To disclose at work or not to disclose at work, that is the Aspie dilemma

I work in a really great place.  Seriously.  After freaking out my future manager by asking during my interview if I would be able to have time off to go to the vets if my cat was ill, I still got the job.  I should have known then that it was a match made in heaven.  I followed up the job offer letter with an email outlining all the things I wouldn’t be able to do because of my Asperger’s, which was swiftly met by a referral to Occupational Health.  With hindsight, and some well-meant feedback from my now very happy manager, I realise that my initial approach was somewhat crass and ill thought-through, but hey, I had only received my diagnosis the week before and had over-committed to my plan to disclose.

I’ve actually had a good experience of disclosing at work, but I thought I would start my post with a couple of blunders that are probably unique to me and could easily have been avoided.  Maybe.  If I was more aware of what was and wasn’t socially acceptable.  Anyway, I’m very sceptical of selection procedures, and have a lot of faith in large companies with equality policies.  Therefore, I chose to disclose *after* I had formally been offered the job and had accepted the offer of employment, but before I started working there.

I should add that a very astute acquaintance told me when I first left university that I would be best served getting a job in the public sector with its large, transparent, ‘equal opportunity’ employers.  I took this seriously, and it has served me well.  In my employment first in the council, then the NHS and now at a university, I have benefitted from clearly defined employment policies that support me as a differently-abled employee.

During my induction, my manager, the occy health nurse and I decided it might be useful to circulate a short email to colleagues explaining a few useful points.  Whilst I didn’t think of this on my own, I did think it was a brilliant idea and (accurately) anticipated that it would reduce my anxiety.  It removed a lot of the expectations I would otherwise have placed on myself on others’ behalf, because the email tackled specific insecurities and sources of problems that I have had in the past.  This is verbatim what I sent round:

“Dear all

I have Asperger’s Syndrome (AS) and [manager] and I thought it might be helpful for people I work with to know a bit more about how it affects me as it varies between individuals.  Having AS means that I think differently to most people and although I have lots of strategies that I use, it sometimes means that I behave differently too, which out of context can be misinterpreted negatively as being rude, over-sensitive, unhelpful or aloof.

Four things that will probably help us develop the best working relationships are:

1. Please be direct in communicating verbally with me – I don’t get hints, subtleties, nuances, reading between the lines, office politics, implied meanings etc, which are used more than words in communication.  I only have the words to go on, so please say what you mean and if you want me to know something or do something you need to tell me (explicitly specifying if information is sensitive or confidential).  An example would be saying ‘please close the window’ rather than looking cold or saying that you are cold.
2. Please be specific about what you want – I sometimes ask a lot of questions that may seem obvious or trivial when you do tell me something.  This is not me being difficult, I simply want to understand exactly what you want in a way that fits with how my brain categorises information.  An example would be specifying how many of something you would like, rather than ‘some’ or ‘several’.
3. Please give me (constructive) feedback – if I haven’t done something the way you wanted, please tell me, otherwise I will do it the same way again next time.  Please also tell me if I have said the wrong thing.  I always like to do/say the right thing, sometimes I am not able to tell what that is without your help.
4. Please don’t be offended if I don’t appear to be very sociable – I might not remember to say good morning or goodbye, I might not acknowledge you until you acknowledge me, and I might decline your offer of coffee or lunch, but that is because my social needs are very different to most people and very definitely not because I don’t like you or want to get to know you.  This aspect of my AS has caused me the most difficulties, because people apply their motivations for that action to my behaviour, which are very different.

I am very open about my AS and am happy for you to share this information with anybody who might benefit, and to ask absolutely any questions about it :-)”

Looking back, it perhaps undersells me a little, but my perception of others’ expectations of me really stresses me out.  I assume that they expect the same utmost perfection that I expect from myself.  Therefore I pitched it at what I felt I could achieve on a bad day, when everything else is grinding me down and I have no ‘social fluff’.  Incidentally it turns out that outwardly these changes are so subtle that *no-one* else notices – other people can’t tell the difference between days when I do and don’t have social fluff!!  Therefore it is probably pretty accurate!

