Navigating the world of work

I have had a very mixed experience with the world of employment. I often feel like I haven’t really achieved the things I’m capable of, haven’t got where I want to be in my career. Where I’m capable of. I don’t quite mean that I haven’t reached the pinnacle of my career yet, I mean that I, as I am today, right now, ought to be doing better than I am.

I’m pretty sure this is not a uniquely autistic thing, but there are a few things I need to unpack about why I’ve struggled in work, so that I can move on and do better. I also really want to do this in a balanced way, so I can work out what I do well, as well as what I struggle with.

To the outside world, I think I look quite successful. People are often saying nice things about ‘amazing’ things I’ve done, but I have come to the conclusion that they are using completely different measures of success to me. It’s quite difficult for me to marry up these positive comments with how I feel inside – again, not exclusively an autistic thing, I know, but I think there’s an additional element in that I find it really difficult to understand how other people see me. (I have an awful lot to say on theory of mind, but that will have to wait for another day!)

I’m thinking about all of this a lot at the moment because I’ve been approached by an organisation who would like me to come and work for them. I’m currently self-employed and the idea of working for someone else terrifies me – I’ve had some pretty bad experiences in the past. However, this job, and this organisation, are both amazing, and I would really like to see if I can give it a go. I have already mentioned my autism to them, and they are very open to working with me on accommodations but the trouble is, I don’t really know what I need. I’m still at such an early stage of exploring it all myself that I have no idea of what to ask for. I’ve been talking it over with my husband and decided to try and work my way through some of my previous experiences to see if I can pinpoint why things went wrong previously, and also when they went well, and what was different.

One of the things I love most about being freelance is the ability to have total control over how I spend my days. I once worked as a teaching assistant in a secondary school where I had absolutely no say in how my day was spent. Requests for assistance would come in to my line manager and she would assign me to various departments at particular times. I would turn up and be told what they wanted me to do. I didn’t mind the work, as such, and I enjoyed the variety in my day, but I hated being sent here there and everywhere with no idea of how I was going to spend the day until I got there. The music teacher got really territorial over me, and used to insist that I be sent over to the music department because she thought it was demeaning that I should be pumping up basketballs in PE when I was such a talented musician. And then she would have me sorting out her sheet music and really didn’t see the irony in that. I felt dehumanised, like a useful tool to be passed around, and I hated it. The stress of it made me ill, and I left.

Shortly after that, I ended up working as an administrator for the Police, and I LOVED it. My dad told me afterwards that he’d thought I had a problem with authority, so was quite relieved when I managed to stick it out at the Police. At the time I was a bit affronted by that, but looking back now I can see why he thought it. I have no problem with authority when my values are aligned with theirs, I am clear about what their job is and what mine is (by their actions as well as in theory) and I feel respected and valued as a member of the team. When those things aren’t in place, then yeah I guess I do have a problem with that sort of authority, and I also have a problem keeping that to myself!

I loved it at the Police. There was a very clear hierarchy, and I may have been right at the bottom of it but my role was valued by the others in the team. I was clear on what my tasks were. Some of them needed to be done first thing in the morning, the rest I could manage as I pleased. On the whole I was trusted to get on with things, but some of the tasks would link in with what the Sergeant was doing so I always knew that she was keeping an eye on things, and she would come and tell me if she wanted something done slightly differently.

So how can I summarise the differences between these two jobs and how they made me feel? Working with the Police there was a mixture of regular, daily tasks, and stuff that was different every day. Expectations were clear, and I understood my place within the team, and felt valued as a member. I had some control over how my day was spent, and trusted that my boss would be clear about whether a task was time-limited, and if it wasn’t, would leave it up to me to manage.

I think one of the key things I struggled with as a TA was not having any autonomy over my own time, but also not having any structure or predictability. I later became a teacher, so whereas my time was still arranged for me at least I knew in advance what I would be doing day to day.

I absolutely loved teaching, but the strain of ‘being a teacher’ was too much for me. In addition to all of the social contact, which would leave me exhausted but not really understanding why, there was so much in the culture that I couldn’t handle. The thing I probably struggled most with was that the things that thought were important about what I did at school really didn’t seem to tally up with the things that the senior management thought were important. I worked really hard to make my classroom a safe and supportive space for the pupils to be creative, to try things out and take risks, and to learn how to support each other constructively, because these are the things I thought were important. It seemed to me that the senior managers considered the clothes I chose to wear were more important, along with ticking all the right boxes, attending all the right meetings, and making sure children lined up silently outside the classroom at the start of the lesson. (I was a music teacher for heavens sake, I actively encouraged them to make noise!)

It was this mismatch of values that meant I couldn’t stay in teaching, but there were other aspects I found difficult which I think could be useful to reflect on for future work, and these were all do to with my difficulty with executive functioning, or in other words, my ability to mentally organise tasks so that I could complete them. At the time, I’d never heard the phrase ‘executive function’, but what I did know was that I often felt scatty, lazy, or disorganised. My desk was always a complete mess (and yet I could find whatever I needed on there, so ‘disorganised’ isn’t quite accurate), and I got in to trouble for forgetting to go to meetings, or more accurately, not realising that I was supposed to go in the first place. I did have one spectacular blow up with a school that ended up with me signed off with work-related stress, and negotiating a termination my contract with a pay-off (via my union) because of the way it was all handled. It wasn’t until after I was diagnosed with autism that I could completely forgive myself over that. Don’t get me wrong, they handled it terribly, and if I’d had enough emotional energy I should have taken them to tribunal over it, but I was so entrenched in this mindset that I was a terrible person because I couldn’t organise myself in the way that they expected me to that I used to get panic attacks just driving through the village where the school was, and for a good year or so afterwards would feel anxious when crossing the threshold of any school.

As I said, it’s only since my diagnosis that I’ve been able to look back at that period of my life with self-compassion, and start to understand what I went through, and what led me to it. All of this happened around ten years ago, and I’ve only forgiven myself in the last two, three weeks tops. It takes a great deal of time, and emotional energy, to unpack thirty eight years of believing I was one way only to find that wasn’t the case after all.

I don’t think I’ve got all the answers by any means, and I think I’ll need to come back to this question again, but for now writing this post has definitely helped me work through some of the thoughts in my head. Moving forward in to 2019, if I do decide to take this job then here are some of the things I will need to bear in mind:

– I like it best when I understand exactly how an organisation works, and how I fit in to it. If you want me to be a minion, I need to know that. You can’t employ me as a ‘specialist’ if you actually want me me as a minion, because that is going to really bother me, and you won’t like it when I use my specialist knowledge to tell you how things ought to be done. (That’s a whole other story…!)

– I need to know that my values align with yours, because if they don’t I can’t work for you. I just can’t.

– I need reassurance that everyone else in the team is doing the bits that they are supposed to be doing, otherwise I can get anxious and try to control everything, just to make sure it all gets done. If something needs doing in a certain order, I will be pretty much incapable of doing it outside of that order, so find it difficult to work around other people being late with things, for example. Equally, I like to know that someone is checking up on me and making sure I’m doing everything I’m supposed to be doing, and that they are going to tell me straight away if that’s not the case.

– I am quite capable of organising and managing my own time, but if you are expecting me to be at something that you have organised, and set the time and place for, then I may need reminding more than once.

– I like variety, but I like it best within certain constraints.

– I work best when I have my own bits of work that I am responsible for, and a certain amount of freedom over how they are done. However, you and I will need to make sure I completely understand what outcomes are wanted from these bits of work, because if you don’t make it clear, and I do it how I think it should be done, I am not going to like it when you want me to change it all at the end.

I’m sure there’s more, but I think that’s probably enough for now.