My Autism Brain at Work: How the Way I Think Impacts the Way I Business
This is Part 1 of an ongoing series chronicling my life on the autism spectrum. In this article, I’ll let you in on how I handle social interactions.
In a world that often utters the word “autism” with a whisper, as if mourning a tragic fate, I am here to illuminate why it’s extraordinary. Autism, far from a curse, has gifted me with superpowers. I do not bear a disease, but rather I possess a mind that works in its own way. I’m going to share my personal journey in hopes it will foster a deeper comprehension of working alongside the neurodiverse and also that it may illuminate some of your own struggles. Brace yourself, for within these words may lie a transformative “A-ha!” moment.
(Side note: My part of the spectrum was formerly called Asperger’s Syndrome, but it turns out Dr. Asperger was a Nazi who murdered disabled children (oops!), so now it’s known as High-Functioning Autism, or HFA.)
Throughout this series, I’ll observe what I’ve seen as different between myself and “neurotypical” people. But first, I want to make a few things clear: One person’s experience of autism is one person’s experience of autism. I speak only for myself and my life and my experiences. Second, I am not a doctor or medical research professional.
Third and perhaps most importantly, “autism” isn’t exactly a thing, and it’s certainly not a disease. It’s a constellation of characteristics, all of which exist outside the spectrum as well. Many people with the broad label of “autism” have some of these characteristics, but nobody has all of them. In addition, autism isn’t specific or definite, like having a left arm (or not), or being pregnant (or not). It’s properly called a spectrum because there are a wide range of experiences that fall under this broad label. The diagnosis is made by a mental health professional when people have a group of these certain characteristics or behaviors, but it’s not a “syndrome” – people don’t have autism, they are autistic. There’s a big difference. (You wouldn’t say “Bob has gay” you’d say “Bob is gay.”)
Where am I on the spectrum?
I share a couple of common attributes with others on the spectrum: special interests and hyper-focus. I can become a stan about singular topics that interest me, but have absolutely zero interest in most others. This can cause some autistic people to isolate themselves from the larger world, but this works in my favor because one of my special interests is people – how they work, how their brains work, why they do the things they do, and what it means when people make certain faces or use their voices in certain ways.
I consider myself lucky, because voluminous research shows that the No. 1 indicator of happiness and life satisfaction is how many strong relationships we have with others. Through my focus on understanding people, I’ve formed dozens of strong, loving, supportive relationships with others. I’ve carefully built these relationships across disparate social groups, so that one disrupted connection won’t cause my entire social support structure to come crashing down.
This focus on people also gives me most of the skills that other people think are superpowers. For example, I’m frequently told I’m a mind reader, but I’m not. I’m just using my database of past experiences to accurately predict what you’re currently thinking and feeling.
I’ve also been told I’m empathetic and a great listener. This is true. I need more data for my database, and listening and recording that information from others accurately improves my overall data set. How do I use that data? Because I know that understanding is often felt through feeling heard, I work hard to demonstrate to others that I hear them.
Finally, I often hear that I’m very good at picking up on tiny gestures, inflections, changes of tone, and microscopic body mechanics. In a group setting, I can quickly pick up who’s checked in and out simply by how someone holds their pen.
How does that translate to social interactions?
It may seem clear by now that the way I interact socially is quite different from my understanding of how most people do it.
Some people make social situations seem so easy — something they just do without having to think about it. For me, though, social interaction is an effortful process. Here’s how my brain handles it:
- Identify the type of interaction. Is it a phone call? A party? A work event?
- Identify the type of energy/mood/behaviors I’m likely to encounter. A skeptical sales person? A friend who’s excited to see me? A client who is cautiously optimistic about the work we’ll do together?
- Decide on my intended outcome for the interaction. Do I want a friend to feel heard? A sales prospect to buy my services? Do I want to explain a concept to a novice in a way they will understand?
- Decide on my rules for engagement. Is this a time to talk slowly or quickly? Should I focus on listening while making sympathetic facial gestures or holding steady eye contact? How much shall I talk, how much shall I be quiet? Zany or serious?
- Engage in the event. Pick up the phone, or walk in the door.
