Success Fail!

I read an article the other day. Nothing spectacular, not one to which I was ever intending to pay significant attention, and not one that I sought out – it just appeared in my facebook feed and I was sufficiently intrigued to click through and see what it said.

It was entitled something like “How to be Successful”, and was a list of the things you should do in the workplace in order to achieve success and be perceived as honest, open, secure, confident, and so on. I immediately disliked the article, very very much. It was a classic example of “ableism” and discrimination against the neurodiverse, and it made me cross enough to save it to refer to so that I could write a blog post about it.

I have long known that I could never work in any sort of “business” scenario. The closest I ever got was an administration job for a business project attached to an academic institution. I lasted a month. The tears and trauma of putting on the suit every morning were substantial, and I felt my confidence seeping away day by day as I was evidently unable to do the job that I had been hired to do. At the time I thought they were simply impossible people (that may have been true), but the reality of the situation was probably that I was never going to be able to cope in such an environment. If the list below is anything to go by, then it’s now glaringly obvious why I’ve been such a failure in the world of that sort of work (obviously, this is one perspective on one type of work, in one type of environment – this is a blog post, not a thesis attempting to cover all eventualities, and only provides a snapshot of one particular aspect of success in the workplace).

I learnt from the article that to achieve this “success” I should: sit up straight, use gestures correctly, open my arms, not touch my hair, smile, make appropriate eye contact, and give firm handshakes!

Wow!

And I’m expected to do all that while wearing clothes that hurt me, and knowing by magic when to offer to make tea, and being comfortable with working as a team, possibly in an office with lots of office machinery making a lot of noise and fluorescent lighting overhead, and so on…

It’s no wonder I failed.

If I consider each of these criteria for success one by one then I come to the following conclusions about my ability to meet them.

I can sit up reasonably straight for a short period of time, but I find sitting on a chair “normally” extremely uncomfortable – given the choice I always sit with my legs folded under me, and always have. I imagine this is because the pressure is reassuring and helps balance my errant sensory system. If I have to sit on an ordinary chair in the ordinary manner for any length of time I start to feel stressed and sick. My legs will jiggle (involuntarily), and I will run out of energy very very fast.

I received my draft report from my autism assessment the other day (it will be completed after the next meeting). The assessor observed that I can use gestures, but that my range of gestures and facial expressions is much narrower than would be expected and that my gestures are formulaic and learnt. This is me, with 40 years practice and learning – and I still don’t make gestures or facial expressions like most people are able to.

I should open my arms. Like sitting on a chair, I can do that for a very limited time, but it feels forced and unnatural. My natural inclination is to draw my arms in towards me, to bend my elbows upwards, and to clasp my hands together. Sitting with arms open for any length of time feels contrived and uncomfortable, and, also, dishonest, because it feels so clearly like acting. Apparently having closed arms means I disagree with what someone is saying to me – I disagree most strongly with that assumption!

Apparently touching my hair shows a lack of attention!!! Since hair twirling is one of my biggest lifelong stims, it’s actually something that helps me to pay attention. And, moreover, it’s probably one of the more socially acceptable stims – if they don’t want me to touch my hair would they rather I played with a toy or flapped my hands? Maybe I could substitute the hair twirling for rocking and biting my fingers? I suspect that wouldn’t be acceptable either, but any of the above would actually HELP me to pay attention!

Smiling at the right time in the right place is apparently also good if you want to achieve success. How on Earth you’re meant to know what is the right time and the right place to smile I don’t know, and that’s before you have to remember to do it. I refer back to the assessment report that noted my limited range of facial expressions. This smiling business is rather hard work!

And, of course, there’s the inevitable mention of eye contact. If I make eye contact for too long with people I am, apparently, insecure, but if I don’t make eye contact enough then it’s because I have something to hide. And someone like me, who struggles to make any real eye contact with anybody at all just reads this stuff with blank incomprehension. How do I figure any of this out? What do I do?

The last of these pieces of “advice” is probably the only one I could actually follow. I am perfectly capable of giving a good firm handshake. Though I fear that by the time I’d sat up straight with my arms open trying not to touch anything and to work out what gestures and smiles and eye contact to use I’d have such shaky sweaty hands that even my handshake would fail the “business success” test!

***

Yes, this was just some bonkers article off the internet. Yes, I’m being slightly facetious here (but only slightly). Yes, it’s not typical of all workplaces and I’m sure there are some fabulously inclusive disability aware places with people who don’t judge on any of the above. Yes, I’m sure that sort of workplace is not suitable for everyone, autistic or otherwise. I’m trying to avoid a barrage of “but it’s not really like that” comments because I’m aware that all I’m actually doing here is giving a personal response to an article I saw by accident on the internet.

