As I’ve become more open about Asperger’s and my life, the question of how I maintain a corporate job comes up quite often. “If you have social anxiety, how do you hold a job in communications?”
Don’t worry, the irony isn’t lost on me!
Truth of the matter is, my love of people is greater than my social anxiety. My desire to travel, is greater than my need to stay still. My curiosity and need to know more about everything is intoxicating. My love for stories, sequences and the unknown overpowers my natural will to stick with what I currently know.
While my mind and body want to remain where and as they are – my spirit is hungry for more.
When I first stepped into the corporate world almost 5 years ago, I didn’t think I would last long. I was excited to be there, but the interaction level with my peers was more than I felt I could handle. I had daily anxiety attacks for months. The constant hand shaking, the weekly meetings with large groups of people, the florescent lighting, and the insecurity of not understanding sports to the degree of my peers really shook my world.
I’d come home, and I’d crash into a ball of defeat. I wanted to be there, or so I thought, but the toll it took on me was immense. I had already come so far, and beaten so many people for the position. I was going to see it through the baseball season. I was determined to be stubborn about it.
The atmosphere in the office was incredibly competitive. Early on, it was made clear to us that we were working against our coworkers for our position, and if we couldn’t find a niche for ourselves, we wouldn’t last long. So, I very quickly discovered a need that hadn’t been filled and put my obsessive organizational skills to use. I used my most unique skills and abilities to benefit the environment so that I could further grow into the role of an editor – where I wanted to be.
The interesting thing worth noting here, is that my deep rooted need for complete detail and organization is something that has in the past been responded to with what I know now to be annoyance. It was a “negative” quality my peers would bring up. I didn’t know when to stop, let go and move on. Turns out, that less-than-desirable characteristic about my personality is one of my most unique, and sought out talents in my industry.
Now, here I am, 5 years later and I am not only still working in the corporate environment, but I am exceling. This is honesty, not bragging.
So, how do I manage to hold a job in the fast-paced world of communications and regional sports broadcasting?
1. Knowing myself better than anyone else.
No one in this entire world understands me better than I do. Nobody understands what I need, more than me. No other person except myself can understand what I struggle with and need to overcome on a daily basis due to the challenges of being Autistic.
Often with my job I am called to attend meetings, introduce myself, interview individuals, shake hands, travel, be part of a large event and find myself in places that overwhelm me. Sounds, lights, smells, physical touch can at any time trigger anxiety. A simple handshake can be my undoing….
When I am at my place of employment I have to be prepared for the worst, expecting the best. How do I minimize my frustrations and anxiety so that I can focus on my job?
I create safe spaces. My current editing station is inside a private office and I can close the doors, keep the temperature down and minimize the lights. It has large glass sliding doors, so there is a fair amount of distraction caused by the outside traffic, fluorescent lighting and sunlight, but when I’m inside, I’m much calmer.
I don’t force myself into clothing that could be my undoing. No belts, dangles, metal or pants with painful seams. No earrings, or jewelry that makes any kind of noise. The material used for slacks usually makes my skin feel like it’s on fire, so I wear jeans, and cotton as much as I can. I mix up my wardrobe because it’s appropriate and expected, but I always wear one of two sweaters that have become my security blanket of sorts.
Before I go into a meeting, and when I come out of a meeting, I allow myself to privately stress stim.
I practice introducing myself if I know I’m going to meet new people. And if I shake hands with someone (expected or unexpectedly) I allow myself to self-stim immediately as subtly as possible with swaying or rocking.
2. Always allow myself to Stim
Tapping my hand on my leg in a steady beat (no fluctuation in tempo).
I always carry with me a smooth rock. The texture of it is soothing, cold and it’s subtle so it doesn’t cause too many distractions. I bounce it from hand to hand, tap my fingers on it, twist it around between my fingers, rub it along my arms, and/or my neck.
Hum. Humming is soothing and at the right pitch, it creates for me an equivalent affect to white noise. White noise helps me to drown out overwhelming sensory while keeping my heart rate down, and my anxiety to a minimum. It allows me to force focus internally so I can check in with myself.
