Perilous meetings, part 3: is there another way?

I have to admit, I’ve been putting off writing this post for a while. As in, months. Maybe more. I don’t like to write about things until my understanding is complete. Perfectionism is a problem for me.

Sometimes in life, you can know you don’t have all the information, but you have to act on it anyway. Time doesn’t stop for me to make sense of what I’m doing. I am acting on this understanding now, incomplete or immature as it may be. So I will try not to be ashamed of sharing it with you.

The last two posts I’ve written were about the dangers of workplace meetings, and the methods I use to determine whether it’s worth the risk. Today’s post takes a more positive stance, asking: what’s good about meetings, and can I reap any of those benefits elsewhere?

And that quickly, I am out of my depth!

From my analytical standpoint I think there are two main reasons why meetings are, in principle, a good thing. Firstly, and quite simply, information exchange. A lot of things can be discussed in emails or reported in briefings, but neither of these quite matches the immediate efficiency of reciprocal conversation. My difficulties with speech are quite subtle – enough that I will be blamed for my “inappropriate word choice” as harshly as if the intention were to offend – and although I’ve thought about script cards I can’t quite bring myself to use them, for fear of being told I’m over-dramatising. So verbal, in person conversation does fill a unique niche for me – as for many people – that is very difficult to replace.

The other reason is really a variety of reasons, clustered weakly under a heading I could perhaps designate as “connection”. The very act of being visibly present and participating in discussions creates ripples: subtle effects on the interpersonal relationships of those involved. The nebulous concepts of approachability and trust seem to hinge on the contents of these reciprocal interactions. It’s about “staying in touch”, “maintaining an open dialogue”. If I were feeling cynical and utterly unsympathetic to human foibles, I might say it’s about reminding people you exist. But it’s an unfortunate reality that if you, like me, avoid group coffee breaks and water cooler small talk, you may find the only remaining option for connection hinges on an effective presence in team meetings.

Intellectually, I can see how it might be possible to achieve things in unstructured meetings. From what I’ve observed of social interactions, neurotypical people can and do select the focus, progress discussions and make firm decisions in conversation that they then act upon. But my experience as an autistic person is that I can’t do that. Not in social settings, and not in work meetings. I just can’t keep track. So I need to find another way.

There are a number of things I do at work to try to fill the gaps that “risk management” can create. Some of these are relatively easy. I keep on top of my emails and the news on our Intranet. If there’s something I’m aware of that I can’t find information on, I’ll email someone to find out more. Wherever possible I stay ahead of changes in policy or procedures by looking up the written documentation. I also have regular chats with my line manager, where I ask explicitly for updates on anything that might affect my work or job role. Such a proactive approach may seem like overkill, but it helps me to see straight away where I might need more information, and to avoid any unpleasant surprises.

But for reciprocal interactions, one-on-one meetings have been a complete revelation. I wrote about when I first discovered this, and have done my best since then to build on that insight. Now I keep up with some colleagues and contacts through coffee breaks, where I can practise handling the flow of conversation between work projects and outside interests. And while I can’t be completely confident in the attribution, I am starting to see a difference in how often those colleagues approach me, and the level of trust they show in my technical judgement. We’re working better together since I started experimenting with this form of connection.

Of course, one-on-one meetings can’t cover everything, and there are times when it really is essential to have everyone in the same room. I’ve noticed that people – including myself, when sufficiently relaxed – sometimes need the context of a wider conversation to bring the right thought to mind. And it’s not uncommon that, while one person might have most of the pieces to one particular puzzle, the different pieces others bring mean that sometimes you don’t quite know how the picture will look until everyone has had their say. Most of my team work quite independently on our projects, so it’s usually possible to slot extra pieces one by one into an already clear picture, but it doesn’t always happen that way.

These meetings are as risky and difficult to deal with as any other. But I find that by pacing myself, being aware of meeting goals and avoiding less constructive group settings, I can save myself to contribute more effectively to these essential interactions.

