Autism challenges on the workplace

It’s Autism Awareness Week!

For the occasion, I will share my experience of autism on the workplace. With some specific about Cockroach Labs, since I work regularly with that crowd.

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I worked ten years not knowing much about autism, nor knowing I should, nor knowing this about myself. In comparison, I only worked four years knowing those things.

So I would like to share first about working with autism, without awareness.

Autism without awareness, for me, was a combination of things not well connected together. Some examples:

  • It was being weird and not knowing why. I would see others looking at me differently, not understanding why. It was easy to ignore it; my work is highly technical, and the focus and attention needed to be successful is a convenient mask for behavioral oddities. It was a mask that enabled others to ignore/dismiss my oddities. It was a mask for myself, enabling me to pretend that I was simply different as a consequence of developing a unique skill set.

    Being weird but not being able to help others understand why, is a recept for social isolation. For a stunted social network. For lost opportunities.

  • There were behaviors, like conversations on very random topics; strong urges to isolate myself and not talk to anyone for hours on end; periods of intense, silent thinking followed by sudden verbosity that surprised my peers; and many other things rather unexpected on the workplace, that I felt were natural and desirable (to me) but are, as I learned later, frowned upon by most.

    Atypical behaviors, without being able to help others navigate them, is a recept for discomfort. For impaired career advancement. Again, for lost opportunities.

  • There was a constant mismatch on expectations with regards to communication. And for the longest time, I did not perceive, nor understand, nor was able to explain, this mismatch.

    I need my verbal communication to carry emotion and expectations in words (which I learned to understand, and well). Others, especially men, are not trained to do that and instead expect me to divine emotion and expectations from context, body language and intonation — things that I am literally not able to do.

    I need my written communication detailed and I enjoy it verbose (I read fast — I learned to read fast very early on since I was spending literally no time with others kids in childhood besides school). Others can usually “read between the lines” and prefer to omit the details, and they usually do not like reading (or do not read fast) and thus prefer written styles that I find disappointingly too short.

    Inefficient communication due to mismatches in expectations, without being able to explain it and create workarounds, is a receipt for major problems — from plain and impactful professional mistakes, to major anxiety and depression.

As I discovered later, ten years on the workplace without understanding autism and how it was pulling me back was a huge waste of time. There is so much I could have done, better, in a shorter time, and with so much less anxiety, had I known sooner.

It is very much possible for a person with autism but without awareness, to “make do” in their work life and have a career. It is a terrible choice, though. It is so inefficient!

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A few weeks after I first got acquainted with Cockroach Labs, at the start of 2016, I sent a company-wide email to introduce myself. (Back then, “company-wide” was an audience of ~20 individuals.)

A copy is available here. Please read it! It provides context.

I received direct support encouragement from the company founders at the mention of autism. I also received a blanket guarantee of support by a senior team mate. Although I had a pretty good intuition at that time that the team was open and supportive, these explicit messages made a huge difference to my well-being.

Support is more powerful when it is outspoken.

I then re-iterated a year or so later, with more thoughts on this topic. A copy is available here. Again, I received explicit messages of support and it made my day.

In those occasions, I really felt good about working with the Cockroach Labs crowd.

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A hard thing to help others understand is how to attribute behavioral differences.

It is all too easy for someone who has a busy day to bucket multiple aspects of the behavior or appearance of one person into just one “bucket” with just one label over it.

Oh, this person speaks with an accent, doesn’t understand jokes, doesn’t know about my favorite TV shows? A foreigner. Will deal with this person like I deal with every foreigner.

Oh, this person is focused for hours on end with their computer, does not meet many friends in the weekend, can engage in technical conversations at a whim? A nerd. Will deal with this person like I deal with every nerd.

I mean, I get that stereotypes exist and why they’re convenient. However, in my case, they are so inaccurate that they are useless. Worse than useless, even; they actually impair me and my relationships.

  • I speak with an accent in every language I speak, including my native language because I am a third culture kid. I do not understand jokes, even in my native language, because of autism. I do not know about your TV shows because I choose not to for moral and philosophical reasons.

    I would prefer if you did not deal with me like a “foreigner” — I can probably masquerade culturally as one of your natives, better than your friends can. Also, your default behavior with foreigners is probably to avoid establishing lasting friendships, for fear they are going to leave soon. That hurts me.

  • I can engage in technical conversations at a whim because I am smart an know a lot of things. I do not actually like to focus on hours on end on a computer, but it helps me avoid sensory overload. It is also necessary for my job. I do not meet many friends in the weekend because I need an inordinate amount of time to recover from social occasions.

