Relatable narratives at work

by Kat

Being Autistic working at a Developmental Disabilities Clinic is a strangely meta- experience. I see children and adolescents in the waiting room whose bodies move like mine.  Their parents sit beside them, waiting be seen by the student therapists who work in our office space.

Just watch. We’ll be okay. I wish I could tell you that, parent waiting outside in that little room with chairs and magazines. But you’re not like my child — or even teenager — they might say.

Yes, you’re partially right. I have circuitous verbal language, my own way of being in the world — lengthy task lists, but I’ve visited the land where your kid lives. I can pass as quirky, but not typical — until I freeze and appear utterly confused and incapable. I stand there watching. Knowing I should ask for help. Piecing together my words into a somewhat coherent whole.

Last week was a series of new experiences — first week at my new graduate assistantship (GA) as well as the start of the fall semester. I’m only taking two classes, but I’m doing remedial work for one of my statistics classes (another story for another day — if told at all).  I thrive in the midst of routine, perhaps because the overarching structure makes sense to me. If I miss cues, the routine provides a externalized reminders of the tasks ahead.

My cubicle is often covered in a series of sticky noted task lists. I tend to get lost when projects involve more than 2-3 steps and a larger supply list. I’m still learning my way around the office, but at least I know  where the stapler is and how the copier works. I wondered how I’d handle transitioning into this clerical position. I remember being excited to find a graduate assistantship in my field, but not ready to leave the familiarity of the library.

I’ve felt self-conscious stimming at work; I tap my fingers together. I keep wondering if my on-site supervisor notices all of the stereotypically autistic things I do. I have trouble processing verbal instructions, so I write directions for most projects I’m given. I’ve become accustomed to bringing my Tangle to work, worn as a bracelet twisted around my wrist or stowed in my purse. I stick my music player in my pocket when I find myself in worry loops and need distraction. I’m essentially providing my own accommodations at work since I lack a paper diagnosis and have accumulated coping skills.

As part of my GA, I do office work for my PhD advisor one morning per week. We rarely talk about how I identify as Autistic, but sometime ago we had a conversation about labels, which she seems to view as a means of obtaining supports. When I was first hired, she mentioned helping me create a weekly schedule for work, so I could develop a routine. She seems to understand my need for structure and clearly explained tasks.

When I need help in either of these work settings, I’ve learned to state the problem and describe how my supervisor could help. I have trouble generalizing, so I realized I either need lots of examples or plenty of time to ask questions. In a work setting, I worry this trait makes me appear overly dependent on others. I return with questions or clarifications until I can make sense of the task. I feel silly sometimes, but I’m practicing help-seeking, rather than sitting with my confusion.

Working at these sites I’m reminded of the interconnected nature of support services for developmental disabilities. When I searched for adult autism services I looked outside my college town because I knew most of the local service coordinators and community people. These are the families of autistic youth and school professionals with whom I interact. I know I can’t keep these worlds completely separate, but I needed space for my lived experience as an Autistic adult.

I wanted to avoid appearing as if I was appropriating the experience of the local autism community. Maybe I still wonder if this identity is mine. I remain ‘out’ as Autistic with my close friends and grounding people, but at work I’m just seemingly quirky.