I’m creating a new community outside of social media on Substack (where I can have more control over my space), and I hope you’ll join me as a free member (but I also have paid subscriptions if you want access to bonus content).
My Substack community members are helping shape the community’s content by requesting different topics they want to learn about.
This week one of my readers has asked me to share advice on “finding work that fits both your strengths and your weakness and where people accept you enough” – enormous thanks for this fantastic topic suggestion.
NeuroDivergent people’s differences are cognitive and invisible and impact how we interpret the world, process information, and interact with others.
Our differences also impact our strengths and weaknesses, what tasks and environments will drain us, and what tasks and environments will invigorate us.
If you imagined yourself as a character in a video game with a life bar, there would be things that “drain your life force” and things that recharge it.
We often don’t think enough about energy depletion and recharging. For NeuroDivergent People (who may be working with an already depleted health bar), recharge time is essential, especially in the workplace.
Having a career skills mismatch can lead NeuroDivergent humans to breakdowns and burnout because our health bars are always in the red (and are never fully replenished).
Many of us are waking up with our health bars starting in the red, at a fraction of the energy they should hold because the world has us operating at a recharge deficit (expecting us to do too much of what drains us and shaming and scolding us for spending time doing things that top off our batteries).
Chronically operating with insufficiently low energy levels will devastate most people’s physical and mental health. All humans (NeuroDivergent and NeuroTypical) need to pace themselves, balancing draining and recharging activities carefully to avoid exhaustion. Still, the activities that recharge NeuroDivergent People are often stigmatized by NeuroTypical society (video games, staying home, and time alone, for example).
Additionally, many NeuroDivergent People struggle with pace because, in our world, the pace is often set by NeuroTypicals.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve been a perfectionist, fighting the need to be “perfect” because “perfect” (and even “good”) were often out of reach for me.
Growing up, I learned to dread the phrases “If you tried a little harder” and “If you would just apply yourself” because they were often said to me at times when I had already tried my hardest and done my best.
Certainly, not knowing I was NeuroDivergent confused things on both ends.
People around me had no idea I was Autistic and ADHD (or AuDHD) and therefore expected me to act as someone who’s not AuDHD (which was a cruel and impossible expectation). I, not knowing I was AuDHD either, internalized the treatment of others and believed it when people told me my best wasn’t good enough (but your best is all anyone can give).
No matter what I did, it felt like people always wanted and expected more from me (than I was capable of giving). I tried but could never meet their (unfair) expectations.
Some NeuroDivergent people have a “talent” for pushing ourselves past where we should push ourselves. I am one of those Autistic people who have repeatedly experienced Autistic Burnout.
I learned to push myself because the world and people around me have repeatedly asked and expected more of me than is reasonable or fair.
Autistic burnout “is the intense physical, mental or emotional exhaustion, often accompanied by a loss of skills, that some Autistic people experience. Many autistic people say it results mainly from the cumulative effect of having to navigate a world that is designed for neurotypical people. – that’s not my definition (it’s from Spectrum), but I’ve yet to find a definition I like more.
These burnouts tend to be caused by stressors in an Autistic person’s environment and often include sensory distress and other sensory-related triggers.
Until learning I was Autistic at 29, I had been in an endless cycle of burning myself out because I didn’t understand that my pace could and should be different from the pace of people around me. I didn’t understand and appreciate my differences or how to speak up for them.
Now that I know I’m NeuroDivergent, I have been learning what I need, how my mind works, and ways to work with my mind instead of against it.
A big part of that (for me) has been finding a career that I love/recharges/doesn’t drain me.
It was building a career that utilized my strengths and skills to find work that would energize and recharge me instead of getting stuck in jobs or tasks that wear me down and are poorly suited to my individual needs.
Because every Autistic/NeuroDivergent Person is an individual, this “dream job” or “dream career” can vary significantly from person to person. What’s right for me may not be what works for the next NeuroDivergent or even Autistic Person.
I’ve known for years that I need a career path that doesn’t require a lot of physical activity due to chronic pain and a bad back and knee that revealed themselves to me in high school.
Since learning I’m Autistic, I’ve realized I need to work on my own as much as possible, with minimal supervision and micromanagement (because of both my sensory needs and my intense reaction to surprises and demands from others).
When I didn’t know I was Autistic, I was having (and keeping secret) regular meltdowns and shutdowns at work (hiding my intense emotional reactions in the office bathroom, stairways, my car, or by “taking walks” outside) whenever any work surprise or last-minute meeting would come my way (as is a REGULAR occurrence in corporate America).
I felt like a gigantic failure because I couldn’t “keep it together” and kept getting upset about “small things” my co-workers could easily ignore. I also heard how leadership spoke about people who couldn’t keep their composure at all times, even in crisis, and was terrified they may find out I was “one of those people” who cried about not just big things but “little things” (that feel very big to me) too.
