• Ashlea McKay

Quirk Monster #17: 7 more examples where autistic traits are easily mistaken for performance issues


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In Quirk Monster #16 I shared some examples where autistic differences and traits are sometimes mistaken for performance issues. Here are 7 more examples. 

6. When you think if I don’t verbalise every detail of a task that I don’t know how to do it

What it can look like: It depends on the thing. Some examples: I’m incompetent, I don’t know what I’m doing, I can’t think strategically. 

What’s going on inside my head: A lot, but nothing even remotely worthy of concern. If I verbalised every single thing going through my head at any given moment, I don’t think I’d have enough time to say it all let alone do anything. I’ve talked with other autistics about this one and it’s possible it’s a body language thing. Neurotypical people have a way of communicating a lot through body language while I look perpetually confused, angry or tired. I’m hard to read accurately and it’s possible other people need more verbal information from me, but I’m too busy doing the thing, ignoring the sensory beating I’m taking from my environment, processing information, worrying about a conversation we had five hours ago and planning the rest of my day. It just doesn’t occur to me to verbalise every detail of a task.

How to be a good ally and support me: If you want to know something, ask! And stop assuming the worst in me. Trust that I know what I’m doing because if I didn’t, I’m certainly not afraid to tell you. 

7. When I confide in you that I am having a hard time at work

What it can look like: I lack confidence, I can’t do my job, I’m fragile, I’m a negative whinger. 

What’s going on inside my head: I need to vent. I need to let it out, clear my head and get on with my day.  

How to be a good ally and support me: Let me vent! Support me the same way you support your non-autistic colleagues. I’ve noticed over the years that when I vent, I’m a whinger, but when other people do it, it’s a bonding experience. I am as worthy of support as the rest of you. For a very long time I didn’t feel safe to vent my feelings around colleagues because it was always taken the wrong way. Fortunately, I’ve recently found some people who just get it. They understand the brain clearing power of a walk and good vent and it’s great. 

8. When you ask me a question and I appear to hesitate or delay in responding

What it can look like: Like I’m trying to weasel my way out of it or I have no idea what you’re talking about.

What’s going on inside my head: Assuming I do know what you’re talking about, I’m mentally running through my calendar and all the other tasks and responsibilities I have going on at that moment in time to see if and where your request might fit. I’m also analysing whether I am able to help you and if not, who I might suggest instead because I’d never want to waste your time. Pretty much a lot of processing.  

How to be a good ally and support me: Take an evidence-based approach and wait until you have tangible information to respond to before you react. Give me the benefit of the doubt and wait for me to answer your question. 

9. When I interrupt you in a meeting

What it can look like: I’m rude, aggressive, immature, inconsiderate, I’m one of those talented jerks that no one likes, I’m disrespectful. 

What’s going on inside my head: I have a very hard time following the flow of a conversation and don’t always know when a natural break will occur for me to have a chance to speak. I can’t predict when someone else will finish and/or if I’ll be given an opportunity to contribute to the conversation before it moves on without me which it so often does. I try to learn other people’s patterns through observation over time, but sometimes I get it wrong or the interrupting happens early in the working relationship i.e. I haven’t had enough time to learn a person’s pattern. I also frequently lose my train of thought in the noise in my head and if I don’t verbalise it, I might forget it. 

How to be a good ally and support me: Don’t assume that everyone in the room possesses neurotypical social skills. Telling me to stop it is not reasonable. Facilitate a collaborative and inclusive conversation. Provide clear openings for other people to contribute before moving on and set ground rules and agendas upfront. Don’t get mad at me if I accidentally interrupt you and don’t worry if we both happen to talk at the same time, we’ll figure it out. During this COVID-19 created remote working world, I’ve started typing notes during meetings. I started doing it because my Carpal Tunnel Syndrome flared up and my handwriting became illegible. I can touch type and have a nice flat keyboard so typing made a big difference, but I’ve noticed a secondary benefit. When I think of something, I naturally type it out without thinking too hard about it and if I happen to speak at the same time as someone else, it’s right there on the screen in front of me. As long as people remember to come back around to me, it still exists and hasn’t been lost in my brain abyss. Just meet me halfway and be inclusive. 

10. When I can’t remember something you just told me

What it can look like: I wasn’t listening, I wasn’t paying attention. 

What’s going on inside my head: There is a giant stream of noise in my head and I am scrambling to grab onto a piece of information that I know is there but I cannot see (unless I typed it). It just gets lost and the place where it sat is empty.

How to be a good ally and support me: Help me out by repeating yourself (possibly multiple times) without getting angry or frustrated. Again, don’t assume the worst in me. I don’t like wasting other people’s time and I won’t ask you for your time unless I genuinely need it. 

11. Declining invitations to corporate social events or being the first person to leave

What it can look like: I don’t care, I’m not a team player, I don’t value our relationship. 

What’s going on inside my head: I’m exhausted. I’ve spent all day socialising with people and working so hard to ignore the bright lights and ambient office sounds to get my work done and now I need to recharge so I can do it all again tomorrow. My head is spinning and I need a break, not more light, sound and pressure from social interactions. 

How to be a good ally and support me: If I say no, there’s a good reason for it. Please be supportive and don’t tell me that I’m ruining my career by prioritising my wellbeing. If I leave an event early, meet me halfway by recognising that even showing up in the first place took an enormous amount of energy that I will likely end up paying for tomorrow. I’ve met you halfway by coming along, don’t shame me for leaving earlier than you think I should. 

12. Crying at work (AKA the big workplace no-no)

What it can look like: I’m disruptive, I’m immature, I lack a certain ‘r’ word that is far too easily weaponised (resilience)

What’s going on inside my head: Very likely an autistic meltdown or the edge of one. I’ve lost or am losing the battle for control over my emotions under the weight of a tired and stressed brain that has gone too far and too long without sufficient respite and rest. 

How to be a good ally and support me: My current workplace is really good at supporting me during these challenging moments and funnily enough, they didn’t need to be taught how to do it. The first time it happened, they just knew what to do because of the kind of people they are. The key thing is to be kind, listen and empathise without judgment. Help me remove myself from my current environment and ride the meltdown out with me. They take me for walks, they call me now that we’re living in lockdown and they talk to me because they’re genuinely keen to learn how they might help solve the root cause of the meltdown. Just be nice. 

Author’s note

This short article is a lived experience example shared from my life to help you understand a little bit more about what it’s like to be autistic. I am just one autistic person in a really big world. No two of us are exactly alike. I can only speak for myself and to my own experiences. If you want to know what other autistic people think — and you should — look them up, talk to them and read their work too. We all have our own voices and this is only mine. This article is part of a mini content series I publish to LinkedIn when I can. You can view the other articles in this series via my LinkedIn profile. 

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