Inference and Communication

Background

I am a 28-year-old male (married to a neurotypical female) who was diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome in the summer of 2006. I have worked in a variety of positions within the cultural resources field in order to establish a career. During breaks between temporary positions, I worked within several different fields (inventory, customer service, pharmaceutical, and as an administrative assistant/receptionist) but have since landed a continuing position within my targeted field.

The views expressed are personal, for illustrative purposes only and should not be related, or automatically applied to, other situations or scenarios.

Case Study

I recently started a series of online course with a community college to brush up on some career skills I had not used in quite some time. These were toward a certification as a Cultural Resources Technician.

In a way, this program was a refresher for me. That said, it was very vague as to whether this certification would be recognized, and many of the skills taught were those I have picked up over the years. Still, I considered the fact that there were relatively few online courses out there in my subject at all, and I was quite some distance from the nearest university and concluded that, overall, undertaking them would be beneficial. It should be noted before I go further, though, that at no point during any of these courses did any disclosure of my diagnosis occur – I just didn’t see it as relevant, as this was an online program with limited, written interaction, and research and writing being the foundation of the coursework, the latter of which I typically perform well.

My Professor was pretty easy-going and reachable via e-mail. In previous courses I had taken with this professor, I had found him to be very open-minded and approachable via e-mail. I had (by this point) already acquired a lot of the knowledge and skills required to successfully complete the courses. Still, I learned a lot that I had not been exposed to, and I gained a greater understanding as to some of the elements of my role within cultural resource management involved.

My Professor’s style was different, which I easily fell in line with. Both parties rapidly replied to all communications, which were primarily via e-mail as he was frequently away from his phone. Being an online course, I easily went along with this, as I prefer e-mails anyway – you can rearrange and retract text, but not verbally spoken words. You can also add additional text that you want to convey without being prematurely cut off with an argument or point from another party.

I had had limited experience with archaeological surveys, and this new course was an introduction to the basics of these. This, I felt, would give me a solid idea of what I would be up against in the typical situation, as I like to go into assignments and tasks with as clear an idea as I can with regard to what is required of me. Having clear, defined objectives is something that is beneficial to me as a person with Asperger syndrome.
This was the third course with this school and the same Professor. The nature of my field (archaeology) can be quite variable, and it is understood that seasonal work only enhances a career path. In many ways, exposure to more elements and areas is preferential to a limited repertoire and so, I hoped, would increase my employability in the area later.

In the new course, my Professor had us first take an applied approach to one of our projects. We were told that we were to first walk over the parcels of ground we had selected before conducting background research on the land we were surveying, something that was logically out of the norm to me. This order struck me as odd because, in an applied sense, you were at a severe disadvantage if you set foot on the ground to do an initial survey without a great deal of background research being done beforehand, to get a better idea of the landscape and what might have occurred there over time. Still, I accepted this and went along with it, as this was a purely academic exercise. I wanted to see where my Professor would go with this concept, as I am always open to new approaches as they lead to new ideas and new, more efficient, more in-depth methods of carrying things out, leading to fuller, well-rounded conclusions. Being cognitively flexible is also something that is advantageous from the perspective of having AS.

When it came time to present the paper, however, we were informed that it was to have the layout and appearance of an official survey report. We were told that we might be submitting these forms to a state agency for review, as a class. This didn’t seem right in my mind, as I had learned from my professional life that legislation had been passed within the last few years that did not allow professionals at or below my level of education to submit such reports to agencies.

Consequently, I e-mailed my Professor and informed him that I did not possess a professional degree at this time, and that I did not feel comfortable submitting any work to the state agency. I stated that I was perfectly happy to submit anything I could to the academic class, but that I would not like anything to be forwarded beyond that, as this was, in my mind, a purely academic exercise. I wasn’t anxious, but this was a point that needed to be clarified before I (felt, at the time, might potentially) jeopardize my career track. Uncertainty and lack of clarity is something I dislike.

When I had started these courses, I identified one of my supervisors at work as being a mentor for me. In addition to running my ideas by him, I often suggested ideas to see if they might be feasible. In bringing this situation up in conversation, he reasoned that if the entire class was submitting their reports, then this agency would have likely been told that these reports were incoming. In addition, he stated that he wouldn’t worry about it if he were in my position, as it was very important to keep the separation between my professional and academic lives in my mind as I went through this process. For example, what I had known in my professional life (about the aforementioned legislation stating that people at my education level and below could not submit official reports) might not have been made known to the rest of the class, or else this might have been stated in the syllabus or along with the assigned paper, perhaps where it was stated that the paper would be forwarded to the state agency. If it had, and that it had been made clear that this was a mock report, I would have had no concerns with any aspect of the report. The fact that it was not made, however, made me more unsure as I was unable to fully discern the legitimacy of the process which I felt uncomfortable with.

