First month on the job: Surviving the last week of September

This is Part II of a two-part post on the first month of my new job. For Part I, please click here.

I hear voices in my head

I start the day walking along the road, subjecting my senses to immediate assault by the fast moving cars and inhaling the heavily polluted air. And for the rest of the day, I have to deal with the incessant sounds of phone calls, door bells, paper shredder, photocopier and scan machines, desktop towers, people walking past and occasionally bumped into my cubicle (which I found funny because I used to knock onto stuff and then found out this is an autistic thing, but of course, it is not just the autistics who bump into things), different conversations taking place at once, people chatting and bursting into laughter, and the creaking sound from the meeting room. I notice all of them at the same time and these sounds become ingrained in my head and replayed every night in my mind as I go to sleep. I wonder if this is why the dreams I’ve been having lately are noisy.

Add to the sensory challenges which I’ve been trying to suppress, are the cognitive and social demands but 3 incidents in the last week of September sent me into a panic mode.

It is not just the right to pay but to be paid on time

Since I was made jobless in May, I have used up my savings in the previous months. This new job came timely as I was relying on it to pay my bills. I started on September 1 but did not receive the contract until September 21, and then it took another week for the university (I’m still working under the university) to confirm my letter of acceptance, upon which I realised I wasn’t going to be paid on time for the first month. I got mad because it is not just about an employee’s right to pay but to be paid on time too. Besides, something is wrong with the management if it has to take the human resource nearly a month to process a contract and now what, I am supposed to pay for their ineptitude? I flustered because I won’t be able to pay my rent and bills on time. I panicked at the thought of having to call and deal with the people in the finance office who are known to be difficult. It didn’t help that my emotions were already overcharged with my sensory issues, a part of me just wanted to cry and plead “help me, I can’t pay my rent, please help me!” but another part of me told me to stay calm and hold myself together for not all is lost. I went to the colleague responsible for administrative matters for help and was given the standard reply I expected, “if you haven’t been paid today, you’ll have to wait till the next scheduled pay day which would be the end of next month, that’s the policy.” But I persisted and asked the colleague to help contact the finance office, if not, I’ll be willing to talk to them myself. First of all, it wasn’t my fault they took a long time with the contract. Second, there are always exceptions to the rule, they just don’t tell you what the exceptions are unless you persisted. In the end, the matter was resolved and I got my pay few days later. I just hate it that they have to put me through so much agony to resolve it. Talk about being a first-class institution!

I’m not lazy, I’m sensory overload

Twice in the week, I was given last minute notice, first, to attend a meeting and second, to complete a task, both required working overtime. Both times, my heart grieves at the thought of coming home late. I know this wouldn’t be the last time I have to do things at the last minute or attend to something after work but wherever possible, I’m the kind of employee who would leave the office at 6pm (the official working hours is 9am to 6pm). I did this in one of my previous jobs, before I knew I was autistic, and the reason I I always left at 6pm at that time was because I was in a hurry to catch the executive bus home for if I waited any longer, the bus would be full and I didn’t want to catch the public bus which would be really crowded. That was 12 years ago and commute was already a challenge back then. But what’s my excuse now? I’m not in a hurry to catch the bus and I’m just 25 minute walk away from home. I used to think it was laziness and poor work ethic. With the benefit of hindsight, I now realise the reason I was in a hurry to catch the executive bus, to avoid the crowded public buses aside, was because I wanted to get home as soon as possible, to be back to a place where I can truly be comfortable in my own shell. Going further back down the memory lane, when I was at school, I hated detention and team assignments, I even skipped compulsory extra-curricular activities. I wasn’t a bad student but all I wanted at the end of school was to be back home. And so it seems that my whole life, I’m always in a rush to be home. It doesn’t matter now that my workplace is near home, I’d still be in a hurry to get back home the soonest possible. I’m not lazy, I would finish whatever needs to be done for that day before leaving. I’m not lazy, if I’m given advanced notice that I have to work overtime, I will be better prepared to do so. I’m not lazy, I don’t mind working over time particularly if I’m allowed to do it from home, although I don’t quite get the logic behind the fact that we are not allowed to work from home during office hours but its ok to work overtime from home? I’m not lazy, I am one of the earlier ones who arrive at work around 8:30am and start punctually at 9am or even before and I don’t take more than an hour to go for lunch. I like to arrive early because I prefer to walk into a quiet office and prepare myself for the impending hustle and bustle. I’m not lazy, I’m sensory overwhelmed and I’m in a hurry to be home because this is where I can let my senses rest and detox (subject to the cooperation of my neighbours). I don’t go for a drink in the bar, I don’t need a luxury spa nor pampering massage, I just need to be in a soothing quiet sensory-friendly environment and that is home.