I guess ultimately, disclosure is a very personal thing, both in terms of how and when, and in terms of whether to do it at all.  I do it everywhere because it dramatically reduces my anxiety, which allows me to excel at my job, but also, I hope, because it helps to tackle any stigma associated with having an autistic spectrum condition and challenges stereotypes people may have.  It has on the whole been met positively by managers and colleagues and I would definitely do it again.

Credit for the inspiration for this post goes to Musings of an Aspie.

© Catastraspie, 2012.

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9 Responses to To disclose at work or not to disclose at work, that is the Aspie dilemma

  1. Thank you for writing this! Learning about your approach and where you felt you were successful was really helpful. The email you sent around to your co-workers looks like a good template for other aspies to follow (inserting their own needs, of course). The general description followed by specific examples made it easy to understand exactly what kind of supports you were asking for. It’s also great to hear that your disclosure was met with positive responses in your workplace.

  2. Pingback: Disclosing Autism at Work: Strategies and Supports from Karla’s ASD Page | Thirty Days of Autism

  3. Life Skills Teacher says:

    Not unlike what I did when I disclosed at work. Kind of comforting to know that others are going about it in similar fashion.

  4. Quarries and Corridors says:

    Five and a half years ago I was struggling with the social aspects of my job after being promoted into a management position. There were signs my difficulties were getting noticed and a HR meeting on the horizon so I preemptively disclosed my traits first to management and then in a presentation to all the staff. My diagnosis at the time was dyspraxia but it’s amusing to look at the presentation now and see how it’s clearly a detailed disclosure of Asperger’s traits with ‘Dyspraxic’ written at the top instead 🙂

    Disclosure helped immensely in my case because it meant that colleagues realised that rather than being socially careless and unobservant, I was actually trying very hard indeed to get the social aspects right and they could ‘meet me halfway’ by being more direct in their communication and easily make a big difference.

    I have the fantastic flexible work from home job I have now because I made that disclosure five years ago 🙂

    • catastraspie says:

      I’m really glad to hear you’ve had a positive experience disclosing at work too. I did laugh at the bit about your presentation being a description of Asperger’s – hindsight is a wonderful thing! I’ve had personality and learning style reports done before, which have bascially been a description of a person with Asperger’s, but with things like ‘concrete thinker’ at the top!
      Changing colleagues’ perceptions has been key for me, because I am never deliberately rude and, like you, work really hard to get the social stuff right, but am permanently worried that I am doing it wrong and making people dislike me (even if that’s not the case, because it has happened in the past and I feel like I’m shooting in the dark).
      How do you find being in a management position now? I have always avoided anything like that because I don’t think I’d be very good at it and it would make me incredibly anxious.

      • The only person I’m managing at the moment is a good friend who works part time from home, but I continued to manage a team for a couple of years after my disclosure and found it easier to do with those ‘under’ me hierarchically feeling able to correct me and talk directly to me.

        I certainly wouldn’t say that management (technical project team leading) is my ideal role but in many ways I’m actually pretty good at doing it because all the coping mechanisms I’ve had to develop to organise and schedule just myself (due to executive function difficulties) scale really well to scheduling more people. Prioritised lists, schedules, calendars, regular check ins and active communication are all important management skills – something I’ve been doing for my self-management since university.

        As with the rest of my life, my role, relationships and requirements need to be formalised and structured in some way and the higher up the organisational hierarchy you are, the more of that gets provided. I do still need to have clear rules to follow and someone above me who’s available for talking things through with though.

        In some ways it’s worse to have no team to manage but also no structure. If I’m just left to decide what’s important on my own I feel a lot more set adrift than if I have similarly vague requirements but a team of other people I can talk things through with then make the final decision on. As with everything, the personalities and compatibility of the other people involved can of course make a big difference.

        Not sure about anxiety, I just tended to explain things very clearly, including why I was making my decisions, ask people to tell me if something seemed wrong and tell people who’d done good work that I thought it was good and I appreciated them for it.

      • catastraspie says:

        Those are really good points, self-management probably lends itself beautifully to project-management, and I would dearly love an assistant to arrange parts of my life for me! 🙂

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