Any consequential reprimand would not fall directly to me, but to my supervising Professor, as he or she would have asked us to do this. However, this doesn’t mean that I would have been in the clear, to which I can only advise that one cover their tracks. One word sums all of this up – transparency. If you work at something, give it your all, and come up short, most people will notice that you’ve been working very hard at perfecting something you care greatly about. Give credit where it is due, but also make sure that you are not being cornered – or painting yourself into a corner, which I find myself doing from time to time!

My Professor responded that this was to be submitted only to the class as a professional report, and that he would review it as a professional archaeologist – the report would be sent on to the state agency only as a “practice run,” though he did not specify whether or not the state agency was aware of our incoming reports. (We had been in contact with the state agency about the certain aspects of the development of the project, but I had not heard one word about whether or not the agency was in the loop about the submittals.) We would then exchange the reports within the class, to comment on each others’ papers and learn what might work and what might not in a professional report.

I accepted this and decided to go on with the course and the project, as the exercise would be good practice for me on a professional basis regardless of what was going on in class. I had been considering doing a good job on the research end of the project, but not formatting it as a professional report, something that would have given me a lower grade on the paper (as this was part of the required assignment) but would have potentially saved me professional embarrassment (something that I hold in higher ethical regard than a grade for a training course). However, with this clarification from my Professor and the explanation from my supervisor, I felt that I could only benefit from this course and from putting the skills I was learning into practice.

I was reminded of two very important things that day – to critically read what was presented as far as assignments (in order to garner an explanation which might not be obtained by simply re-reading the text provided) and to keep that separation in place, between my academic and professional lives. To not do the latter might see me professional shooting myself in the foot when I least expect it!

Academia is a very forgiving world in terms of “challenging” someone on a professional level when you are the student and they are the teacher. You can contemplate, hint, or even suggest an idea or concept that differs from the norm while being considered “eccentric” (an often-harmless condition), “open-minded” or thinking “outside the box” (especially when all of your filters are off or, because as a result of having AS, you have no idea where the box is in the first place. I have used this explanation with friends and co-workers on several occasions, to give them an idea of where I’m coming from), or even trying to add a little variety to an otherwise-stale subject (say…Contemporary Sociological Theory). What kept me patient with my professor was wondering what he thought of what I stated, or how he might take what I typed in my e-mail, as I was typing it. I put myself in his position and weighed what he might say in support of or against what I was stating, and played off of that model I had constructed. This requires a fair amount of intuition, but it can be done, if you keep an open mind about everything.

Did I “challenge” my professor? No. However, I did ask for clarification, after I felt like I might have been backed into a corner. I did not see the need to be assertive in my communication, other than standing my ground. (I prefer a graceful gesture with an open hand rather than a firm grip with a clenched fist.) If there were a malicious move on my professor’s part (far from any thought I had or currently have), I would have responded more aggressively, but I saw patience and clear communication as the key to get through this communication issue. I openly and honestly addressed a potential issue that I saw looming on the horizon before it marched up to the forefront. I did so in a calm, collected manner, but also did not back down when I could have ducked behind the instructions of the course, vague though they may have been. In the end, if it comes down to an issue of ethics, I will happily backtrack any efforts that do not impinge upon my personal experiences and knowledge, my colleagues (their work may be attacked for weak points, but not their character), or my career track, as I view all of these as more valuable than a letter grade on a course that can be taken again at some point in the future, when I might approach the course with more experience than I did the first time around.

Conclusions

The project taught me a number of lessons that were valuable for me going forward in the field of communication.

First, I am less inclined to automatically accept what is presented to me at face value. Now I question and interrogate information more often and try to discern wider issues such as alternative agendas and possible consequences.

Part of this process is challenging people. However, it is important to do this in a constructive way, one that does not antagonize the other party, by acknowledging their needs and where they are coming from initially. This, I find, mitigates the potential for them to become defensive at the outset.

Second, I try to empathize more by putting myself in the shoes of the other person. Doing so has meant realizing two benefits: I find it easier to understand where the other person is coming from and what their possible motives are – positive and negative. This, in turn, makes it easier for me personally. If I better understand and appreciate the other person’s view, it causes less confusion (and possible anxiety) on my part and smoothes relationships with those I interact with.

I also find that asking directly and explicitly what a person needs and, if necessary, clarifying things by asking for confirmation of anything I am uncertain about, enables me to communicate more effectively and work more productively.

Remaining true to my AS personality is also important. I am what I am and wouldn’t want to change my personality; indeed, in a work context I am unable to operate any other way. By being myself I am able to more effectively communicate the other party who I genuinely am and what my needs are. This , I believe, allows them to engage with me in the way that I require.

Finally, it is important for me to be comfortable with the ethics of any situation. Believing that I would be submitting a paper to a state agency, when I thought it would be going no further than an academic context, was something I felt very uneasy about. I did not believe that it was right of the Professor to state this and it was totally contrary to the inherent sense of ethics I have always felt and demonstrated.

Seeking and achieving clarification in this area enabled me to feel at ease with the process and the work that I was undertaking, and so enabled me to ultimately proceed.

Managing with Asperger Syndrome