Learning I was Autistic at 29 was an eye-opening experience, allowing me to stop denying myself compassion around all the ways I’d decided I “wasn’t enough” over the years from comparing myself to NeuroTypical People (when I falsely thought I was one of them).
Before this discovery, I’d tried to beat and bury my weaknesses because I thought of them as problems to overcome and things I should be ashamed of (especially since most of my perceived “shortcomings” were ones my peers didn’t have).
Since my diagnosis, I’ve realized everyone’s strengths and weaknesses are a simple and necessary human reality. Diversity in skills, strengths, and weaknesses is essential to human diversity.
It shouldn’t matter if I have “uncommon weaknesses” because my weaknesses are things many people are good at. Let the people who are good at what I’m bad at do THOSE THINGS. Let me do the things I’m good at because I also have uncommon strengths in addition to uncommon weaknesses.
We all have different strengths and weaknesses, and leaning into or away from what we’re good at or bad at can mean the difference between our success and failure and whether we’re thriving or barely surviving.
For most of my life, I had managed to lean into my strengths, avoiding my weaknesses, JUST ENOUGH so that I could pass in NeuroTypical life… until I tried to force my undiagnosed self into a space in which I would need medical accommodations and workplace modifications in place to do my best work (and stay healthy) and was eventually denied the help I needed (despite having a medical diagnosis) because my supervisor said what I was asking for was “special treatment” because everyone would like what I was requesting and it “wouldn’t be fair” to give it to me and not everyone else.
If “everyone” would like what I’m asking for, maybe I’m not the problem. Perhaps, if “everyone” hates how your system is set up, your system is what sucks.
Up until that point, working in spaces with flexible policies I could shape to my needs and jobs that suited my NeuroDivergence had kept me safe.
I had managed to stay under the radar (because people were accommodating me without medical documentation, believing I needed what I said I needed to do my best work). So I’d never needed to consider my needs in a medical context.
Unfortunately, in my case, medicalizing myself didn’t get me the help I needed at work, and I ended up leaving the employer who “couldn’t accommodate me.”
The work should never fall on the marginalized employee to educate the employer on how they are oppressive and harmful, especially a newly diagnosed Autistic who struggled to explain how being Autistic impacted them as an individual.
Autism is literally defined as a communication disability. If an Autistic Person tells you what we need to function optimally, telling us we’re “high functioning” and you think we “can do it” isn’t helping – 101 stuff most people in the world are STILL getting wrong six and a half years later.
People don’t understand that invisible disabilities exist and that many NeuroDivergent People CAN hide their struggles, BUT we shouldn’t HAVE to. Hiding our struggles creates shame around them, preventing us from speaking up for our needs and getting help when needed.
After working in an utterly hostile environment for NeuroDiverent employees, I moved back to a genuinely inclusive and flexible environment where I could meet my needs, similar to some of the more inclusive jobs I’d had before my diagnosis, where my need to “bend the rules” wasn’t treated like a problem (or gate-kept medically) but seen as an opportunity to question the rules not just for me, but for everyone.
I would have stayed with that new employer forever if the pandemic in 2020 hadn’t rapidly changed workplaces everywhere (including ours), bringing layoffs to our small team.
Losing that job, an absolute dream job, and being forced out on my own at a time when nothing new was available to me made me realize I couldn’t go back to working for someone else unless it were even better than the employer I’d lost.
It was a “push from the nest,” forcing me to take a leap that I would never have decided on without this nudge.
After months of searching, I failed to find anything comparable to my former position and employer (people weren’t hiring openly Autistic Marketing VPs, Directors, or even Managers (they probably weren’t hiring non-autistic marketing people either), so I decided (out of necessity) that working independently would be the best way to accommodate myself in a workplace fully.
The entire experience taught me many things about myself and rules. One key point is I do very well when I make the rules or at least can influence or speak up if I have problems with them.
In some places with hierarchical power structures, only people at the top are allowed to make and influence rules (and often NeuroDivergent People, especially those who are multiply marginalized, are excluded from those rule-making positions).
When people are not included (or even considered) when rules and systems are put in place, those rules and systems will often harm the people who are unheard when those rules and systems were put in place (even if that’s not the intent of these rules).
Rules are often used to oppress people – intentionally or unintentionally (it doesn’t matter). The harm is the same.
Some (too many) rules are arbitrary, and many rules outlive their relevance, but people will hang on to them because “it’s the way they’ve always done things.” Just as many (way too many) rules are used to oppress people in various systems intentionally.
As for things I now know about myself: I now know that reception work, or anything with many interruptions, phone calls, or a schedule that is hard to predict, will leave me perpetually stressed.
I also know that when work time is over, I need to be able to REALLY UNPLUG and shut down because my obsessive mind won’t rest if I have to be ON all the time.
I also know that I can’t concentrate in a busy open office or be around too much sensory input day after day – or my work performance will be low, my stress will be high, and my seizures (now almost three years seizure free) become more likely to return.
The experience also taught me things about working as a NeuroDivergent Person and someone with multiple disabilities in addition to being NeuroDivergent.