Other ways I stim at work include tapping my feet, rubbing my fingertips against my palms, tapping my fingers against the key pads on my keyboard, swaying, rocking,
I also use replacement behaviors for when stimming doesn’t provide the calming effect I need. I may force myself to hiccup if realize I am not breathing due to nerves. I will go somewhere private and pace. Or, I will find a private room where I can turn the lights off, cover my ears and count.
3. Create Awareness, not excuses
One mistake I’ve made several times in previous positions, is not being open about my challenges. I was ashamed of my struggles, and by being ashamed, I made my life more difficult. I took a different approach to my challenges a couple of years ago, and it has been working out for me ever since.
For a year, I struggled to get along with one of the producers I worked for. I found myself so frustrated that I was having constant meltdowns at work and would often end up leaving early. My boss was frustrated, I was frustrated and my performance was deteriorating. But we had a heart to heart and I finally disclosed what I didn’t understand and why it was causing me issues (not a pleasant first time conversation). I was upfront about my Asperger’s and he made a switch in his communication so we could better understand each other.
From then on, my performance improved. He coached me through how to interview, and how to direct operators on a set. We discussed methods of stimulation I could incorporate into any situation that could help me navigate the anxiety so that I could stay calm in any given situation while remaining discreet. Handshakes, introductions, insecurity, etc – as it arose, we worked through it together.
Years later – I’ve accomplished so many incredible opportunities as a direct result. Now, I can go on location alone and conduct interviews. I am able to manage and direct crews of all sizes. I shake hands with relative ease, understand how to properly introduce myself and can say with complete confidence that 97% of the time, no one has any idea that I am an Aspie.
I have let my current employers know about my Autism as well.
We’ve discussed sensory distress, and we have plans set in place for scenarios where I anticipate a high level of stress that I would possibly need assistance – for instance, fire alarms.
Also, recently I have learned that our building will be undergoing some renovation and this could potentially cause some sensory complications for me as it will be a long-term project. We have discussed solutions to implement so that I can work smoothly without hiccups.
My goal is to never be sent home because I’m too overwhelmed.
I offer solutions to a challenge that I explain openly. I try to create awareness, not excuses. I can’t expect help if I don’t ask for it. I’m very thankful to my boss and coworkers. It helps that they are accepting, understanding and willing to help. Their assistance and patience is invaluable.
4. Never Put A Limit on Myself
I’m thankful that I was diagnosed with Asperger’s at 16. I often see parents who limit their children on what they can and cannot accomplish because of their diagnosis. But being a person with a developmental challenge doesn’t mean challenges can’t be overcome.
I understand very well that change is scary. That’s universal for Neurotypicals and Neurodivergents. For those with Autism, it can at times be crippling. However, I have a desire to grow, change, adapt, and be socially accepted. I want to be challenged, and I want to keep accomplishing more.
The benefit of my late diagnosis is that my mother didn’t hold my hand. She pushed me out the door, into the unknown understanding that for me sometimes the world could be traumatic. It didn’t matter if I was kicking and screaming, she understood that social isolation was unhealthy. She understood that I needed to have goals and dreams. And she understood that I needed the push to overcome challenges that I claimed impossible.
Maybe with a formal diagnosis early on, I wouldn’t have struggled as much as I have – but the point is she didn’t put a limit on what I could accomplish. I have carried that with me before and after diagnosis.
The benefit of a late diagnosis, is self-awareness. And that awareness has allowed me to create a plan to better myself so that I can more easily achieve my goals. For example, one day I want to be a manager. And I believe that now I can, whereas 5 years ago, I didn’t.
By learning these lessons, I’ve been able to excel in my career. I understand who I am, and what my possibilities are. For the areas I struggle with, I understand how to work myself through them.
Yes, I may be awkward, confusing, impulsive and blunt – but this is how I’m able to communicate, operate and succeed. My tools, training, and self-stimming allow me to continue advancing, while creating awareness so that I may continue to grow both personally and professionally.