An Autistic Entering the Workforce (Book Preview)

School was hard, but work was better. I entered the workforce in my early teens, and “work” or “business” became one of my top areas of interest. In the workplace, I always look for mentors, people willing to coach and guide others. I owe much of what I’ve learned today to the mentors I encountered in every job since my very first, at the age of 12.

I started working for the family business in my pre-teens. My mother held me to an extremely high standard, making a point to instill a strong work ethic in me. She was the first of many on the job mentors who have helped by coaching me. Picking good mentors has been instrumental in my personal and professional success.

My next job, at sixteen, would be fast food. I wasn’t required to interview because my high school boyfriend and his brother were already on the staff and vouched for me to management. This was a good thing because, at this point in my career, I still didn’t know what to say and do in a job interview.

Even as a teenager, I took my job very seriously, and quickly became one of the most dedicated team members on the staff, often putting the needs of the store above my own.

About a year later, I was training for an assistant manager position and started taking Business & Leadership Courses at the “Burger University” (a sarcastic un-official nickname we had for our fast-food chain’s corporate training center). Over the years, I was in fast food restaurant management, I attended every course at “Burger University” possible.

Part of my autistic experience is being addicted to knowledge. If I’m interested in something, it is all I think about. My brain is sometimes impossible to turn off. When harnessed correctly, this attribute is what managers often like most about me. When I was a young adult, managing fast food was what I wanted to do more than anything else. I was hungry for all the training I could get.

Of all the half, full, and multi-day training sessions I attended at “Burger University,” the class that explained proper hiring procedures, diving deeply into the nuances behind interviewing a candidate have been the most useful to me over the years.

I have been forever granted a tool that many autistic people will never have – the perfect interview strategy. I could ace almost any interview with formulaic precision and began to view a job interview as a test with trick questions.

Autistic people don’t play games, and the interview is like a big probing cat and mouse game. “Burger University” gave me all the answers to the test. I can ace any interview because I know what every manager is “looking for” and have reverse engineered the process I learned many years ago.

In these classes, I learned the rules – the unwritten rules of work, what managers wanted but wouldn’t say outright. I learned what managers wanted and the types of requests that would make managers cringe and recoil. I had the model for becoming the “perfect employee.” Challenge accepted.

Once I learned the rules, I became a real stickler for them, and this didn’t always go over well with the General Manager above me, who was continually bending the rules to avoid getting into trouble with the Area Supervisor.

Eventually, the lack of order and chaos is what drove me out. A situation that I had begged the GM to attend to become too big to ignore, and to alleviate the pressure, he had me take the fall. I didn’t really have a choice in the matter, and my trust was so busted that I could no longer stay.

I’m relatively sure my papers had been pushed to the office stating I voluntarily left because I found out a few months later I was eligible for and invited, to be rehired if – I wanted.

My old boss was out of luck. The spell had been broken. I was no longer in love with fast food. Mostly I was out of love with being treated like I was disposable. I had given my heart and soul and had made the store my life. Then the store hurt me.

Just like that, the spark was gone. I still have memories and daydreams about the good days in the store. The best days were the simpler days before I took on management, but I didn’t know that then. I was too busy reaching for the next step to slow down and enjoy life.

Onward and upward, I then found my way into the Materials Management Library of one of the world’s largest computer manufacturers. I was one of the FIRST HUMANS to hold a one terabyte hard drive – when most of the world could barely imagine such a thing, I held the future in my hands.

This was one of my favorite jobs of all time. I utilized a computer system to help a team maintain a hardware library full of top-secret technology for engineers to test with. Every item had an owner, and only specific users could check out certain items. If someone wanted an item that wasn’t allocated to them, I would work with the owner of the hardware to get or deny clearance to the items.

Sometimes a workplace feels like home, I was at home with all the nerdy guys and engineers at the computer company. There weren’t many women in the organization at that time. It was a mostly silent room, with the lights above my desk not too bright, where I got to listen to music on headphones for most of the day while I worked.

The environment was calm, and things were orderly because everyone meticulously followed the rules. At the end of the day, I arrive home feeling calm and relaxed. It was almost perfect until it ended very suddenly.

They told us all we were interviewing for a promotion, then as we were all waiting to hear back over the weekend, many of my team got calls saying not to come in on Monday. I did not receive a call, so on Monday morning, I got up and prepared to head to work.