- Evaluate, every five to 30 seconds, how I’m doing against my goals. I do this by hyperfocusing on the things the other person is saying, the way their face and body move, and the inflection of their speech. Using my database of past interactions, I make judgment calls, like “What does that face mean? Okay, that face means they don’t understand me, or I’m talking too fast, so slow down. That face means they want to talk, so shut up.”
- After each action, I evaluate if I’m having my intended impact. I think to myself, “I wanted to demonstrate that I understand their concern, so I made a concerned face and asked a probing question. Does their response to my action get me the outcome I wanted?” If yes, continue. If no, evaluate the likely cause of social failure and attempt again.
- After the entire interaction concludes, evaluate. Based on my starting goal, how did I do? Where did I fail to elicit the reaction I expected? Did I gather the data I required? Between one and 10, how would I rate myself in that interaction, and how might I improve next time?
The entire time I’m executing this process, I’m updating my database. And every action and reaction I observe either reinforces or revises my understanding of what a particular face, set of words, or tone means: “Yep, I got that right, they are angry. My understanding of what an angry face looks like is correct. You earned a point!” or “Nope, I misjudged that. They were sad, not humiliated, and what I said there did not resonate with them. Update my mental database to know that the face I think means “humiliated” might also mean “sad,” and next time probe for further understanding.”
I’m not always dialed up to 11, though. The amount of oomph I put behind my system depends on the value I put on the interaction. In high-stakes situations, like sales calls or client meetings, I turn it on full-blast and remain extremely vigilant.
But in low-stakes scenarios, like ordering a burrito, I either turn the system off and just sound like a robot or run an automated, pre-programmed set of responses that are no-effort and non-responsive to the other person’s actual mood. I could probably put in the effort to determine if my server is happy or sad, and to respond accordingly, but I just want a burrito so I’m not going to bother engaging that system.
If this sounds exhausting, it is.
All of this thinking, processing and analyzing is why I’m introverted. Running this program time and again is exhausting, so after I spend eight hours running a session with a client, I go home and turn all the way off. Take off the mask, so to speak. I sit on the couch, eat some food, watch two to three hours of TV, and go to sleep without talking very much. And that’s not because I want to — it’s because I HAVE to.
Actually, none of this is because I want to. It’s the way my brain is wired. I’ve developed this system over the years so that my brain can play nicely with other, differently wired brains.
My final note on this topic is this: Contrary to common belief, every autistic person I’ve ever met feels the same range of emotions as non-autistic people. I feel love, caring, sadness, joy, humiliation, excitement, and everything else, just the same as neurotypical people, but there’s a difference in how I express it. I might say, with an utterly flat affect, “I am very sad right now.” And it’s always a true statement even if I’m not crying, scrunching up my face, or otherwise expressing sadness in the way that you’re used to seeing.
Just like social interactions, however, I do have a system I can turn on for that if I read the room and feel like it’s necessary. I know what “sad” is supposed to look and sound like, so if I need to be read as sad I can do it. But it, too, is a mask.
Finally, I’m bad at expressing nuance; even as I write this, what I’m saying is not as binary as I’m portraying it. There are times I use the system a little bit, and times I use it a lot. There are times I am just wrong in how I use it, and times when I forget to use it entirely and suffer the consequences. (I don’t notice I’ve forgotten to use it until everybody is staring at me like I’m an emotionless robot. Then I reflect on what I’ve been doing or saying, and adjust.)
How do I know whether I’ll need to step on the gas or let it idle? Ultimately, it’s the extent to which I feel that I’m going to need to appear “human” to a person or group versus the extent to which I think I will be accepted, welcomed, and safe to be myself.
A final note
I have many wonderful, loving friends and partners who accept me for who I am, and I greatly appreciate them. It’s such a relief to be with people who don’t require my brain to be on full alert 100% of the time.
My analytical approach to life also makes me very good at and confident in my job. When I’m coaching or in front of a crowd, you’ll probably never know (except for the occasional glitch in the matrix) how rapidly my wheels are spinning. And that’s exactly how I want it.
In Part 2 of this series, I talk about why I happily park in one-hour zones for longer than one hour.