12 months ago I was officially diagnosed with autism — Key lessons I’ve learnt since
After years of wondering and greater understanding, last year during assessment of my daughter discovered what had long been suspected. I am a high-functioning autistic woman. Someone known as ‘having Asperger’s’. Over the last 12 months I have come to terms with that label, for most of the time hiding and avoiding the negative connotation. Gradually I have dipped my toes in the idea of being more open and found living a transparent, authentic life while freeing does come with apprehension. Some key things I discovered on my journey the last 12 months:
Most of us know very little about autism
What do you think of when you picture an autistic child?
I certainly thought of a child on the extreme, potentially not coping in the world yelling, rocking back and forth, or even just being very socially awkward. I found it really hard to connect that to me. I am a high-functioning autistic. It has been suggested I am gifted, but that giftedness is blocked by my autism and also helps hide my autistic traits. I use my intelligence to navigate the world. One of my early questions was “how am I married, employed and a mother if I have all these sensory problems and autistic traits?”.
What do you think of when you picture an autistic adult?
My guess is “The Big Bang Theory” or “Rain Man”. People say those movies and characters to me all the time. Autistic people are not just socially awkward nerds. One of the things I struggled with when diagnosed was a lack of role model or reference. I googled ‘famous people with autism’ and then just felt worse. Imaging having a disorder the same as Einstein or Mozart. The first though was “what have I achieved?”. Don’t worry, recently I discovered Jerry Seinfeld is a self-diagnosed autistic which made my day. If you want to know more about autism click HERE.
I am a woman who likes fashion, I like running, I take care of my appearance, and I am not hugely into sci-fi. I do like science but also love seeing friends, cooking and trashy TV. Not exactly much in common with Charles Darwin, Bill Gates or Tim Burton. It’s difficult that not all of us have the same balance of quirks and challenges with the IQ of those prominent folks. Autism is so complex and has great variation across individuals. And just because we might all have sensory issues doesn’t mean we have the same challenges.
Some key autistic traits can bring success in the workplace
Individuals with Autism can have some really valuable strengths. People need to see beyond the surface challenges, the things they see as odd, and get to know the individual.
People on the spectrum can have amazing attention to detail, deep focus and amazing memory. I certainly had a big blow to my self-concept with my diagnosis, and what some call ‘post diagnosis crisis’, so had to learn to see my own strengths to rediscover my optimism.
Personally, some would say my superpower is my logic, my problem-solving and strategic thinking. I have the ability to sift through large amounts of detail and reduce to key themes or messages. I can find patterns and turn into key themes for campaigns or learning. An ex-colleague said to me recently (unaware at that stage of my autism) “since you left there hasn’t been anyone in your role with the same strategic thinking and ability to work through the detail”. I smiled and opened up. It was a lovely moment to know how I was valued and needed to hear it at that time.
Early in my career a GM of a large company said to me “you have a very stable nature and don’t ever seem frazzled”. When things get stressful in a project I quickly zero emotion, get my head into the work and have strong focus, while others around me see the drama and don’t solve anything. In the workplace I may not be at Friday lunch or deeply connected and social, but always focus, and reliable and resilient, and deliver high quality work which has all in the past been recognised. It took a while to realise it but any accolades and promotions I have received in my work are all my autistic traits which now makes me proud.
Great things can be achieved through hyper focus
Hyper focus can be like a super power. It can lead to amazing things and is one of the aspects of autism that if channelled into your job can add huge value to a project, a key task and your team. Some people with autism might like doing repetitive things and might thrive in a process driven role knowing what always comes next. Others might lose themselves in art or writing. I personally channel mine into writing a strategy, creating content or workshopping ideas. Combining my energetic hyper focus with my husband’s ADHD into our work and new ideas is when the genius surfaces and we both thrive. Imagine an editor disappearing for days into a 700 page report — the laser focus on detail and drive to completion. Or a designer seeming to disappear into their bubble and surfacing later with some incredible visual. If only people could be more open about their autism and find work to feel the success of this.
People on the spectrum also have hyper focus in interest areas outside of work. Some people love video games or reading science articles, some even can be quite extreme forgetting to eat and stay in that focused bubble for hours. I feel very fortunate that I can channel my energy into my job. Life could be quite depressing and difficult if I didn’t have this opportunity to align work and that passion.