    I would prefer if you did not deal with me like a “nerd” — I do not identify as such, and I would not be able to pass as one in a nerdy crowd. Also, your default behavior with nerds is probably to avoid sharing your own personal hobbies, for fear that I will not respect them. The contrary is true. I would love to know.

At Cockroach Labs, I taught those team mates whom I work directly with to care about these things properly. The other employees who are a bit “further away” do not understand these things nearly as well and I wish they were more mindful.

Embracing diversity is not merely about being tolerant of differences. It is also about understanding the nuances.

Making the effort to understand these nuances, and showing interest for them, is a tremendous and valued act of support for diversity.

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I work remotely!

Remote work is a “hot” topic because it enables work/life combinations not possible otherwise. In particular, it enables jobs with companies located in unaffordable locales. So there is a lot of industry interest in how to “make remote work work.”

Cockroach Labs has approached me multiple times to share my remote work environment and best practices. Team mates interested in adopting the “remote work lifestyle” sometimes approach me for inspiration or advice.

What can I say?

I have a home office. I live alone, and I work alone in my home office. There are days when I do not talk to anyone, from sunrise to sunset.

And I love it! And you will probably hate it! It’s the best thing happening to me! It’s the worse thing that could happen to you!

How can I even begin to explain this? Well, it is not so difficult really.

Autism!

  • Sensory over-sensitivity means that I work less effectively when there are other people or other things happening around me.

    The proper office environment to accommodate over-sensitivity is four opaque walls and minimalistic decoration (no visual overload) with just 1 or 2 co-workers in the same room (no auditory overload).

    Meanwhile, tech start-ups love open offices. That’s simply a big no-no for me. Cockroach Labs does a good thing about auditory overload by offering noise-canceling headphones to every team member, but the open office plan is… let’s say, sub-optimal.

  • Sensory overload means that it costs me more energy (especially emotional) to recover from a lot of surrounding activity or frequent interruptions.

    The proper office environment to accommodate sensory overload is a social etiquette to avoids direct interruption, and a management style that avoids too many simultaneous tasks.

    Cockroach Labs is doing moderately well in those areas. There is some mindfulness about interruptions, but I think it could be developed further. There is some attempt to avoid constant multitasking, but in a start-up there is only so much you can do.

    Working at home, combined with a very senior role, enables me to choose my own schedule and avoid sensory overload, so that I can still partake in good amounts of non-work activities. In contrast, every time I visit the CRL office in New York, I feel crushed and drained at the end of every day and I must remain in bed for a large part of every Saturday to recover.

That said, I do enjoy hanging out with these co-workers. I have developed, I think, meaningful friendships over time and I spend effort to maintain them.

I make this work by traveling to the CRL office on a regular basis.

Cockroach Labs has been immensely supportive in this regard, supporting both remote work and relatively frequent travel. I am absolutely, thoroughly grateful for this.

Although every time I go, I feel drained and exhausted every day, it does not bother me as much as if I was employed there, because I know it is just for two or three weeks at a time and I know I can recover and come back to normal, quiet life afterwards. Also, the effort is amply compensated by the quality and intensity of the social interactions that occur while I am traveling. I am not sure whether those interactions would take place at all, or at equal intensity, if I was there all the time.

(It does also help, I guess, that I love airplanes and I love flying long-distance.)

The one thing that I do not like talking about is how “I can only afford this lifestyle because I am single without children,” making this travel easier. The truth is, I am single without children because I am autistic (and non-straight), so it is not like I truly have a choice. If I was not so impaired, chances are I would be comfortable with attending the office every day, and I would be able to accept a position in the CRL main office and move my family to live close to it.

I have developed my own experience of remote work, but it sometimes feel like I could make it work better. I just don’t know who to talk with about it. My co-workers do not understand this well, and sometimes I feel sad about it.

Anyway. Remote work helps with autism on the workplace because it enables better comfort and productivity for the individual with autism. However it comes with unique requirements for management and social interactions. Online resources about remote work do not capture these unique aspects of autism. This should be talked about, and written about, more.

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Did I mention this already? autism is a freaking big deal.

It is a big deal, nearly as much like being black is a big deal in a white-dominated workplace (or in society).

It is a big deal, nearly as much like being a woman is a big deal in a male-dominated workplace (or in society).

It is a big deal, and actually more so than being queer in a heteronormative society or workplace.

What I am doing here is really talking about what defines someone’s public identity and how much importance these factors have on the workplace.

Public identity, as determined by the immediately visible attributes of someone’s appearance and behavior, conditions for more than 95% the way that two strangers will interact with each other on first contact.

