“I’ve been fired more than you’ve been hired”: tales of neurodiversity in the workplace
These tales of Asperger’s Syndrome in the workplace come from guest contributor Tim Goldstein, a neurodiversity advocate and self-described “Aspie”.
There’s nothing like getting lost while hiking through the Rocky Mountains in the dead of winter to illustrate the difference between my brain, and most other people’s brains. And I suspect that if most people understood how my brain works, people like me would get hired a lot more (and fired a lot less). Anyway…
I was hiking solo to a peak of about 14,000 feet. About the time I was taking in the gorgeous view from the top, I realized I had a problem: I had badly miscalculated what time the sun would set, and there was a 5,000 foot descent between me and my car. “Well, no problem”, I thought. “I’ve got all the right gear with me.” So down I head.
Part way down, I lost the trail. So I do a logical assessment, and head off in another direction. An hour later, I’m still lost. I decide the logical thing to do now is dig a snow cave and rest. Then I text the rescue center (and my wife) on my satellite device asking for directions back to my car. Several hours and a thrilling snowcat ride later, I meet my wife in the parking lot, excited to tell her about how beautiful the hike was.
She did not think this was an exciting adventure. To her, this was a life-threatening situation. And here I was, making a joke out of it. But to me, the whole thing had been nothing but a series of very logical steps.
Substituting logic for emotion is pretty common for someone like me. I’m a techie, an inventor, and I was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome at age 54.
For an “Aspie”, I’m fairly high-functioning. I’m even a good out-bound communicator, which masks my diagnosis to some extent. Despite that, I’ve been fired from more jobs than most people hold in their lifetime. And you better believe my Asperger’s had a lot to do with that.
Looking back, I suspect that I would have been fired far less if my managers and colleagues had understood me better. Heck: if I had understood myself better!
If you’ve ever looked at a co-worker and wondered if they’re from another planet, keep reading. It’s possible they’re perfectly human, and among what we now call the “neurodiverse”.
What neurodiversity is (and isn’t)
Neurodiversity is the idea that our brains have natural variations in the way they function. Historically, society has thought of any divergence from the norm as being wrong, and have a whole list of “disorders” to describe them: autism, Asperger’s syndrome, dyslexia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), etc. But increasingly, psychologists and scientists are concluding that these variations aren’t abhorrent — they’re just differences. Perhaps we don’t need to “fix” these people… perhaps it’s a matter of helping them navigate the world, and helping the world navigate them.
We don’t need to “fix” neurodiversity. We need to navigate it.
The fact is, neurodiverse people have a lot to offer in the workplace. People on the autism spectrum like me are really good at solving tough problems because we’re all about logic and have an amazing capacity to focus on whatever captures our attention. Many of us are also very detail-oriented. And because we crave stability and certainty, we’re good at recognizing patterns, as well as deviations from the pattern. So we’re often really good in technical roles like programming or data science.
To be sure, there are varying degrees of neurodiversity. Some people on the autism spectrum are able to get along relatively well (me, for example), while others can barely function in our society. And people with generally neuro-typical brains might exhibit a neurodiverse trait like ADD. So you can’t tell by a single trait where somebody falls. You have to judge by their overall characteristics as to where you think they might be.
By the way, neurodiversity and cognitive diversity are not the same things. Cognitive diversity might mean having different opinions or different learning styles. Neurodiversity might mean not being able to interpret other people’s facial expressions or tone of voice.
Ok. On to some stories about me getting fired.
Honest to a fault
Honesty is the best policy… except when it’s not. I was once hired by a CTO who had also hired a supposed guru in business intelligence systems, and my job was to do the implementation work. Before long, it became obvious to me that this guru was able to tell a great story at sales meetings, but didn’t know much at all about the technologies.
Now, many people would just find a way to get through the project and make it as successful as possible. They’d recognize when they were being steered in the wrong direction, and quietly course-correct. But we neurodiverse have a tendency to be very straightforward and have a hard time recognizing when bluntness won’t be appreciated.
I started challenging her when she was incorrect, and that didn’t go over very well at all. I finally raised my concerns to the CTO, citing the inaccuracies I’d run into. A couple days later I was let go because he felt it would look bad if he fired the guru. (Although six weeks later they did let her go.) So for being honest, and trying to protect the company, I was shown the door.
I hope that if my CTO encounters someone like me in the future, he’ll give that person guidance instead of sending them away. Everyone agreed I was doing good work, and it’s since been pointed out to me that my teammates then had to cover my workload in addition to their own. But of course that didn’t occur to me since people with Asperger’s lack the ability to see things from another’s point of view.
Every workplace has cultural norms, which neurotypical people are able to pick up on and navigate instinctively. The neurodiverse, however, need rules and norms spelled out very specifically. I can’t guarantee we’ll conform to them perfectly, but at least we’ll have a fighting chance. And your investment in guiding us might pay off handsomely in terms of having a highly focused and capable team member.
People on the autism spectrum have what we call meltdowns. Essentially, our brains overload. We can’t process new information, particularly emotional information, and the part of our brain that governs executive function goes offline. Outwardly, it might look like a tantrum, but we’re not trying to be manipulative. We’re simply unable to self-regulate in that moment. It’s similar to a seizure in that, once it starts, you have to let it play out. You can’t just stop it because it’s inconvenient.
You can probably see where I’m going here: I was fired because I had a meltdown at work.
It was launch day for a project that had been very high-pressure and on a very tight timeline. At our daily scrum meeting, the customer liaison said some things I took as derogatory, which amped up my anxiety on an already stressful day. By the time the site was launched, I’d been bottling up stress for hours.
A neurotypical person would probably blow off that steam by taking a walk around the block or hitting the gym or calling a friend. But I went right on working. I was so focused on the project, it never occurred to me to manage my stress proactively.
On a phone call with my project manager shortly afterward, I completely melted down. All that pressure erupted and all sorts of foul things came out of my mouth at high volume. None of it was directed at anyone sitting around me, but still, it was quite a scene. That evening, they called to tell me someone sitting nearby had felt unsafe because of my yelling, so now I’m banned from the building. And, by extension, off the project and out of a job.
I know companies have such policies because there’ve been cases where verbal outbursts like mine were followed by physical violence. These policies are written by neurotypical people who mean well, but don’t have an awareness of neurodiversity and thus don’t create policies that can flex to take people like me into account. So a misunderstanding on the part of the company, plus me coming off as a jerk, cost me my job.
If you see a team member who’s having what looks like a meltdown, the best thing you can do is get them somewhere quiet and calm, preferably with low lights. Let them know you’re there to help them, then give them time to process through the meltdown until they’re ready to engage with normal life again. Meltdowns don’t last long (maybe 10 minutes or so) but again: they have to run their course.
Navigating neurodiversity at work
It’s not uncommon for somebody who is neurodiverse to have a difficulty getting (and keeping!) a job due to the social challenges. It’s a lose-lose situation because we struggle with unemployment, while employers miss out on the benefits we neurodiverse can offer.
The fact that our brains use a different operating system means we don’t think according to the same rules you do. In fact, our brains conform to fewer rules and pass fewer judgements, which allows us the flexibility to put pieces together in creative ways. How many times would an alternate perspective have helped your team break through a tough problem? More than once, I bet.
Of course, the downside of our alternate operating system is that communicating with us and just being around us can be challenging. Navigating your neurodiverse colleague requires a bit of extra patience and empathy. I hope that by offering neurotypical people a glimpse of our world, we can increase the level of understanding and turn that lose-lose into a win-win.