why I’m no longer employed
By an anonymous female on the autism spectrum
Sorry, I had to title my first AOA blog with my favorite saying from the King’s Quest video game series. In game VII a very ugly (to some) troll asks the beautiful Princess Rosella for a kiss. Upon rejection his reply is, “Your loss, cookie nose!”
When I was fired from my IT job of 18 years after having a workplace meltdown, I was devastated. Not only was my pay excellent, I loved the people I worked with and my customers. It was a company I had personally helped grow almost from inception. For me, it was not just a job, it was my life.
Sure, I had experienced a few other meltdowns at work before the final one, but my productivity was through the roof! I was a senior level engineer who could do work usually sent up to the high-dollar engineers. Being autistic allowed me to remember details of problem solving for one-off situations. It could be five years after working meticulously through a technical issue, often with the help of those higher tiered engineers, but I would know exactly how to address that issue (or others like it) without delay. This pleased the managers, the customers, and my team members. It also made my upper level engineers delighted because it was one less thing they had to tackle. Passing along my knowledge to the younger generation was a delight. Being autistic allowed me to be an asset almost every single day.
Except on days when I wasn’t.
Change is difficult for anyone, as my manager would uncomfortingly remind me. As the age of information technology grew, the company I was with morphed into one I barely recognized. Tech changed. Tools changed. They even moved the office from one side of town to the other. Oy Vey!
When the changes first started happening, I immediately got myself into therapy. As anyone with high deductible insurance knows, the out-of-pocket cost is as good as not even having insurance for things like this. Furthermore, the insurance company only allowed a handful of visits at that time. Again, I am not comfortable with change. Going to someone only to have the rug pulled out from under me would have been devastating. So I made the expensive choice to attend private therapy. I knew I would not survive without doing that, so in my mind it was an necessary career expense.
Being on the autism spectrum was not what I suspected when I first went into therapy. In fact, I hardly knew what autism was at that time. The problems I was having in the workplace were presenting in therapy as PTSD and Dissociative identity disorder.
This is not the blog I want to use to go into those things, but it is a part of the equation. My childhood was very ‘interesting’ to say the least. Severe trauma of various sorts had left my brain in a fragmented state. It was a whole lot easier to compartmentalize the various issues of those formative years. Unfortunately, that also meant there were parts of my brain holding memories that were not a part of my current reality. The increased stress had caused those parts of me to step forward. Some parts of my personality were violent. Other parts were deeply depressed and even suicidal. It was a bit of a mess. But I fought very hard to keep all of this out of the workplace.
We brought all of this into therapy. We worked on learning safety skills and how to handle stress. But there was something still missing from my healing. I could feel it inside, but I did not have a name for it. It was preventing me from being able to process through the severe childhood abuse in order to resolve the PTSD and dissociative problems.
It felt like I just wasn’t working hard enough or doing the right things to heal myself. It just did not make sense to me how I could spend so much time and energy on my therapy and still not be able to “be normal” about simple things like change.
Season One of The Big Bang Theory changed my life. As soon as I saw Sheldon, I understood him! I was him! Not really, but in many ways I was. It was so easy to understand why he said what he did. It was easy to understand why he was proud of himself for being smart. Heck, I was proud of myself for being the very best at what I did for a living. Even knocking three times… I got it!
But then I saw how the other people did not get him. The looks they gave Sheldon were the same looks others often gave me. Why did people look at us that way? What were we both doing wrong? Why did they not understand it when we told them they were wrong about something? Didn’t they want to know the facts?
Autism. How funny it is once we learn the word that answers so many questions we have about ourselves our entire life.
After forty some odd years of living on this planet, after thousands of dollars in therapy for PTSD, and after countless nights of crying because I could not understand others around me or why they could not understand me, I was officially diagnosed with Aspergers.
Finally, something in my life made sense!
Back to being the troll in my own story…
Because the PTSD was so severe, and because I struggled with basic safety, my therapy had not explored the autism spectrum part of the equation. That diagnosis came from an external expert in that field.
I went into the expert’s office fully expecting to rule out any form of autism. I needed to know if it had any impact on my current therapy. It was a shock to my therapist and me to see the results. Yes, I was on the autism spectrum. This answered so many questions we both had about my trauma work. Suddenly, my entire life became understandable to me.
