Monday, May 22, 2017

“Easy” Jobs and “Hard” Jobs

Book cover for "Asperger's on the Job."
I recently read the book Asperger's on the Job: Must-Have Advice for People with Asperger's or High Functioning Autism and their Employers, Educators, and Advocates. For the most part, it didn’t really contain any mind-blowing new ideas- it said things like “people with Asperger’s often have a hard time with small talk because it seems pointless,” which, yeah, no kidding? Most of the chapters just gave general statements about an Asperger’s trait and how it can cause problems at work, but didn’t give me any amazing new solutions I didn’t know before.

However, there was one bit that was really really interesting for me. It was a section advising readers with Asperger’s about how to choose a job that’s right for us. There was a chart to fill out, where you can write different areas of interest and then in the next column, write things that could be difficult about working in that type of job. Social things, sensory things, etc. For example, for a lot of people with Asperger’s, interacting with a bunch of different customers every day would be really hard, maybe even unbearable. We’d rather have a quieter job with a lot of alone time. So go ahead and write things like that in the second column.

This was really mind-blowing for me because I’d never thought of my issues with social interaction or sensory stimuli as ACTUAL REAL THINGS that should be treated seriously and taken into account when making big life decisions, like choosing a job for example. I always thought those were just silly little things, just my own personal issues, and I should just “get over” them and learn how to be a regular person who’s not bothered by them.

When I was in school, choosing a job was always related to education. What degree do you need in order to do this job? Bachelors? Masters? Phd? What classes do you need to take? And in society in general, there’s a hierarchy of jobs: jobs that require less education and pay less are seen as “easy”, and jobs that require more education and pay more are seen as “hard.”

I’m an engineer. I write code for robots. And often, when I tell people that, they say, “Wow that’s so hard! I could never do that!” And I don’t know what to think about that. For me, it’s not “hard.” I would hate to be in a job that didn’t involve learning new technology and solving challenging problems. I used to teach English, and actually that was “harder” because it required way more people skills than I have. Basically, as an English teacher, I was an actor. Go into class, put on a smile, make eye contact with the students, try to pay attention to their level of energy and interest, do activities that students will find engaging. Yes, I was an actor, because none of that comes naturally to me. It was exhausting. Being an engineer, talking to computers all day instead of people, wow it’s SO MUCH easier.

(Like, I can do any kind of math you want, but talking to people is way too hard.)

There’s a Burger King that Hendrix and I go to often. Sometimes, after work, there are tons of people waiting in line to order, and the cashiers are taking orders at the same time they’re putting food on trays for people who already ordered, and sometimes they don’t have this or that particular type of hamburger and they have to keep telling customers it’s not available and then sometimes the customers get angry about that, and the cashiers have to deal with that, and also somebody is like “hey you gave me the wrong drink” and it’s noisy, and it’s just chaos. Wow. That sounds like a horrible job.

(This isn't just related to autism- I think for most people who work in fast food jobs like that, it's really stressful and hard and society doesn't give them the credit they deserve.)

I tell people I’m an engineer and they’re like “wow I could never do that.” And then I see the cashiers at Burger King and I think “wow I could never do that.”

There was this one place I used to work, where the doors on the bathroom stalls would slam so damn loud. Every time I came out of the bathroom stall, I would stand there and use my hand to guide the door shut slowly and quietly. But for people who just came out of the stall and walked away without giving it a second thought, the door would accelerate so much as it swung back and it would slam against the door frame so loud. It was so loud. It was inhumanely loud.

Every day at that job, I would avoid going to the bathroom as long as I could. I would time it so that I would only need to use that godawful bathroom with the slamming doors once per day. And when I did, I would try to get in and out as fast as possible. In the stall, I used both hands to plug my ears, and when I heard the sound of someone coming out of a different stall, I would plug my ears even harder and count to 20, waiting for the sound of the door slam.

The worst was when someone would come in, look into the first stall, decide that it wasn’t clean enough, and move on to the next one, leaving the door to slam itself. In that case, there would be no auditory cue (like a flush or door-unlocking sound) to tell me the slam was coming, if I was in a different stall and couldn’t see what was going on. Oh, oh it was terrible. That slamming sound was so inhumanely loud. Hearing it was like getting punched in the head. Like, if I had to choose between getting punched in the head, and hearing that door-slam sound unexpectedly, well it’s hard to choose, they’re pretty much equally terrible. I mean that 100% literally.

