Aspie in the Office #3 – Fired

So, it seems like I should have been writing these faster while I still had an office environment to write about. But on the other hand, it’s not as though my time there has dissolved like my position, so maybe I can just use the additional free time to catch up and inform you all of What I Learned. Either way, it’s not the end of the world, and it’s not the last position I’ll ever have.

So, what happened? Well, I had a meltdown at work while in a place I felt I couldn’t escape (the bathroom). I made the mistake of answering a phone call that turned out to jump on all of my you’re-absolutely-pathetic buttons at once. I disturbed some people. I was carefully shepherded home and then advised that they didn’t want to come back. It’s a bit of a hit to the confidence, the concept that I really can’t prevent myself from getting in my own way, and the fact that I’ve probably burned that bridge when I only had two weeks of the assignment to run is a bit of additional self-inflicted insult to the injury.

But… for all of that, that’s not the useful part, the part we can learn from. The useful part is: What now?

My biggest Aspie problem is executive function: I’m actually pretty good at passing “close enough” socially, stimulus overload is fairly rare, and… well, anyway, the biggest problem I face is a certain difficulty in figuring out my goals, working out the best way to reach them, and dividing that into manageable tasks.

So, as soon as I’d recovered from the noxious can’t-keep-down-water stomach bug I managed to develop the very same day (no, seriously, that was not cool), my husband and I went to the whiteboard on the refrigerator and wrote down four items.

  1. Employment
  2. Therapy
  3. Housekeeping

(I scribbled in “exercise” under that, but I’ll be honest, I haven’t been very good at getting to that one.)

This is our priorities: Find a new job (or freelance, or sell things, or whatever), get a therapist so we can work on being able to manage myself out of doors (…I frickin’ hate therapy, but what needs must), and keeping house. And if I find myself in an impenetrable loop of “ack” on one, do one of the others.

So that’s one thing that’s kept me going and useful and functional is having goals. Specific goals that must be reached toward daily, with specific steps. (Spend two hours submitting resumes to positions on job boards. Research therapists in the area. Do dishes, fold laundry. clear off one of our endless Surfaces of Random Junk. List some of our Auction Overstock to Ebay.) I recommend that highly.

Another is… well. My daughter.

I’m hesitant to say this, because it’s obviously not very useful to anyone else. But she’s the biggest difference between this spate of being between jobs and the others. At first as kind of a negative–after I got The News, I went to pick her up from my in-laws’ house, and she ran up to me yelling “Mommy mommy mommy!” and her face was so bright and cheerful, and I just absolutely lost it under the crushing weight of how badly I’d failed this little girl.

(Also because my stomach also felt like it was crawling out of my torso through the abdomen wall, but at the time I chalked that up to stress. It was about two hours before I realized that wasn’t it.)

But… she’s also been a waypoint, someone to remind me that I’m not just trying to reassert my own professional reputation and since that’ll never happen (say some of my less helpful impulses) I might as well just crawl into a hole and die. I mean, if my in-laws still weren’t willing to watch her, I’d be having a harder time because she makes it hard to do anything that doesn’t directly involve her. (She is getting to be a lot of kid.) But I think it’d be even worse if I didn’t have her at all.

So. That’s been a big part of it to me.

On a final note, there’s another thing I’ve been learning, and it feels like one of the more important ones.

Use this time.

So, let’s say you had a full-time job, and you managed, like me, to lose it through your own… unique difficulties. You don’t have much money, you don’t feel like you’ve got any prospects, and it feels like the whole world is falling down on your head. It is so tempting, even if you manage to get up the gumption to make and perform a list of goals like that up there, you’re going through the motions and you’re hopeless.

You may be limited. But you also have about eight hours of time a day plus commute that just freed up. (And, on a side-note, all the gas money or bus fare that you’d been using along the way as well.)

It’s going to be a while before you have a better chance at self-improvement.

Obviously, not every project you’ve ever had in mind is well-suited to your unemployment gap. You’re probably not going to run out and buy a set of oil paints, or the engine you need for that broken hotrod you’ve always meant to rebuild. You’re not going to go enroll in classes, in all likelihood.

But not everything you want involves expensive materials, and a lot of them just involve time.

You have that novel you’ve always had bouncing around in your head, but your job just made you too emotionally exhausted? Block out an hour in the evening to work on it. You wanna make cookies just like Mom did? Pull the flour out of your cupboard and start experimenting. (I’ve been making ice cream, myself! My ice cream maker was a gift, but one of the things you can do with extra time is investigate local yard sales–there’s tons of people who got something like that and then never use it.) And there’s endless materials and videos and books available for free online for every topic you can possibly be interested in learning more about. Go forth, and start turning the self you are more closely into the person you want to be.