BUT, the very fact that such an article exists indicates that there are people out there who are still equating the things above with “success”. There is no mention anywhere in the article about the person’s ability to DO THE JOB. It’s all window dressing. It’s all superficial. And on some level it must be true – that those things matter to some people, and if they are the things on which they judge potential colleagues or associates, then autistic people are really going to struggle. We’re at a massive disadvantage – and possibly most massively disadvantaged in the world of work at the “higher powered higher earning” end of the market.

I am not in a position to get any such job, and never was. My business acumen is zero, my ability to cope with working in such an environment lasts for a few hours at most these days. I have never aspired to such a career, but maybe there are autistic people out there who would like to work in such an environment and do have exceptional business skills, but who are judged by their ability to sit “correctly” or do appropriate things with their hands, and their skills will be ignored. That makes me sad.

And, if being able to do the seven things listed above is what enables one to be “successful” then I am destined for “failure” because I have a condition that means I cannot perform those tasks “properly” even with massive effort and 40 years practice. I am DOOMED!!!! (Not really, that last bit was sarcastic)!

And the real irony is that I am actually honest, open, and even, at times, can be secure and confident. But because I have a communication disability, some others might have problems perceiving that. Which is sad!

To reiterate – I was definitely cross about the article being quite so ridiculously ableist and I do think there are some massively serious points to be drawn from it when compared to the skills of an autistic person. However, I am old enough and ugly enough also to laugh at such an article, and to say “What a load of rubbish!” My reaction of “Well, I’m an automatic fail then!” wasn’t one of despair, but of sarcastic amusement and a gentle “Fuck you, because you really are clueless about what it’s like to live my life!” to the author of the article and all such articles!

I say this because my husband once wrote a post about how he tripped over a hillock while out running – he’d intended it as a funny story but got a huge number of concerned comments about how sorry people were that he was injured when he wasn’t really injured at all, just recounting an amusing event!

If anyone is still reading at this point and has understood any of this blog post then I congratulate you wholeheartedly! Reward yourself with a cup of tea! I’m off to sit on my feet with my arms crossed, and play with my hair while wearing a blank expression – and I won’t be shaking your hand because I’ll also be holding a cup of tea!

Looking at Eyes

I was chatting on Facebook messenger with a friend of mine. We’ve been friends around 5 years, and she is probably, after my husband and best friend, the person I see most regularly in real life.

“So what colour are my eyes then?” she asked.

I paused for a moment, thought about her hair, which she dyes dark red, and it seems to match her skin, so I guess that before she dyed it it must have been dark. “Brown!” I respond.

“Er, no, they’re blue actually.”

She then asked me about the eyes of a mutual friend who I also see quite a lot in real life. Even darker dyed hair. I was confident about this one. Much more obvious. “Definitely brown,” I said.

“Nope, wrong again, she’s another like me with dark hair and blue eyes, except that hers are greyer than mine.”

I really wasn’t very good at this eye colour game. So far 0/2 on the eye colour score!

“Her mouth wiggles a bit at the corner sometimes and your teeth point inwards,” I proffered, in an attempt to show that my observation skills weren’t completely up the spout and I hadn’t been ignoring my friends for the last 5 years!

She laughed! And told me that this was further proof of her observation that even before I had the slightest clue that I was autistic my eye contact skills were, at best, somewhat idiosyncratic!

***

I was in the kitchen with my best friend. He asked me if I knew what colour the eyes of a mutual friend of ours were.

I thought about it. Our mutual friend has grey hair. I think it might have been dark when he was younger. Somehow I couldn’t quite imagine what colour eyes he might have though.

I admitted I didn’t know, and that if someone really needed that information from me then the only way I could supply it would be by looking at a photograph.

***

I mentioned eye contact in an earlier blog post. A discussion ensued on my Facebook wall. Somebody I went to school with between the ages of 13 and 18 commented on the discussion. She clearly stated that she remembered that whenever she looked at me I would look away very very fast. She said she thought at the time it was something that “clever people did.”

***

My husband says that when I do look in his direction I then don’t look away when most people would. He says it’s as if I point my eyes in that direction and then just forget and leave them there. It always slightly freaks him out!

***

So, it seems that I have been “faking it” as far as eye contact is concerned, probably all my life. I’ve certainly never been able to glean information about the state of a person from their eyes, beyond such things as closed = maybe asleep, or tears = maybe sad or happy. I’ve also observed that even when watching television I don’t look at eyes. I go through my life and think of people I know or have known quite well – relatives, friends, former colleagues. I cannot picture what any of their eyes look like. I know they must have eyes, but I cannot visualise any of them. But I can easily visualise mouths and noses, and, in some cases, ears.

This faking really has been fake. Even when I’ve apparently been looking at eyes, I haven’t taken in any information about them. I cannot picture what my own mother’s eyes look like. Not a hope.

