I never knew stress until I was confronted by 20 five-year-olds who had spent lunchtime playing ‘mud kitchen’ outside in the rain. It is at times like these you understand what everyone talks about when they say adrenalin kicks in so you can achieve the impossible, in my case 20 trouser and shoe changes. I am at the very beginning of a new adventure as a special needs teaching assistant, which means I spend most of my time feeling like I am juggling screaming 6 years olds, whilst cycling uphill… blind folded… through flames… I have not written an article for so long, mainly because my time has been severely cut short by this juggling flame cycling, but also because it has turned to mush from repetitive nursery rhyme singing. I have a knack for making things seem more dramatic than they are, I have in fact been doing this job now for only 8 days (spread over a month), and have nowhere near the amount of stress as the other more responsible TAs and teachers. But I do have Asperger’s, and that is turning the world of work into somewhat of a nightmare.
I left my two and half year office job several weeks ago, a day I had dreamed of since my second shift. In many ways the job was ideal for someone with anxiety issues, but terrible for someone who is a bored easily Asperger. My official job title was ‘customer relations assistant’, which seemed like a terrible idea from the offset; my natural talents do not lie in relating well to people. Every customer phone call would send a wave of dread, I can only apologise to all the people who called me to inform us that their partners (our customers) had recently passed, or that they were ill. Ditto to all those who called with just general queries, most I could not answer and most of the email addresses you gave I could not efficiently record. I have since learnt that retaining verbal information is a bit of a sore spot for those on the spectrum, which would explain how I could not remember the name of a caller literally 5 seconds from them giving it. But my biggest problem, and the most unforgivable, is my incredibly short boredom threshold. If it does not interest me I just cannot make myself do it. My filing went months, some of it years, but given a new website to design for the company I was absorbed for hours, even taking it home to do. What made this mentally frustration battle possible was the people I worked with, and their understanding of me as a person. It very much helped that my mum was the manager. So why they hell did I leave familiar territory to start a job I had no experience of?
There is a non-Asperger side to me which needs a challenge and wants to take on the world. It is why I started my PhD, it is what drove me to go to university to study in the first place. However, it definitely does not connect to my Asperger’s or sensory sensitivities. Since I was very young I dreampt of being a teacher, although I have since realised my limits when it comes to managing large rooms full of children. My PhD focuses on researching autism, and my new TA work gives me a hands on experience of what these children go through whilst at school, perfect! Except I dropped out of school when I was 14 because I could not hack the school environment. Despite this I have had moments of vocational joy I had not experienced before, such as playing the recorder with my first class, being clung to by a needy nursery school kid after their nap, and having a special needs child engage with me for the first time after several hours of being seemingly invisible.
What feels most rewarding about this new job is that it is, in a sense, my first real ‘adult’ job. Alone and independent in the world of work, it feels quite an achievement to have gotten to this place, but it has also highlighted a whole host of difficulties. It is only when you step away from your comfort zone that your weaknesses are revealed, and having spent much of my life stewing in my own comfort zone, learning to be a ‘neurotypical’ chameleon, I have suddenly been exposed. Eye contact has never been a massive hindrance to me, yet now I am acutely aware everytime my eyes dart away from the other staff in the staff room and the playground. The awkward sequence I complete tasks in again has also never been a huge problem to me, yet around strangers who do not understand my slowness is not indicative of my capabilities it feels much more like an impairment. Generally I am one step behind most I am working with, though thankfully not behind the kids, who I should note do not seem to have sussed me out yet! It has become more transparent to me than ever the difficulties a non-neurotypical faces in a neurotypical world. I am hopeful I can continue enjoying the profession I have chosen without these little nuances creating havoc, and if not, it will make fantastic blog article material!
My apologies for the slightly directionless post, but I am hoping others may comment with their stories and words of wisdom for us all having similar experiences in the world of work. I would also like to strongly recommend to any neurotypical employees out there to get clued up on having and Aspertypical in you workplace. The National Autistic Society, as per usual, has some great advice: