I recently wrote an article talking about the misconceptions of some of the career advice for autistic people. This was mostly my opinion, but I feel it was fairly valid given some of the other articles out there. I don’t want to discredit any of those articles, they have valid points, but they got one main thing wrong; the reason why those jobs might be better for autistic people. A lot of them didn’t give accurate expectations about those jobs, mainly the social aspect. 

In this series of articles I am writing, I want to talk about some advice I have been given over the years and some things I’ve discovered that might help some of you out there in your current job, or better prepare you for your future career. I’m going to go over some tactics for handling anxiety, ways to approach different social encounters, and what you can do outside of work to help maintain a solid state of well-being. 

Social Activity!

Whether you work in an office, an assembly line, at McDonalds, or run your own company, chances are you’re going to be talking to people through your day. Even developers working in a corporate office have to do a lot more socializing than they probably want to. What can you do about it? In most cases, nothing. There is an expectation in corporate America that you’re going to have meetings. If you’re lucky, they won’t be a daily occurrence. Being on the spectrum brings a whole plethora of problems for those diagnosed with ASD; social anxiety, lack of social graces, and an inability to communicate effectively in different situations. Let’s talk about what we can do. I don’t want this article to be focused around what non-ASD people can do to help, because in most cases it’s a lack of understanding due to the lack of proper education and there are a lot of people with disabilities out there and realistically we can’t expect everyone to understand all of these and be able to help. 

Meetings can be stressful, presentations can be downright debilitating and being put on the spot in a meeting you weren’t prepared for can cause a full system shutdown, even if you know you know the answer. It’s frustrating, it’s draining, and it can cause your whole career to come to a grinding halt. 

For ASD people, we have the luck of being typically logical people. I say this is lucky because I personally prefer it that way. I don’t feel sorry for myself that I can’t emotionally connect with someone, probably because I don’t understand what that truly means, but also I have adapted to use other methods to develop relationships. Being logical people at our core does not mean we lack emotions, there are some studies out there that argue that autistic people have stronger emotions and can feel stronger empathetic connections to people. Though, being a spectrum disorder I would argue this is does not encompass everyone on the spectrum. So how can we use this to our advantage?

Preparation, Preparation, Preparation

“Those who fail to plan, plan to fail.” Benjamin Franklin (supposedly)

Let’s run through a quick scenario. You get into work and you find that you have been invited to a meeting at 1:00 today. It’s about a topic you’re very familiar with, so it makes sense that you would have been invited to talk about this. You get to the meeting, sit in the chair that allows you to see everyone but also allows you to hide if necessary. You pull out your laptop or pen and binder and start reading emails or finishing that thought from before the meeting. The meeting starts, conversation is taking place and you’re being asked a few questions here and there about the topic, you stumble through answers but aren’t able to communicate effectively to drive the results you want. What do you do? Talking is hard!

Prepare. If you know what the meeting is about because thankfully someone actually put an agenda in the meeting invite, then you can pull up notes, jot down some most common answers (save that document, you will use it again) and go through the conversation beforehand to come up with any questions that might be asked. If you know the person or team you’re meeting with then you can tailor the notes to what is relevant to them. If you don’t know what the team does, it’s time to find out. Email someone on the team, ask them for a rundown of what their scope is, if you have a few days before the meeting, setup some shadowing time and let them show you what they do (this is a good time to ask questions about pain points if you’re going to be helping them solve a problem later in the week). The more work you do to prepare for the meeting, the better chance you will have to not looking like a blubbering fool. This was something I had to learn. Honestly, I use to chalk my inability to communicate to my autism and then do nothing to fix it. In reality, I had the ability to fix it, but I didn’t believe I could. This is why I am writing this article. I truly hope this helps someone out there.

However, preparation isn’t the only thing you can do. 

Be Present, Be Ready

Have you ever been caught off guard by a question in a meeting? I’m sure literally anyone reading this has had that happen. I wonder how many of us will admit that this happened because we spaced out for a bit, checking emails, texting someone, Redditing in the meeting. Like before, I just assumed I thought differently enough that putting me on the spot would cause my brain to just not work because I was anxious. In reality I found that more often than not it was because I was not IN the meeting. I came in, sat down, and almost immediately went to something else. This one seems easy to solve when I write it out like this, but it was not obvious to me. 

When you go to a meeting, bring only what is necessary. If you don’t think you will need your computer, bring a notebook. If you take notes on your computer, close down other applications (If you use Windows 10 at work and can’t afford to close the applications, use another blank desktop<https://www.windowscentral.com/how-use-multiple-desktops-windows-10>). Give yourself the best chance at being distraction free in that meeting. You were brought to that meeting for a reason, that reason is your focus for the next hour or so. Have any prepared notes ready, and get your pen out (seriously I highly recommend not bring a computer to every meeting if you can avoid it). 

Ask questions, take notes, be ready for any questions you anticipated because you came prepared. It’s a lot of work, but you will see drastic improvements in your meeting performance by doing this. However, there is still the issue of being interrupted. I don’t personally get angry or upset when someone chimes in to make a point or ask a question, but it can really throw me off. How can we mitigate this?

