Sunday, January 29, 2012

The Challenge of Social Accommodations in the Workplace

The Autism Women's Network posted this link today citing the stat that two thirds of autistic adults are unemployed and underemployed.

 I love my job in retail; I'm in a supportive environment and I enjoy working with my colleagues and with customers. There are challenges for me there but I have stayed there for a year and a half because it works for me in some ways. For instance the culture there supports work life balance, encourages my outdoor activities, but it also has a schedule that changes week to week (ie no routine) and it pays much less than my skills and intelligence would imply I could be making. So with all due respect and love to my job and the people there, I'm seriously underemployed.

 It's a mixed bag; I find the job to be less stimulating intellectually, and to be more challenging on my sensory systems and social skills than some full-time desk jobs might be. It is both less challenging on my skills (though a side effect of this is I've become a kind of go-to resource for operational concerns because I have such a strength for detail), but very challenging in terms of my ability to socialize well with co-workers and customers.

I can sometimes develop a very easy and positive rapport with people, but other times it's all awkwardness and lack of eye contact. I know it matters less with customers; some cashiers are friendly and others less so, and any given interaction with a customer averages 60 seconds or so, which means its mostly low impact if I'm benignly weird. Less so with co-workers. It is hard to do small talk; break room conversations can be taxing, leaving me feeling like I haven't had a break. Navigating the scheduling, interpersonal and teamwork aspects of the job can feel like walking a tightrope; I feel like I always have enough social capital, because I work so hard to be positive, and liked, and not make mistakes. This takes a lot of energy.

So that article linked above is capturing something about my life. One sentence in that article captured my attention enough to write this post, however; and it is right in line with how daunted I feel at the prospect of becoming less under-employed. The study found that social skills training was at the top of the list for both adults and care-givers. It presents the un(der)employment stat as follows:

In addition, it was found that more than two-thirds of adults with autism are unemployed or underemployed, when in fact these individuals are fully capable of working, but lack the social skills to be able to hold or find employment. 

Other autists have some great writing on the social model of disability as it relates to autism. I encourage you to seek that out. I am thinking about it though, and it seems that there are real barriers to full employment that can't be explained using the deficit model.

For one, jobs aren't very flexible when it comes to having a neurological difference that can result in uneven and inconsistent skills. Until a (9-5) job is capable of really accommodating an invisible disability that is inconsistently present, it will be inaccessible to many.

Some days/weeks I have no problem talking on the phone, but sometimes it's a challenge. Sometimes I'm capable of functioning well in time management, other times I'd need support. I'd need discrete alone times, more things in writing, the ability to work from home... Many many things could be accommodated. Other things seems trickier. One can't, for instance, reschedule meetings last minute frequently, without some social or political repercussions. One can't necessarily disappear for a week. Even this, however -- many employees have kids, and those kids get sick, or whatever, and work needs to accommodate these things. It's even in law In some places that if one has a sick relative, one can get paid leave to take care of them. There is also short-term disability when a person themselves needs time off. However none of these actually seem to fit the situation of sensory overload, for instance. It most closely is like the last minute doctors appointment for a child that makes you leave work early. Except in this case there is no "legitimate" reason. The reason it isn't legitimate is that people don't understand sensory overload. Sensory overload may be unusual, but it's understandable, and the lack of understanding has nothing to do with a deficit in the person experiencing it.

In my experience in both graduate school and employment, the question of social accommodation is the hardest one to answer. As much as we want to accommodate and educate, the overriding of social convention is a gargantuan challenge, and this anthroplogophile asks, for example, what aspects of human non-verbal interaction are cultural and amenable, and what might be more codified into our instincts (putting aside the question, of course, of whether we even have purely animal instincts anymore). If Sally doesn't make eye contact and Ann may be offended or not trust Sally, in the social model, Ann needs to be assisted in understanding that Sally is trustworthy, and there are good (non-derisive) reasons for not looking her in the eye. It shouldn't matter how ingrained someone might feel about lack of eye-contact = trustworthiness (and in fact, troll TED for a great talk on how liars make more eye contact than usual), they should be able to give a person making no eye contact, the benefit of the doubt, especially when they are told that eye contact is challenging.

Eye contact does more than just convey a person's intent though; eye contact allows me to gain more non-verbal information (secret: I'm often not looking at eyes, which is both easier and I'm told more acceptable than direct eye contact anyway). So I gain something by working on my eye-contact-with-people's-faces skill as well as monitoring-my-own-face skill. There's no question about that. But unless I get some leeway and understanding as I become more effective, I'll be punished out of the social game long before I gain the skills.

I'm sorry this next point/thought is less rigorous and well formed than I'd like... One thought/connection I've had recently is delicate but relevant to autism. I think. It's not an analogy.

Some individuals with motor control differences can sometimes face discrimination because typical people seem to rely on body signals those individuals can't give in the same way. What then happens is the typical person might express derision, mistrust or dismiss the person with atypical motor function, but more often, I suspect, engage in a very subtle, possibly unconscious withdrawal of social contact/support because their neurotypical instinct is that the untypical person can't be read easily. The typical person possibly feels a lack of control. They need to do extra work to get information they usually get from all the culturally codified mannerisms and non-verbals most of us take for granted.

It is a privilege to be relaxed and confident that one's way of gesticulating, holding a facial expression, or using one's eyes will be received in congruence with the meaning of those expressions. When one's expressiveness is not received in congruence with what is meant, it is a real disadvantage.

A difference between having motor control a-typicality and say, being labelled with autistic social skills, is that one is thought to be unchangeable and the other is thought to be amenable to social skills training. Do we really know this? This issue is so complex. One thing I do know; I am not lazy because my facial expression doesn't match how I intend to present my thoughts/feelings. In any case, as an autistic person I don't have the privilege of just relaxing and assuming my non-verbals will be received in congruity with how I intend them.

I have made this connection as well to the immigrant experience in some cases. If you come from a place where some of the non-verbals are different (how you nod yes or maybe, for example), you might be nodding yes and natives of your new country think you are indifferent to them. I've witnessed this kind of difference wreaking havoc with workplace relationships.

Non-verbal differences can be a kind of invisible barrier that MAY require the non-typical person to understand and gain skills (not always), but definitely requires typical people to do some work to question their own expectations and learn to read a person differently. To live with their discomfort at not getting all the information they expect from a person's body, assuming good intentions, and providing feedback, in non-derisive ways, how they are reading things as they are. And be open to a different interpretation than their initial spit-second reaction. To engage in meta-communication, like 'This is what I thought you meant, am I right? Please correct me if I'm wrong...' Until both parties can work on that two way meta-communication, there will be social barriers in the workplace (and well, everywhere!).

One can't circumvent all bad reactions to unusual needs, or unordinary social gaffes, which ultimately hurt ones career. The higher level one goes in careers, the more those can have dire consequence. In my experience it has been much healthier for me to work below my potential where those failures happen with less consequence to my livelihood. Unfortunately, this leads to depression and social isolation. I am, indeed, angry at myself for never taking the risk to do something meaningful, get outside my comfort zone, risk failure for the bigger rewards. Except for, well, I'm always living outside my comfort zone.

And in case you aren't familiar with the Spoon Theory of Illness/Disability, read it.

Search This Blog