Months ago, rumors started to swirl through the department of a manager position that would soon be available due to a chain of promotions prompted by the director leaving the company. Of course, as things always go here, days turned into weeks and weeks turned into months with no official declaration of these changes. As summer began to fade into the crisp days of autumn, an email popped into my inbox announcing an official opening in my department. The manager position was finally available. As one of the only people in my department with prior management experience, I readied my resume and set about filling out the application. I took time to craft eloquent, thoughtful answers to the questions asked, far more time than I typically spend on an application. Not only would this position be a good career move for me, it would be a substantial pay raise which is much needed at this time.
A week went by and I heard nothing, though I expected nothing else. I assumed that, like always, the hiring process for this job would drag out over weeks or months. Thus, I was surprised when a mere week after I had applied, my supervisor pulled me in to talk about my application. He started by remarking that my resume is great as always and that he no corrections to make there. He then proceeded to tell me that I would not be proceeding in the application process.
The world seemed to stop for a moment. This was not the conversation I had expected to have. You see, in this company, before going through the actual interview process, your supervisor gets to decide whether or not you will advance. In the past, when I have applied for other positions, I was quickly moved ahead, even to the point of my supervisor fighting for me to have a chance to interview for a job I wasn’t qualified for. So I was blindsided by the news that I would not be progressing.
He went on to explain that I didn’t have enough “trust” from the field. I had made a couple of mistakes about six months back. I had taken ownership of these mistakes at the time and had made significant steps to rectify the situation and do better moving forward. However, apparently one of the directors I work with regularly has held onto a grudge about this and continues to not trust me despite my proven track record. Not to be conceited, but I am one of the best employees in my department. My speed is unparalleled. My accuracy is on point. I have taken an area that has been notoriously difficult and turned things around so that we are within compliance (most of the time). My work is well regarded both by coworkers and various levels of management. I have literally won an award for my work. Yet, this woman doesn’t trust me.
Not only that, but, according to my supervisor, my coworkers don’t trust me either because I’m “too quick to rat people out.” When my supervisor told me this, fire welled up inside me. I rat people out too quickly? Really? Whenever someone makes a mistake in my area, I go to the person who made the mistake, not my supervisor. I have never once commented on nor reported anyone for using the internet or their phones at work. I mind my own business and only take things to management when there is a serious issue that requires supervisor involvement.
Except, I’ve reported more than one person for sexual harassment. Two years ago, I reported two men for making frequent, lewd comments. I had been dealing with their comments for months and months and finally couldn’t take it anymore. I went to my manager about the issue who then got HR involved who then discovered that these men were saying even worse things over the company IM. Neither were fired for their actions, but both were put on final warning and were suspended for a couple days. A few months later, a pompous, misogynistic, “devil’s advocate”, alt-right, tool of a man decided to make a penis out of his orange peel. When one of my coworkers commented on this, the tool claimed that we were the ones with dirty minds for seeing that (it was very obviously crafted to appear this way. An orange peel doesn’t fall that way naturally). As the two men bickered back and forth, the non-tool started to get (understandably) angry and seemed to be close to saying/doing something that could get him in trouble. As such, I messaged my supervisor and asked him to walk past our row. He took it from there, immediately noticing the offending orange peel. Tool was subsequently pulled into HR and suspended, at which point he chose to quit. The final time I reported someone, it was because he was making me highly uncomfortable with his behavior. He was hitting on me constantly and making comments to others about my body and how he would eventually win me over and I’d be his. It was creepy, possessive, and completely inappropriate for the workplace. I spoke to my supervisors about this and was informed that I was not the first person to complain about his behavior. As far as I am aware, he never faced any actual consequences.
Thus, when being told that apparently my coworkers think I’m a snitch, I couldn’t help but come to the conclusion that one of the major reasons for this is because of the times I have reported sexual harassment, you know, illegal behavior. As I do not have a pattern of ratting people out for other things, the only logical conclusion is that this is why I’ve been given this title.
However, I think there’s something else at work here too. I’m not social. I don’t go out of my way to socialize with others at work and I mainly keep to myself. I stim openly and often without regard to how my behavior may be perceived. I don’t make eye contact. I’m weird. I’m autistic. I am openly and unabashedly autistic and I know this doesn’t sit well with others. I don’t play into office politics. I comment when people say offensive things (like the r slur). I don’t care about all the social games that play out before me. I am quiet and reclusive. And this is a problem.
