Quirk Monster #8: Autistic does not equal less capable
“How can you be autistic? You seem capable to me” is one of the most common things people say when they meet me for the first time and learn that I’m autistic.
They usually phrase it as a compliment. Thanks to stigma, myths and misunderstandings, autism is often viewed as a bad thing. A deficit. An impairment. A problem.
As time goes on, people who view autistic people as less capable often fall prey to confirmation bias — they start to see things that reinforce that belief. They find themselves having to tell me the same thing over and over again before I am able to understand them. They notice me forgetting things and taking longer to do things. They see me pausing to process information and reaching conclusions slower than expected. Or they witness a meltdown — that’s usually a dealbreaker.
Instead of recognising that these are completely normal autistic differences for me (no two autistic people are exactly the same) and that I just need some space and support to do things a bit differently, I’m often viewed as less capable. The impact of this misunderstanding can be devastating.
This affects all areas of my life and wellbeing, however the brunt of the damage seems to land mostly on my career. Whether people are consciously aware or not, I am routinely viewed as being less capable by default and it is not fun at all.
My first post-diagnosis job hunt as an openly autistic adult lasted a whopping 33 months. I know from talking to other autistic adults that it could have been a lot worse.
I spent the first 4 years of my career at the graduate level because every time I misunderstood something, accidentally offended someone with my social differences or became overwhelmed, it was taken as an indication of my overall capability. This had a significant impact on the opportunities I was awarded — and that’s if I was even considered in the first place.
In a nearly 11 year career, I have never achieved an internal promotion and at one workplace, was rejected 8 times.
While many of these things happened before my late diagnosis, I was born autistic and my differences have always been there. Would knowing I’m autistic have made a difference? Possibly, possibly not.
A recent study commissioned by Amaze found that autistic people are not always viewed as capable of holding highly skilled professional roles. In that study exploring community attitudes and behaviours towards autism, 39.2% of respondents did not believe an autistic person could be a doctor and 32.4% of respondents did not believe an autistic person could be a lawyer. The same study also found that 1 in 5 Australians would be very/concerned if an autistic person was appointed as their boss — I find that very concerning.
My experiences have taught me a lot. These challenges have expanded my lateral thinking abilities. I’ve learned to ask sideways questions like ‘Can I have a stretch assignment?’ in lieu of a promotion or formal temporary higher duties arrangements (where a person is paid to work at a higher level for a short time). I used to sit there and hope that things would change but they never did, so I learned to create my own opportunities both inside and outside of workplaces. My growth cannot be contained by outdated neuronormative opinions and/or blockers. I’m like a pirate — I’m good at finding gold in unexpected places and I captain my own ship.
It would be nice if people would try to meet me halfway though.
Almost every single time a mistaken impression around my capability happens, it’s an honest error. Malice rarely plays a part. Autism related stigma is pervasive and deeply entrenched. People don’t often think they’re doing anything wrong — to them this is an accepted truth.
Well, they can take that accepted truth and drop it. Shatter it into a thousand pieces.
I implore you to let go of what you think you know and be open to the possibility that you were/are wrong. See people as they are and adapt your view of them over time. Be a positive ally who advocates for the capability of autistic people when other people get caught up in their bias. Tell everyone that there’s nothing wrong with needing to do something differently and that not every skillset looks exactly the same. Embrace those differences!
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.