Set Expectations

If you’re like me and need to finish a thought before someone else jumps in or you will struggle to get back to finish your thought, then you’re in luck (well, not really because it kind of sucks) but I have thoughts. Let’s run through another scenario:

You’re in a meeting, giving a presentation and someone asks you a question that you weren’t prepared for, doesn’t make sense, or they just interrupted your presentation, and you find yourself at a complete loss for words. You stumble out an answer that may, or may not be, completely accurate because you want to stop talking to that person as quickly as possible. You can’t get back into your groove of giving your talk or answering the previous question because you have been thrown off. Or let’s say you are in a meeting, discussing a topic and you’re asked a question or interrupted mid point. Or some other similar scenario. 

I honestly haven’t found a 100% successful solution for this yet – If you have some additional ideas here PLEASE LET ME KNOW. What I have found, and do, that helps is to set proper expectations at the start of a meeting. Honestly, after I started doing this I found that I preferred to be the person running the meetings. 

The way I set expectations is as follows:

When everyone arrives to the meeting, give a well planned introduction. This whole section kind of uses the skills from the other sections above. What does a good introduction look like? I took a class on meeting management a while back, I don’t remember the name, it was some internal training course for my company. Nonetheless, they gave some good and bad examples:

Bad Example:

“Hi everyone, we’re gonna talk about ‘x’, umm, okay take it away joe.”

Good Example:

“Good morning everyone, 

We’re here to solve ‘x’. I brought a, b, and c person to this meeting because you know about ‘x’ very well or have a stake in this process/topic. I want to explain what the problem is, and what we’re trying to solve. At the end of this meeting we should have made a decision on ‘y’. I have a quick presentation to show you, if you could give me your attention for 5 minutes and let me finish before questions come up, we can get to the meat of this meeting”

See the difference? This does a few things for you and for the meeting participants. 

It gives ownership and shows value of those involved. People like feeling important. Saying “I brought you in to this meeting because you’re an expert on this subject and I value your input” will go a long way. 

You also explain the meeting, if you have prepared a presentation, you can have the meeting agenda pulled up to have something to show while you’re talking about what the meeting is about. An agenda can look like:

  • Introductions
  • Why are we here?
  • Quick Presentation
  • Discussion
  • Solve: “X”
  • Assign Action Items
  • Summary

The main thing for you, is it sets the expectation that you just need them to sit quietly for 5 minutes (or however long you need) to go through the slides or whatever demonstration you have put together. I have found that this gives you the best chance to set the tone for the meeting and get the time you need to finish your thoughts and keep people on track. 

There are always people who don’t care, will interrupt, and will just do their own thing, but for the most part I have seen a huge improvement in my own meeting performance. Like I said, because I started doing this, I actually prefer to run meetings now. I get to own the meeting and direct people to coming to a solution with minimal input from me sometimes. 

Don’t forget to take notes through the meeting! 

Treat Yourself , Take Your Time

Work is tough. For everyone. It’s not something you want to do every day, but to survive in this society, it’s necessary. You spend roughly 40 hours at work, plus drive time, plug getting ready to go to work time, making sure you get some decent amount of sleep. You don’t get a lot of personal time. While, according to industry data, autistic people prefer routines, I don’t like this routine. There needs to be a way to balance things better. Unfortunately, until we have a complete overhaul of corporate America, we’re not going to see major changes. So we have to find a way to give ourselves the time we need to recover and function well. 

Time off is important. Depending on the company you work for, taking a day off here and there should not be a problem, especially if you have the vacation time to take off. I have about 1.5 months of vacation time a year I can take off, plus some additional “misc” time. I try to use all of it before the end of the year. I will give myself a few 3 or 4 day weekends to recover and relax, do projects I want to do and not worry about work. I highly recommend doing this. For some reason in America, we have this pissing contest of who takes the least time off. I can’t wrap my head around this. Unless you live to work, you should make it your goal to be at work as little as possible. I come in, do my job, go home the moment I am able to. Some days I leave at 2:00, some days I am here a bit later, sometimes I leave at 10:00 A.M. and take a half day because I just don’t want to work anymore. 

If you don’t work for a company that allows this, it might be time to start working towards a new job. I know that’s much easier said than done, and there are a ton of risks involved, but sometimes taking a risk is better for your health, both mentally and physically. 

If you’re reading this article and plan on trying to do some or all of the things I’ve mentioned, it’s going to take effort and the results won’t happen overnight. You’re learning a new skill, which is amazing! Developing skills take time. Don’t beat yourself up over not being perfect at it and give yourself a chance to revert back if you’re getting overwhelmed. What I wrote might not exactly work for you, but you can adapt it to fit what does work. 

General Social Interactions

I have worked jobs both in an office setting, and outside of the typical cube farm. Both require you to talk to people. Your ability to do this effectively can make your life easier. I am no expert on how to interact with everyone, and my mentor is still working with me to notice things that are seemingly unimportant or just went over my head. 