And don’t dither on it, either, because–you know what? We keep our noses down, I bet we’ll have a new position in no time.

And… hey, why not? Here’s a clownfish I drew:


Aspie in the Office #2 – The Meltdown

It can really be anything, depending on who you are. The cube-neighbor who decided to put his conference call on speakerphone. The two managers who each gave you a task that needs to be done right now. The customer who’s completely unwilling to stop yelling at you just because you won’t tell them that they’re entitled to have that phone for free.

Or maybe it’s something smaller—the fact that you forgot your lunch and your stomach is crawling up your ribcage. A flickering fluorescent light. Maybe even the fact that you didn’t brush your hair this morning and spend every interaction convinced that everyone’s judging you for it.

Either way, it’s here, and you’ve got to deal with it: The Meltdown.

There seems to be a couple of disagreements about what’s involved in this term, so I’ll go by what I generally experience: an emotional tsunami, a loss of control, a tendency toward regrettable actions. It might involve screaming and crying, it might involve beating your head against a desk, it might involve running out the door like the hounds of Hell themselves were chasing you.

It’s bad. It’s my absolute worst work nightmare, and to some degree or another it’s happened more than once at every job I’ve been at.

So, sit down and make yourself comfortable as I share what little I’ve managed to learn over the years about meltdowns: Prevention, what to do while it’s happening, and how to deal with it afterward. I hope something helps. And if you’ve got any advice of your own, I’d love to hear it in the comments!

An Ounce of Prevention

In a very real sense, most of the meltdowns I’ve ever had could have been prevented.

That is to say, it’s very rare that something was so egregious to my senses all on its own that it sent me instantly into meltdown mode. Even in those cases, if I’d maintained the presence of mind to go to a manager in the early stages and change the circumstance, they probably could have been kept at a much lower level.

Now, the world’s not perfect and I don’t really blame myself for those circumstances where I started out off-kilter due to insufficient self-management. But the fact is, when I’m mindful and take care for my routine, I am way less likely to have problems.

So what’s really important for keeping my balance?

Food. Food is probably my number-one issue. If I don’t eat breakfast, if I forget my lunch, I am in Problemsville, and even a sideways glance is likely to send me over the edge.

Fortunately, this is one of the easiest issues to solve, as well. And it’s not just a matter of never forget your lunch. It’s possible, and I highly recommend it, to set up about half a dozen backups. Keep backup meals in your desk. (There are a lot of options for shelf-stable meals, and if anyone’s curious I’ll make recommendations. They’re more expensive than cooking your own lunch, but ideally you’ll only use these occasionally.) Also snacks. Teabags or soda cans work great if caffeine is something you just can’t get through your morning without. Nothing perishable, and mind your office’s rules about food… but even if it’s just keeping a crate of individually packaged cheese-and-crackers in your car’s trunk (or even military-style meals-ready-to-eat), it’s better to have something.

If you can rely on yourself not to spend whatever’s in your hands (…I’m really bad at this), I’d also recommend keeping an emergency twenty-dollar-bill somewhere you won’t usually think about. It’s great for food, but also for a lot of other unexpected things that might send you into a tailspin. (Like gas. Yes, I’ve had a meltdown because I didn’t know how I’d get home, too.)

Sleep. Everyone gets extra-snappy when they’re tired. They lose capability, they can’t keep track of their thoughts… they even get more hungry. In short, they’re bad for everyone—and for Aspies, it’ll bring you even closer to the edge.

Unfortunately, there is no magic-wand for sleep. But if it comes time to start a new tunnel in Minecraft or to get some shut-eye, try to remember how much easier it’ll be to tell your boss “No problem!” with a smile if you’ve got your Zs.

Emotional comfort. Issues at home spill immediately at work for me. And it’s not just my husband and baby (who are both gigantic net-pluses to my mental health and wellness… but come on, there’s not a relationship on earth that doesn’t sometimes get you down). My relationship with myself, my concept of my future, the state of my house… it all builds up and adds in.

When I find myself consistently on-edge and having trouble keeping it all in… okay, I think what I’m supposed to recommend here is making sure the house is clean and all of the things I can control are controlled. And I won’t deny it’s nice and always feels good when I do that? But if you’re on edge, I can’t recommend anything more highly than reading an old favorite book or watching an old favorite movie. Get into the head of someone strong, capable and willing to save the day.

It’s honestly done better for my sense of wellness than sleep sometimes. And that makes no sense.

When it happens

Now it’s time for the bad news. Meltdowns will still happen, regardless of what you do to prevent them. They’ll just happen less. But it’s how you handle it that says whether or not you can look your boss in the eye tomorrow.