But I never saw any of my colleagues using their hand to slow down the stall door so it wouldn’t slam. I was the only one. Even though they worked there and used that bathroom every day, and presumably were aware of how loud those doors would slam. Back then, even though I knew that I hear sounds louder than most other people do, I hadn’t fully thought through what that meant. I didn’t realize that, for other people, that sound was NOT the equivalent of getting punched in the back of the head. Maybe they thought it was a minor annoyance, but not so bad that it’s worth the trouble of spending 5 seconds helping the door shut slowly after using the bathroom. Wow. I mean, wow, as I write this, this is the first time I’ve ever speculated about why other people didn’t seem to be bothered by those godawful bathroom doors. At the time, I just kind of internalized the idea “other people are fine with it, why can’t you be fine with it?”

And I can totally imagine a situation where a problem like that could lead to me quitting my job. Or hating my job, or developing depression and having no idea what was causing it. Because trying to force myself to be okay with loud sounds that don't seem to bother anyone else has always been just a normal part of my life. It wouldn't have even occurred to me to think "oh, THIS is the reason I'm so unhappy." It's just how my life has always been.

As I think about that experience now, I’m imagining what would have happened if I had gone to my manager and told him the work environment is unbearable for me because of the incredible loudness of the bathroom doors. What if I suggested talking with the maintenance people, and maybe putting some sort of padding on the edges of the doors, so they wouldn’t be so loud when they slammed? If people were reluctant to do it, I could even offer to pay for it and do the work of sticking the door pads on all by myself. Of course I would be willing to do that! And pay for it! Like wow, can you imagine, just pay a little bit of money and spend half an hour sticking pads onto the edges of the bathroom doors, and the sound problem would be gone? Wow, can you imagine? I’d be willing to pay a hundred dollars. I’d be willing to pay two hundred dollars. Of course I would. (Instead I'm here blogging about it, years later, because it was THAT BAD.)

Can you imagine, if I had viewed it as a problem that could be solved by communicating about my needs and then maybe doing a bit of work and spending a bit of money? (Though ideally, the company should be the one who pays the money for it.) Instead, I saw it as “this is just the way things are, it’s not going to change, everyone else is fine with it, why can’t you be fine with it?” I remember complaining about it to some of my colleagues a little bit, but I never went to someone who actually had the authority to do something about it and said “This is a serious problem, we need to find a way to solve it.” I didn’t know that was an option. Instead I plugged my ears, tried to get in and out of there as fast as possible, and made very angry faces at people who let the doors slam. Oh it was so awful.

This book, Asperger's on the Job, says that often, the accommodations that aspies need are actually very very easy for employers to implement, and they make a huge difference in the aspie employee’s happiness and productivity. That certainly would have been the case for me and my door problem, if I had seen it as an actual real thing and insisted that other people care about it and help me solve it. Instead, I believed it was my fault for not trying hard enough to “be normal”, it was a silly thing that I should just “get over,” certainly not something serious enough that I should ask other people to care about it. It would be wrong to get other people involved just because I’m such a failure at “being normal.”

That’s why this idea about listing potential Asperger’s-related problems with certain jobs is so mind-blowing to me. (Though obviously, the door thing is not associated with any specific type of job; it’s not something I could have predicted when choosing a job.) The point is, if I know I have problems with sounds or social interaction or whatever, let’s treat that as an actual real problem that we should address and find a solution for, or maybe a legitimate reason not to even try doing a particular job. Wow.

One more fun story: I remember one time, when I was a little kid, I was watching Olympic athletes do gymnastics on TV. My mom said, “Wow, look at all those amazing jumps they do, I could never do that.” And I was like, “They put so much chalk on their hands, I could never do that.” Because oh geez, chalk dust is just the worst, makes me cringe so much. No chance I could be an Olympic gymnast, just because of the chalk. Ewww chalk.

Treating these Asperger’s-related problems as negligible little things that nobody needs to take seriously leads to stress and even unemployment for aspies (even though, in general, we are very intelligent and hard-working). The book Asperger's on the Job introduced me to the concept of “here, write down potential problems in this table and we will figure out what to do about them,” which is so much better than my previous strategy of “just get over it and be a normal person.”

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