embraces individual effort and spirit as much as it encourages team work and celebrates team sports.


“If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.” Henry David Thoreau

Related posts:
Little philosopher
Autism and my journey towards the enlightened path

Featured Image from http://www.pexels.com

 

Employed but jobless: Oh what nonsense!

Feeling sick for the past few days. A tight knot in the stomach. How can someone be employed yet unemployed? Easy. If you hold 2 part-time hourly-paid job, which has for the past 6 months provided a steady income, not much for savings but enough to make a living and then you suddenly realise that there is little, almost no further incoming work from both employers resulting in a near zero income. Yes, I know such is the peril of hourly-paid positions, yet I didn’t see it coming because for the past 6 months, there were times where I was expected to perform something in short notice as if I’m a full-time staff or time-consuming tasks which take up almost all my time I thought I might as well have been employed full-time. In addition, my assistance is expected for an event in October which would take up a portion of my time. So really, where do I stand? I’m employed but without an income, I might as well be unemployed. That is the ridiculousness of blah blah land. Do my employers not realise that my living depends directly on them? Do they think I’m rich because I can afford to work 2 part-time? Is it so hard for employers to give a thought to their employees’ needs (regardless financial or personal, special/non-special, autistic/non-autistic etc)? You know that sick feeling when you realise that you are running short of money and might not be able to pay your rent etc? The hourly-paid arrangement feels like an injustice. I’m fuming, I’m worried, I want to yell at them but I know they are not bad persons, they are only human. And it’s time for me to communicate my needs.

http://blog.readytomanage.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/09/communication-comic.jpg

Five scoops of ice-cream

Studies suggest that people with autism have a lower employment rate. For example, the National Autistic Society estimates that only 15% of adults with autism in the UK are in full-time paid employment.* While the exact rate is unknown, I can empathise with that as I too am struggling to stay employed. This is partly due to the nature of a research assistant post which is typically project based and subject to the availability of funds. My longest employment so far is 13 months. Another reason that contributes to my struggle is my low tolerance level for tasks (and people) that I dislike. On the one hand, it is nerve wrecking to stay in a job that demands my constant attention attending to other people (be it my boss, co-workers or subject targets) and which generates a high level of anxiety. On the other hand, I feel bad about being a quitter. With hindsight, I believe my challenges in staying employed and career progression stems in part from my autism. I’m not pushing all the blame on autism but if it is true that people on the spectrum face challenges getting employed, then it is reasonable to think that my autism contributes at some level. Often, what triggers the thought of resignation is the level of anxiety the job is causing which prevents me from enjoying a peace of mind. It feels like an intrusion of my private space and it is frustrating to find myself subject to the whims of others. Unpredictability stresses the hell out of me such as organizing and coordinating a big event, work that requires me to be on call anytime or last minute meetings. The more things are beyond my control, the more my anxiety level increases. Commuting at peak hours and travelling to crowded areas is another major source of stress and turns out to be the most priority concern and major cause of anxiety. I have come to this realisation in the past 2 years, as I face the imminent prospect of commuting in crowded transport to work and then it hit me that out of my 10 years in Hong Kong, 8 years was spent studying or working at the nearby campus, which is just a short distance walk from home.

I’m not sure if the same considerations apply to others on the spectrum but these are the following factors that contribute to my anxiety and stress levels at work (and possible mitigating factors) and a table to illustrate the measurement of stress.

Slide1

Commuting to work

  • Does the job require commuting to crowded areas or peak rush hours?

Teamwork & Leadership

  • Who am I working with? Am I required to work in a team?
  • How is the team structured? Is the division of work clearly demarcated? How coordinated is the team? How much discretionary power do I have?
  • Am I getting clear and specific instructions?

Job description & nature

  • What is the job nature? Is it administrative, business or research based?
  • What is the purpose of employment? Am I doing something I’m interested in or solely for the income?
  • Do I have to work under time pressure or multi-task? (This depends also on the nature of task)
  • Who will I be dealing with essentially? Do I have to deal with clients? Do I have to make phone calls? Do I need an extensive social network and interpersonal skills?
  • Does it involve independent or team work?
  • Is there a clear demarcation between office and out-of-office hours? Am I expect to be on call anytime?
  • How many days of leave am I entitled to?

Work environment

  • How much privacy and personal space do I have?
  • Is it quiet and sensory friendly?

Social aspects

  • Am I expect to engage in social activities?
  • Am I expect to attend meetings? (I really don’t appreciate the art of small talk during work meetings.

Salary

  • Does it cover my basic expenditure? Can it cover my holiday expenses?

What happens if stress level is at or beyond 5?

I had once organised a three day programme for the entire Year 3 students in the faculty and co-organised a three day conference for more than 50 local and international participants. By the end of both events, I was drained and traumatised with the social demands that was placed upon me. As with recovering from a social burnout, I retreated into my personal space and switched off my mobile device for the next few days after the event. The latter event was also a precursor to getting a tattoo.

The symptoms could be physical. During my 5 months traineeship as a solicitor, I developed a bad cough for nearly a month and lose 2-3kg in the span of a weekend. Now I can’t say for sure if that is a reflection of my stress level but on hindsight, a part of me probably didn’t want to recover.

