Work Environment

Background

Caroline is 26 and in the process of receiving a diagnosis for Asperger Syndrome.

She has a degree in Political Science and a Master’s in Computing but has found building a career a struggle. Central to this has been finding a Work Environment that suits her needs.

Initially she worked for a large telecommunication company in computing after A Levels and turned down the opportunity to train as a religious studies teacher. Finding it difficult at work, she left to gain the degree in Political Science two years later.

Confusion continued however with what career path to follow and so she studied for a further Masters.

She now works for a secondary school maintaining computers and hopes to pursue a career in teaching in ICT and, also, part-time, building her own web design business. By learning about the environment and culture she believes that her career and work objectives be much more achievable.

Exact details in this case study have been changed for confidentiality reasons. The views expressed are personal, for illustrative purposes only and should not be related, or automatically applied to, other situations or scenarios.

Case Study

When I came to initially decide on a career, I gave little thought to the type of environment that I would need, i.e. culture, ergonomics or colleagues. But then, as now, I had not been diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome, (AS).

My initial career choice was therefore difficult and somewhat confused. I had a choice between a place to train as an RE primary teacher or an apprenticeship in the telecommunication industry. I enjoyed computing as a hobby, so hoped to work using computers, but I also enjoyed RE at school. It was the chance to earn money straight from school that led me to taking an ICT apprenticeship.

It was during the two years at that telco company that I became self-aware that I had problems adjusting from a school environment to a work environment. As someone who hadn’t been diagnosed with Asperger’s, it became clear that there was a problem with the way I interacted with people and the way I was learning in the workplace.

Most team communications were conducted through email, and I was particularly pleased that I did not have to talk to the person sitting next to me as email communication was the norm. However, it was slow and cumbersome and often people would not reply.

My line manager said it would be more effective to go talk to people, but I felt awkward interrupting their work whilst hanging around their desk. What I really needed were clear explanations of what was required of me in terms of task and work objectives.

I would also accidentally make inappropriate comments to work colleagues and felt out of place amongst them. I put this it down to being a lot younger than the others and because I was working in a male dominated industry. Everyone else had Masters’ degrees in engineering, whilst I had social science A Levels – that, for me, explained why I was different!

Consequently, I felt uncertain, out of my depth amongst IT specialists and awkward about asking questions about things that they would regard as basic concepts. I suspected they felt I should know about them already. As a result, I tended to not bother asking and remained confused if I could not find the answers on the Internet. I lacked focus and felt overwhelmed and, as a result, my work was not up to the standard expected of me.

When my line manager suggested I work things out for myself and be a bit more proactive in order to complete tasks, I would panic as I found this too hard. I was expected to maintain computers with unfamiliar operating systems, but I had no idea where to begin so I started to feel like a failure and my confidence started to decline. I also doubted my intelligence even though I was well qualified. Every task within my job role seemed so vague and unstructured. I never thought that my line manager might have not been meeting my specific needs or that I should ask him.

At the same time, my driving instructor became increasingly frustrated with me for similar reasons and suggested I might have dyspraxia. I did nothing about this for many years and ignored the possibility of having a problem.

I did though speak to my line manager about having dyspraxia. He did not dismiss it, but it was not something that was investigated fully. He did however attempt to break down tasks into more detail and put them into emails after he realized my progression was slow. This helped greatly, but by then my morale had fallen. It felt too little too late, and I was thinking of quitting the job to escape the anxiety. With hindsight what I should have done is explained things and asked for assistance earlier.

I did not give my company or manager a chance to help me. However, I needed a change to avoid some sort of meltdown. I was succeeding well with my NVQs and BTEC HNC, but I could not comprehend why I was underperforming elsewhere. For someone who always thought herself to be strong academically, this was quite a shock.

When I was told I could not study for a third year to gain an HND due to financial constraints, and not ‘being good enough at my job to deserve it’, I knew I had to leave. The motivation I once had disappeared and it was compounded by the worries that managers had about redundancies and profit.

I became depressed because I felt I was not achieving what I should have or was capable of, so my company sent me to occupational health to access my cognitive wellbeing. The doctor dismissed the possibility of dyspraxia and seemed to think all I needed was some medication or a career change. Perhaps I did not explain myself properly, but he failed to understand the seriousness of how I was feeling.

I put the thought of having dyspraxia behind me and decided to do a political science degree to change direction in the hope that a different career might be more suitable. I knew I had to get away from the job I was doing, and going to university seemed the easiest way out at the time.

I thrived at university. I was comfortable and felt at home because the environment was structured. I knew when the essays were due, their titles and the reading lists for each lecture. It was well organised and I knew exactly what I needed to do. Although I did not go out much, I had friends. I mixed mostly with the mature foreign students and this probably helped me to fit in as I had more in common with them.

I enjoyed the subject and thought about becoming a teacher again, but realised political science was not taught often in schools; I picked the subject as it looked interesting rather than as a way of getting employment. However, I did not have the drive to push myself into that career and decided to do a Masters degree in computing to put off getting a job and, perhaps, find a different branch of computing I might enjoy.

I changed university, and it was during this time I got an official diagnosis for dyspraxia. I had always been clumsy and lacked coordination, so felt it needed further investigation. I was diagnosed with dyspraxia, though mild, and was told I should investigate further the possibility of having AS. However, the doctor was unable to confirm it properly as she did not specialise in AS diagnosis.

