Nic Laughter: Eliminating the Barriers People with ASD face in Relationships & Employment

Nick Laughter

“It’s not that we don’t want to work or do a good job, but since we’re so driven by our interests, a failure to provide an environment that is regularly engaging and continuously interesting will continue to discourage neurodiversity in the workplace.” Nic Laughter

By Ron Sandison

How did you discover you were on the autism spectrum? At what age were you diagnosed?

I know this is pretty common, but growing up everyone always knew I was different. I can remember times as a kid where my parents were told to “manage their child” better because I was so hyper. Many times our family simply was not invited to events. My grandparents said more than once that there was something “wrong” with me, so of course that caused lots of problems. By high school, I had been prescribed Ritalin and Adderall in attempts to help me to exist peacefully in public school, but they didn’t help me much.

After many failed attempts at college, I conceded that I could never be educated and made a career doing sales and tech support, but when an event at work led to disciplinary action for something I didn’t know I was doing wrong, I decided to seek out a medical opinion. I met with a clinical psychologist that diagnosed me with ASD at the age of 27.

Did you experience any sensory issues? If so what were they?

Yes, I’m highly sensitive to sound and touch. I get severe anxiety when I’m in a loud setting and someone is trying to talk to me (their words just melt into the ambient noise). I also can’t stand tactile stimulation like filing my nails or when dry skin rubs against a bedsheet. And I hate lotion.

How does autism impact your social interaction?

I’ve always been “the weird guy,” probably a lot like most other people on the spectrum. I say weird things because it’s what I think a “normal person” would say in my shoes, and I don’t realize it until it’s too late. I’ve had tough relationships with rules that feel made-up and people that I felt were unreasonable or overly-emotional. Of course I had to admit that I was just the one being robotic, which has helped in my marriage.

My wife is an amazing person and she’s sometimes a ball of emotions, so we’ve learned how to work together. We’ll be married 8 years in May and have 2 boys.

How did your parents help you learn social skills?

They did their best. They tried dozens of times to get me help. Without much information about what was actually going on in my brain, it was mostly just a lot of wasted time and money. The psychiatrists they took me to were quick to accept payment, but none of them tried very hard to actually help, so it was essentially a dead end. My mom balanced working full time and homeschooling me for grades 5-6, but this was unsustainable, and I went back to public school in 7th grade.

What advice would you give to young people with autism struggling with relationships?

For familial relationships and friends, do your best to keep in mind that they’ll never really understand what’s happening in your brain. They can do their best, but sometimes they just won’t be strong enough to bridge that gap with you. It’s a hard thing to realize, but when you can accept that it’s up to you to be the strong one in the relationship, it makes everything better. You’re allowed to be yourself, weird quirks and all. One of my favorite sayings is, “The people that mind don’t matter, and the people that matter don’t mind.” So be patient with neurotypicals as they try to figure you out, but don’t let yourself get weighed down by having to figure them out first.

For romantic relationships, don’t waste a minute of your time with someone that doesn’t understand and appreciate your mind. Neurotypical people can be amazing partners if they understand your challenges and want to encourage your uniqueness, instead of hampering it. Anybody that wants you to be “more normal” or anything along those lines doesn’t understand what makes you great, and they don’t deserve your attention. There will always be struggles, simply because neurotypical people speak a completely different “emotional language” than we do. But finding someone who appreciates that and wants to figure it out is the key to being happy together.

What is your greatest challenges?

Too many to pick! Probably the biggest one would be working with NTs. Since people that aren’t themselves on the spectrum have such a difficult time understanding what life is like for us, there’s usually a lot of assumptions about what we can do. The worst part is when we bring it up and we’re just seen as wanting special treatment or being lazy, it’s difficult to explain in that situation that this is an actual, legally-defined disability, and that we are often put at a disadvantage compared to our neurotypical coworkers. One example of this is that I struggle a lot in open environments. One of my biggest challenges is a need to try to account for every unknown variable in any given setting, which means that in an open environment (such as most tech companies), I’m continuously bombarded with information that I can’t avoid processing, all while being expected to perform at my job at the same capacity as anyone else. But since our disability isn’t as apparent as, say, being confined to a wheelchair, it’s much easier to dismiss.

How did you develop skills for gainful employment?

I’m lucky in that I had an idea of something I knew I was good at where you’re allowed to be kind of a weirdo and people don’t think too much about it. Software engineering is a great field because, for those of us who are good with math/logic, we can do 99% of this job without necessarily needing to speak to anyone. Of course in reality, it doesn’t quite work out that way (which is why I’ve begun to be more outspoken about how the tech industry needs to step up to accommodate those of us on the spectrum), but in an ideal world, people with ASD that understand programming will have a much easier time finding a place to belong and contribute in peace.

What were some of your early jobs and how did they prepare you for your career?

I did a lot of sales and technical work. Some of the most fun I had was as a field service technician for Vivint (I didn’t know I was on the spectrum at the time). I was able to work long days, hourly, and almost all of my time was spent without having to interact with anyone, which was great. Sales was basically the opposite, but it was still nice because it gave me the opportunity to have some level of control over my environment. Like if I didn’t like the person I was speaking to or something about the situation was triggering, I could just thank them and leave. Maybe I lost a few sales here or there, but it gave me the chance to be in control over how I spent my time. I wouldn’t personally recommend it for people on the spectrum though, because there is a lot of pressure from the people you work for/with, and of course your income is directly related to how many people you talk to. So all that to say, I’m glad I did it, but I’d never do it again.

What are some challenges you experience in the workplace due to autism?

