Snow and Grit

Snow-covered hemlock branches

On days like this I really enjoy working from home. No worrying about when the snow will start, or whether I will be able to get back up my hilly street to come home. Instead I can sit by the window and watch the snow fall, while quietly working on my laptop.

I work part-time as a software tester. Today was a mix of finishing up writing test cases on a new project and beginning actual testing. I always like that transition; I enjoy test-case writing quite a bit, but by the end of writing I am usually a little bit fried and very much ready to switch gears. The time passed quickly today, and left me with energy to work on my own studies and projects.

Not all work projects are like that, by the way. Some leave me completely drained by the end of the same number of hours, with little brain power left for creative pursuits or even reading. That’s one reason I’m happy to keep my hours at part-time levels; I encountered Autistic burnout several years ago — before I even knew I was Autistic — and I still struggle with maintaining my energy levels over the course of a workday, especially if there is any level of stress involved.

This brings to mind something that my therapist and I talked about once. She said that after hearing about my childhood and younger adulthood, she felt that I had approached life with a certain amount of grit. I had pushed through my difficulties in order to get where I wanted to go, sometimes to the point that I hadn’t even acknowledged those difficulties — I had just gone and done it. But after a certain point, I just didn’t have the resources to keep gritting my way through things. That’s when my strategy changed to creating a life where I didn’t need so much grit.

This involved a lot of choices that sometimes felt like failures: I quit a lucrative job and essentially short-circuited any career options I might have had. I moved to an area that was quieter but offers many fewer career opportunities, and chose to work only part-time at a very simple office job I was highly over-qualified for. Eventually even that job felt like too much of a strain, and I again felt like I was a failure, that I couldn’t handle even that.

But what was really happening was that I was building the life I needed. Yes, I have a lot less money than I would have at my old job, but I chose that over continuing to burn myself out. Yes, I am not on a defined career track, but I am free to follow my own creative pursuits and see where they lead me. And yes, I had to leave even that “easy” office job, but that moved me out of an emotionally charged work environment and into a job I actually enjoy, one that I can (usually) do from home.

I’m not where I thought I might end up when I gritted my way through a physics degree at a very well-known university, and sometimes I feel like I should have “accomplished” more — but I love where I am and what I have in my life. If I can’t easily describe that life to others with an easy label, well, then I guess they’ll just have to get to know me as the Eclectic Autistic that I am. 🙂

When the Work Is Easy, But the Workplace Is Hard

I am leaving a job I’ve worked at for almost ten years, and it’s been causing some introspection…which I have chosen to inflict on all of you. 🙂

I work for a small business with a handful of other people, and our workplace is in a section of the business owners’ private home. The owners are a husband and wife team, with the husband being the more involved of the two at this point. The business is an online retail store, so I’ve been doing a mix of managing orders, email customer service, and website maintenance like putting new items online.

I took this job (as part-time, easy office work) after burning out at a corporate tech-sector job earlier. I was way over-qualified, but the flexible hours gave me time to pursue my own creative projects in my spare time, and the relaxed work environment let me wear what I liked and listen to music and podcasts while I did the more repetitive of my daily tasks. (And best of all, I didn’t have to answer the phone!) But it still ended up wearing me down.

See back there, where I wrote “relaxed work environment”? In truth, it ended up not being as relaxed as it seemed at first. Here are five things that started to get to me over time, mostly without me knowing it.

1. Open-plan office.
Open-plan offices are unfriendly to anyone with sensory issues, as well as to introverts who are drained by social contact, and to anyone doing work that requires high levels of concentration. Having even three or four people working in the same room vastly increases the amount of general background noise as well as the likelihood of interruptions and distractions. Being able to close an office door is ideal, but I’ve even done better in a cubicle environment where at least visual distractions are somewhat minimized. But background noise is still a possible issue there.

2. Background noise.
Today I jotted down a few of the things going on in the background that made my work environment noisy. Some are a bit idiosyncratic because (as I mentioned above) I work in a business run out of someone’s home, but many of these are just as common in corporate office settings.

Air conditioner. Coworker typing. Boss on phone. Wife clattering pans downstairs, and speaking very loudly to a visitor. Boss off the phone, now two people typing. Phone ringing again.

That was the background of about a five-minute span in the late morning — and this was a normal day, not the weekly cleaning day when the vacuum is going downstairs, or a week when they’re having work done on the house and there is scraping, hammering, or power-tool noise added to the mix. It made a big difference when I started wearing noise-canceling headphones in the office, but depending on the number of legitimate interruptions I encounter, I may have to take them off quite frequently.