Co-morbid mental health conditions can be very complex. For example, changing the time I left work would cause the autistic part of my brain to experience higher stress than it would have caused in a neurotypical. That stress would induce a PTSD response. The PTSD could result in a dissociative event. After my diagnosis, my therapy took into consideration the ASD.
My therapist, who is worth every penny, worked with the whole me. He explained to my employer the nature of ASD and PTSD. There were certain things he knew I needed, such as a quiet desk arrangement due to my high sensitivity to sound as a result of the ASD. He went above and beyond to make sure the company knew, and had in writing, what I needed in order to perform my job.
My part was “simple.” I only needed to follow the rules HR and my therapist had set up for me. If I were experiencing an event, I had certain steps I had to follow in order to not disrupt the other employees. It was very logical, and I agreed it was best practice. And for the most part, that worked.
Until it didn’t.
The day I was fired was like most others at the time: I was struggling to learn the new system that replaced the one I was an expert on for many years, my team was asking questions I could not answer due to those changes, and the noise levels were beyond unnerving even with headphones. There was a place in the back part of the office where the noise was a lot less. I had requested to be moved back there due to the autism noise sensitivity. I was told in these exact words, “We have made ENOUGH accommodations for you already!” Yeah. Exact words. I know, legal stuff… but I did sign off at the end so it is what it is…
That day my manager told me they were going to move my desk, finally. But instead of moving it to where I needed it to be, they were going to move it right next to the break room. Again, yeah.
So earlier that morning I had been yelled at by HR for bringing in something old I thought was good for the company history cabinet they were making. Apparently, it had a logo that was supposed to be destroyed all those years ago. Oh well, it was easily tossed.
Then I was called into the office of a big-wig about an email I had sent him concerning the cleanliness of the floors around our area. They were stained from the company that occupied the building before the big move. I was told the area was clean enough and just fine. So my concerns were unfounded. Fine. I could use all the cleaner I wanted on the floor at my desk. That would have to suffice.
Less than an hour after that conversation, which left me in tears as I do tend to be emotional about my passion for excellence (which ironically was used by the company as a core value), I was called into my manager’s office and notified about my desk relocation to the noisiest location the team had to offer. The good ole desk by the break-room…
This is when the world went dark. Dissociative fugue is the medical term for what happened.
When I “returned”, my hair was gone. The spiral of events had resulted in a meltdown. Some part of me had taken the scissors to the restroom and cut off our hair. Someone saw us and freaked out. Shoot, I suppose I would have too. She told HR. HR came and got me. The alternate personality who was present said we did it because everything was changing, and so would we. She wanted to make a new haircut to go with the new desk and our new work system. Go figure. I do not remember any of that.
What I do remember was getting a call at home from HR a few hours later and being told that I had been terminated.
Sure, it was my own fault. And the company was very gracious to me at the end. My disability was approved with very few complications. Some would say it all worked out for the best. Perhaps it will.
But right now it still hurts. There is nothing I would like more than to be doing what I did before; however, thanks to the breakdown, it is difficult to even use a computer for basic things such as typing this blog. When I was 15 I taught myself how to program in Basic using a Texas Instrument. I was the only one who could work on a donated computer server for the school. I was a nerd before being a nerd was cool. Talk about falling from grace.
The reason I want to share my experience is because I hope that maybe an employer out there somewhere reading this will think about that special request made by the employee HR says is difficult.
Autism and PTSD are just a few of the mental health issues faced by people of all ethnicities, ages, and backgrounds. Sometimes a request for a quieter desk location is not made because the employee is trying to get attention. It could be because that employee is trying to ask for what they need in order to stay employed.
Like Sheldon, I am not afraid to note that I was one of the best at what I did. And sure, it was my fault for having the meltdown that cost me my career. But honestly, that company lost an employee who was dedicated, who fought to bring value, and who had years worth of stored knowledge and experience.
Born in Florida, I spent my childhood being bullied for reasons I did not understand. Autism spectrum disorders were unknown to my family or teachers. Taking everything literally, unable to read facial expressions, and emotional ruptures, resulted in being an outcast.
Personal relationships, combined with severe childhood trauma, resulting in PTSD and Dissociative Disorders. Co-morbid with ASD resulted in the loss of my profession after 18 years with the same IT company after one meltdown too many.
Today, art therapy provides me with a way to share my experiences and emotions with the outside world.
The header image is a self-portrait.