For example, I have a co worker who is very bubbly. They crave conversation and seem to care deeply about the person they talk to, even if they don’t know them. Basic casual conversation like “How is your day going so far” seem to make them light up. I’ve never understood that and have tried to avoid them or keep the conversation to strictly work based things. I never meant to offend or hurt them by doing this, but they expressed in a conversation with my mentor that they were under the impression that I hated them. 

When this was brought to my attention I was confused. I had done nothing malicious towards them, what could have made them think that? 

It was because I was not engaging them in the way that was important to them. They wanted to ask about my kids and they truly cared about the answer. They wanted to know how I was feeling and genuinely wanted to make sure I was okay. I have never seen that before in someone that wasn’t a long time friend, or my wife. I made it a goal from that point forward to take a few minutes and have a conversation with her. I don’t go out of my way to make that conversation happen, but if she passes me in the hall I will stop and talk to her. It’s exhausting, but over time I gained a new champion of my work. They go around telling people about me and that has helped my career tremendously. They are my peer, how could they have more influence than me? Since they like to talk to people and have such great empathy, they have the ear of some of my leaders. Therefore they have influence that can benefit me, and they do so willingly and without any persuasion on my part. It’s just who they are.

Why am I telling you this? People are important. Sure they can be completely exhausting and frustrating since you may not be able to fully read or understand them if they are driven by emotions and social stuff; but they are important. Some of this will require a mindset change, I know it was for me. Since I found that I was always exhausted after working or hanging out with certain types of people (bubbly = tired), I just settled on talking as little as possible. Once I learned this skill though, I had to change my mindset and learn to engage with people in better, more productive ways. It is definitely something worth while. I’m not going to lie to you, I am still worn out after I get home. I went to bed at the same time as my kids just last night before I wrote this article. 

I don’t know if this is true for everyone with ASD who are verbal yet, I still need to get some better data on this, but the mindset change to value relationships more has improved my overall mood and reduced my anxiety. I very rarely dread the next meeting or conversation. I look forward to seeing certain people and I have developed some great relationships at work. To be clear, I don’t emotionally care about these people more, but I see the value. I lack the words to explain what exactly I mean, that’s the best I can do. I don’t not care about them? I don’t know. It’s hard for me to properly express. I see their value in general more clearly.

This might not work for anyone else, we’re all unique in our struggles, but if anything here does help you, let me know! I would love to hear some success stories from you. 

What else?

If you work in a large company, odds are you have some kind of internal training program. These can be in class training sessions, or video courses. Take advantage of them as much as you can. I recently took a class for managers. I am not, and have no plans on being, a manager. The course was called Fierce Conversations. This class was centered around the book “Fierce Conversations” by Susan Scott. It goes into great detail about delivering and having effective conversations that don’t damage or hurt anyone but does get the point, even if it’s not a great topic. There is a lot more in that book than just that, but I found the book and course to be extremely helpful. 

This next one is a little controversial. I do not recommend taking my advice here and I am not responsible for what happens to you if you do this. Talking to your manager and letting them know you’re on the spectrum has the potential to be beneficial. I know I’ve had bosses in the past who I would never tell about my ASD. The boss I currently work for has a son with disabilities. He does a lot of work for people with disabilities and when I told him, he was excited. I think he kind of knew there was something different about me, but didn’t ask for good reasons I’m sure. When I told him, he was able to get me connected to people he knew that could help me in different areas. I was able to meet people that had great skill in communication, managing meetings, presentation anxiety preparation and prevention, and a bunch of other areas that helped me learn so much. If you think your leader(s) would be receptive to this, then talk with them.

I plan on doing some more articles around career advice and things we all can do to help each other and how you can help yourself. If you have anything you want to add to this, throw it in the comments!

A Few Additional Tips

Never feel embarrassed to ask someone to repeat themselves. If you’re taking notes and they are talking too fast for you to type, there is no reason you shouldn’t be able to ask them to repeat themselves because you are taking notes. Just be polite, wait for a good time (don’t wait too long) and ask them to repeat themselves because you were taking notes. 

If you need get the meeting back on track, there is a good trick I learned that you can use sometimes to bring people back on track, and it focuses on someone repeating themselves for you. 

“Hey Mark, I am trying to make sure I have this recorded correctly. I wrote down that you said X {insert something they said before that you wrote down}. Is that correct and can you elaborate on that for me?”

You can modify that a bit to fit the meeting you’re in, but this will steer them right back to the topic at hand and you can keep the meeting going. I don’t recommending doing that for every single meeting, but it’s a good arrow in the corporate quiver. Just make sure you’re taking notes so you can pull that out on occasion when needed.

Published by Guindel

90's nerd, dad, retro computer enthusiast. I created a blog as a way to talk about things I find interesting, care about, and try to help other people in similar places. Hit me up if you want me to write about something!

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1 Comment

  1. Guindel, your blog will soon be added to our Actually Autistic Blogs List (anautismobserver.wordpress.com). Please click on the “How do you want your blog listed?” link at the top of that site to customize your blog’s description on the list (or to decline).
    Thank you.
    Judy (An Autism Observer)

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