Seven-thirty I hopped into the car to drive the five-minute commute to work. I ran my fingers over the steering wheel and then down to the ignition, sliding the key in. I popped the key into position… silence. Something is wrong with the car. No sound, no clicks, no time to figure this shit out.

When I love my job, I’m a fully dedicated employee, so I leave my coffee in the car and quickly shove everything else into my black messenger bag, lock the car, and sprint towards the office.

I made it to the office by five after eight, just slightly late. It was the first time I had ever been late for work at The Computer Company. My typical morning ritual included sitting in the car for twenty minutes, listening to the radio before work. I was always early, until today.

Today I went up to the metal and glass door and pulled my badge, extending the retractor and bumping the door reader as I had done many times before. I waited for the beep, but the sound was unfamiliar, so I looked down and swiped my badge across the panel one more time. Every other day I had been welcomed with a green light. Today my light was red.

As I stood by the door, still trying to figure out if I had been locked out because I wasn’t on time and the logistics and implications of running a security system that way, one of my coworkers approached.

“Good morning!” he said.

“Hey, Evin, Happy Monday! Can you let me in?” I asked, “It’s been a strange morning. I was running late, and now my badge isn’t working.”

“No problem,” he grinned, reaching for the pad. I heard a familiar beep and then saw the green light. I tried to thank him, but he was already far in front of me.

Oh yeah. I almost forgot – we were late for work! 

Being late for work was, and still is, profoundly out of character for me. In fact, I have such a strong aversion to being late (especially concerning work) that I try to arrive at everything at least twenty or thirty minutes early.

Few things send me into a panic quicker than realizing I’ll be late for work. For years, when I was dependent on an alarm clock and didn’t automatically wake up at five in the morning like I do now, the fear of oversleeping and missing my alarm would make sleeping impossible many nights.

Knowing I have to be up earlier than usual and feeling like I need to get more sleep is counterproductive for me because I worry too much over the ending – waking up. I would jump up from the middle of sleep in a panic, then roll over and check the time to make sure I hadn’t overslept – sometimes waking up every hour of the night.

Many autistic people of all ages struggle with Insomnia. I’ve battled with it off and on throughout my entire life. I remember being in my mid-twenties the first time I slept entirely through the night. “So THIS is what waking up feeling rested is like,” – I said out loud to myself the next morning. “Nice!”

There’s no easy answer to a quick sleep for me. I’ve found I’m susceptible to multiple triggers that can cause Insomnia. Taking care of my sleep health is more like managing a checklist – carefully maintained to keep the perfect balance.

I’ll do eight because it is my lucky number:

  1. Most importantly, I go to bed, and I get up at the same time every day.
  2. I limit my caffeine intake and avoid caffeine after lunchtime.
  3. I have blue light blockers in my glasses, for my computer screens and phone.
  4.  I avoid fluorescent lighting whenever possible.
  5. I don’t let myself get sleep deprived. I make a point to get at least 8 hours a night (otherwise, my neurological health can decline).
  6. Engage in activities that help me unwind and slow down in the evenings.
  7. No Twitter or Facebook before bed – nothing that “wakes me up.” I like stim videos – they make me sleepy.
  8. Manage my stress and anxiety. Sleep impacts anxiety, and anxiety impacts sleep. Both need to be under control because of the effects they have on each other.

Meanwhile, I hope you enjoyed the educational detour. Now we go back to where I was about to be laid off from my job at the Computer Company.

I don’t like to do things in a rush when I do, I make mistakes, so I try to take my time most days unless I’m running out of time or am late. Then a panic overtakes me. My mind begins to race in fast-forward.

Today, I was late for work. Already sweaty from the run to the office, I opted for the stairs, sprinting up to the third floor. If I moved fast enough, I could possibly catch Evin. Realizing that if my badge had been demagnetized, I might need his help getting into the Hardware Library. I popped out onto the third floor just as the elevator doors opened, and made it to our office door in time for Evin’s badge to hit the card reader for me one more time.

At my desk, I began to organize myself. Unpacking my items, and sliding my backpack under the table. It was quiet in the office that morning. It seems quite a few people were late. Only four out of the eleven from our team had made it into the office that day. The office felt empty.

I popped open the company laptop and typed my credentials. A message popped up, telling me my login had failed. I entered them again, and again. My own pulse began to fill my ears.