On the workplace, this conditioning persists throughout all work interactions, even beyond the first contact, unless particular care is taken to establish otherwise — either by means of friendship, familiarity, of active subversion of biases.

Identity talk is a funny topic. In my experience, anyone who’s been part of a minority, and most women, know exactly what I am talking about here and understands naturally why we should collectively talk about it. In comparison, most men who are part of their local majority, in this case white, fully-abled, neurotypical and straight, are usually 1) ignorant of this topic 2) actively uninterested to learn more, trying to pretend that “there are more important things to focus on.”

Autism is a big deal, moreso than being physically disabled in the workplace. I dare say that it is also a bigger deal than other forms of neuro-atypism, like ADD, ADHD, Tourette’s and others. That is because physical disability and the other forms of neurodiversity are usually visible and elicit mindfulness naturally. Autism is invisible, usually silent or discreet. It is just too easy to chalk it up in the bucket “weirdness.”

Awareness of one’s co-workers’ autism starts starts by understanding that someone’s fundamental identity is different than one’s own, in a way that’s also different from other forms of diversity. And chances are they will not talk about it themselves.

It is your job to think about it; also, the challenges that go with it are different from that of other minorities.

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At Cockroach Labs, there is ample talk about “diversity.”

The truth of the matter is, the word “diversity” in that context masquerades too often for “gender equality.”

Cockroach Labs is a technology company, and employs a majority of men. There is also an embarrassing and worrying deficit of women in technical roles specifically. This real problem needs to be solved, and I am glad that they are working on it.

However, I do not like this scoping of the word “diversity” to focus just on women-men equality.

I mean, I get why they do not need to talk as much about race or ethnic diversity. That is (nearly) a solved problem. Cockroach Labs employs a very culturally and colorfully diverse bunch of people, to great success already. The team is even mindfully proud about that, and this pride already projects externally. So, yes, that is going particularly well.

Cockroach Labs is also established in New York, where minority classes are extremely well protected, both legally and culturally.

Folk of color or diverse cultural or ethnic backgrounds can reasonably feel safe and confident in their status, in most workplaces, especially so in tech.

And this is also true, incidentally, of sexual diversity. This is why I also get that Cockroach Labs does not particularly need to focus on diversity of sexual preference. Not only is sexual preference and behavior a rather private aspect of one’s identity, with relatively less impact on the workplace; the founders have already been active, from the get-go, to ensure that aspect of one’s identity is well-respected, well-understood and well-accepted in that particular crowd already. The team is already adequately diverse (and openly so) in that regard.

So, when it does not need to be about race, ethnicity and sexual preference, it is tempting to narrow the focus of the word “diversity” to just gender equality.

But I don’t like it. Neurodiversity scores, in my book, higher than sexual preference in how much impact it has on the workplace and how much effort should be spent to accommodate it.

This is also why I only had a lukewarm reaction to the initiative to start a “LGBT resource group” at Cockroach Labs that’s focused on sexual preference, and why I did not respond positively to the idea that it would help me or that I could help support it as a participant. I find it good that this initiative exists, but it is not helping in those aspects that I find important.

(It would be a different matter if the resource group was more focused on trans issues. Transgender issues are near the top of my list of diversity concerns with workplace impact, alongside gender equality. But there are no transgender workers at CRL that I know of, so this remains a non-issue for the time being.)

Queer struggle is, in my opinion, simply non-existent at CRL currently; the team has bigger diversity problems to deal with and accommodate, from my perspective, before I spend time on LGBT issues.

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A challenge that deserves particular attention is that of intersectionality between autism and other things.

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(I feel we need a segue on intersectionality because it is not commonly understood. Feel free to skip to the next section if you already know.)

Intersectionality, if you do not know the word already, is how being a member of two different minorities at the same time creates additional problems not otherwise known to each minority. An illustrative example:

A business owner is proud to employ equal numbers of men and women. Any woman, they say with evidence, has equal chance to be employed. Meanwhile, the business owner is proud to employ equal numbers of white and black people. Any black person, they say with evidence, has equal chance to be employed.

Looking closer, it appears that all the black staff is working on the factory floor. It also appears that all the women are employed in the office floor.

Where does the black woman go?

A black man in this factory will not be impaired from finding a job compared to a white man, this is true. A woman will not be impaired from finding a job compared to a man, this is also true.

A black woman, part of two disadvantaged groups simulatenously, has her own issue to work through not otherwise visible to either black men or white women. This is what intersectionality is about.

In technology companies, the most common form of intersectional issue is that of women of color. They _do_ tend to be less respected, to “have less of a voice” than both white women or men of color. But that is clearly improving over time, and Cockroach Labs in particular has done a particularly good job on this already.

