When Your Work Is Who You Are

My wife has observed that my work is deeply intertwined with my identity. It was not the first time she observed it, but sometimes the Nth time you hear something is when you start to think about it.

I hadn’t really thought about it before because she was and is right. It seems so natural to me. I am a poet/playwright/interdisciplinary scholar/spontaneous order theorist. When I wake, those things are on my mind; they are on my mind throughout the day; they are on my mind when I go to sleep. My mind is always active, thinking about my various projects.

Asperger’s has been called the “Little Professor Syndrome,” and I certainly fit that description. When I was obsessed with dinosaurs, I could have held my own with a paleontologist; when I was obsessed with sharks, I learned everything I could find on sharks; when I was obsessed with plants — and later narrowed that obsession to orchids — I learned everything I could find on plants and, particularly, orchids. That obsession later turned into molecular biology in college, then economics, then quantum physics (at least, to the degree one can learn about it without math), then chaos theory and complexity, then fiction writing, then poetry, then play writing. The older I have gotten, though, the more I have retained past interests. I remain curious about molecular biology, and I often think with the concepts of biology; I have increased my interest in economics, combining my interest in complexity with economics into Austrian economics and spontaneous order theory; I still write plays and poems.

One of my more recent obsessions is learning about autism. When I learned my son had autism, I did the autistic thing and became obsessed with the topic and learned everything I could about it. My familiarity with molecular biology and neurobiology helped. It was in dong this research that I learned I had Asperger’s.

It turns out that those with Asperger’s deeply identify with the work they do, with the work with which they are obsessed.

If the person with autism can find a place that will indulge his obsessions, he will be a great worker and will do great work. If the person with autism cannot find such a place, he won’t allow that job to interfere with his “real” work. One can perhaps imagine what the outcome of that is likely to be.

For autistics with advanced degrees, like me, the logical place to work is a university. And if universities were primarily interested in research, scholarship, and teaching, they would be the ideal place for autistics. Unfortunately, universities are primarily interested in more fully developing their bureaucracies, playing university politics, and engaging in all sorts of social games at which autistics are terrible. If universities were places where a professor could see that something was not working, and the next semester change the way he taught classes based on his observations of what worked and what did not, they would be ideal places for autistics. However, universities are now places where professors are pressured into teaching the same way as everyone else, no matter what the educational outcomes may be.

It seems, then, that there are no places to support people with autism. There is no institutional support; the institutions we have are structurally opposed to both the strengths and weaknesses of autistics, while thoroughly supportive of both the strengths and weaknesses of neurotypicals.

Worse, because people like me are so personally identified with their work that that there is little differentiation between the work and person (please note I said “the work” and not the ideas, as particular ideas will be chucked if they prove not to work out), we tend to take it quite personally that nobody wants us or wants us to do what we are good at. We resent the fact that we cannot make a living being who we are, because of the prejudice against us built into the institutional structures of society. I do not know if there was ever a time when things were better for those with autism; however, I suspect that before the growth of bureaucracy as a fundamental institution in all areas of life, life for high-functioning autistics, at least, was much easier.

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6 thoughts on “When Your Work Is Who You Are

  1. You mentioned a few things that have been in my mind. I was wondering how universities and other institutions feel about Autistic people. I was recently watching the news when they showed this high school senior in my state who has been accepted to four universities, including U of M. But there are times when I wonder if society in general is even ready for Autistic people to be out there doing what anybody without Autism (neurotypical) is doing.

    I’m learning how difficult it is for those with Autism to find jobs, regardless of how smart they could be, even better at it than someone without Autism. I am learning all of this and I cannot help thinking what kind of future awaits my 3-year old.

    By looking at my daughter, you cannot guess she has Autism. She has control of her body. Nothing in her face shows she might have a disability. She makes eye-contact, even with strangers. She doesn’t feel uncomfortable in crowds, at least not that we can tell. She could pass for neurotypical… until someone asks her something and she ignores them and doesn’t answer (she’s non-verbal, although she can make sounds and tries to speak.) Or stims occasionally. And boom! That’s when people look at her as if she were weird.

