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I soon walked up to one of the last meetings I had in the office before we all switched to work from home, not because I was rude, but because I was autistic. I was hoping to avoid Tyler popping up to tell me more about his deck renovation project.
Once I have safely settled into the meeting room on the decoratively overcrowded suede set, I grit my teeth to the infernal cacophony of sound coming from our in-house cafe down the hall. The whistling of the grind, the dulcet tones of our espresso machine working with a high whimper on Tuesday afternoon, creaked down the hall. The co-workers went to great lengths, stuffing themselves around the corner tufts around me with heels and clips, “Actually, wait for me, don’t start, I have to run to the bathroom!” and “Is everyone here now?” and “We should start.”
My colleague Elaine chose that day for the debut of the new perfume, a slightly intoxicating blend of gardenia, musk and mandarin, and sought honest feedback on whether the orange note was too orange. In this regard, I was insecure; Instead, I leaned under the table to pet Bailey, a 60-pound Portuguese Water Dog. He rested his head on my knee and I felt cold drops running down my lower leg from his curly mustache. He was known in the office as a bit of a “bad boy!” (He rolled into the puddle for lunch.) Marcus pushed him further under the table, cooing, “Isn’t it? Aren’t you my bad boyfriend? “
We put the agenda back on track and half-reviewed quarterly key performance indicators when the worst happened: we moved on to talk about genetic variation. Somehow, all of a sudden, my colleagues were eager to talk about olfactory receptor genes. Some thought cilantro tasted like soap, some thought it didn’t, and I thought, “This is my personal version of Hell on Earth.” My manager tapped his feet on the table in front of me, “Joni? Are you paying attention? ”
I pay. I paid. Attention is a currency, and like most autistic people, I have had an expensive and humiliating path to profitable employment. This time marks a series of exhausting shame-related embarrassments. My professional successes are overshadowed by the emotional and mental exhaustion of sailing a sensually irresistible world that first demands our attention and then punishes anyone who gives it at the wrong time or in the wrong amount, according to nuanced social rules that are rarely written often arbitrarily.
My career has been marked by jobs I lost after nonverbal (temporary loss of access to spoken communication, often confused by inattention). Every weekday, before the pandemic, I maneuvered for several hours with the invisible politics of a loud corporate office, defending myself with autistic crashes that could last minutes or hours. Most autistic people don’t like to label any thaw that follows an overload of the senses or attention as “anger attacks,” but I don’t know how else to call these episodes of behavior; they can include falling asleep, falling, glazing, acting, throwing things, going crazy while hitting and (me) biting. By biting a colleague you can get fired, so I try to avoid any disgusting confluence of sensory inputs, most of which are not completely out of my control.
Until last March, HR’s multiple requests to mitigate combustion by “working from home” were rejected. Then COVID changed everything. While we can never write off the losses and actual trauma caused by this pandemic, we should acknowledge its silver plating, as thin and transient as it can be. By working from home to help overcome the pandemic, autistic employees are making progress. This year, neurologically typical (“neurotypical”) people are forced to experience what people whose neurological development is atypical (“neurodivergent” people) perceive as everyday reality: reduced opportunities to spend time together and struggle to find a social connection.
The sudden shift to telecommuting has led to an explosion of innovation in live streaming technologies, group chat and video calling interfaces. Widespread adoption of digital communication platforms normalizes what autistic people have been looking for for years: affordable, productive, inclusive teleworking opportunities. Cultural and professional standards regarding video conferencing technologies, such as Zoom, Webex, Google Hangouts, and Microsoft Teams, meet a variety of autistic challenges and help avoid the complete mental exclusion that is often associated with burnout.