The importance of recognising signs of autistic burnout
Social challenges can make existing in the world exhausting for people with autism. Even just going to work is at times hard. I have had times I wanted to just sit at my desk, headphones on and focus on a PowerPoint or reading while others around me socialise. The open plan workplace can be a nightmare but don’t get me started and side-tracked. I have been the one in the workplace not in the Friday lunch crew or out drinking. To be honest it’s easier to be out of the click than dragged along and not in the mood. Or worse being out and struggling with sensory challenges at a venue. I can find it hard to engage in conversations with competing sounds, dull lighting or not in the right frame of mind to be involved. I am sure some think, sure, its normal to sometimes not be in the mood to go out. It’s on a much more complex level with autism. I can walk out the door feeling exhausted and broken. The workplace or social outings can lead to meltdown that wears you out.
These days I understand my needs a lot more and early signs of burnout before the impact. Mid-week I messaged 2 colleagues on a project about 3pm and told them I needed a couple of hours of extreme ‘introvert time’ to reenergise for a work event. What I meant was ‘I’m on the verge of autistic meltdown and I need a few hours to repair’ but we are not quite there yet. I didn’t think they could handle the honesty. The next day I was chipper and back on deck to drive the actions and help our project progress.
What I would love is for us to have greater awareness and understanding to allow people to feel they can be more open. And its not just about autism. Someone might be really anxious or stressed and imagine a society where they could just tell their boss or team. I know a few friends with their own challenges who rely on flexible working to have work from home days to help recuperate and shut out the world. The thing is they still hide their pain or challenges and true self. I have found being open and started to build a dialogue with my boss or colleagues and family has brought with it such relief and freedom. My work self is more congruent with my real self and it feels good. I only wish that for others.
Being open about diagnosis can make others uncomfortable
In April this year on World Autism Awareness Day I posted on LinkedIn about Autism in the workplace however hid they key detail that I am Autistic. I was scared it would impact my professional reputation.
After the diagnosis I told close friends and family, then gradually became more and more open on Facebook but zero on LinkedIn or the workplace.
With personal growth and strength back in self-concept has come more confidence and ease of being open at work. I now have a boss who is aware and embraces my skills and knowledge. And wants to know more about diversity.
In my social life some discussions were difficult. Imagine telling your parents they never noticed you were atypical!
People have trouble with labels and the unknown. I have felt a couple of friendships drift but some have been the strength for me in darker periods. If we all hide away then awareness stalls. And what role model would I be for my autistic daughter if I showed ‘I have this and tell nobody in case they judge me’.
Social relationships are hard for me. Reading social cues and attending events can be hard. But in life its often the hardest things are the most important so I keep persisting and ensuring I nurture those that matter most.
We are all showing up
A big obstacle I personally had to overcome with diagnosis was feeling like I could add value in the workplace. I felt broken. Or like there was something wrong with me. I imagine there are many other people who don’t fit the mould therefore feel alone and out of place and even worthless.
Every day we show up. I show up for mum duty, for client workshops, or even as a friend. And a key lesson for me has been that I don’t accomplish things and contribute in spite of my autism, I do it because of. I now accept and own it. It started with a quiet nervous ‘am I seeming a bit Aspie?’ worried that I was seeming quirky or odd. Now its knowing that my ideas are outside the box and they matter. Some are off the mark but some are ahead, solving something others didn’t see and drive project success.
When I sit around the table in a meeting room, I know some people might be on anti-depressants, some might have had a fight with their partner or child that morning, some might be hiding deep pain. Whatever it is, we are there to respect each other, and work together. Each person around the table matters to me and I hope I receive the same in return. That is my biggest lesson. Show up and make each day count regardless.
These are just some stand out thoughts from a major 12 months. There are lessons every day and I have a lot to learn. Why share? One of the other critical things to me is that I am a role model for my children and also potentially for colleagues and peers. If my thoughts can help drive further understanding then it’s worth putting it out there. Finding strength and positivity in self is one of the biggest gifts I can give my children or any individual it can spread to.