Working on the Spectrum (Part 2)

If you don’t know what’s wrong, it’s hard to fix it. And sometimes, even knowing what’s wrong doesn’t mean a fix is in order. Knowing you are on the autism spectrum doesn’t mean you can not simply “fix” all your social awkwardness, start making eye contact, or be able to best organize multi-step activities. As I noted in Part 1, I spent most of my life not even knowing I was on the spectrum. When I learned I had Asperger’s, I came to realize a great many things about myself — it’s an entirely new level of “know yourself,” to be sure — and I thought it would actually benefit others to know I was on the spectrum.

It turns out that others knowing you’re on the spectrum doesn’t benefit you in the least. In fact, in my experience, people learning about it is almost entirely negative — for me.

When I first came to understand I had Asperger’s, I started sharing this information on Facebook. It was met with almost universal incredulity. I am pretty sure I alienated a large number of people I actually knew who were also Facebook friends. I was even treated as though I was claiming to be on the spectrum because it was “fashionable” or some such nonsense. Worse, practically everyone seems to think of autism — even Asperger’s — as being equivalent to being “retarded.” And this doesn’t change no matter how much counter-evidence you supply. All in all, then, telling people I was on the spectrum reduced whatever cachet I may have had. As a result, when I was officially diagnosed, and I announced that official diagnosis on Facebook, it was met with veritable silence.

Of course, silence is hardly the worst thing that can happen after telling someone you are on the spectrum. One can also be met with outright discrimination.

For several years now, I have been doing freelance work through Creative Circle. They have placed me in companies like Neiman Marcus, La Quinta, and The Five Star Institute where I have done proofreading, editing, and even some copy writing. The only problem company I have worked for through Creative Circle that I have run into has been Lockton-Dunning, which helps produce those booklets and pamphlets you get when you are deciding what insurance you want.

What Creative Circle does is send you emails asking if you are interested in particular jobs. You tell them if you are or not, and sometimes you get it. But sometimes one of the recruiters has you specifically in mind for a position. One of the recruiters at CC contacted me about an upcoming position at Lockton, saying it was a freelance-to-full time position. Every Fall until the end of the year, Lockton needs a team of editors/proofreaders to help them put out the annual insurance booklets and pamphlets. They typically have someone in-house who coordinates all the temps, but the in-house person in this case was being promoted to head the department, since the department head was leaving for another job. That meant her job was open. The idea was that I would be the new in-house proofreader, that I would learn everything about her old job, and if I liked the job and could do it well, I would be given a full time job in that position.

They let me know up front that the job involved learning a process that they admitted was difficult to master and which had run off plenty of people in the past. They said they knew it would take me a while to master it, but that as I did, they would give me more duties. The main part of the process involved four things, each of differing priorities, that I had to work on and coordinate. These were: New Decisions, Checklists, Notices, and New Proofs. I was told early in my employment that this was the order of importance. I thus made sure that this was how I prioritized the work. Before long I had mostly mastered this process, and I was told by my supervisor, Ms. McDonald’s, that I was doing a great job on the proofreading itself, and she gave me more responsibilities. Things were moving along quite well, though I was having some minor difficulties with prioritizing the four-piece process. While I was prioritizing those parts exactly how they told me to prioritize them, it turns out they really wanted a much more complex prioritization, which I hadn’t quite figured out how to accomplish.

As I said, I was learning how to do the job, and I had been told that learning their process was going to be the most difficult part. It was understood that it was difficult, so it should not be at all surprising that I would periodically receive emails directing my attention to things that I was not quite getting right. However, at no time was I left with the impression that these were anything other than nudges to help move me in the right direction in regards to learning the process. I did not receive any warnings, verbal or written, that I was in any danger of losing my position.

Then, on Friday, September 11, 2015, I met with Ms. McDonald for our regularly scheduled bi-weekly one-on-one meeting, which she had set up with each in-house employee. My meeting was at 2:00pm that day. At this meeting she expressed some concern that I had not been able to get to the new proofs in as timely a manner as she would have liked. Most days I could get to all four things, but there were a few days when so many New Decisions came in that I could not get to any New Proofs. She noted that I was not logging a lot of hours, but it turned out that she was looking at another employee’s hours and not mine (his name happened to be Troy as well) — I had actually been logging more “hours” according to the way they log work hours than the physical time I was there. Which is normal and how it’s supposed to work. After we cleared up her confusion on the matter, she reiterated that I still needed to get to the New Proofs. I pointed out that I was doing the work according to what they told me was the proper order of priorities but that if I was getting it wrong, to help me understand how to better prioritize my work. She did not respond with any suggestions. She did, however, assure me that I was prioritizing correctly, but that perhaps they should give me less to do so I could get to it all. I told her that I didn’t think that was necessary and that I would try to figure out how to get to everything. She reiterated that it was important that I get these things down soon because she planned to give me more responsibilities so that when I was hired full time, I would have learned everything necessary for the position. And so our meeting ended, and I returned to work.

