The other day I was at work and was hit by a revelation. It had been nagging at me for a while – I could feel that something had shifted. But I never would have predicted that I would be facing the world of work with a social advantage due to my autism.
I’ve had two new jobs working remotely since March 2020, when the world changed so completely. Both jobs have involved working from home. Both jobs were in teams where few – if any – coworkers had met.
At first things were pretty lonely at work in job number one. No one reached out to me. Team meetings were large affairs with cameras off and few people speaking.
There was no opportunity to get to know people. No manager introduced themselves to me – in fact the only time I met my manager in that role one-to-one, was after I’d resigned to move to something new, when I asked if I could give some advice on improving morale before I left. I didn’t want whoever replaced me to feel as isolated as I did in those early days. It was so avoidable with a bit of forethought.
After a couple of months in this first role I started reaching out to people individually and having conversations with them – either through messages or via teams. They were all feeling isolated and lonely. They were all finding the situation hard. They all wanted more human contact.
I noticed that after we spoke they would come to me to discuss work issues. I’d get ‘quick question’ messages, throughout the day. I realised that before I’d introduced myself – when I was just a name on a screen in a meeting of more than fifty of us – they’d just been struggling on alone. Just one call created the thinnest of safety nets between us, that strengthened as time went on.
Then something even odder happened; I got accused of being sociable. I came to realise that no one was really checking in on people. When a coworker started trying to have group chats to cheer everyone up, I jollied people along and drew them in. We conspired together to get people interacting. Communication is important if you want any team to work well together.
These conversations we had were a long way from small-talk. I learnt that my team had travelled the world, had incredible skills, were musicians, international sports players, and had worked in so many incredible roles globally. We were creative and funny and different, and many were struggling with feelings of loneliness during lockdown.
When I left that role lots of my colleagues contacted me to tell me how much they’d valued the time I put into building us up as a team.
For the first time in my life, I had been at the centre of the office-socialite world.
What was different? How had this happened? Why was I being heralded as the casual communicator? Didn’t they know that I have a diagnosable communication condition?! Ah, no. I might not have mentioned it, and with the sensory comfort of working from home and the structure of working via Microsoft Teams, the playing field had been levelled for me. I was communicating on my own terms and it was working.
I was able to put all my work effort into work. I didn’t need to save any for the person I might bump into in the corridor, for whom I would have to wrench forth small-talk. I didn’t have to save energy for variables along the commute that might change my routine and drain my reserves. Outside of those structured team-building conversations, people primarily contacted me about work. Small-talk felt like a thing of the past.
When the day was done, I wouldn’t have to save something back in case the journey home took in an unscheduled stop, or unexpected acquaintance, or any of the thousands of other things that most people take in their stride, but that bruise me and leave me feeling less of a person for being bruised.
When I started my second job I found the same pattern beginning again. Here was another newly established team where the lines of communication were fragile. I again began building relationships with people. I again pushed for more contact.
I need to know people’s strengths and difficulties to get us working most efficiently, and the only way to understand how people work is to interact with them. Logic said that for us to work well together we must know each other. Why weren’t other people doing this? Why were all the sociable lot hiding away and feeling lonely and terrible, instead of acting?
Because they didn’t know how to put the effort in; that was my realisation. For me, contacting people is always an effort. Communicating with a new group always comes with a cost. I expect it to be hard to take that first step, and it invariably is. I expect meetings to be draining. I expect interactions to take their toll.
But I also know that there is enormous value gained by reaching out. I see the cost and I pay it, because it’s worth it. As much as I love to research, I’ve always known that the quickest way to find something out is to ask someone who knows the answer. And for that to work you need to know who knows what.
Those non-autistic people who loved the social world of the office, on the other hand, had never experienced communication in the same way. It was not something considered or analysed, it just happened. They would move through the office, absorbing the multitude of interactions along the way, and it would energise them – where it would have drained me.
They did not know how to get the benefit of building relationships at a distance. They did not know how to consider and take that step to build something when it felt uncomfortable to do so. They did not know how to deal with how exhausting remote meetings could be – they were used to feeling energised by contact. They did not know how to plan recovery time nor structure their days to keep their intensive work for times when they were most alert, and their routine work for times when they might be drained.
In the land of the remote worker, the autistic woman is queen.
Some of us are going to be working from home for a while yet (I hope forever) and there are lessons we can learn from those of us for whom communication has always been a learnt skill.
This is also an opportunity to develop our empathy. Non-autistic people need to learn that for some of us it has always been harder, and that things being hard doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be done or don’t have value. For some people working remotely has been wonderful, for some it has been a nightmare. It’s not that one group is wrong and the other is right, it’s that we all work differently. In an ideal world we should all be able to work in the ways that suit us best.
Another side-effect of working from home that I hadn’t foreseen, was how people who relied on their own innate social skills were struggling to do so remotely. Autistic people are used to not performing their facial expressions in ways that non-autistic people always understand. We are used to being misunderstood and our feelings misinterpreted from our behaviours.
People are learning that communication is harder at a distance. You can’t rely on someone picking up your mood from your expression at home. You can’t hope that people will read into your tone of voice that you’re struggling, when it’s all written down.
Conversely it seems that those subliminal blocks that suggest to people that I am cold or distant or odd, aren’t as easily seen through the camera.
I’ve always been struck by how differently autistic people view me, to non-autistic. Autistic people may describe me as warm and friendly, non-autistic people have been known to say I am cold and aloof. I’m sure there is some body language that the latter pick up on unconsciously, that sets me apart as different, but via Teams no one can see you stim. When I’m not there in person, it seems that people end up looking at my actions and listening to my words rather than relying on their social assumptions.
It’s time we all became more explicit about our needs and stopped relying on the social computations of those around us. If you’re finding it hard to be heard, try some autistic, direct communication. Message someone that you’re struggling. Reach out and connect. When you can’t rely on passing interactions to feed your need for a social world, you have to start planning and preparing, it’s the only way to build connections. We all need each other.
For those who already have established networks this may be irrelevant, but for those of us who are new it is one of the hardest things to find your place in a new team. The tiny things that you’d ask someone if they were sat next to you, seem too petty to call someone up about it put in an email. But we have to reach out to each other.
We have to be open to different types of communication and community, and we have to hold onto these things as the world changes once more. There’s no going back but we can always go forwards. And I’d rather do that together.