Last night while talking to one of my oldest friends she asked me something really interesting.
Why should someone who is diagnosed with Aspergers at the age of 42 suddenly be labelled as having a disability?
From her point of view I seem to cope very well. Thanks to a genius level IQ I survived the educations system well enough to collect 3 University Degrees, carved out a successful career as an Information Management Specialist, moved all over Australia solo, travelled Singapore, USA & UK solo and appeared to be a well adjusted adult. As she pointed out I’ve worked in some seriously stressful jobs where I was the person everyone came to for information and I always seemed so calm and on top of it all. So why should the fact I’ve now been diagnosed as having Aspergers suddenly mean I get to say I have a disability?
As I said to her to some extent being High Functioning ASD (Aspergers) is possibly the hardest form of ASD to have when it comes to claiming “disability” because unless you live with us 24/7 you don’t see the price we pay for attempting to play the part of a Neurotypical person.
So why is Aspergers a “disability”?
- Inability to Multi-Task – generally people are expected to be able to do 2 or 3 things at the same time like talk on the phone and enter data into a database simultaneously. Aspergers brains are not wired to do this so we need a job where we can stay focused on 1 thing at a time without constant interruption.
- Flat Effect – most people have tonal range when speaking so they are described as sounding “happy”, “sad”, “angry” and so on. Aspergers tonal range is limited if not totally none existent so we often come across as “board”, “rude”, “snobbish” and so on. We also find it hard to decipher what the tone of someone else voice is trying to tell us so things like talking on the phone are excruciatingly mentally painful and as a result we’ll often not answer the phone or if we do have to talk on the phone the conversation doesn’t tend to go well because we miss the tonal cue that it’s our turn to say something or we talk at the wrong time because we think we’ve been asked a question.
- Lack of emotional responses – when someone unexpectedly gives you a present on your birthday or buy’s you a cupcake because you look a little sad the recipient of the present generally shows some form of emotion like smiling or surprise or laughs. Someone with Aspergers response is probably going to be a total blank face or possibly a slight frown followed by a question like “why are you giving me this”, which comes across as rude and unappreciative – when in reality we’re just trying to understand why this is happening so we can then see if any of our learned responses fit the required patterns of socially acceptable behaviour.
- Communication Style – people with Aspergers often come across as seeming a little rude because our communication style is very straight forward. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve been told my way of asking questions is very “blunt” or my response to a question was “blunt”, “rude”, “off putting”, “a little to honest” or “to literal”. Personally I find it a little mean that if you don’t get the response you want it’s somehow my fault maybe the person asking the question should have worded it better.
- Small talk and Chit Chat – in every work or social situation there is this idiotic requirement to engage in small talk or chit chat. At work generally first thing in the morning person-A asked Person-B how their evening or weekend was. Normally person-A will get a 15 minute spiel about whatever it was that person-B did the night before or on the weekend and then the revers conversation happens. If the employer is lucky their staff will only waist 45 minutes every single morning on this idiotic routine, if it’s a group of people in an office environment the employer could lose up to 2 hours of productive work time every day. Small talk or chit chat isn’t generally in the Aspergers tool kit of socially acceptable behaviour we tend to find having to engage in this behaviour excruciatingly painful unless you are someone we care about and even then we find it tough. So yet again the office Aspe comes across as “rude”, “snobbish” or “odd” because after the obligatory “hello” we are unlikely to ask questions about your life and if you ask us “how was your weekend” the response will be short e.g. fine! with zero follow up details.
- Social Cues – since people with Aspergers find it hard to read body language, facial expressions and tonal undulation we often miss the subtle cues for how we should respond. Apparently I should be able to tell by social cues if “Chris Hemsworth is so sexy” is a question, statement starting a conversation that I’m supposed to make a response to or just a general comment where no response is required. When this was said to me recently and my response was “was that a question or just a random comment” I was informed my response came across as rude because I should have known it was a question and then the statement was repeated. My next response of “ah who’s Chris Hemsworth” got a “god you’re irritating” statement as the questioner walked off.
- Cancelling out of unwanted distractions – Aspergers brain chemistry makes it really really really hard to deal with lot’s of noise, lights or other stimuli like ringing phones, loud conversations, computer beeps/dings/whistles all happening at once without getting overwhelmed and totally losing our minds. A common survival strategy for us is to wear noise cancelling headphones with a pre-programmed soundtrack we like and our desk set up so we get the minimal amount of distractions possible. Most employers and fellow staff members don’t like this set up because you’re not “socially engaging” with other people in the office, you’re not acting as a “team player”, you’re disrupting the “group dynamic” etc. The other reason they hate it is because to get your attention they have to physically walk up to your desk, get your attention, watch you sigh as you hit pause and take off your headphones before they can ask you a question, which means they have to stop what they are doing to engage you in conversation so you’re from their point of view making their job harder. From my point of view it mostly stops people asking me stupid questions which are totally irrelevant to either their job or my job and means I don’t keep losing track of what I was doing.
We don’t have a wheel chair, crutches, need a special type of chair/desk, require a specialised monitor or any thing else that employers commonly associate with a “disability employee” so people look at us and don’t think we meet the criteria for “disabled”. However we do because our brain chemistry means we don’t process information, emotions and stimuli the same way a neurotypical employee does and as a result we find it hard to gain employment or stay in employment because we simply can’t function the way most employers want.
To put it in simple terms Aspergers are not “group” or “team” players and 90% of employers want good group dynamics and team players working for them. If we do gain employment we often very quickly become socially isolated from the rest of the office employees, which get’s noticed by HR and Management. So HR/Management typically try to fix what they see as disfunction within the employee group by forcing group cohesion by banning the wearing of headphones, holding weekly team building activities or rearranging the office so everyone is in a group (pod) set up. This just makes life harder for the office Aspe and we either quite, get fired or become so ill we can’t go to work.
So yes High Functioning Autism Spectrum Disorder (Aspergers) is a disability and employers need to be educated on not forcing people with Aspergers to be part of a “group” or “team”. That if we’re put in the right type of job and left alone to do it our way that we can excel at what we do and be an incredibly productive employee. Employers need to understand we have limited communication skills so we might come across as blunt, rude or unresponsive but it’s not intentional and that other people need to not take it personally.
Employers of females with Aspergers really need to rethink some of their ideas on communication styles and unlisted but expected behaviours – just because I’m the only other female in the office does not mean I should be forced to answer the phones if the receptionist is on lunch or otherwise busy, no I’m not going to remember everyones names or who their kids are, no I won’t instinctively understand you expect me to bring food on Tuesdays because it’s staff meeting day and all the females in the office bring a plate of food to the staff meeting, no I won’t instinctively know that I’m supposed to help the other females in the office decorate the kitchen for person x birthday or that as a female I should make the effort to look attractive especially if I wear a uniform with your brand on it. As one of my x-employers HR managers once said to me “it’s so odd you look so feminine but the way you talk and act is so male it’s a little off putting” – my response of a blank face followed by ‘gee that was sexist’ didn’t go down well and my contract was not renewed but it did give me an in site as to how neurotypical employer view me.