3. Constant interruptions.
I get asked a lot of questions during the course of my day. Some of this is necessary to collaborate with my boss and coworkers, some is because I have a better memory than my boss and he wants to double-check something, and some is because I know the computer systems better than he does, so if there is a problem I’m more likely to know how to fix it. But despite the fact that I am usually wearing large, highly-noticeable headphones these days, no one can remember to give me a second of lead time — by saying my name, for example — so I can hit pause on whatever I’m listening to and/or take them off. They just start talking, and I have to grab for the pause button, lift them off, and ask them to start again. This causes additional anxiety for me, because I worry about whether I’m inconveniencing them (yes, I know), plus it makes me feel rushed.

And on a day like today, where there was a lot of background noise requiring me to have my headphones on for comfort, it was especially annoying to have a long stretch of time where every time I put the ‘phones back on, my boss would ask another question and I’d have to take them off again. (His voice is a little hard to hear through them, or I’d leave them on.) The only consolation there was that a lot of the questions were directly related to my imminent departure from this job, so I could enjoy that aspect of it. 🙂

4. The phone. The $#@$**& phone.
This is really just a repeat of part of #2, as my job doesn’t require me to actually answer the phone here — but it rings too damned much. Partly this is because I work, again, in a business set in someone’s home, so personal calls, business calls, and spammy sales calls are all mixed together. And the fact that it is so disruptive even though answering it is not part of my job speaks to the poor office design; I really only need to know the phone rang if I need to take action because of it.

5. Tense, uncomfortable (at times even toxic) emotional atmosphere.
The specifics here are likely to be, well, specific to this job, but toxic work environments can exist for many different reasons, in many different settings. Office politics and personal grudges can create hostile environments, whether they are directed at you or just occurring adjacent to you. In my case, the discomfort comes from working in the home of a couple with a pretty strained relationship (to put it nicely) and an apparent inability to maintain healthy boundaries between work and home life. Being highly sensitive to other people’s moods and stress levels, I become extremely stressed myself when things get prickly between them, and I end up with tight shoulders and chronic pain in my jaw.

I have learned to speak up about all of these things (even my bosses’ personal issues when they inappropriately impact the workplace), but things have a sort of inertia, a default state they settle into. You can shift the center of gravity for a little while, but it will eventually settle back into its previous equilibrium. And it was only when I realized (almost a year ago now) that I am Autistic that I started to understand more about why I was getting so stressed and fatigued from what should have been an easy job. That led me to figure out some accommodations, but a) a lot of wear-and-tear on my psyche had already taken place, and b) there were only so many changes I could make that were acceptable to my boss. It ended up being a case of too little, too late.

It is worth noting, however, that over the past year I also came to realize how many of my Autistic traits contributed to the high quality of my work in this office. My attention to detail was constantly useful, allowing me to not only make fewer mistakes but also to catch others’ mistakes before they caused problems. My ability to notice patterns led me to spot a string of fraudulent purchases before too much damage was done, and my preference for efficiency led to some major streamlining of our workflow. It’s too bad so many offices are set up in such a way as to drive away talented employees, Autistic or not.

Approaching Accommodations

Now that I finally understand that I am autistic, and can point to at least some of the ways in which that has affected my life, I am able to rethink many of my experiences in new ways. Like many other people whose autism went unrecognized until adulthood, I feel able to look back with new eyes, especially on those places where I struggled. Just as with words, meaning changes with context.

I am also starting to think about how I can bring that understanding into my present work and home life. Now that I know (at least a little better) what kinds of support and/or accommodations I might need, how can I go about creating or asking for them?

Up until this point, I have gone through life without accommodations — or rather, it would be more accurate to say that I have made self-accommodations. My relationships, my living arrangements, and my employment choices have all been influenced by my own sense of what worked for me and what did not. In most situations I have made changes when I felt things reach a breaking point, rather than continuing on and getting, well, broken.

But the trouble is, outside the context of disability, self-accommodation can easily look like failure; you just can’t handle the things other people seem to be able to. Even asking for accommodation (again, without that context) will often be seen as complaining. And gaining this context for myself doesn’t always help when it comes to support I need from other people, especially in situations where I am not sure how much to disclose.

And now… I’m not sure what else I want to say at this point; I only got this far by sort of thinking out loud. The main thing is that I don’t really know how to do this — after all, I grew up not knowing I even had a disability. And I’m sure that as I start to ask for the things I need, some people will interpret that as meaning that I’m not disabled enough to need supports. It’s a vicious circle.

Of course, the ideal situation would be if everyone, disabled or not, could ask for what they need without being seen as a whiner, a troublemaker, or a burden. We all have our strengths and weaknesses, as well as preferences for how we can do our best work. So let’s just build that world, and this whole question will be moot. Easy peasy. 😉