This is still news to me. I wasn’t aware of anything beyond remembering instructions given to me as a child, probably by schoolteachers (I can’t remember) saying “Look at me when I’m talking to you!” So I did as I was told. For the next 40 years.

So why have I been faking it? Why is looking at eyes so weird?

I believe that the schoolteachers probably wanted me to look at them because they thought that it was an indicator that I was paying attention (which it wasn’t – I was, and still am, perfectly capable of paying attention to what someone is saying without looking at them – probably rather better that way in fact). I have also looked at fellow musicians when playing chamber music and so on, and again I think it’s just a sign to people saying “I know you’re there, I’m listening to your part, and I’m paying attention.” It doesn’t actually help me to pay attention, but I know that people think you’re paying more attention if you look at them. It’s a learnt fact and a practised technique. It’s been a large part of the mask. But as far as communication is concerned it’s meaningless to me except to show that I’m paying attention.

And, it seems that while I’ve been faking some sort of approximate eye contact I’ve been using massive amounts of energy to do so (as described in An Experiment) and been pretty much avoiding the real thing whenever possible.

And all this while not even knowing I was autistic. I had no reason to avoid eye contact. Not anything tangible. But I did this fake thing for decades. So it was obviously something that wasn’t quite comfortable for me.

And so recently I’ve tried to describe what actual eye contact (from the few moments it has happened unavoidably and sort of by accident, when I haven’t moved my gaze fast enough) actually feels like to me.

And the best I can come up with is that it feels a bit like being naked in public in front of an audience somewhere very very important and totally overwhelmed in a way I can’t describe, and a bit like being poked with a sharp stick.

Which, when I put it like that, explains perfectly why I’ve faked it all my life and why I will now only even attempt it when absolutely necessary. Eye contact might be some wonderful communicative thing in some people’s worlds, but in my world it’s just rather creepy and uncomfortable.

I’m eccentric, but not “get naked in front of an audience until my brain explodes” and “be poked with a sharp stick” sort of eccentric!

An Experiment

10-2016-12-08-13-32-07Back in mid-September, when the autism hypothesis was still just a hypothesis and the notion of declaring myself to be autistic was still something I considered seriously wild, I did a little experiment. Part of me is a scientist, and it seemed that doing experiments would be a good way to test the hypothesis.

I play in an orchestra from time to time that holds its rehearsals over 2 weeks, a couple of nights each week, on Wednesdays and Fridays. I was playing in this orchestra in September, leading the viola section, just at the point where the autism hypothesis was getting really serious.

So I did a bit of experimentation, controlling for all but two variables as best I could. I’d had the same amount of rest, the traffic was similar, I’d eaten similarly As much as possible was the same, except for two things I decided to change in the second week.

Week 1 – I went to orchestra. I did everything exactly as usual. I behaved as usual, acting as I have done in such rehearsals for years. I got home from the rehearsal and everything was exactly as it has been for years when I get home from rehearsals. I walked into the flat, dropped my viola in the hallway, and then collapsed onto the sofa, feeling sick and exhausted. It took an hour or so to feel well enough to sit up and have supper. Exactly as normal.

Week 2 – I went to orchestra. The same orchestra. I changed two things about my behaviour. First, I consciously didn’t attempt to make any sort of eye contact with other people except when absolutely necessary for musical reasons. Secondly, at the tea break I went and fetched a cup of tea and took it off to a quiet corner by myself, and didn’t stay in the room where most people were congregated and chatting.

Then I drove home, the same drive, at the same time. I walked into the flat, took my viola into the bedroom and put it back in the place where it lives. I then went through to the sitting room and was able to sit upright on the sofa and open the post and very soon afterwards was well enough to eat supper.

It was dramatic. A significant difference. All I’d done differently was not looked at eyes and not stayed to chat in a noisy room, full of conversations, during tea break. But how I felt when I got home was very very different.

I found it hard to believe that looking at people’s eyes and chatting during tea breaks took so much energy. It seemed like such a crazy idea. But subsequent similar experiments have all produced similar results. I really had been using so much energy to do things that I’d regarded as absolutely normal for years and years.

Furthermore, I had tacitly assumed that other people also got home from rehearsals and social events in a similar state of collapse – and I now started to wonder whether this was actually the case. It had been my normal life for so long that I didn’t even question it. For years, when I’d told people that I was tired, they had told me that they got tired too, and I believed, therefore, that what I was experiencing was absolutely normal. It now seemed that maybe it wasn’t.

It was only just over a week after this experiment that I declared the autism hypothesis to be true. I had reached the point where the accumulated evidence was so compelling that it was impossible to ignore.

I’m still somewhat startled by it all.