Never forget to pump a handshake three times- not one, and definitely not five. Seen from an autistic perspective, the social, shared, and flexible attributes of the modern shared office can be intimidating. As work and life spill into each other, they clash with coping mechanisms for autism spectrum disorder, in which high-level functioning depends on adherence to routine, scripts, and schedules. Despite this challenge, autistic professionals can have precious attributes, and demand better understanding of the relationship between the workplace and this complicated disorder.
“If you’ve met one person with Asperger’s syndrome, then you’ve met one person with Asperger’s syndrome.” In the same circles where this quote is famous, its author is a bit of a celebrity. Dr. Stephen Shore is a professor of Special Education at Adelphi University who has devoted his life to teaching and researching autism. He also has Asperger’s syndrome, a high-functioning subtype of autism spectrum disorder characterized by obsessive interest and poor social skills. “I wouldn’t use the phrase ‘Asperger’s sufferer,’ because some of us enjoy the way our mind works.”
The symptom affects how people behave, socialize, and communicate, and its acceptance in the workplace is “uneven.” Some employers avoid the issue, others embrace it, and others are seeking out people with ASD because some of their traits make good business sense. While genius is somewhat rare, a common affinity for routines can translate well to the work force. “They can be efficient, and have very low absentee rates.” TV and movies have introduced more savants whose quirky idiosyncrasies suggest autism, but Dr. Shore knows the reality is often different. “It’s all well and good that organizations are seeking IT people, but it’s a low percentage. We’re not all geeks with superpowers in IT.”
It seems like “Renee” might have some superpowers, herself. Renee isn’t her real name- she prefers anonymity because disclosure of her Asperger’s diagnosis can hurt her chances in the job market. “I’d like people to know I am graphic designer, I write, I watch hockey, I sing, I play instruments.” Despite a host of positive attributes, her diagnosis can be misunderstood. “All that stuff is way more important than this other thing. It’s immensely frustrating to feel like my professional worth is based on something unrelated to work, something I have no control over.” She explains how every person with autism is unique by using a metaphor for her internal wiring. “Imagine two sound boards. They have the same layout of switches, but the sliders are in different positions.”
She can be verbal, but because she can’t perceive most non-verbal cues she admits she doesn’t always notice when some one has tuned her out. Despite her warnings, when she gets going about her experiences in a coworking office she’s pithy and interesting. “I won a month coworking membership through a business planning class. Instead of working from home, I had to leave the house, to interact with people, and not sit around working in my PJs. What was nice about coming to the office was that it’s a pain in the ass to schlep my heavy old computer, so I couldn’t grab everything to come work for two hours. It forces me to narrow my focus on what I was planning to accomplish, if I only bring a few things. I can manage to be ‘big picture’ and detail-oriented at the same time.” She has mixed feelings about the social aspects of the shared office though, showing a desire to connect with others despite an aversion to the most common approaches. “If we have a small ‘Creative’s Lunch,’ yes! Happy hour, no. I have the same issue with networking events: I won’t talk to anyone, I feel awkward. Volunteering is a great way for me to help. Even if I don’t chat with anyone, I have a purpose, and feel like less of an outsider. I got real good at scanning tickets for Eventbrite.”
Renee’s theory about the different “slider” positions is reinforced through Kelly’s story. Kelly has been a member of the coworking space Workbar for three years, and loves not feeling “trapped” in one office or one space. “Personally, I had a harder time dealing with ‘traditional offices,’ so working remotely plus coworking is a big improvement for me.” As she shares her feelings about workplace socializing and communicating, the details of her own Asperger’s Syndrome become clearer. For starters, she prefers texting to talking. “I have trouble with auditory processing, so that makes in-person meetings- especially with multiple people- very tiring. Defaulting to text first means I don’t miss any information.” This jives with studies showing how many with autism have a predilection for online interactions because they do not miss the face-to-face experience as much as a neurotypical person would.
One characteristic of ASD is a “resistance to novelty,” so in a more fluid workspace Kelly has to use good organization to her advantage. “The shared resources are fine for me; it’s nice to actually have the guidelines on how to use the spaces (like drop-in phone rooms with a time limit, or signing up in advance for conference rooms.) The flexibility of Workbar allows me to build a schedule, which works for me. A lot of the ‘trouble with flexibility’ that’s a trademark of autistic people is more about anxiety of the unknown.” Her next opinion has tinge of confession to it. “I know the big selling point of coworking is community, but I have to admit that I don’t go to Workbar for the community aspect. I like that I have a workspace outside of my house where I don’t need to make small talk. I’m sure it makes me seem shy or rude, but at least it doesn’t directly affect my job evaluation.”
Behind those job evaluations is a company she is immensely fond of (Automattic), but not everyone on the spectrum is so lucky. According to Dr. Shore, under- and unemployment affects over eighty percent of people with ASD. While some workplaces have begun actively pursuing career development coaching and employer resources, autism lives outside the realm of most equal opportunity clauses, and isn’t necessarily a disability. Renee tells me that the Americans with Disabilities Act is powerless to assist in cases of wrongful termination or discrimination if the employee has not disclosed their ASD to their employer. This poses an awkward Catch-22: if the person is aware of their own diagnosis, then the nature of the syndrome precludes a candid, personal revelation to the boss.
Unlike other civil rights movements, autism awareness suffers from its own diversity. When neuroscientist (and The Big Bang Theory actress) Mayim Bialik said autism “doesn’t always need to be solved and medicated and labeled,” she curbed armchair speculation about the diagnosis of her co-star Sheldon’s character. This was seen as both a milestone and a cop out. Many thought this was a progressive and endearing response, but some with ASD felt this side-stepping of the issue splintered any solidarity, and left them hanging.
“The world doesn’t accommodate, and neither should we.” This tough love message was delivered to architect Shawn Hesse from, surprisingly, the nonprofit Living Arrangements for the Developmentally Disabled. Hesse had incorporated the spatial concept of “prospect and refuge” into his designs, allowing better “control of contact” to potentially reduce anxiety for some one with ASD. Their pass on his plans demonstrates what can happen when well-meaning (but neurotypical) people make decisions on behalf of the autistic. This carries over to one of Dr. Shore’s contentions, after I press him about the case for autism’s “coming out”: maybe the workplace doesn’t need an overhaul so much as a willingness to “address symptoms as they arise.”
The path toward autism awareness, the role of disclosure, and the importance of accommodations might be debatable, but the certainty of change is not. For her part, Kelly agrees, reminding us, “The best workplace is one that’s open to doing things a little differently. That’s how innovation works, right?”
P.S. Woven into my follow-up communication with Renee is meta-statement about her type of autism. She volunteered to help me edit, and supplied an extensive appendix of resources. Thorough, thoughtful, and without a single typo, she steered me towards the books she has read or is reading, mostly by Bissonnette, or Simone. It seems that with ASD there is no such thing as too much information.