In honor of Autism Acceptance Month, Femme Frugality is running a series of Monday articles focusing on the triumphs and challenges autistic people conquer as related to their finances and careers. Today I’m so happy to introcude to you Kristine–a Norwegian money blogger at ecoFrugals–who is here to give us first-hand perspective on what it’s like to face disableism in the workplace as an autistic woman.
Hi, there! My name is Kristine, and I mostly write about frugality, sustainability and personal finance over at frugasaurus.com. I am also autistic–diagnosed in my early twenties with what was then known as Asperger’s. A classic middle child in many ways, my two siblings demanded attention, so my parents were overjoyed to have a child who mostly sat in a corner reading books or solving jigsaw puzzles.
When Femme approached me about writing a post for Autism appreciation month, I was honoured. I had recently written a post about autism and personal finance, but to be honest, I also felt a bit apprehensive. As I do whenever I poke my head out about my diagnosis. I was only diagnosed as an adult, after all. My condition was not such that it warranted special education or speech training.
Still, my experience is also a valid one, so here follows some of my experiences regarding disableism.
Getting A Foot Inside
It starts with the most obvious yet insidious of adult milestones: Getting a job.
I had done “everything right.” At least as far as I understood it. Society and my family told me school was important, so I attended school. They told me science was a safe profession (they were non-specific as to what kind of science), so I studied science. Environmental chemistry, to be specific.
I was told my degree was highly relevant and sought after–it had been requested by the industry after all–and I had several relevant internships. I had followed the rules. Surely, a meaningful job would follow?
That is not what happened.
Privilege & Disableism
While the job market is challenging for everyone at the moment, it is even more so for people with disabilities. I am privileged in that I am white and educated, but lack privilege in that I am autistic.
It can manifest in multiple ways. For instance, my thinking can be rigid. I have internalised that lying is bad, so I do not embellish my CV. In a world where “everyone” embellishes their CV to get ahead, this puts me at a disadvantage before it even gets to the interview.
Once at the interview, if I am lucky enough to get one, there is the risk that I might come off as a little off. No matter how much I practice social skills, I still struggle in high-stress situations with unexpected questions.
In many ways, disableism means I have had to accept that I am never the preferred candidate, unless the job involves a windowless archive with near-zero social interactions (in which case you’re probably one of the only qualified candidates).
No Data, No Answer
As an example of this, I once dropped a grade at an oral maths examination, because the teacher wanted me to calculate the weight of the air in the classroom.
I told him I did not know the weight of a cubic meter of air, and asked if he could provide an estimate. He told me to guess.
I had absolutely no frame of reference for how much a cubic meter of air weighs. I had no way to guess. He insisted I guessed, and I told him I could not. I could have calculated the volume of the air in the classroom if that was what he wanted, but the way he framed the question meant I was missing a variable, and that made me shut down.
That is how my mind works. Trying to “help” me in quiz or Trivia Pursuit just annoys me. I either know, or I don’t.
Keeping Your Financial House in Order
Nearly four years after graduating top of my class, I still do not have a permanent position. People seem to like me just fine, and they compliment my work, but I lack that knack for “chit-chat” and water-cooler talk that makes for great networking. People bring their newborn in to work and I try to compliment them as protocol dictates, but really, I just want to know if they’ve had time to look at x and y work-related subjects yet.
This means I do not feel financially secure in my employment. I hoard savings for the next time a contract will expire and I’ll be back hunting for jobs. In the end, I realised that I would never feel safe with someone else in charge of my paycheck. If I wanted financial peace, I would have to build it for myself.
If you are disabled in some way, but do not receive social benefits, you’ll know exactly what I mean. If you don’t look out for your own financial well-being, no one else will.
Note from Femme: In the US, if you are disabled and receive social benefits, the government hardly watches out for your financial well-being. Only recently have ABLE accounts allowed disabled populations to save without losing benefits. Other countries have more logical and less discriminatory social policies.
Oh, Brother of Mine
Mine is the story of autism from a highly educated and reasonably observant point of view.
My brother, on the other hand, might fit better into a different autistic stereotype. He lives a lot in his own world, doesn’t get the greatest grades, and really just wants to get on with his own life as a factory worker somewhere with rigid routines, playing video games at night and minimum amounts of fuss.
He is generous to a fault. More than once has he spent all his pocket money on gifts and tokens of affection, giving no regard to the fact that he has to eat tomorrow as well.
And I see the same struggles as he is trying his best to get a job. When and if he manages to get an interview, he is honest to a fault, and does not understand that an interview is a place to show off your best qualities.
I do hope he gets a job eventually. He may not be the most independent, but once you teach him something, he will work until you or the clock tell him to stop. In the right environment, he will be a great asset.
Just Pull Yourself Together
Probably one of the most hurtful comments to anyone with a disability–mental or physical–is the idea that it is all just in our heads, and that we can simply imagine away our obstacles with enough willpower.
If you feed off social interaction and feel invigorated at parties, that’s both incredible and alien to me. But please don’t try to assume I can do the same if I just “loosen up” or “let myself go.”
Social interactions with more than the select few people I feel comfortable with, can and will exhaust me. The office Christmas or summer party is my idea of a special hell, and no amount of practice can remedy that.
On a lighter note, I would suggest not trying to tell autistic people to “act natural” or to “be themselves.”
That might work for you, but myself and the other autistic people I’ve met laugh at this notion.
Acting natural for an autistic person might be sitting naked on the floor (because clothes itch or feel weird,) eating jello (smooth texture) while rocking back and forth or groaning repeatedly (“stimming”–repetitive behaviour that calms your down or shows joy/excitement.)
Trust me, I do not act “natural” in public, and you’re probably glad I don’t.
How Can You Create A Safe Space?
If you are hosting or employing autistic staff, hooray! Here are some easy tips to make them feel welcome and safe:
- Make sure there is a retreat option. A place where we can be alone if we need a break. For most, this can simply be a bathroom that locks.
- Many autistic people struggle with physical touch and eye-contact. Please do not force this.
- Do not assume anything is “common knowledge.” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve made an ass of myself because no one thought to teach me the most rudimentary of behaviour.
- Many autistic people appreciate honest, clear feedback on social mishaps. If you are in a position of trust, this could be relevant, but make sure it is in private and unambiguous: “Please welcome clients with a firm handshake,” (and then show them) not; “You’re greeting people a bit weird.”
- If they want their work space organised a specific way, does it hurt anyone if you let them?
- Educating yourself is great, but take the time to get to know the person in front of you as well. Meeting one autistic person means exactly that. You’ve met just one.
- And please, do not make a public point out of behaviour you might find weird or if we excuse ourselves early. It’s not you–it’s us.