In our new ‘Working With’ series, MyPlus Students’ Club is asking professionals to share their advice on managing their disability and excelling at work.
This week, Morag Fraser, who is a Student Connections Facilitator at the University of St. Andrews gives us an insight into her life with Autism and how to overcome the challenges it presents to daily productivity.
Words come easily to me. They always have, ever since my first lesson and my galloping off stubbornly on my own because the others weren’t reading fast enough; frankly, I wanted to know if James and his friends on the Giant Peach were going to make it to New York. Words are straight-forward, at least when placed in their own context, separated from the nuances of tone and body language that I still struggle with to this day.
There are days when, at least outwardly, I look and act no differently than anyone else. But I’m still fighting off sensory difficulties, still burning a great deal of energy to front up and deal with normality, at the cost of what feels exactly like a hangover the next day.
But functioning, getting by.
Then there are the other days. It’s as though my body, my own mind, betrays me. Limbs heavy, head splitting, perpetually exhausted. I can’t stop shaking or weeping and often become mute. I lose words mid conversation or worse, blank out completely mid-flow. None of this is in my control, it’s just the wave finally breaking the shore and it all breaching my hard-fought defences.
Women with Autism are renowned for being able to section off different personae for dealing with every environment, acting and bluffing our way through to when we can finally escape. So when we drop the mask, or it slips from our grasp, it can be truly terrifying for those around me. But as frightening as I look, I don’t actually need anything from anyone. If anything, the fussing makes it worse because I can’t really say what’s happening, or can’t make myself understood.
This improved drastically after my diagnosis, however, days like that are still a regular feature of my life. Here is what I’ve learned:
It’s all about listening to what your body is screaming at you.
It’s about not ignoring the fight-or-flight response but allowing yourself a beat or two to find a workaround, and troubleshooting later to develop coping strategies. It’s so important to know what you need yourself. It has to be a priority in adapting to any new environment or situation, most of all a professional environment.
The old adage of ‘Know your enemy’ is apt, and it is very easy to allow yourself to behave combatively toward yourself when you ought to be caring or self-soothing. A lot of people learn this as a child but I am only really coming to grips with it now, and am still prone to tearing myself off a strip when I make a silly mistake. It’s a difficult habit to break. Equally, it is hard to get used to sharing what you have considered to be a part of what makes you different.
So, how to contend with all of this?
1. Be open about your disability.
I don’t hide, nor see any reason to. I find that letting managers and colleagues in on the loop helps to relieve stress. Although I’ve been open from the get-go, I understand why some people are reticent with regards to being open during the recruitment process. In my experience, the whole finding, gaining and then keeping a job is a stressful thing. My autism is way more likely to kick in under such tension, so to me, it’s only logical that I would disclose the nature of my disability at an early stage. Thus, if I do shake or stammer, employers are informed and do not make the wrong assumptions.
By being open I am also able to access support and adjustments to help me manage my condition at work. For example, I can be provided with information on what the running order of the day is – forewarned is definitely forearmed, and I can prepare properly with this in mind.
2. It’s ok to not know the answer.
Don’t be put off by having to respond to queries around reasonable adjustment with “I’m not sure”, especially early on in working life. You probably don’t and won’t know until you are in the situation and actually doing your job. Instead, ask if you might get back to them with that at an agreed time.
3. Keep a note of things that are proving tricky.
For example, if you are too warm, or the glare from the windows is too much, blinds or a desk fan may be an option. If the environment is too distracting, ask if you might be allowed to listen to music while you work to focus. Perhaps sound-proofing panels may be available through Access to Work, or the relevant supporting charity for your condition, but most open plan offices make use of these now.
4. Troubleshoot solutions and think about your needs practically.
They are needs – essentials required in order to help you be the most productive you that you can be. This can also be helpful in learning how your condition affects you, so you can clue in those around you for likely triggers or warning signs of things coming. This is so that if the mask slips, you have the support need to do what is necessary. It’s like with exams when you’re dyslexic – you get extra time, right? It’s not a favour, not a trick, not something giving you any advantage. It’s allowing your mind the additional space it needs to process the exam paper in front of you.
5. Know yourself and feel better about others learning with you.
Communicate and share your experiences, if not with a colleague, in an online support forum, or with a friend or family member. Two minds are better than one and often another voice can be helpful in understanding any misconceptions on either side. A safe and quiet space for you to cool off and calm down doesn’t have to be the toilets – a meltdown is not a solution.
None amongst us can know exactly what is happening behind the scenes in someone else’s life. And those who are fighting amongst us know better than most, that making assumptions and judgements, or wading in without knowing the full story (even if with the best, most sincere and genuine intentions) is not helpful. It is completely unnecessary to force yourself into further, damaging conflict in an environment where under the best possible conditions you can excel, and make the most of your skills and expertise.
Like with the exams, letting your colleagues in and putting in place the means to aid your entry into the workplace is only levelling the playing field. It could also be the beginning of a very satisfying and fulfilled career!
Need advice on managing your disability at work or in university? Read more MyPlus stories.