Talk to me!

One of the things I struggle most with at work is keeping on top of what’s going on around me. Oh, absolutely, I know my own job. But especially when I’m under pressure, I find myself shutting people out to the extent that weeks can go by before I speak to anyone else on my team. The day-to-day conversations where we bounce around the technical stuff and help each other out just never seem to happen.

Lots of team meetings are getting cancelled at the moment. It always seems like we’re too busy, or there’s something more important to do; people just drop out until there’s barely anyone left. I thought at first this was a bad thing. But as it turns out, it doesn’t have to be.

See, when there are several people in the room, as an autistic person I am never going to follow that conversation. We’ve tried to impose structure so that it’s easier for me, but that inevitably restricts the depth of content – it makes people uneasy if they feel like they’re talking to a schedule. The fewer people there are in that meeting, the more likely we are to make something of that time.

So over the past several weeks people have cancelled and cancelled until there are pretty much just two of us left. Not always the same two, but since I plan and prepare exhaustively for meetings I’m usually one of them. The temptation then when I’m stressed or struggling with speech is to make some excuse: there’s only the two of us, it isn’t really worth it, I haven’t got anything to say. Even when I have.

But the last time this happened I was getting a little bit fed up. I was doing my best to keep on top of things, but I honestly felt like I had no idea what was going on. I felt isolated and at a loss, and I wanted some input. So I didn’t cancel the meeting. I reinforced it. Instead of emailing an excuse, I sent a request. I asked: can we find the time to do this? I’d really like to hear about your project and how you’re getting on.

It was a massive leap of faith. I’d never have had the nerve just to email this one person and ask to talk with them about their work. It’s not because they’re scary or anything: starting an unstructured dialogue is just something I cannot do. But it was amazing. We spent half an hour or so having a proper chat about the technical details of our projects, without a third or fourth or fifth person to get in the way. No bouncing the ball or watching for signs of disengagement; no being worried about one subject dominating the conversation. Just getting properly absorbed in the really interesting stuff.

Sometimes I think in terms of people who can communicate with me and people who can’t – but in reality it’s the context that matters. These are the same people I go into meetings with and, collectively, I am literally terrified of them. I’m scared and ashamed because I know I won’t follow, and I’ll try to engage but the faux-pas will be just excruciating. I’ll watch from the sidelines and try not to stim, even though it helps, because of how it looks. I’ll ask for clarification and the new answer won’t make any more sense than the first. But talking with my colleagues as individuals, one at a time, makes so much difference to my ability to understand and interact with them. I don’t have to worry about how I look any more, because in that context I’m actually able to make a contribution. We communicate. I am involved.

I can’t do this every time. But I think that next time practically everyone cancels on a team or technical meeting, I’ll see it as a blessing in disguise.

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