Even with my diminished ability to read others, it is abundantly clear that my coworkers don’t particularly like me. I am excluded from department wide activities. When my peers go out to dinner together or go for drinks, invitations are made openly around me but never including me. I see the looks I get when I contribute to conversation. I am weird. I am abnormal. I’m not like the rest of them. They may not know that I’m autistic, but it is clear that, in their eyes, I am other. None of this is helped by the favoritism I used to receive from my supervisor. I am an excellent worked and that has been noted, but because I don’t play by the rules of their social games, I am cast aside and openly showed disdain. Once upon a time, I tried to be more social. I tried sitting with my coworkers at lunch rather than sitting alone like usual. They all started sitting somewhere else. I may be autistic, but even I can figure out what that means.
So, I’m not allowed to even interview for promotion because other people don’t like me enough. Regardless of how good my work is, no matter how much more proficient I am than others, no matter how hard I try, it matters not because I’m not well-liked enough. They can paint it as “trust” or whatever else, but the real message is that I haven’t played the games well enough. I’m not social enough. I’m too weird. Too autistic.
I have my suspicions that one of the major reasons I’m not being move forward in this process is because of absences I have had under FMLA. Of course, they can’t actually say that so they provide me with other reasons. Yet, whether it is for the reasons given or because my attendance is not what they want, the reason I can’t get promoted here is because I’m disabled.
Workplace discrimination against autistic people is nothing new, though the figures are highly concerning. While 77% of unemployed autistic people want work, only 32% of autistic people have paid work. In comparison, 47% of disabled people have paid work while 80% of non-disabled people have paid work. In this regard, I am quite lucky. I have been employed with this company for over three years. Before that, I was employed by another company for about two years. I am lucky to have a job at all, though my jobs have always been far below my skill level, which is not uncommon for autistic people. Of autistic people who are employed, 51% are working jobs beneath their skill levels. So not only do we have disturbingly high rates of unemployment, but we are vastly underemployed. Additionally, about 48% of autistic people have experienced bullying or harassment in the workplace due to being autistic. [Source]
Half of autistic people have been bullied or harassed in the workplace! That is ridiculous! However, I’ve seen it firsthand. I’ve already recounted some of my experiences, but I’m not the only autistic person in my department. There was a girl in my department who was more noticeably autistic than I am. She engaged in some behaviors that are not socially permissible and, as a consequence, was bullied by much of the department. She eventually quit because she couldn’t handle it (nor should she have needed to). There is a guy in my department who has never said that he is autistic, but he seems pretty autistic to me. He is constantly picked on and made fun of and tormented. Everyone else claims that they’re just having fun and he “needs to learn to take a joke” but the harassment is constant for him. He tries to fit in with everyone else but is met with bullying at all times. I hurt for him and watch as the comments and pranks hurt him, but I feel powerless to do anything. His tormentors are the same people who most openly show their disdain for me. Speaking up on his behalf would only lead to further torment for both of us.
The workplace is a microcosm of social engagement. For those of us who struggle with rules of these social games, it can be torturous. All of us who are weird, different, abnormal are cast aside. If we’re lucky, we’re ignored. Others are bullied mercilessly. And, far too often, those in power do nothing to intervene. Even worse, those in power may be tormentors as well. Even those who are not openly hateful often use their prejudices when making decisions in the workplace. Autistic people are passed over for promotion, picked apart for small mistakes, punished for things that slide by for others. We are left feeling lucky just to have a job, no matter how awful that job is.
This needs to change. Autism acceptance is so very needed in the workplace. Some companies are starting to lead the way. Microsoft has a program aimed at recruiting autistic people who are transitioning from school to the workplace. However, we need more wide spread understanding and acceptance of autism. We need employers to understand the struggles autistic people may face in the workplace and how to accommodate these struggles. We need employers who are willing to look beyond traditional employment methods and consider new ways of doing things. Interviews are often one of the biggest roadblocks to employment for autistic adults as it is basically a test of social skills that far too many of us fail. Even for those of us who make it in the door, workplace politics and the social expectations of a job can be too much. We may disengage from these things as I have done or we may try to keep up which can cause us to burnout and become unproductive workers. Far too often, these social games have nothing to do with the actual work of a job and yet we are judged on how well we can play along.
I hope for a future where these barriers to employment no longer stand in the way of autistic people. I hope that one day our unemployment rates will not be so absurdly high. I hope that one day autistic people can be a part of the workforce without being bullied or harassed for the ways we are. However, it’s going to take a lot of work on the part of autistic advocates to make these changes. We are going to need to fight for our rights and fight for the changes we want to see in the world. It may take time, but I believe that, one day, we’ll get there.