I covered this a bit earlier, but one of the biggest problems in the modern workplace is that it’s an extension of “normal people.” NTs are community-minded, and conversational, and most workplaces are built around the assumption that everyone working there will be the same way. I like to paint the picture of a paraplegic that wants to work in a company you can only get to by stairs. Say they have a break room on the roof (with no elevator), and often hold mandatory meetings where you have to go on a walk to participate. It’s crazy to think about, and yet this is what almost all companies do to people on the spectrum.

We’re expected to work in environments that can be triggering, tolerate sensory overload, manage conversations where we’re regularly put on the spot, and deal with constant interruptions to our routines, because that’s “just the way things work.” And although the situation with the paraplegic would never happen in the US today (without massive penalties and a media firestorm), it’s par for the course with what we are expected to deal with.

What are some roadblocks to employment for individuals with autism?

This changes depending on the industry, but I can speak to tech, and the biggest roadblock is interview processes. It’s typical for someone on the spectrum to struggle with coming up with things on the fly, and even though this has almost nothing to do with a person’s ability to perform at a job in my industry, it’s probably the single largest signal that interviewers are looking for. For software engineering in particular it has even less to do with the job, because probably less than 1% of anyone working as a software engineer today has ever had to do algorithmic problem solving on a whiteboard without any other resources as part of their job, but that’s possibly the most common software engineering interviewing practice. It’s absolutely insane, but by the time the candidate has a chance to explain why it’s unhelpful, the company has already written them off and don’t care what they have to say about it.

What are some hidden potential individuals with autism can provide in the workplace?

There are so many! What’s interesting is that since everyone on the spectrum is so different, the benefits that one person can provide may not even overlap with the benefits of someone else. I talk about this in detail in my presentation The Hidden Potential of People with ASD”, but in general, one benefit we can provide is attention to detail. When we’re passionate about something, we know everything about it, and we know when something is off. We have an uncanny ability to remember every aspect of something and recall it on command, which makes us incredibly valuable members of teams where familiarity is a useful tool (such as in software). Another area of potential is that we’re generally crusaders for something we see as “right” or “good.” So if we care about the customers and their needs, you can depend on us to fight for their benefit with no self-interest in mind. That’s just not something you can say about most neurotypical people.

Share your concept of individuals with autism have a “Robotic Efficiency” in the workplace.

his kind of extends from my last answer, which is that, since we usually don’t have any personal reasoning for the decisions we make, we tend to ignore the fringe implications of a particular solution so that we can make progress solving the problem. This can come across as callous or inconsiderate, because people can interpret it as though we’re saying, “This is for the greater good, so shut up and get on board,” but the reality is that we tend to evaluate things on their objective merits. The reason this is a benefit is because where many people can spend days or weeks considering every angle of a situation and how best to appeal to everyone, we’re usually more willing jump in immediately and iterate over time if something isn’t perfect. It may not be for everyone, but you can’t argue that given the right environment, people with autism are amazing at getting things done.

How did you meet your wife?

We worked together at one of my sales jobs. She moved to UT from her hometown in WA, and we clicked immediately. I moved to CO after we first started hanging out, but she moved near me shortly after where we started dating. We traveled a little bit and 6 months later, we were married.

What has been your greatest challenge with marriage?

EMOTIONS! People that aren’t on the spectrum just feel things so differently than we do, and sometimes it’s the hardest thing in the world to communicate and get on the same page. We’ve done a lot of work to establish that we will always have one another’s backs, and agreed to always assume the best of the other person. It’s much easier said than done, but having that understanding early on has helped us through a lot of rocky spots.

What advice would you give to young people with autism?

The best advice I have is to never stop being yourself, never apologize for who you are, and never give up on what you care about. When I was 4 years old, I wanted to be a paleontologist, and I was usually laughed at when I told people. It was a “cute phase” or whatever, but I still love archaeology and dinosaurs, and if I had a chance to do it, I probably would. Maybe someday. But you have the passions you have for a reason, and the worst thing you can do to yourself is to give it up because people don’t understand you. Cling to what makes you you. The right people will surround you and support you every step of the way.

Share a humorous story from your life.

One time I was interviewing for a job with WillowTree Apps. It was an interview where you’re recorded answering questions, not even on a call with somebody, but of course they record you as you read the question, so it’s just awful. Anyway, one of the questions was why I wanted to work there, and in my anxious rush to come up with a “normal” answer, I said something dumb about how it was cool that they went from making decorations to technology and building apps (mistaking them for Willow Tree, the company that makes these decorative figurines). I felt so dumb for about a week afterward until I got my rejection email.

Nic Laughter

Nic Laughter is a developer and public advocate with a new podcast called Autistic AF that focuses on autism in adults. He writes and speaks about issues related to autism with a special interest in eliminating the barriers many autistic face to entering the workforce. Nic and his wife and two sons reside in Saratoga Springs, UT. He enjoys video games, disc golf, and Dungeons & Dragons.

Ron Sandison

Ron Sandison works full time in the medical field and is a professor of theology at Destiny School of Ministry. He is an advisory board member of Autism Society Faith Initiative of Autism Society of America. Sandison has a Master of Divinity from Oral Roberts University and is the author of A Parent’s Guide to Autism: Practical Advice. Biblical Wisdom published by Charisma House. He has memorized over 10,000 Scriptures including 22 complete books of the New Testament and over 5,000 quotes.

He frequently guest speaks at colleges, conferences, autism centers, and churches. Ron and his wife, Kristen, reside in Rochester Hills, MI, with a baby daughter, Makayla Marie born on March 20, 2016. You can contact Ron at his website www.spectruminclusion.com or email him at sandison456@hotmail.com

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