However, I began to think about the fact that, because I have Asperger’s, there may be nuances of prioritizing I was completely missing. You see, people with Asperger’s have a hard time prioritizing. This was in part masked by the fact that I had been told very early on how to prioritize the work, and the amount of work projects coming my way was light, but increasing in number. It was because the number of projects had become considerable that the need for greater nuance in prioritizing became clear. For this reason, I thought it might be a good idea to let her know that I was having difficulty prioritizing due to my having Asperger’s. So at the end of my work day, at 6:00pm, I told Ms. McDonald that I thought she should know that I have Asperger’s and that that was making it difficult for me to figure out how to prioritize my work. Aside from looking uncomfortable, Ms. McDonald only said that she would have to talk to someone about what to do.

That weekend, I sent Ms. McDonald an email with a link to a site about what to do with employees who have Asperger’s. I was aware of this information because I had read a book on Asperger’s in the workplace, and the author had suggested that providing such information to an employee could help improve the work environment and help keep people with Asperger’s employed, because so many of our actions and interactions are misinterpreted by others. On Monday she responded by acknowledging receipt of my email. By Wednesday, when it became clear that I was not going to get any help with helping me learn to prioritize, I sought out the help of a co-worker, who showed me how to prioritize with more nuance, providing me with information I had not previously had on how to do so. That took no more than ten minutes. I implemented this information, and was in fact getting to everything in a timely fashion. Unfortunately, the decision to get rid of me had already been made, because that afternoon Ms. McDonald called me into her office and told me that they were going to let me go because, in her words, they “had no intention of making any accommodations” for me. This, despite the fact that she had in fact been offering to accommodate me in a variety of ways in light of information I was telling her about myself and the way I processed information without actually using the word “Asperger’s,” and independent of that information (such as the offer to lessen the number of projects I had). If we combine this with the fact that on that previous Friday she had told me that they were getting ready to give me more responsibilities, strongly suggesting they were happy with my work overall, it seems clear that the only reason I was let go was because she learned I had Asperger’s.

Ms. McDonald made it clear that my having Asperger’s was the very reason she was terminating me —on the day she told me they were letting me go she told me I was doing a good job as a proofreader, but that they had no intention of accommodating me. What is particularly disturbing is that I had asked for no accommodations beyond what they were already providing me in helping me to learn the job. I had merely provided Ms. McDonald with the information that I had Asperger’s as an explanation of why I was having some difficulty in figuring out how to best prioritize my work. She did not offer to help explain the best way for me to do that, nor did she suggest anyone help me; rather, I had to seek out another employee to ask for help (we on the spectrum have a hard time asking for help, so this was major for me) in prioritizing, and after being so instructed, I implemented the suggestions.

Given that I was let go on Wednesday, it seems clear that she was right that they had no intention of accommodating me, as they gave me no chance at all to learn how to better prioritize, let alone implement what I learned. The evidence suggests that I was not let go because I couldn’t do the job. The only reasonable conclusion is that I was let go simply because Ms. McDonald believed I had a disability, and she had no intention of working with such a person.

After my termination, I let Creative Circle know what happened. I was informed by the Recruiter at Creative Circle, that he had only been told that they were letting me go because of something she had learned on Friday. The only thing she had learned on Friday was that I had Asperger’s. This, it seems to me, is therefore a clear example of discrimination against me for having a disability. I was taken out of consideration as a candidate for the full time position for that reason alone. The fact that I was still learning the process, and that they were willing to offer me accommodations such as reducing my work load, shows that the issue was not one of accommodating me, but was exclusively about my having a disability.

I do not doubt that this sort of thing happens all the time with people on the spectrum. As I have read more, I have found a great many people warning against telling your employer that you are on the spectrum, because those who have done so soon thereafter found themselves fired. It’s no wonder that the unemployment rate among those on the spectrum who can work is over 20%.

But this, alas, was hardly the last time I faced work discrimination for being on the spectrum. But that’s fodder for Part 3.