Autism and corporate bullying

Aimee O'Connell

Many things drift in and out of my mind as I go about my day. Today especially I had to take my own advice on "watering or being watered" as kids are home sick and I am dealing with my own pinkeye. I am stuck indoors on a wall-to-wall sunny day, which in Western New York is as rare as a Florida snowman. So, rather than gnash my teeth (or, more like, while gnashing my teeth) I am envisioning myself being water to my children and being watered by the inability to do anything I had wanted to accomplish today.

Something made me think of something which made me think of something while I folded laundry... and triggered a memory of one of my first job experiences. It was a fleeting thought, but given my propensity toward pondering, it became quite the irrigation to my roots. Consider me watered!

I'm not in the business of blaming or casting bad light on people from the past, so take my word, I'm grateful for having worked there and for the lessons I took from this place. It was one of my most difficult experiences because, prior to that, I had known only success and straight-As. I have always been a pleaser who follows the formula to the letter once I figure out what to do.

Trouble is, I was told (as I was being unexpectedly let go) that I had no idea what to do.

I followed the job description exactly, and met every obligation with zeal, and worked constantly to improve my performance and please my supervisor. I was shocked to be told I was not doing well enough. Nobody had worked as hard as I did, and yet my grueling dedication went unrewarded. Why? How?

I was told that my co-workers did not feel I put in enough effort. Although I had strong character, I was not seen as part of the team.

Those words stunned and haunted me for months afterward. I could not fathom how my peers felt slighted. That feedback stayed with me through every successive job I have held, and none of my subsequent bosses have ever said I was not a team player. Perhaps I took that criticism and applied what I needed to improve... or, maybe it was off-track and inaccurate. Such things do happen. Many people get let go from jobs unfairly, and I wouldn't be the first one. I do know that it hit me very hard and I took it to heart as a revelation of some huge defect. Eventually, when I realized I had Aspergers, this experience fed my compulsion to keep my diagnosis a secret. My former boss may have called me out on my defect, but the success I experienced thereafter guaranteed I would never, ever let on that I have an inborn condition that makes me "not a team player." I would fake it as hard as I could to look normal, even if I didn't understand their problem with me.

Today, as I sorted and folded, I recalled some of the specific things we were asked to do as a "team" at that particular job. Our supervisor always addressed us as "team" or "crew" -- not in a drill instructor sort of way, but congenially, and constantly. We were encouraged to bond, all the time. Happy hours. Lunch gatherings. Ice breaker games at staff meetings. Nicknames for one another. And this one thing I remembered today... the team building exercises.

One such event took place the entire day of a weekend. I don't recall if it was a Saturday or a Sunday, but it took all day on what should have been a day off. Never mind we worked all week and I was also in full time graduate school. Mandatory team building day came and we all showed up as required. The day was structured around all kinds of physical activities which scared the * * * * out of me. Not only was it a sensory nightmare, but it evoked all the traumatic memories of being the worst student in physical education class throughout high school. Nowadays they call it "weak core muscle strength" and it is an accepted piece of the autism spectrum. But right then, all I knew is that I can't climb ropes, I can't hang on very long, I can't hold other people on my shoulders, and I become panicky if I have no solid ground under me.

I was so nice about it, self-effacing, even apologetic. "Sorry, I can't do the zip line." --- "I have never been good at things like this, so can you help?" --- "I just can't finish, my arms aren't strong enough." --- "I don't jump off from high places, sorry." My declinations had no bearing on the others completing their tasks, and likewise, did not reflect refusal or stubbornness on my part. None of the teams suffered for my lack of ability because this was supposed to be non-competitive. Guess that didn't account for neurotypicals having better abilities than me. For me, in all honesty, it was a matter of survival.

Was my weakness part of what branded me as "not a team player"? Or was it my preference of listening to talking, in general, during those lunch gatherings? Or my dislike of loud, crowded places where I can't distinguish well what people are saying? Or my choosing not to order alcohol (but still buying one of the rounds) during happy hour? Or my leaving before 10pm when everyone stayed out later?
As the recollections unspooled today, I felt bad for my younger self. Indignant. Anything I declined, I did because it was that important to me, not because I was lazy or aloof. I spent a disproportionate amount of time making up for the work that was constantly neglected by one of our more social "crew" members who was constantly praised by the rest of the "team" and our collective supervisor, even when I brought the issue of this negligence up in supervision. None of it made much sense to me, then or now. It falls far short of hazing, but in many of the same respects, I was subjected to peer pressure in order to maintain good standing. When I didn't conform, I was labeled, and eventually let go -- even when I was told my work was excellent. How is this not bullying?

To be fair, I never looked disabled, and I never knew I had a disability. Aspergers doesn't come with a wheelchair, so how could they have possibly known my limitations were real and not just my slacking off? If I had known what it was called and that these aspects are fundamentally who I am, would I have hidden behind the success-face just the same as I did in every other job?

Was my future success attributable to how hard I fought against the label I took from that job? Did it help to keep my Aspergers a secret, or did my future superiors recognize my talents and encourage them regardless? The job I lost was a human service position as much as every other job I would take thereafter, so it wasn't a matter of finding a better fit. It had nothing to do with whether or not I am a "people person."

(See? Having Aspergers does not relegate you to jobs in programming cubicles off by yourself... Aspies can be very successful in face-to-face and speaking-intensive positions!)

I'll never have answers, and I don't need any. It was such a long time ago, and I hardly ever think of it. Distance and wisdom makes me see that their definition of "team player" seems narrow and superficial compared to what I myself would value in someone I might have on a team of my own. That experience taught me to take other people's points of view in trying to understand how they could see me in a way I could not imagine.

I wonder if any of those people think back to those days, and how they remember me. I wonder if they have learned to take other viewpoints themselves.

And I wonder what in the world it proves to spend your days off swinging from ropes when what should matter is the quality of your work.


Maybe I just answered my own question.

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