After a few breaths, I approached My Supervisor, letting him know I was having a problem with accessing the system. After playing settings for a few minutes, he called down for technical assistance, while I waited at my desk.

He returned with a new mood. The change was so drastic, I caught it. If his poker face had been better, I might have missed it. Sometimes I struggle to decode the emotions of others. I only began to name them within myself in my early thirties.

On most days, My Supervisor was a calm and friendly, happy guy. He had been himself this morning only a few minutes ago when trying to help me on the computer. My mind automatically on a loop, bringing back video clips of him strolling away with a bounce in his step.

“Can you gather your things and come with me, please?” His tone was hard for me to place, but I knew bad news was on the way.

My Supervisor was gone, left behind, was someone I’d never seen before. When he had called down to the office, The Supervisor had been told what would be disclosed to me soon. Most of his department had been let go – his friends, his peers, me.

He led me to one of the two-person meeting rooms that I had sat in a week earlier, when I thought I was interviewing for a promotion, and asked me to have a seat. The room was small and grey and could have been compared to a closet. There were no windows and only one door. It had two chairs, a small wooden table, and a Polycom phone.

I sat in the closet, waiting. Eventually, a woman from HR popped into the room. The HR stranger let me know that someone was supposed to have called me on Friday evening to let me inform me that my position had been terminated, and not to come in today. She apologized that I had not been notified and promised to investigate the oversight. The HR Woman asked for my badge and walked me out, let me know one more time that I “was not allowed to return to the campus.”

On the walk home, the morning’s events replayed in my mind on a loop. My manager hadn’t known I’d been let go. His confusion this morning told me that. It hurt that someone higher up, who didn’t even see me working every day, made that call.

Reflecting on the situation with what I know now, I believe the interview was for organizational restructuring. It seems that my position, along with more than two-thirds of my department, had been dissolved. This was at the beginning of the financial crisis of 2007-2008 when the Computer Company was moving jobs to Asia.

There was no security in a large corporation. I wasn’t a person to the Computer Company I was just a number in a spreadsheet. They treated their people like old hardware from the library – casting us out like garbage to protect the bottom line.

I still know a few engineers, and from what I’ve heard, big tech companies often behave this way, and some engineers I know are used to it – sometimes going back to the companies that have laid them off over and over again. It’s a bit like watching someone getting back into an abusive relationship. I know how the story ends.

I needed more security than that. If I’m doing my job correctly, and exceeding expectations, then I need to know my job is secure. The looming possibility that I could be let go at any moment if the company has a bad quarter is an uncertainty that I can’t live with.

The year 2008 was a bad time to be looking for work. Even with my “advanced interviewing skills,” competition was high. I was unemployed for over a month, almost out of savings, and beginning to fear I’d end up living in my car if I didn’t get something soon. I was getting desperate, at this point, I would have done almost anything, and started to apply for jobs way below my level of skill and training.

I ended up landing a contract job with the State of Texas, I negotiated a whopping $10.50 an hour (sarcasm) when they were only offering $10.00. Neither was a living wage in Austin even back then, so I also took a second job waiting tables for $2.17 an hour plus tips at a popular bar and grill chain.

Waiting tables wasn’t bad, but when you are new, they make it very hard for you to get tips. Servers had to earn ranks by gaining points. Newer servers on the team start out with now points and are in the lowest position. Lower-ranking servers get cut first and have more side work, so they spend less time on the floor and more time cleaning until they can get their ranks up.

Unfortunately, $2.17 an hour is not substantial if you aren’t on the floor, making tips. I was often “cut first” after having only one table, then would spend the rest of the evening doing manual labor, scrubbing floors, dusting, and cleaning tables while the higher ranking servers continued to work the floor.

For every six to eight hour shift, I only spent about one or two hours on the floor. One night I was cut after my first hour, with only twelve dollars in my pocket. Because it was Friday, they kept me around cleaning in case the restaurant got busy (for six hours). At the end of the shift, I gave my two weeks’ notice. I knew my time was worth more than $2.17 an hour.

As I let go of my night job, I started to settle into my new day job. It was a relief not having to rush from one job to the next, but I was still spending most evenings looking for a second job.

The day job was easy, customer support for people wanting to access environmental quality records housed by the State of Texas. A close friend had helped me get into the position, allowing me to go directly instead of through the staffing agency we had both been using earlier in the year.

