SEEING MYSELF AS OTHERS SEE ME – LIVING WITH UNDIAGNOSED AUTISM IN THE WORKPLACE
When I turned 50 years old in May, 2010, some very close friends invited me to dinner at their home in Vancouver. We’d known each other for over 30 years. We talked about children, the state of our lives, and shared the latest news from distant friends scattered across the world. One of them was a Canadian diplomat living in London, England. Another was an international investment banker in Paris, France. One close acquaintance had just been appointed as Speaker of a Canadian provincial legislature. My friends in Vancouver were accomplished lawyers and senior managers for provincial crown corporations.
Meanwhile, I was working as a sales specialist at a newly-opened retail Apple Store in Vancouver. Like my friends, I was well-educated, well-travelled, and had ten years of international experience working for videogame companies in Japan and the United States. Yet, here I was, employed at a large shopping mall, earning $16.00 an hour, and renting a one-bedroom apartment.
At that time, I knew very little about autism. However, I always felt there was something different about me compared to everyone else. I believed that I perceived the world differently. I felt like a social misfit. How else could I explain the lack of career and social success compared to my friends?
In September, 2015, I was officially diagnosed with ASD. For decades, my family suspected that I was autistic. As a child, I couldn’t hold eye contact. I had no manual dexterity in my right arm. I invented my own language and couldn’t communicate in complete English sentences until I was four years old. I was extremely sensitive to loud noises, and lacked empathy towards other children. My social skills in elementary school were poor, and I was brutally harassed in junior secondary school because I was perceived as being different. During the 1960s and 1970s, there were no methods of assessment, support, or trained medical professionals available to deal with autism in British Columbia. Federal and provincial funding was non-existent. My family and relatives did the best they could to help me cope with my situation.
As a 57 year old man, there are times when my autism feels like a decidedly mixed blessing. Receiving an official diagnosis validated my life-long feelings of being a misfit who perceives the world differently from other people. It was a relief to know that I wasn’t imagining things; I can look back on my life and see how autism affected me. But there’s one significant downside to possessing this knowledge – I can’t go back in time and change how it impacted the past 35 years of my working life. Thinking about it brings back painful memories. Younger generations diagnosed with autism today in the 21st century not only have access to better funding, support services, and trained professionals, they have the advantage of time on their side. I must grapple with the fact that not only do I have fewer years left to live a productive life – I’m still on my own when it comes to finding the support I need. There is no government funding currently available to help high-functioning autistic older adults in the province of British Columbia.
There are specific aspects of my autism that are problematic in a regular work environment. My inability to consistently hold eye contact gives the wrong impression that I’m distracted and not paying attention. For example, five minutes into a job interview, a potential employer asked me why I wouldn’t look at him directly. I tried to explain that I was slightly nervous. The truth is that I often lose eye contact when discussing a subject I’m enthusiastic about. I also have a tendency to become animated. In another situation, I was working with a university professor who noticed that I tended to look up and away during our discussion. She said that I was a person who visualized what I was talking about. It was an astute observation on her part. I have a vivid imagination that lets me describe original concepts and ideas with great clarity and detail.
One of my biggest challenges is that I can’t read non-verbal emotional cues on people’s faces. I don’t work well in institutional settings like a corporate head office or a university department. Even when collaborating with a team, my inability to read someone’s facial emotions can create problems, such as taking a comment too literally, or accidentally saying something that’s socially inappropriate. Another side-effect is that I have poor awareness of the social dynamics that are happening around me. It’s ironic because I’m visually hyper-sensitive. I can become overwhelmed by too much visual stimulation, such as trying to read large amounts of text information displayed simultaneously on multiple computer screens. However, this hyper-sensitivity also gives me the ability to focus my attention on something in greater detail, such as a computer-generated animation, a photographic image, or individual flowers in a garden. But I can’t read the emotions on people’s faces, a critical skill for day-to-day social interactions.
Like many high-functioning adults with autism, I’m extremely intelligent and able to think very quickly. This natural ability lends itself well to activities that involve researching, organizing, and presenting both visual and written information. However, I’ve had life-long issues with retaining things when they’re communicated verbally. During childhood, my mother discovered that I remembered a list of tasks more effectively when I wrote it down. Looking back at my work experiences, there were times when the inability to retain verbal information, combined with a quick mind, created significant problems. During one performance review, a manager provided me with several examples of important tasks that were incorrectly completed because I didn’t follow his verbal instructions. In retrospect, I should have written down what he said, but we were on a tight deadline. Now that I’m aware of how autism affects my ability to retain verbal information, I frequently write things down using an iPad or a pen and notebook. I also focus my listening skills more carefully when someone is speaking to me.
In 1786, the Scottish poet Robert Burns wrote a famous poem called Ode to a Louse – On Seeing One On a Lady’s Bonnet, At Church. This verse describes how I feel about having autism:
O would some Power the gift to give us,
To see ourselves as others see us!
It would from many a blunder free us,
And foolish notion.
There are moments when I wish I could go back in time and change the outcomes of events that happened in my life because I didn’t know I had autism. But that’s not possible – I can only keep moving forward. Now that I’m aware, the challenge is to find opportunities in the years ahead that let me use my life experience and talents. I also believe it’s vitally important to be open about being an older adult with autism, and raise public awareness about the need for more funding and support services. There are younger generations coming up behind me; the least I can do is help to blaze the trail.
Anthony Gurr is an educational technology specialist with a Masters’ degree in Education from Simon Fraser University.