Tuesday, March 29, 2011

social vs socially awkward

The scope of this post is mainly about employment and Aspergers.

The Social Aspie kind of breaks the stereotype, but oh well; I think many people on the spectrum (maybe all of us) actually do want to connect with people, it's just difficult. I think there's a difference between being social and being socially awkward. And there's also a difference between being social and being extroverted. I'm an introvert. But I care deeply about people and I want to connect with them. I just have trouble doing so.

Employment can be tricky. Barbara Bissonnette of Forward Motion sent out her Aspergers and NLD newsletter today and it was about how only about 20% of skills that count in the workplace are hard skills and 80% are the interpersonal soft skills that help us get along and get things done in the workplace. Temple Grandin, among others, cites certain jobs as better for those on the spectrum; one of the jobs usually on the "not great for spectrumites" list is retail/cashiering.

While I tend to agree, I work in retail and can share some of the positive things about my experience. I never thought I would be good in a retail setting. I briefly worked at a jewelery store (one of those cheap jewelery franchises), and I hated it; I didn't like interacting with the women and teens who came into the store. I found processing credit card transactions stressful, and there were so many little things to try and keep clean. I've never been a stylish person, so I couldn't get excited about fashion accessories. It was horrid, and I lasted three months.

Aside from another stint in a department store restaurant where I worked as a cook behind the scenes, I've stuck mainly to office temping and factory work. I enjoyed the factory because it was repetitive detail-oriented work and there was no interacting with the public; I could wear comfortable clothing and a smock.

When I moved to Boston, I couldn't work for a while. Once I could, I considered going to a temp agency to work in corporate office settings but the more I thought about it, I realized that I really didn't like that environment. The office politics always felt too intense for me; I had to wear clothing that was uncomfortable, and I just felt like I didn't fit there.

One day I found myself at a outdoor gear retailer and on a whim, inquired about job opportunities. I love backpacking, hiking, cycling and kayaking, and I thought this might be a good place. I got hired there. It's on the Fortune 100 Best Companies to Work For. Their benefits are great, and it's a good work culture; the people who work there are generally passionate about the outdoors, and just all-round good people. It's not your average retail sales job.

I work as a cashier. Cashiering is challenging, and I think people on the spectrum are potentially challenged by this type of job in a number of ways, and maybe my experience isn't really representative of anyone else, but I figure it's worth sharing...

The Challenges
- The job involves a degree of multitasking that is challenging.
- The environment can be noisy and chaotic at times. Enter screaming baby.
- Difficult customers/conflict can be really challenging
- There are many complicated things to remember/learn about operating the cash register, and policies/procedures that, while documented, need to be applied appropriately.

Suitable Aspects
Good for someone detail-oriented and who is good at being accurate. I'm meticulous about doing the job properly, but it's made clear to us that most any mistakes can basically be undone, and we're not punished for making them, we get corrected and it's a learning opportunity.

This is key -- there is a kind of prescribed formula for interacting, a role if you will, which can make this less stressful than an open-ended interaction like in an office. Effective cashiering kind of involves guiding a transaction from start to finish; Greeting, ringing, providing information (like a particular discount is being applied here, etc), and finishing the transaction by taking payment, and a farewell greeting (Have a good day!). In other words, there is a basic script that one can follow, which helps reduce the stress of the interaction.

Benefits
There are some things about customer service that I really feel have benefited me. A few of these may be specific to the company I work for, perhaps, but are still relevant in a broader way.

I have an employer who supports diversity in the workplace, and I have an accommodation plan with them. I provided a letter from my doctor and they have worked with me to identify areas that I need support in - for instance, there is one cash register by the door that is supposed to be staffed at all times, but it is more challenging because people are always approaching that end cashier to ask questions, so it requires more multitasking. I have an accommodation that I don't work that register, because when I try to do that one I make mistakes when I normally don't make mistakes. I get overloaded and stressed, and my employer is fine with having me manage this by avoiding that register.