The pay wasn’t great, but the job was stable. The job I had just lost at the Computer Company was $13.50 an hour. The fast-food restaurant chain had given me $11.00 an hour and “let” me work overtime – continuously. The new job was $10.50 and a flat forty hours a week with no overtime, ever.

When I was younger, I could easily work 50-60 hours a week every week. As I’m aging, my ability to withstand too many weeks at that output back to back is waning. I can do one here and there, but after a while, I start to burn out. My optimum peak performance is 40-45 hours a week.

After hitting the wall, I keep going on autopilot. I can work, but it’s not my best work because I’ve crashed. The expectation often feels as if I should not crash before hitting fifty or more hours. I try to push myself to that level, and I fail – body revolting with an illness or other act of tortuous rebellion that is often neurological in nature.

It’s a vicious cycle, the results are not suitable for anyone. Pushing over the edge, to the point where my brain is used up and switches to autopilot, is an act of desperation, a survival tool that I pay for in the long run. Five to ten hours of shoddy work for my employer, and I end up burnt out and too sick to take care of my personal life. A real lose-lose situation.

I was just settling into the day job when I got a call back about a full-time position I’d applied for in a retail store months earlier. I started to tell them I had already accepted another offer when the man on the other end of the phone mentioned the pay was $15.00 an hour – enough for me to stop looking for a second job.

“Full time work? Fifteen an hour?” I confirmed. “Can we set up an appointment for a weekend or evening? I’m currently employed and working eight to five Monday through Friday.” We set a meeting after work later in the week.

It was a father and son business, I was one of the last people to be interviewed by the father, the original owner of the store. He was in the process of transitioning the business to his son as I was coming onto the team. By the time I left the retail store, five years later, The Father was almost completely removed, and rarely seen in the store.

He never shared what the illness was, but in the five years, I knew The Father and the rest of the family tied to The Retail Store, there was a definite change in him. The people who knew The Father in his peak said he had been someone they all loved and feared.

By the time I left, he had wasted away and stopped making appearances and policies in the store. The new team members we onboarded didn’t even know who The Father was. He had been the leader who had hired me, was the leader I followed, and now he was gone.

In organizations, people must believe in the mission of the company, the product they sell, and also trust and believe in the leadership team. For me, being autistic means I sometimes struggle to know when I’m being lied to, so at work, I prefer working for a boss I can trust – otherwise, I’m always anxious and on guard, because I’m worried a liar may throw me a curveball.

I left The Retail Store because of busted trust. We will leave the details in the past because I left the employer on good terms, with glowing reviews and an open invitation to return if I ever wanted to.

Unfortunately, with the broken trust, much like before with my job in fast food or with The Computer Company, seeing the ugly truth shook me. I struggle to forgive and forget, especially once I realize I’ve allowed someone to mistreat me.

Forward is the only direction I can move, once I feel someone has used or taken advantage of me. I love security, but by the age of twenty-five, I had already burned all the bridges, starting over a few times. Sometimes you need a fresh start, hitting the reset button on life – a new place, a new job, a new idea.

Starting over is always the hardest part. I’m still filled with anxiety about all the unknowns. As a child the anxiety would stop me from acting. I was too focused on all the things that could go wrong. As an adult, I’ve learned to push through the fear because experience tells me I’ve got more to gain than my brain says I may lose.

At work, I hate being “the new person.” I love learning, but at work, my favorite role is when I know enough about everything in a job so that I can teach others in the workplace. At first, I used to gravitate towards management positions, because they offered a challenge and ensured I would be the one training my staff.

I hated the way most people trained others, especially in foodservice and then retail. Often trainers and training would not include information about why procedures were done in a certain way. Instead, they would just lay out the process without any mention as to the reasoning behind it.

This type of training won’t work for all learners. It didn’t work well for me. I needed to be shown or explained the whys behind the procedures because it helped me to remember the systems. If something is meaningless to me, even now, it is very likely I will forget it. All I need is the meaning “a little why” to help me remember, but many trainers I experienced wouldn’t take the time to dive more deeply into the meaning behind our tasks.

 

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This has been a preview from my upcoming book. If you like what I do, and would like more, please consider subscribing on Patreon. The book I am writing will be self published and paid for by the Patreon Subscribers.  I can’t do it without you!

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