In engineering groups, a visible and tragic intersectionality issue is the status of transwomen. For better or for worse, the default, uncontrolled behavior of male engineering groups with a majority of individuals under age 30 is somewhat demeaning to women, and somewhat disrespectful of transgendered individuals. Some ciswomen “work around” this by behaving overly butch, assertive or dominant. Transmen can usually “hide in plain sight.” Transwomen, in comparison, have usually little interest in being butch, and may dislike adopting dominant traits as it may work against their preferred gender display, and thus end up carrying more of the blunt of mysoginistic behavior. Moreover, ciswomen also can be ignorant and irrespectful of transgender issues, making the integration of a transwomen in a support group for women more difficult.

Intersectionality is really a big thing on its own!

Understanding intersectionality helps running more educated conversations and discussions around diversity.

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So, intersectionality and autism. A big deal.

  • Women in tech have to deal about mismatched expectations about communication. Autistic women have to deal with them, and may not realize they need to. That is because autism commonly prevents the individual from even realizing this about themselves.

  • A diverse cultural background in a team mandates training and effort by management to accommodate cultural diversity—in particular when it comes to providing feedback, communication, performance or career paths. Autism, combined with cultural diversity, can cause the efforts of managers to misfire or simply fail to obtain the desired results. An uninformed manager, not realizing the intersectional challenge, can then wrongly decide that they are either not ready or not able to deal with cultural diversity and develop a bias against culturally diverse hires.

  • Non-straight or non-sexual individuals routinely feel the social distance forced upon them on the workplace when casual conversations cover topics of family, relationships and children. Non-heterosexuality is also an impediment (in well-understood and manageable ways, but impediment nonetheless) to forming new friendships and relationships. Independently, autism causes social distance by virtue of “weirdness,” as I explained above, and forms its own independent impediments to social links. The two, combined, causes the individual to experience amplified forced, unresolvable social distance.

    Moreover, when autism awareness is not a thing on the workplace, co-workers may not spontaneously reach across the aisle and extend a friendly hand, or may not offer the necessary support in establishing, maintaining or developing relationships. This incurs much stronger feelings of isolation and loneliness than would be experienced otherwise by autistic but straight individuals, or non-straight but neurotypical individuals.

    (There’s also the issue that a majority of LGBT support groups tend to develop a catty in-group culture against neuroatypical individuals. That probably deserves its own chapter, but since I did not experience this first-hand myself, I can’t form clear opinions about this yet.)

In my personal experience, autism awareness is very much necessary on the workplace, but not sufficient to help. A working understanding of intersectional issues around autism bridges the extra gap that can make autistic individuals truly comfortable.

At Cockroach Labs, I can clearly feel openness and interest to have those conversations, but as far as I can see, these conversations are not happening yet. I wish they were.

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A difficult conversation I would like to raise one of these days is the question of how Cockroach Labs plans to deal with neurodiversity in career paths.

My experience so far is that words and actions are not aligned in this regard. The “culture” can be outwardly and well-meaningly accepting, but the promotion or selection criteria for certain roles are still biased towards specific neurotypes.

At Cockroach Labs, there have been motions towards formalizing promotion processes for some roles, but what I have seen so far has left me unimpressed. I already had to spent too much effort explaining to well-meaning managers how their default phrasing and assumptions about what consistutes promotable behavior could risk alienating women. I dread the task to teach them about neurodiversity.

Then, there is the question of what type of culture and public image an organization is willing to aim for.

It is one thing to promote a woman in a leadership role (cue in Sheryl Goldberg at Facebook, and our own female leaders at CRL).

It is an even better thing to be able to promote “introverts” or openly LGBT individuals in a leadership role (cue in Tim Cook at Apple, and our own colorful leaders at CRL).

But is a tech company willing and able to promote individuals with emotional or behavioral disabilities in the same way? What type of personalities and neurotypes is Cockroach Labs willing and able to accept in leadership roles?

I have no idea.

It would help tremendously if more awareness would yield, in time, more role models that showcase neurodiversity—and set standards—at every level of career advancement.

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All in all, Cockroach Labs is a good place to be for autistic folk.

It is perhaps easier for autistic folk, like me, who are vocal about it and ask for accommodations explicitly, because the organization is willing to make extra steps to accommodate.

It is probably not so easy for autistic folk who keep quiet about it, or folk who may not be aware of their neurodiversity. The organization is still too silent on these topics for silent individuals to discover and feel the openness.

I wish that awareness came with more transparency, and more celebration.