So, what are my recommendations for when you feel that nasty feeling coming on?

Take a break. Ideally, you’ve saved your break for this occasion—in a lot of my jobs, I always took my breaks and lunch at the last possible moment so I knew that I had a card up my sleeve in case I needed it. But even if you didn’t… it is so amazingly much better to leave before the meltdown starts than to try to weather it out. Imagine the reprimand you’ll get for taking an extra break. Then imagine the reprimand you’ll get for screaming curses at your coworkers while hitting yourself in the head with a ceramic mug. Choose wisely.

Go to your car. If you don’t have a car, you’ll have to be more creative. But the idea is someplace distant, enclosed, and with some amount of privacy. Somewhere where you can scream obscenities and cry and do whatever you need to do without having security called on you. Even if it turns out you just needed a quiet place for a few minutes… your car is a little part of the world where you’re the only one you have to answer to.

Phone a friend. Once you’re past the peak, you’re probably still going to be in a fragile and angry place. (If not? Congratulations, you can go back to work without further incident.) Try to have it set up in advance that there’s someone you can call to talk you down, reassure you that you’re still okay and a functional person, and maybe even give you advice for the issue you’re facing. (Also, to tell you you absolutely should not go back to work right now and should go home instead, if that’s the case. It happens.) Ideally, this is someone who doesn’t have a job of their own—or whose job it is to help you. Either way, it can be good to get some perspective from someone who won’t judge you.

Sing. I cannot tell you why, though a friend suggests it’s a way to regulate your breathing. But singing is a great way to make me feel better. Also drawing or looking at pretty pictures. (Yes, I keep a sketchbook in my purse.)

Stay as long as you need to. Yes, you might get fired for not returning to work on time. You’ll definitely get fired for screaming curses at coworkers. Choose.

When it’s over

We’re back to good news again: Your meltdown won’t last forever. Once you’re back on an evener keel, you can return back to work, and there’s a good chance you can pretend like nothing happened. (Yes, some people will have noticed your sudden exit. Depending on the workplace, they might think it’s rude to bring it up. That’s okay. It might go against all of your instincts, but the stuff that they don’t talk about will be sooner forgotten than what they do.)

A lot of this depends on the workplace. My current workplace is very image-conscious, and I’ve been brought to the office “to talk” a number of times because my odd behavior was disturbing others. That was okay too, because, well, I still have a job, right?

I don’t have a lot to say about this part, because it’s so amazingly different depending on your particular workplace. But. The main concept is to re-normalize.

Something that helps me is, among the different types of work I can do, to pick the simplest one to do first. That’s a good way to remember that this is something you can do. If it was a particular work item that caused my meltdown, a quick message to my coworker asking if they can take that particular piece for me, or to my manager asking if there’s any way I can not, sometimes helps. Figuring out if it’s the sort of thing that can be put off until I feel better.

Either way, the point of this stage is to pretend like you’re already better… and a fair portion of the time, it’ll turn out that you are.

So yes, that’s my meltdown advice, beginning to end.

It’s very incomplete, this having been my number one unsolved issue so far—but that’s part of why I want your advice so much. Help me! Let me know what else we can do!

And thank you for your patience. I’ve been wanting to write this one since I wrote the last one, but it got bound-up in my heart because the bigness of the topic. I hope it helps someone, in any case.

Aspie in the Workplace: Fulfilling Expectations

I’ve been racking my brain trying to think of tips I’ve picked up to make working in the office easier or more feasible, and it’s been hard–it’s so easy to look back and see basically an endless string of failures, even though I logically know that if I’ve been working in an office continuously for the last year and a half (and more sporadically before that), I’ve got to have managed something correctly.

But it occurred to me today that there’s one thing that’s absolutely essential, on which everything else builds, and so it’s an absolutely perfect start to this whole series. It’s less of a tip and more of an underlying philosophy, but hey, you gotta start somewhere:

You are expected to function on a level with your coworkers, and it doesn’t do anyone a damn bit of good to pretend this isn’t the case.

Which would all be really good and straightforward if “perform” meant “fulfill the productive aspects of the job competently.” But it doesn’t. There’s this whole package, largely not only undefined but undefinable, that comes as a base expectation of almost any office job… and woe betide us unfortunates who can’t figure it out. Seriously: The person who completes their work accurately and ahead of schedule, but never manages to look anyone in the face or respond to a friendly “hello!” or chip in to the office charitable causes or food days… he’ll be viewed with suspicion and never quite accepted. And that feeling like they’re “not really part of the team” will be considered when it comes time to renew the contract.