“Don’t invite me anywhere last minute. I enjoy doing nothing so I need to know ahead of time if my plan to do nothing needs to be changed.”

 

Would you just let me work in peace?

On the same week, I heard a news that sent me over the edge and put me in a difficult position. The office is planning a hiking trip in October which will be held during a weekday, which means instead of going to work, we are going for a hike. I think they are calling it a company retreat. Wait a minute, why is this a bad thing? Don’t you like hiking? Yes, I love being in the nature and hiking but not in a group and certainly not when I have to socialise. It is essentially a social activity. I look forward to solitude in nature, not socialising in nature. If I have to choose between hiking in a group and working alone in the office, I’d choose the latter. Socialising aside, I am anxious at the prospect of having to endure a long and crowded commute. I still don’t know the details such as where are we hiking, what time does it start, how long will it take, what else is being planned, what time does it end? While I can’t control nature but when I hike alone, certain things are within my control, I know where I’m going and I know how fast I can go. Most importantly, when it comes to commute, I plan it to avoid certain routes and times. I have none of these information at the moment other than the routes that have been suggested which would all involve a potentially long commute and I have no control over their speed and time. This makes me super anxious.

I want to do my job well but these sensory and social challenges are a distraction and preventing me from doing so. I want to cry out and shout,

“IF I CAN’T REST IN PEACE, CAN’T I AT LEAST WORK IN PEACE?”

Stop putting me in a social dilemma

I admit that ever since I knew I was autistic, I cared less about being or appearing social. It also has to do with one growing older and choosing to stay true to oneself. I remembered a conversation with a friend in the university during my first year of degree. We had been going out together with a group of friends and I told her I love being part of the group but at the same time I was tired of being out so often and I couldn’t decide if I should turn up at the next gathering or just say no. No matter how social I tried to be in the past, I always ended up needing more time to myself. I can’t believe that more than a decade later, I’m still asking myself the same question: should I make an effort to socialise or should I say no? The thing is I may mock (secretly) at people for their social neediness and I may be a misanthrope but I’m neither a sociopath nor even a rude person. When people ask me out, I appreciate their well-intentions but they are actually creating a social dilemma for me. Even though I’ve learned to say ‘no’, it doesn’t come without a tinge of guilt, after all, it is not a nice feeling to reject a well-intention invite from a friend. I know there are those who like to be asked and invited even if chances are they will decline. Not me, I don’t actually want to be invited to social gatherings or any events that essentially involves a group of people mingling around getting to know each other or to any place which is likely to be crowded or where you have no control over the crowd. Stop putting me in a social dilemma. If you know such events are going to make me uncomfortable, I’d rather not be asked and I would not be offended or feel left out because it is based on a mutual respect and understanding.

The meme above reads: “I need more friends who understand that I still want to be invited, but I’m not going.” I say, don’t worry about inviting me. Don’t put me in a situation where I have to say no.

Can you help make my dream comes true?

On the one hand, I do like the nature and field of work I’m currently doing right now. On the other hand, I dread going to work every morning for the reasons mentioned above and in the previous post. It also comes down to the question of where can this job take me? Bearing in mind that ultimately, I want to get out of this country, and if not now, when? Can this job help further my dream? When I see my co-workers engaged in areas of their research interests, I wish I could do the same. I know I’m being impatient, it took them years to get to this stage but I don’t know if I have the time and patience. I need more than an employer, I need a mentor, someone who can guide me through my career path but I guess I lack the social skills and talent to attract anyone’s attention. After all, I’m neither high functioning nor low functioning, I’m just an average autistic.

Things were better this week because we had 2 days of public holidays. With a full working week coming ahead and further meetings etc., I am just hoping I can hold everything together in place and if it does get too much, I might have to make some important decisions soon.

