A lot of people ask me how I manage to keep a job when I have Asperger syndrome. So I'm doing a series this week on the topic, because it’s true that most people with Asperger’s are not doing well at work. The work place rewards social skills, and people with Asperger’s have a social skill disorder.
I will never have great social skills, but I make them better by ensuring that I’m in my best social environment for work. For most people with Asperger’s, inadequate social skills are exacerbated by sensory integration disorder, which is a tendency to be overwhelmed by outside stimuli. This frequently overwhelmed feeling makes one unable to concentrate on social skills.
Here are the ways I compensate for sensory integration disorder so that I can focus on having social skills that will make people want to work with me.
1. Establish routines to limit input.
Food is a problem for me. I hate variety. I hate that I don’t know what is coming. My effort to control food got so extreme that I landed in a mental ward with an eating disorder. Today, I try to never go out for a meal. If I have to, I order salmon. Everywhere. And just looking for the salmon I get overwhelmed reading the menu. Too many details about food.
Given a choice, I eat a Power Bar for every meal and snack, (two= a meal, one= a snack,) and I hate if the store is out of both peanut butter and vanilla. I don’t like variety, even in Power Bars.
2. Find people who believe in you, and then reveal deficits.
I often tell people I’m booked for lunch or dinner, and suggest coffee. That way people only expect me to get a skim latte. The foam always varies, which is annoying, but I like that I always control the sugar.
Like most problems related to Asperger’s, when people know me, I am more forthcoming about the problem. This is the only way I can get help from people. For example, one of my favorite board members takes me out for breakfast each week. At first it was to control the company’s cash flow. Now it is to control for my eccentricities. He understands that I add a lot of value to the company, and he understands that I don’t eat breakfast when we go out for breakfast.
3. Assume that your most severe deficits relate to Asperger’s; you’ll understand them better.
I have math dyslexia. I don’t think people knew it existed when I was a kid. People said if I’d just do the homework then I’d be able to follow in class. But I couldn’t do the homework. Even with a tutor. By the end of high school I was in honors everything but remedial math, and still failing.
I also do not know left from right. Please, do not tell me your tricks. I know them all. For example, your left hand makes an L with your thumb and forefinger. The issue is that I don’t understand the concept of left and right: How can my left not change when I turn? How do you know my right? How can I tell which is right on the truck to my left? It all feels like a math problem to me.
4. Find people who are willing to help.
The first company I founded was, ironically, a community for math teachers. And I got killed on the financials because I didn’t ask for enough help. So with my second company, I hired a controller right away, and I spent two hours a day with her so that I’d always have a good handle on the numbers.
When I founded Brazen Careerist, I was very careful about who I partnered with because I know the gaps in my skills. Ryan Healy has a degree in finance and an ability to run numbers in his head that looks like magic to me. The first thing we did after we got our seed funding was to establish that Ryan is in charge of all the money.
Ryan Paugh has a core kindness and patience that makes me feel comfortable asking him for help in areas other people would not put up with. So, for example, I cannot read a map and I can’t follow GPS directions, so Ryan is on the phone with me all the time helping me drive to where I’m going. (“Turn to the driver’s side. The side your body is on. That side. Turn now.”) He has dealt with me crying because I turned the wrong way, even with those directions, and he has dealt with me being lost six blocks from where I grew up. Really.
5. Watch the words people use in order to see where you are distasteful.
I was always great at sports. In grade school, I was the only girl the boys let play kickball. In middle school, I was a regional figure skating champion. After college, I played professional volleyball.
But if I’m not focusing on the sport at hand, I lose track of my body. I bump into so many things that I almost always have bruises on my thighs, shins, and shoulders. This happens so routinely to me that it wasn’t until the past few years that I realized that not everyone bumps into each other, and people think I’m being inconsiderate.
I also find that I physically cut people off. Like, I jump in front of them in a way that startles them, or I walk so close to them they stop to let me pass. I can’t see how offensive I am until they are already saying “Hey! Excuse me!” but I know they mean “you are so rude.”
6. Pay more attention at work, where the judgement is most likely.
I try very hard at work to not invade peoples' personal space. This means consciously slowing down to watch where everyone’s body is before I move my own. Sometimes, if there are a lot of people moving at once, I just wait until there are fewer people moving before I move.
No one notices this, I don’t think. And when I’m very careful, I only end up bumping into people I work with once or twice a week. I don’t think they know I’m doing it. I mean, they know I’m a little jerky in how I move, but they don’t realize that I keep bumping into people.
I also try to notice if I’m standing too close to someone. And then I take some steps back. That means that people don’t know me for invading their personal space, which I know I am prone to do if I do not pay attention.
The thing is that this takes tons of mental energy. So I do not pay attention to this at all outside of work because it’s too exhausting.
7. Stick to one-on-one meetings, and use email a lot.
I don’t like crowds. They are too loud for me, and if the acoustics are bad, and it’s loud, I could actually end up in the bathroom crying from anxiety.
I can’t read nonverbal cues of more than two people at once. I can’t tell: Are they loud or quiet? Are they intimate? Are they anxious? Do they want to talk with me?
So if there are a lot of people, I either don’t shut up (because then I don’t have to do back and forth conversation) or I don’t say anything (so no one knows I’m missing cues).
I rarely go to parties. The only time I do is for work, and I usually have someone there who is translating for me. (Here is a good example of that, at SXSW.)
I am not a good collaborator in group meetings because I have to work too hard at reading people to also come up with ideas. So in groups I am either the person leading the meeting, and it’s informative rather than collaborative. I collaborate via email (finally, a good use of the “reply to all” button).
I spend most of my time one-on-one. Most people like me one-on-one because I am my most normal self. People who work with me accept that I am not my best self in big meetings and rarely invite me to them unless I’m leading them.
I know this is a lot of information for someone who is trying to deal with Asperger’s. The two most important things to take away from this are:
1.     Understand common deficits of people with Asperger’s. You probably have them.
2.     Surround yourself with people who will coach you through situations.