But before you throw in the towel and give up on the concept of ever having office employment, I want to tell you that there’s good news. In fact, there’s kind of a lot of it.

First? It’s not just you that’s not living up to the unstated expectations. Let’s look at a few case studies for examples.

You know your gregarious coworker? She’s always got a kind word for everyone and can make you feel warm from your head to your toes with just a smile… but she’s consistently ten minutes late and can’t manage to sit down at her computer before she’s spent twenty minutes saying hello to everyone in the building. Is she fulfilling all of the base expectations?

How about that one, over there? He’s a great guy, always willing to go the extra mile, never takes a sick day. But… every day, he lets himself get buried under a pile of “just this one little thing” coming into him by phone and email and never gets around to his core work. Is he fulfilling base expectations?

Meanwhile, there’s that girl. She does everything she’s asked, promptly and without attitude–but a third of it needs to be done over again because it’s wrong. I don’t think we need to mention that she’s not quite fulfilling everything her bosses would want of her.

So, long story short, there’s a lot to this pile of expectations. And the more things you’re good at? The more forgiveness you can stash up for the things that are just beyond your capacity.

Second: The stuff you’re not good at? You can cheat. You may not know how to hold your end of the office cooler small talk, and not know what’s expected when someone comes to your desk wanting to chat about something entirely unrelated to work. But there are a couple of tips that you can use for those sorts of interactions that allow you to basically fake it until you make it. Hopefully, I can go more into depth with this sort of thing later, but… well. Let’s take one of my weaknesses. I tend to obliviously go on at length on subjects that nobody gives a damn about–or worse, are actually repulsed by. (Yeah… the dreaded Office TMI.) So, what are some interpersonal tricks I’ve picked up to “cheat” my way around this issue? One, don’t start any conversations. (You can branch out into “Only start conversations when you’re very sure the other person is interested” once you’re more confident–stopping by to ask someone how their daughter’s minor dental surgery went is likely acceptable.) Two, be reactive instead of active; express interest, nod, and ask questions like “And what happened then?”–but shy away from adding anything to a conversation unless specifically prompted. And finally, keep an internal list of topics to shy away from, even if someone else is discussing them already. Even if you have to leave the room in order to keep your mouth shut, don’t discuss politics, don’t discuss sexx, and don’t discuss anything negative about anybody.

There! I still don’t know anything about how to talk to a person, and in fact these rules aren’t going to make me seem more like a regular person to anybody. But I’ll avoid a black mark. And honestly, that’s frequently as good as any of us can ask for, and every bit as good as we need to be.

(Meanwhile… let’s take a coworker I had once. He never talked to anyone unless prompted, and when you did get him to talk, he only complained. I’m absolutely sure this was because he was deeply unhappy. But in his case, the advice might be: Smile when someone greets you, respond to questions with rehearsed non-specific answers, and under no circumstances use curse words. They wouldn’t have made him happier, but he might not have been fired before leaving training.)

Finally, and almost most importantly, Surpluses in one area can make up for deficiencies in another–though never at a 1:1 ratio. Say you’re interpersonally lacking and have trouble switching between tasks. You’ve done all you can to cheat competency at these things and you still don’t think you’re up to snuff.

That’s okay. Or it can be. Because these are only two of the aspects you’re being graded on. And let me tell them? Some of them are really easy to game in your favor.

For instance? Every day, show up fifteen minutes early to your shift. (Don’t charge your employer for this time. I don’t give a damn what the law says. (Obviously, if your boss insists, or doesn’t want you coming in early, that overrides this suggestion.)) Come back early from break’s and lunches.Volunteer for overtime whenever asked.

Or maybe something simpler, softer. You can make the coffee in the mornings, make sure that the general-use office supplies are stocked. Buy the office’s affection by bringing doughnuts every other Friday.

Even something as simple as accepting any task that’s handed to you without complaining (asking questions if you’re not sure how) can do wonders. A lot of office staff will get snippy about, for instance, emptying trash cans or sanding icy sidewalks. Or, frankly, anything that they don’t consider part of “their job.” You’re already miles ahead of these folks if you do it with a smile.


In summary… you’re going to have to live with the fact that there are a lot of things expected of you that you’re just not going to be able to fulfill, or at least not fulfill very well. But it’s okay, because a) nobody else is fulfilling all of the obligations, either, b) you can figure out ways to cheat at “being good enough” at some of your deficient areas, and c) you can make up for deficiencies with strengths, albeit at a discount.

(And if your response to all of this is “But it’s not fair that they’d judge me on something I can’t help, you’re in the wrong blog. I’m not here to make things fair, I’m here to help you succeed in spite of it.)

So! Get to work, my friends. And let me know if you have any questions or suggestions of your own.