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Surviving first month on the job: A measurement of stress variables

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).

Salary

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.

Work environment

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.

Social aspects

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.

Thank you autism

Before I knew I was autistic, I thought we were the same and our experiences are shared. I assume you share my thoughts and feel my pain yet I was confused and frustrated because I felt so different but no one could tell me why. How could you not think like I do? How could you not know this will hurt? How could you not hate noise like I do? How could you not enjoy the things I like to do? Why am I different?

But now I know we are meant to be different. Because of autism, I learn that we are not the same and why should it be? Instead of asking why am I different, why should we be similar? Some of us are meant to be assholes. Some of us are meant to be rude and inconsiderate. Period. I stop taking things for granted because we have different needs. I used to think you’d think like me without realising we were different and that empathy is to put myself in your shoes. I now learn that it is not enough to put oneself in someone else’s shoes, I’ve got to try walking in that shoes, that is the essence of empathy. You might not be autistic, probably a neurotypical or perhaps neurodivergent, I give you the benefit of doubt. I come up with reasons and excuses to accommodate diverse needs. I put up with your small talk because I know this is your source of energy. I forgive that when you are engaging in your special interest, you cannot read the signs that I’m disinterested. Perhaps you have a fear of loneliness, it would be cruel of me to deny your social needs. It takes a strong person to cope with silence and it would be too harsh a punishment for you. You are so fixated in your own world, you fail to realise that everyone is different. I can’t blame you for that because I was once the same.

Before I knew I was autistic, my frustration was due to not understanding why I was different. Now my frustration is due to not understanding why we are expected to be the same. Thank you autism for broadening my perspective. Thank you autism for reminding me that we are meant to be different and we should therefore be more accepting, considerate and tolerant. Thank you autism for teaching me to be a more empathetic and sensitive human being. Thank you autism, you might not make me a happy person but I’m a better person because of you.

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

Just shut the fuck up

The first time I read this post by Laina on the diagnostic criteria for Allistic Spectrum Disorder, I laughed because it was brilliantly funny. I still think it’s funny except when you are now being surrounded daily by people on the Allistic Spectrum, in a constrained noisy environment where bullshit is the special interest of the majority, individuals bordering on Obsessive Compulsive Social Disorder, and suffering from Social Addictive Syndrome, small talk addiction, intense emotions aroused by the fear of solitude and isolation, noise seeking individuals for whom silence is too much to handle. It becomes a nightmare. I’m not going to apologise for the title of this post, I need to vent and/or break.

I’m tired of always being the one who accommodates your needs for empty shallow small talk; I’m tired of always being the one who has to adjust to your loud obnoxious laughter; I’m tired of always being taken for granted; I’m tired of having my needs ignored.

Autistics are said to be frank to the point of being blunt. I’m not. Sometimes, I lie. I try to be polite and considerate. So if you see me smiling, what I’m actually saying is:

SHUT       THE       FUCK       UP!

 

Featured image by Millerone on DeviantArt

The greatest teacher

During our walks, I will point out to my mum with a wide-eyed expression, “Look, that’s a strange looking tree!”, “Listen to the birds, who is making all that noise? Can you see them?”; “I wonder what these plants/trees/flowers/seeds etc are.” Nature has so much to teach but alas, I am not the brightest student and I’m ashamed of my ignorance. I wish I have the answer to all my questions. 

“We were required to write brief essays about any interesting natural phenomena or anything relating to natural history observed on the way to school; the subject was always of our own choosing. Two miles of varied bush track with many creek crossings gave unlimited material for our young, greedy minds. I hope that “observation” is still part of the curriculum of bush schools; it teaches children to discover Nature for themselves, and such intimacy with Nature’s secrets nearly always leads to a strong desire to protect all beautiful and useful wild life. It leads, too, to the quiet philosophy of the true nature-lover, a priceless acquisition which enables one, no matter what the environment, to live apart and view, as from a distance, the hurrying world; something which makes the voice of the grey thrush in your shrubs more desirable than the purr of a thousand-guinea motor car in your garage, makes beetles more interesting than bonds and sunsets more desirable than securities. I know now that the observation lessons in that tiny thatched school were the lessons that did me the most good.”

Bernard O’Reilly, Green Mountains

“In every walk with nature, one receives far more than he seeks” John Muir