A year had nearly past since I first became aware of my potentially having AS. I saw my GP who was convinced I was affected and referred me to a specialist to get a complete diagnosis. He was very helpful and acknowledged that this would help me to understand myself and give me legal protection in the workplace.

The Masters degree was near completion and I started work in a school maintaining computer resources. I chose this work because the environment was structured as at University, and also, familiar. I had after all, felt secure in education before.

However, whilst working in the school, I started to feel that the previous problems were re-appearing again that I encountered before I went to university. I found tasks a struggle if they were not clearly explained and I became frustrated with my inability to problem solve quickly. After a heated argument with my manager at the school about how my work was not always of the required standard, we jointly discovered what the problem was and a way forward.

I had informed my employer of having both dyspraxia and AS when I started the job, but, unfortunately, they did not understand the full implications of how it manifests itself in an adult. As a result, people did not understand me or how to satisfy my personal work requirements.

Although there were many children in the school with AS, it was not obvious to members of staff how AS could appear in an adult. I felt the condition was undermined with people saying: “you seem alright to me”, but I knew this was not so as I internalised much of my anguish and would hide when things got too much for me. I had no qualms about divulging my AS, as the school was quite supportive and sympathetic to people’s problems. Once my manager knew how I worked best, our relationship improved and was good.

It was the children’s noise though that was particularly challenging and put me consistently on edge when I first started the job. The environment did not offer the solace I needed to work effectively. I found it difficult also to confront bad behaviour in the children, whilst, at the same time, not allowing myself to appear a pushover. This was the same with dominant members of staff, so I avoided them as I was not assertive.

Since working in a school, I have felt it much of a blessing that I became aware of having AS, as an adult. However, I would still not necessarily divulge my condition to anyone who did not need to know as doing so may mean I am targeted or viewed as different (and therefore less capable).

Many children who have been diagnosed seem to be treated as different and special. Although it is good that their problems are being addressed, I feel fortunate that I have had to cope alone because, once out of education, the support can be limited. As a result, I have had to learn to fit in so initially my problems are not apparent. It is not obvious to me how I have done this except by copying how other people react and behave in a particular situation.

I am now moving my career in a different direction whilst taking on board the lessons I have learnt. Central to this has been locating a more appropriate work environment. I have been privileged to meet a wonderful man who has been helping me develop the skills to have my own website design business as an aside to my school work. This has provided me with a supporting mentor, and I believe it is important to have someone to guide me within a work context. I seek this now to provide support and make me feel more confident in my own abilities.

Working at home after my day job to create websites in my own time, affords me the flexibility to manage my personal requirements. Sometimes I have meltdowns, but I can come back to my work when I have calmed down and still get to complete deadlines.

It is the structure and formality of the working day that I still find challenging. I am still drawn to wanting to teach because of this, but right now I am not geared up to secondary teaching. I have considered lecturing to avoid the sensory overload that accompanies a boisterous adolescent environment.

AS is not necessarily a barrier to succeed, but for myself, I have no desire to work up a career ladder in a prescribed setting. I don’t like the rigidity of rules within the work place that can stifle creativeness. Doing what I do now, and the work context I operate in, means that I have my own space.

In addition, my work colleagues understand my limitations and talents. I have been
given the opportunity to grow into the job and progress. I believe without supportive and understanding work colleagues, this would have been much harder. The stress levels have dropped right down since I have been relocated to my own office at the school as personalised working space is essential; I cannot hear the children as much as before. I am now able to focus and concentrate on my work, something I did not have whilst working at the telecommunications company previously. If I did not disclose my condition, I doubt this accommodation would have been made.

I feel at this stage that working in education is not what I would like to do long term because it will not support me financially. However, by not being the only person affected by AS in the school, albeit only alongside students, it has helped me to transfer from university to the workplace where people understand the condition to some extent. I have also learnt that my problems are not unique and many students will be feeling they are no different to everyone else.

I have come a long way from when I first was told I had AS and my frustrations have subsided greatly. I am slowly becoming happier with who I am, knowing that I will be able to build my own successful business with the support of my partner having identified the working environment and conditions that I need.

Looking back, I think I could have worked well in the telecommunication industry if my problems were identified earlier and required adjustments made. I did not dislike the work when I understood it, but as it was an apprenticeship whose learning style did not suit me. Vague on the job training or directives like ‘go figure things out for yourself’ was something I found it all too hard.

I realize now that my work should engage me in order to motivate- but not overwhelm – me. I need – and like – a work environment that keeps me busy, one where I do not have time to think too much or procrastinate. Tasks should be broken down into manageable pieces and it has been incredibly useful for me since the school has implemented a computerised help desk system. Providing technical support to computer users has given me the organization and structure I need and, as a result, I have felt much happier in myself. Seeing small results has also increased my confidence and self-worth.

Although I am still waiting to see a specialist to formally diagnose AS, my employer is treating me as if I do have it and is making all the reasonable adjustments regardless of the legal requirement to do so. I appreciate this and it has made my working life a lot easier. Whether I have AS or not, I feel I am able to work effectively much more than I was before.

However, importantly, I have also made fundamentally changes personally. I don’t automatically blame others for my behaviour and I accept my own responsibility. I realise now that I can say and do inappropriate things, but I have become more humble, accept my shortcomings and am willing to apologise if need be. I try to be more considered by thinking how my actions would be received if someone did it to me.

Although I do slip up, it has helped me to fit in and overcome my social deficits and, in turn, help me be better in the workplace by being in the right environment for me.

Managing with Asperger Syndrome