We asked several of our consultants to answer questions about difficulties with understanding unspoken rules in the workplace. This is what Michelle Martin had to say.
“Most of my answers to these questions reflect my ability to “mask”, which is exhausting, but a habit that I have learned over time as a method of acting neurotypical in social and professional situations. Being a woman, I learned to mask at a very early age and essentially built my academic and professional success on that foundation. It was not until I became a wife and mother in addition to trying to balance my career in education that my autism came to light, because I had been so “good” at masking for so long.
As a single woman, I could always unmask at the end of the work day and veg out alone or pass out and recharge via sleep. When I got married, I started having more frequent meltdowns due to overstimulation because I was rarely ever alone (teaching high school, coaching sports, and then coming home to an extremely chatty husband in a small house). These meltdowns intensified with the addition of our first child. If you are a mother, you know how intense those first few months are for everyone, so initially we didn’t think anything of it and chalked it up to postpartum depression (which is a different beast altogether). But finally after years of counseling and searching for the root of my struggles to balance work/motherhood/marriage/personal relationships, a diagnosis of ASD really helped to align all of the pieces.
I have been able to make adjustments both at home and at work to avoid frequent burnouts and meltdowns. I still have my quirks, for sure, but now I can advocate for myself when I am struggling to understand a social situation or when my auditory/visual senses are overwhelmed, for example. In fact, we just welcomed our second child a few months ago and this transition back to work has been the easiest yet because I finally recognize my needs and feel comfortable communicating them. Having an employer who deeply cares about making sure everyone in our organization feels comfortable and happy in order to be as productive and energized as possible has made a world of difference. I trust my boss enough to be open with her if/when I am struggling with understanding the parameters of a project or if I am uncomfortable speaking on the spot. She, in turn, trusts me to let her know what I need to do my best work.”
What kinds of jobs have you done?
I have almost always worked with kids. In high school and college, I worked part time in various childcare positions, including as a nanny, in daycares, and as a swim teacher. I’ve always connected with kids very naturally and been able to communicate more easily with children than adults. After college, I became a high school Spanish teacher for six years and just recently transitioned out of the classroom into a fulltime teacher coaching role, where I mentor and coach new teachers in the profession.
Have you ever had a misunderstanding with managers or coworkers over things they thought you should know? Please describe.
Yes! I often struggle to set my own timeline for things and if a manager doesn’t give me a deadline for something, I tend to either prioritize it when it isn’t necessarily a priority OR not prioritize it when it is a priority. I am generally hyper-focused on time and very aware of how long I have to complete tasks, so without a hard deadline I have had many miscommunications with supervisors over the years regarding how urgent a task or project is.
Have you ever gotten in trouble at work and couldn’t understand why what you did was considered a problem? Please describe.
I have had misunderstandings at work, but generally always understand after the fact why it was a problem. For example, recently, I failed to communicate effectively with all of the members of a group in a virtual setting. I thought I had communicated clearly using a group messaging platform, but I did not check in with each individual member to confirm attendance at the event and several members said they didn’t see the group message. For me, this type of repeated individual communication can be exhausting so I did not engage how I probably should have. A work around going forward would be to ask a colleague to follow up with folks we hadn’t heard from.
Have you ever had trouble telling if someone at work was being rude or mean?
All the time. I really struggle to interpret sarcasm. I generally try to read facial expressions to determine if someone is actually angry or trying to be humorous, but sometimes I can’t tell. I struggle to interpret tone of voice.
Have you ever been accused of being rude at work when you didn’t think you were?
Yes! In the same vein as the above question, I struggle to control my own tone. As a teacher or when working with kids, I generally have my “teacher voice” which is kind of sing-songy and soft and is often complimented as being very calming. But in individual conversations with adults I don’t use that voice because I think it would probably be very strange. Sometimes when I am tired and don’t intentionally control my tone, my colleagues think I am being angry or confrontational with my tone when that is not my intention at all.
Have you had a job where people played pranks on each other or used insults in a joking way? How did you feel about it? Was there ever a misunderstanding regarding this? Please explain.
Oh yes, working in a school setting, teachers get a little wild sometimes. I sometimes think it is childish when my colleagues play pranks on one another, but have learned to laugh along with the crowd, even if I don’t think it is funny.
Have you had any difficulty telling when something was supposed to be confidential?
This happened several times in social situations in middle school/high school and made people upset with me. In order to avoid hurting other people, I now ask if something is confidential or assume that it is unless I am told otherwise.
Do you have a story about unwritten rules in the workplace that doesn’t match anything we have asked you about?
As a college student, I worked as an unpaid intern for an organization. I didn’t understand the unwritten rule that interns should work the same or fewer hours than employees (there were no written rules about hours because the internship was unpaid). I stayed late many, many nights doing projects that I thought were very urgent, but in reality were not. Often times I was the last to leave the office. My boss just thought I was passionate, I think, but in reality, I just didn’t know when to stop.
What would you find helpful in navigating the unwritten rules of a new workplace? Is there anything an employer could do to help?
Advice to a new employer would be to let me shadow several employees so I can see what their workday looks like in person and then let me ask questions based on observations. Pairing me with a colleague who doesn’t mind answering questions for the first few days would be extremely helpful. As I learn the ropes of anything new, I make a sort of “playbook” in my head full of “if-then” situations and getting to observe others really helps me to learn the unwritten rules before I am thrown into situations to navigate myself.
Also, as an employer, I would want to know what causes my autistic employees to become overstimulated so that we could come up with a plan together about how to avoid overstimulation. For example, I really cannot handle having a conversation with multiple other auditory inputs in the background. I can handle one other conversation or general background din, but if for example, a tv or radio is on AND there is a side conversation going on, I basically tune out and have a hard time following what is being said to me. I mention this due to the multiple work environment options these days!
What would you like your coworkers to know about autism or about how you experience the world?
No two autistic people are the same. We have a very wide variety of interests, abilities, quirks, and habits. Also, a lot of what we know about autism is pretty gendered, because mostly men and boys have been studied thus far. For example, I flap my hands when I get excited— as a woman, its not necessarily a strange thing because it comes off as “cute” or kind of cheerleader-ish and people just think I’m really enthusiastic. But I know autistic men who do the same thing and are automatically labeled as neurodiverse. Same with lack of eye contact… people always just thought I was a sweet and shy girl because I struggle to make eye contact while talking.
Some other things I would like to mention are that our communication styles vary drastically. I love language—I know three pretty fluently. I am great at picking up new accents and grammatical structures and putting them into action, because it is essentially just masking but linguistically. I also love to write. BUT, ask me to speak extemporaneously on a subject in front of someone I don’t know very well and I will clam up. I will even do it with people I know well. It takes me brain a little bit longer than most peoples’ to connect thoughts with words coherently. Because of that, I tend to speak in spurts that don’t generally follow normal conversation pace. If you are working with someone who is autistic, just ask them how they best communicateand if they have anything they want to share about their communication preferences or styles.