I have the opportunity to interact with a large number of people in one day, but within parameters that I can handle (because of the script, or prescribed role I can take). Now that I am fairly comfortable with the basics of taking payment for someone's purchase, I can interact with them to the degree I feel comfortable. If I'm more overloaded that day, I can simply ring stuff up and say only what I need to, but if I feel more social I can ask them questions about their upcoming backpacking trip or vacation, or tell them about a piece of gear they are buying that I have experience with.

When conflict arises, like if a customer is complaining or is asking for something I don't know how to handle, I have supportive managers I can ask for help. They are always willing to answer my questions. The return policy at this store is very liberal, and I generally don't have to say no -- this makes the job much more enjoyable. I am given all kinds of tools to give great customer service, and I rarely have a customer leave me feeling dissatisfied.

I can practice being friendly and receptive; I notice, for instance that when I make eye contact with the customer, the interaction is much more positive and friendly. It's really damn hard to do, but cashiering offers a low-stakes way to practice getting used to doing it. My job involves a tiny bit of sales, but there's no pressure with it, and I find that when I apply more or less effort I get results. This has been a great growth experience, and one that offsets my experience at that crappy fashion chain.

I get to experience interacting with ALL kinds of people. I meet laid-back Californian climbing buffs, bratty moms with their bratty teens, controlling middle-aged women who are addicted to shopping, scruffy city public works employees, police officers, military base personnel, extremely rich Boston executives who are weekend warriors, old hippie couples who are getting back into hiking, and lots of parents buying their spoiled kids The North Face Denali jackets. All kinds. Nice people, rude people, controlling people, prickly people, crabby people, super-positive friendly people, gay couples who aren't sure how I'll treat them, type-A runners, closet yogis, health freaks, alpine backcountry skiers, exhausted new parents, twenty-somethings getting ready to hike the Appalacian trail, ladies looking for a sporty 'cane' to help them walk after surgery. I would not get this in an office, or a factory. This offers mini-lessons in human nature and how I do or do not handle these different personalities.

I get to learn that how an abusive person treats me, a random cashier they know nothing about, has nothing to do with me because I'm treating them the same way as everyone else. I learn that the person who may seem snobby and inaccessible is actually a really down to earth person. I learn some people really are maybe-gangsters who pay with giant rolls of 100s. I learn that many people walk around anxious and when I am relaxed and I interact with them, it's a mirror for me how much I can be difficult to deal with when I'm anxious.

In general, I feel like cashiering is a training ground for social skills. There are a set of rules, which makes the interaction less stressful, but there's also plenty of opportunity to practice small talk and also how to handle different personalities. Because the workplace empowers me to do what I can to provide good service, for the most part interactions are positive, but the odd time when there is difficulty, like if a credit card gets denied, or someone wants something we cant do, or someone is being unreasonable, I learn assertiveness skills, or through my manager, learn how to handle that situation assertively.

I think it definitely helps that I have disclosed to my employer and have an accommodation plan. My six-month review was excellent. I exceed expectations, and my manager said, "Don't go anywhere". :)

For someone who is social but socially awkward, has sensory processing problems but can manage some degree of sensory bombardment (as long as they get downtime too), retail employment with a supportive employer may be accessible. It's not for every person, NT or spectrum, and I'm not even suggesting that it'd be a great thing to do long-term (it also doesn't pay very well). Some people could handle it. They may be struggling to find a workplace that can accommodate them, and dismissing retail jobs completely for all people on the spectrum may be robbing some of us of both opportunities for viable employment, and a space to practice valuable soft skills.

Fortune's Best Companies to Work For (retail)

1 comment:

Modern Mom Redefined ((Kelsi)) said...

Great post ! I have a for year old with Autism but this is still something to think about for my students. following and looking forward to reading more. Come say hi sometime at modernmomredefined.blogspot.com

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