Working On the Spectrum (Part I)

I’ve had a long history of spotty employment. The longest I’ve ever worked at one place was at a Days Inn in Hattiesburg, MS, where I worked for almost two years. The only reason I left it was because I was accepted into the Ph.D. program in the humanities at UT-Dallas, and the only reason I was working there (or was living in Hattiesburg, MS in the first place) was because I was working on my Master’s in English at the University of Southern Mississippi. Actually, Days Inn is tied with the University of Northern Texas at Dallas, but we’ll get to that job in due time. I have typically worked a few semesters (as an adjunct college professor) or here and there through temp agencies. But I’ve never managed to find a full time position.

I have since discovered why I have always had such a hard time getting a job, and a hard time keeping a job once I had one. I was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome — part of the autism spectrum, and folded into autism proper in the DSM-V — in the Fall of 2016, after several years of suspecting I had Asperger’s. The reason I suspected I was on the spectrum was that I had been reading a great deal about autism since my son Daniel, now 7, was diagnosed at 3. My wife and my brother were both suspicious I was on the spectrum before I finally managed to figure it out myself. The particular version of Asperger’s made perfect sense for me, since it involves early speech. And while I didn’t exactly line things up, it turns out that making lists is a kind of “lining things up,” and I was a list-maker all my childhood. And, according to about a fourth of my short stories, well into adulthood.

Of course, there is far more to Asperger’s than that. I have all sorts of communication differences — some would say difficulties, but those difficulties are with non-autistic people, not with autistic people like my son — and I have problems with my memory that would often frustrate my wife, since I have an extremely prodigious long-term memory but an almost nonexistent short-term memory (I want you to think about what it’s like to not be able to remember a half dozen things to get at the store less than ten minutes after you were told, but remember everything on the list a month later). Of course, there are not only problems, but benefits. I have a vivid visual memory and imagination, and I am a strong pattern thinker. Complex patterns almost jump out to me. And my attention to detail makes me a great proofreader. But the social problems are the big issue when it comes to employment.

Here are a few difficulties I have at work. I have difficulty describing work activity to someone else, asking questions, identifying and solving problems, and sequencing multi-step activities. I have difficulty asking for help when needed, initiating or sustaining conversation, understanding and responding to social cues (physical, verbal, emotional), and keeping social interactions free of excessive irritability and argumentativeness. I have trouble ignoring or avoiding distractions while working (my brain is jumping all over the place, thinking about projects, developing ideas as I work, etc.) and I have trouble working a full day without needing more than the allotted number or length of rest periods during the day (I work myself to exhaustion). And I have trouble distinguishing between acceptable and unacceptable work performance (apparently, based on my inability to keep a job even as I’m sure I’m doing my job just fine). The thing is, I know how I work best, and I will always produce as much or more than anyone else — if only I am allowed to work the way I work best. But most people interpret my jotting down a line of poetry as “fooling around” or “not staying on task.” However, if they in fact want me to stay on task, I need to get that line of poetry out of my head before it distracts me more and more and more.

I didn’t know there was a problem, though, until after I graduated with my Ph.D. All the jobs I had had before starting my Ph.D. were hotel jobs, where I worked the night shift. There are several great things about the night shift if you are autistic. One, there’s not a lot of people. You check in the stragglers and you check out the early birds. At midnight, you run the audit, so you have a bit more structure than other shifts, and you get to be a little analytical transferring numbers and doing the math. Then you have several hours where you are just by yourself, not having to do much of anything. I spent most of my time reading, writing, and doing homework — the latter since I worked while taking English classes at Western Kentucky University and also while working on my Master’s. And then, when I got into my Ph.D. program, I received an assistantship, meaning I had to teach classes in order to get paid and have my tuition reduced to next to nothing. But it also meant I couldn’t get fired. After all, teaching me how to teach was part of it, so it was expected by everyone that those with assistantships wouldn’t necessarily be all that good at teaching. I thought I was pretty good at it, but now I have to wonder.

The last Spring semester of my Ph.D., I picked up a few classes at Richland College, a local community college. I was still teaching there when I met my wife, Anna, but I received a fairly large sum of money as part of a settlement from my mother’s dying with mesothelioma, so I decided to take some time off from working in order to write my book, Diaphysics. During that time I was also applying for an academic position, hoping to secure a university professor job somewhere.

From the time I graduated from UTD with my Ph.D. in the humanities in 2004 to 2014, I diligently sent out what I’m sure were thousands of C.V.s for various positions in English , humanities , and interdisciplinary departments — all to no avail. During this time I also taught at Richland College, Collin College, the University of North Texas at Dallas (UNTD), and Southern Methodist University (SMU). Some of my experiences I described in a piece I wrote for the James G. Martin Center (at the time, known as The Pope Center). It was my experience at SMU that prompted my decision to never again look for an academic position, as I explained in another piece I wrote four years later. By then, though, I had come to understand I had Asperger’s, and it was clear to me that I was not renewed at UNTD because the new administration, with whom I had been open about my having Asperger’s, didn’t want someone on the autism spectrum on staff.

I suspect the same was the case at SMU as well. After I was hired, I let it be known I had Asperger’s, and I even told my classes. There was an administrative assistant who had a nephew with autism, and we often talked about him and about autism in general. Typically when you are hired as an adjunct, you are hired for the entire year — both Fall and Spring semesters. However, SMU didn’t renew me for the Spring. Perhaps not coincidentally, I actually had students in my evaluations complain that I was on the spectrum and that that freaked them out.

My experience as a teacher has always been that you will either love me or hate me. You will either be fascinated by my breadth and depth of knowledge, enjoy my jazz style of discussion (I’m an associative thinker, so class discussions can seem to “wander” a bit, though they are always on-task — in my mind, anyway), and appreciate the challenge and difficulty; or you will hate precisely all those things. I’m either a borderline guru, or I’m insufferably arrogant. And I certainly don’t mean to seem arrogant. I don’t care how well you do in my class, so long as you are showing me you are trying and you want to learn. What matters to me is that you want to learn, that you’re open to new ideas, and that you aren’t afraid to be challenged. Those who are in fact like that tend to like me; those who aren’t like that are more likely to hate me. And it’s the latter who complain. And bureaucrats hate complaints. Their solution is to get rid of the source.

So I realized I wasn’t going anywhere in academia. I wasn’t getting interviews for positions — the closest I came was a single phone interview. Given I didn’t get a followup interview, it’s not hard to imagine how it apparently went (I say “apparently” because I thought it went well). So that, combined with my experiences as an adjunct and lecturer, made me decide I was done with academia.

Since my decision in 2014 to never again seek an academic position, I have tried to get a full time position as a writer, editor, and/or proofreader. I ended up signing up with a place called Creative Circle, which is basically a temp agency for graphic designers and writers/editors/proofreaders. But they will also sometimes find you a full time position. I was getting some great gigs through them for a while, until I ran into a problem with a place where I was told I was being brought in as a freelance-to-hire.

But my experience with Lockton-Dunning is a topic for an entire article.

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