Burnout is one of the reasons why American adults with autism have higher unemployment rates and lower employment than adults with other disabilities and the general population. As an autistic person, finding and keeping a job can sometimes feel impossible. “But this year, job-seekers with autism are doing better than ever,” said Dr. Kerry Magro, board member of the National Autism Association. “Traveling to work is one of the most significant obstacles to the employment of autistic people. Driving and using public transportation can be an overwhelming experience. You never know if a bus, train or Uber will arrive late. Many people in our community focus on structure and routine, so the ability to create your own structure and routine at home has been of great benefit. People don’t realize how much more inclusive quarantine has been for autistic employees. Having the ability to turn off the video camera is wonderful. Having a chance to talk and not worry about maintaining perfect eye contact is another great advantage. “
Of course, these privileges extend only to those who can find and keep a job. Autistic product vendor Shringar Pangal, the ability to hold a weighted blanket in his lap while working remotely, helps manage stress and anxiety. “I couldn’t walk around the office all day and go to meetings with a giant blanket in my hands. I’m not crazy. “Using comfortable, familiar aids (like blankets) and other accessories is much easier in the privacy of home. “I can be on screen or off it, as I wish,” said autistic therapist Hillary Crow. “It helps me regulate energy throughout the day and avoid burning out.”
Most people personally analyze a complex network of visual, auditory, and sensory signals to facilitate exchange in conversation; this process, often referred to as “turning,” is a universal feature of social interactions. Many autistic people do not have a basic understanding of how and when to alternate in conversation, which can have devastating social consequences.
In the Wild West of Zoom, where norms of conversation are still being established, and some of us are still learning how to use our tools, meeting facilitators can approve access and indicate exactly when to turn on and speak. Hosts can model social turning norms and selectively dampen anyone who seems to be rolling. This function can create fairness in conversation where some members of the group belong to a dominant social group and others are more marginalized.
For autistic medical school student Laura Z. Weldon in Kentucky, long distance calls simplify selection. “I like that I don’t have to navigate when I speak in 20 different social interactions before class, and as long as I filter out dozens of other sounds from the environment,” she said, “I now feel more empowered to speak because the rules of engagement are clear.”
The clarity of professional communication can be increased now that employees are learning how to work from home. Working in multiple time zones and managing employees whose lives have been hampered by pandemics, fires, economic crashes, swarms of locusts, and election-related stress requires concise, direct communication: what autistic people are known for. “Subtle messages don’t work on Zoom,” Shringar Pangal said, “Suddenly, and for the first time ever, they were praised for my communication skills.”
Similarly, Amy Root, who works in health care in Oklahoma, says changes in norms have encouraged her to seek the accommodation she has long needed. “I felt more empowered this year. I’ll ask for a sound call just to zoom in so I can move around, which helps me focus, or I’ll ask for live subtitles in big meetings. “Recently, technology company Otter.ai announced the launch of live subtitles for conference calls and webinars to improve online accessibility.
Undoubtedly, the disruption caused by COVID to established communication norms will take decades to unravel. Welcome as recent events, only time will tell how it will affect the ability of neurodivergent job seekers to find and keep a job. Before the pandemic, 85% of graduates with autism could not find a job. Autistic job seekers who are further marginalized because of their class or race may find employment even more difficult, and of course, many autistic people have communication and executive functioning difficulties that would prevent them from finding a job they can work from home.
However, COVID could change all this. As more and more industries learn to turn office roles into jobs from home, accommodation may be easier to find. The benefits that new media bring to autistic people can be extrapolated to other marginalized communities, such as deaf and single parents. The use of digital media for human connections can lay the foundations for new, more inclusive social structures. Social norms of online communities (such as live subtitles) may eventually return to offline communities after a pandemic.
We can only wonder what effect these events will have on the future of human relationships. Maybe we never needed lattes and desks for the office desk. We often think of bliss as an excess, perhaps derived from hedonistic pleasures, but from time to time our bliss can be very simple. Communication is a balm, a solvent and a fundamental human right. For those who have been excluded from society for so long – what a unique joy it is to finally connect.
Joni Whitworth is a producer and community organizer working in creative technology.
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