This is a blog about surviving at work and being autistic (the so called ‘mild’ version) and artistic and passing as NT. Artists only sometimes get paid for what they do, though a_n have done a great job of trying to change this. My mother always wanted me to work in an office (which I do for part of my time), or be an air hostess, but she didn’t know about my struggles outside of home, and my teachers didn’t really know what to do with me. I think they were relieved when I eventually left. I always wanted to be an ‘artist’ (another story). Sometimes, as Boy George said recently, “being yourself is political”.
I have realised after a lifetime of passing and what that means — everything I experienced at school transfers by default to the workplace, in a slightly different adult version.
At school, I didn’t know what to do or understand what was going on. I learned what to do by copying others. At secondary school I didn’t speak, I had no friends, and most of the time I was terrified. I wanted desperately to fit in. I was fascinated by the most popular children, and thought that if I looked like them others would like me. But I didn’t look like them.
I knew what to do at home. At home I drew, I made things, and before starting secondary school, wrote and organised plays and got friends in the street to act in them. The performances happened in our front room at home. I invited other children in the street to watch as an audience… and pay to come in. I organised jumble sales on the front garden wall. I made an insect zoo in my dad’s shed, and remember a butterfly laying tiny pearls (eggs) on the side of the glass covered box in a perfect geometric pattern. All this was intensely absorbing and exciting.
I have worked in all sorts of jobs, and I have had difficult experiences in all of them. I always thought this was because I couldn’t do things in the same way as everybody else, I tried to hide this and blamed myself. I have spent a lifetime hiding. I understand now, that I am not a failure, I just think different.
My first job at 15, was a Saturday job in a supermarket stacking shelves. My mother pushed me into getting a job, I would not have gone out of the front door otherwise. My younger sister used to walk with me to get there. After stacking shelves for a few years they wanted me to go on the till. This was something I found terrifying and was hopeless at. One Saturday I was called into the office and told this would be my last day, and not to come back. This was confusing and devastating. The thing is if I was allowed to go on stacking shelves I probably would have still been there.
I couldn’t speak at school or most places outside of home, but could at home — this does your head in. In the last few years in my current workplace there’s been a big emphasis on cross departmental working. This relies on NT type communication skills, and being able to initiate communication. I still cannot talk to certain people in other teams, including authority figures — there’s no real reason I can think of, they seem like nice people, but I end up worrying that I’m not doing my job properly because I’m not making new connections. A few years ago I was unable to introduce myself to a new authority figure who had joined the organisation, the feeling of failure was overwhelming and triggered months of depression.
The feeling of failure is a familiar one. There are the sorts of failures others might experience — like not getting funding for an arts project. Then there are the other failures like not being able to speak when expected to, or not being able to fill out the holiday chart on the wall in the office — because to get to it I would have to squeeze between people as they are working and would need to interact to do this. Interaction like this needs thought, I have to be ready for any unexpected comments, so I put it off. I have thought about doing it when everyone has left, but I forget because by that time I am really focused on what I’m doing and madly trying to finish within my work hours (but always end up going over my hours), and filling in the chart would mean I have to switch gear and disrupt a train of thought that’s taken all day to get to. There’s always anxiety but the level of anxiety does not necessarily match the size of the thing that is causing it.
There’s a sort of unspoken rule among autistic people, that we should be positive about all the things we are good at, and I totally get this, but I’m not really sure what I’m good at. It’s difficult to be positive when you’re standing on an NT rug that may be pulled from under you at any moment.
I’m not really sure who I am because I have shut out who I am for so long. Looking back on things I have achieved, I can’t connect with them, it seems like they’ve been done by someone else, not me.
IMAGE The top part of a computer screen fills the lower two thirds of the image. Obscuring the ‘Facetime’ camera at the top of the screen is a red rectangular sticker with ‘EXPOSED’ in white capitals on it twice — one ‘EXPOSED’ being upside down.