I’m not shy about my autism these days. I tell people quite openly. It’s obvious they have absolutely no idea what it means. And sometimes I wonder, what would they say if they knew? What would they do?
I changed jobs a little while ago, and rather than arranging training or making things overly formal, I tried a new approach. I disclosed, carefully, where and when I needed. I told my new boss, in my interview, and mentioned it later in passing. I kept things calm and low key. No big deal. I told someone arranging meetings, when I was asking for breaks, and not so much in a day. And one day I told a trusted colleague, when I was breaking down and didn’t know what to do. He said he knew. He said he didn’t know how I did it.
Oddly enough, that calmed me down. Not having to say anything, to make that disclosure when you’re so far gone you can barely talk. It was just there, something in the background, comfortable between us. And just that quiet acknowledgment, “I don’t know how you do it”, of the effort I make every day. This was the whole point of disclosing more widely. Wasn’t it?
It’s great to have it out there. But sometimes I wonder: what if they knew. There was a day last week, with meetings – many meetings. They don’t know how stretched I knew I would be with the minimal schedule. The didn’t see me swallow when I got the email: “we’re going to discuss some upcoming work at the end of this meeting – anyone with an interest, just stay after”. They didn’t see me hold back tears when another half hour popped up, unexpected, right before the busy mid-day schedule. It couldn’t be rearranged. I had to go.
They saw me ask questions, in the discussion from 10:15 to 10:45. They saw me talk animatedly about my work in the slot from 11:00-12:00. They saw me engage with the upcoming project discussion from 12:00-12:30. They saw me stay afterwards to dot the i’s and cross the t’s with a colleague I rarely see. They saw me again at 14:00, energetic and opinionated, quizzical and curious. But with an edge of aggression, a steamroller that’s out of control. A frantic performance, continued far too long. Cracks beginning to show.
They didn’t see me at 12:45. Walk into the coffee shop like a zombie. Wave at a friend in the corner. They didn’t see me struggle to ask to join her, random, disjointed words falling out of me, mixed in with a sort of grotesque functional sign language of pointing at her, me, chair, until she understood and I sat down. Didn’t talk. Waited for speech to come back.
They didn’t see me at 13:15. When my friend got up and asked if I wanted to join them for a walk. When I knew it would do me good, but my body and mind cried out for me to stay where I was, and just stare. Stare into space while the world continued to spin around me, without me. Just step off for a while.
They didn’t see what was in my head when I smiled and gestured, engaged and questioned. When the mask cracked, when I snapped at someone, only for a moment, they quietly corrected me – they didn’t see how close I was to breaking. They didn’t see 15:15, a shattered haze. The end of the day, walking home, so tired every step seemed an age. And the next day, paying back the energy I borrowed. They don’t see the tiredness, the incoherence, the inability to cope, with anything. They don’t see me crying like a child because a child is how I feel, and it’s all that I can do.
My boss says he knows what overload looks like, after I’d mentioned it: that he’d seen it in me. It made me feel safer than I’ve ever felt at work before, to know that he recognised and acted on that, without being told. But I wonder if he really knows, what it’s like, what it means?
I wonder what would happen if they knew?