I hate being a quitter but how do I know when enough is enough? At the end of the day, I am more and more convinced that there is a need for more awareness, acceptance and support for people with special needs but unfortunately, there is still a stigma attached to autism and the fear that people will not understand. A job I dislike makes me look forward to Friday and dread as Monday approaches. I hope one day to find a career that makes me look forward to every day. 

References:

*The National Autistic Society, Autism facts and history http://www.autism.org.uk/about/what-is/myths-facts-stats.aspx

*Ronald Alsop, “Are autistic individuals the best workers around?” (7 January 2016)
http://www.bbc.com/capital/story/20160106-model-employee-are-autistic-individuals-the-best-workers-around

https://www.facebook.com/Snoopy/photos/a.164481990269232.46758.161564697227628/1199629350087819/?type=3&theater

 

If beggers can be choosers

In interviews, employers assess the suitability of prospective candidates for the job. As a candidate, I would also like to assess my employer’s management capability, for instance, the organization or team structure, work culture and equal opportunities policy. I have worked in circumstances I find it hard to commit because of difficulties getting along and adhering to the social work norms of the rest of the team. If beggers can be choosers, my ideal employer is one who possess the following qualities:

Strong leadership skills and clear vision

This is especially important for a job that requires me to work in a team and where there is a hierarchy structure. I hate it when instructions are inconsistent and dealing with team members with different personalities. The hierarchy exists, not to create barriers between the top management from the lower level. It dampens my work morale if I think that my views are not going to be listened or the work division is blurred and poorly coordinated. There must be a clear objective for meetings, which is not just an occasion for aimless patronizing talk. A good leader must be aware of the pitfall of groupthink. A leader must have a clear vision, which is something concrete that can be broken down into specific objectives. It is not sufficient to have a grand ambitious vision that is abstract in terms and only in the mind of the beholder. Not every boss is a leader and similarly, having a nice personality doesn’t necessarily make someone a good leader. Personally, I prefer to work independently but I do have the ability to work in a team provided the above conditions are present. Having a clear vision is also a pre-requisite for the next quality.

Ability to give clear and concise instructions

This might be one of the most important requirements for employees on the spectrum. Unless you bestow me with discretionary power, be clear and concise about what it is you want me to do. While I do not have to be spoon-fed, there is a distinction between “I want you to draft a proposal” and “I want to you to draft a proposal that focuses on the topic XYZ with clear deliverables.” The best part I enjoy about doing research is collecting the data and information because this stage tends to be clear and straightforward. However, how the data is going to be presented or analysed is another matter.

Provides constructive feedback

If after spending tremendous amount of time and effort to complete a task, only to find that it has been put aside without an explanation, nor is there even an acknowledgement of the effort, it seriously dampens my work morale. This is basic reinforcement theory, a discouraged employee is an unmotivated employee. Furthermore, it reflects the lack of leaderships skills and clear vision, after all, how can an employer comment about something which he can’t articulate clearly in words or has no clear vision about?

Flexible and open-minded

What is the employer’s attitude towards email exchanges outside working hours or employees with special requests? Is the employer acquainted with the equal opportunities policy? Does the employer have a valid reason for refusing a request for reasonable accommodation? If the employer expects every employee to conform with expected social work norms regardless of the nature of work, background and circumstances, this is hardly a valid reason. Now I have never disclosed my autism to any employer at the interview stage. First, there is no need to. Second, I want to be treated equally as the other candidates. Third, there is still a risk that disclosure might prejudice the chances of my getting a job even if the employer claims to adhere to the equal opportunities policy. However, I am getting so tired of the “this is how we have always done it so this is how you have to do it too” attitude and the assumption that everyone should conform to social expectations, I have increasingly felt the urge to challenge the system and to test the extent to which employers are willing to provide reasonable accommodation by putting myself forward as a test case. While I can’t blame you for not being aware of my needs because I have an invisible disability, how differently would you have reacted if my disability is made known to you?

Avoid last minute changes or notification and allow time for adjustment

Does the job require working outside office hours or complete tasks under time pressure? These must be stipulated in advance, in the job description and at the interview; if they are not necessary, it should be avoided. I am averse to communication exchanges outside office hours, it doesn’t mean I don’t work outside office hours, I’m merely averse to communication exchange amongst people outside office hours. The feeling is similar to my desire to be at home at the end of a school day. Communication exchanges outside office hours are akin to detentions and extra-curricular activities which intrude my personal space and prevent me from enjoying solitude. I pride myself on my ability to write and eye for detail, not dealing with unpredictability and time pressures, especially tasks which require meticulous research and planning.

If beggars can be choosers.

Let me rest in peace

What are the words you like to hear? Here is a few of my personal likes and dislike.

“YOU ARE NOT ALONE”😟

I know the good intentions behind but these words give me the creeps. I need and enjoy my alone time, most of the time. I find it disturbing to hear that “I am not alone.” I much prefer something like “I can imagine how you feel” or “I can relate.”

“YOU DESERVE TO BE ALONE”😊

Someone said this to me once to announce the end of our friendship. It was his attitude towards my autistic needs that hurt. Not these words, which were actually the best thing he could have said and which I took as a compliment. If we were still friends, I’d have replied, “Thank you, why not?”

“REST IN PEACE”😃

Why do I have to wait till I’m dead to rest in peace? Please don’t wait till I’m dead to tell me that. I want peace right now.