    I think society needs to be educated. The same way we have accepted people with other disabilities in the workplace, I pray that, by the time she has to fend for herself, society is actively seeking Autistic people to fill job positions. I believe that, in many aspects, Autistic people can contribute even more than non-Autistic people because they see the world in a way that neurotypicals like me cannot see it. And that’s what I’m learning through my daughter’s eyes and blogs like yours.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You address a great many things here which I will certainly be covering here on my blog.

      I have had experiences in our universities both as a student and as an adjunct professor and lecturer. Undergrad is a bit tough, because it’s much more social and less focused on your favorite obsession at the time (though it can introduce you to your next one or two as well), but grad school is much more autistic. It’s hyper-focus on your obsession, and everyone around you wants to talk about it with you all the time. But then you graduate and can’t get a full time job and you jump from job to job because the undergrads think you’re “weird” and you have a tendency to treat people all the same, whether they are the university president or the maintenance people or the students.

      There are areas where autistics thrive. Programming, for example. But even there they are putting up with our behaviors less and less.

      We do need to educate people about autism. That’s one of the purposes of my blog. I want to educate people about it, particularly from the inside out. So spread the word! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you for your reply. I am in to Information Technology. So I have seen that first hand. One of my bosses was actually diagnosed with Autism while I was working for him. He had some sort of meltdown under the pressure of a project we were all working on. It was so bad, that he had to undergo several tests to find out what had happened. That’s when the diagnosis eventually came out. He had gone his entire life not knowing he had Autism. When he received the diagnosis, things started to fall in place for him. By the way, he was a programming genius. And once he was focused on solving some programming issue, he was in his own world. Looking back, I can now see that one sign. Either way, I hope my daughter never gets into IT. I don’t really like it as a career. And I have over 20 years of experience under my arm that I think qualifies me to say that. Nonetheless, if she wants to pursue that, I will support her.

    Would you mind my asking you to clarify what you mean when you say that you treat all people the same, whether they could be the president or the janitor? That is, from your point of view. Because my family raised me to treat all people the same: With respect. I don’t care if someone is a janitor or the most distinguished educated person in a room. I will treat them the same because that’s what we should all do. Treat others the way you want to be treated. And a trash collector deserves the same, if not more, respect than the president of a nation or university. I think you know what I mean.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Well, one should on the one hand treat everyone the same simply because of everyone’s common humanity. But within the hierarchy of a business, it seems obvious to most people that one ought to treat the boss with a certain degree of–for lack of a better term, reverence–you don’t treat your coworkers with. You treat your boss like he or she is your boss, like they are someone who can fire you, like they have some sort of authority over you that others do not have. Except, I don’t treat them that way. My behavior toward them is indiscernible from the way I behave toward the custodian, or anyone else. I treat everyone the same, until they prove they don’t deserve it from their lack of character, the ignorance about which they are proud and intend to do nothing about, etc.

      As for Presidents, I have no respect for politicians, so it’s hard not to rank above them. But whether or not that has anything to do with my autism is another matter.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Thank you for taking the time to answer my question. Yes, I see what you mean. Having worked my entire adult life in Corporate America, I can see exactly what you mean about treating a boss differently than a co-worker. I’m not sure if it’s because of the types of industries I have worked in, I tend to treat everybody the same and I’m not the only one. Yes, there might be a slight difference when it comes to managers, supervisors, and bosses. But it has been very informal in my experience. Still, there’s a line you never cross, neither with bosses, nor with coworkers.

    I’m like you in that sense of treating everyone the same until they prove to me they don’t deserve it. And for the same reasons you mentioned and more. So I’m not sure this has anything to do with Autism. I think it has more to do with how we were raised and our personalities.

    I am very trusting by nature. It has been both a blessing and a course. It has allowed me to know a lot of people and make friends for life, but it has landed me in an awful marriage and to be taken advantage many times. I am not a good judge if character. It takes me a long while to figure people out. And once they have hurt me or shown to me some quality that I don’t like, be lying, mistreating others, badmouthing, putting themselves above others, thinking they are the best out there fill of themselves, hurt others on purpose or to attain their own goals, they treat others ignorantly, and more, I don’t like being around them anymore. I ignore them, but I’m respectful if I am forced to have to deal with them for whatever reasons.

    I don’t like politicians, either. Never did. Neither where I come from, nor here in the United States.

    Thank you again. I’m enjoying thoroughly your blog and your comments.

    Liked by 1 person

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