I’d like to say I’ve got the balance right, and it’s certainly true that I’m seeing improvements; but this is very much a work in progress. Recently workplace meetings have got harder and harder for me. Although there are many good reasons for this, it’s tricky to break out of the spiral of low confidence repeated “failures” can bring. The final piece of the puzzle, ironically, may be to ask for help from other members of my team. I’m not quite there yet, but I think I’m moving in the right direction! Until then I’ll keep pacing myself: building trust through one-to-ones, avoiding risky situations, and saving myself for those larger workshops where there really is no other way.

Baby steps 🙂

Dealing with change

Change is hard. It’s hard for everyone, to a degree. But for an autistic person, dealing with change and disruption to routine is on a whole other level. The sheer level of confusion and disorientation is indescribable (at least for today). The elephant panics. A lot.

The organisation I work for has been implementing some big changes recently. I knew they would be hard on me, so I made a plan. Let me be clear: I planned my whole life for the affected period around navigating this change. I did some batch cooking and filled the freezer with healthy food, so I wouldn’t have to cook in the evenings. I scheduled my work tasks (with the permission of my manager) around the disruption. I pulled out all the CBT techniques I learned last year for maximising personal resilience. It didn’t work.

The advice I would give anyone on the spectrum preparing to navigate big changes in their life – especially at work, and definitely if the change is the biggest you’ve ever had to deal with – is as follows:

  • First and foremost: look after yourself. No, seriously. Make a list of all the things you need to be physically and mentally healthy (food, exercise, quiet time, sleep, special interests if you have them, etc), and prioritise them in your schedule. Plan ahead with the basics as much as you need (I have coloured pens and everything!). And if you have friends who understand, let them know what’s coming. They might be able to help.
  • At work: don’t underestimate the impact. If you think it’s going to be bad, talk to your manager at an early stage (or another manager, if your own line manager is unsympathetic) to see what options might be available to you. It’s always better to manage expectations than to have to explain yourself after the event.
  • Be proactive in asserting your needs. As soon as you become aware of the change, figure out what you need and make sure the right people know about it. Even if you don’t know exactly what you need, try to identify the people who might need to know and pave the way in advance for those conversation to happen.
  • If there is any risk of meltdown at work, you need to make plans with your line manager (and/or a trusted colleague) for what should happen if things get out of hand. I have anxiety issues, as well as an apparently chronic inability to look out for my own needs, that have brought me to the brink of meltdown in the workplace on multiple occasions. Tell your manager what you need them to do to diffuse the situation. Make sure the plan has space for them to enforce any consequences for unacceptable behaviour, but make it clear that they need to wait for you to calm down and recover before this will have any effect.
  • And finally: always know where your safe space is. You never know when you might need it!

Good luck!

Being thankful

On Saturday I wrote about building safe spaces. Today I want to talk about maintaining them.

Maintaining isolated safe spaces is easy. Living alone, I come home to an empty house where I can control of every aspect of my sensory environment. Struggling with visual processing? Turn the lights down, put on some soft music and close your eyes. Too much noise? Turn off the radio, put on slippers and carry a bubble of silence around you as you move. Completely overloaded and incapable? Curl up in a blanket and make sad noises, for as long as it takes. No one will judge you.

Some of my safe spaces were built with the help of allies. Finding out that other people could help me was a massive step in coming to terms with my autistic identity and embracing what that meant for my future. The help individuals have given me in building and maintaining safe spaces is something for which I am profoundly thankful.

Expressing emotions, including gratitude, is something I struggle with. But I’ve learned that it’s very important to let people know when they’ve done something special. It feels good when someone thanks me, and I know that’s not just an autistic thing! It doesn’t have to be complicated – you can write a template script for thanking someone. And it’s absolutely OK to email or write a “thank you” note if you (like me) struggle to approach individuals in person.

As well as making people feel good (which is only fair), a thank you reinforces the helpful action. A person reminded that they’ve done something good is more likely to remember and be willing to do the same thing next time. So as a mechanism for maintaining the sanctity of safe spaces, and sometimes for finding new allies, gratitude can be powerfully effective.

I don’t thank people indiscriminately. There’s a fine line between thanking someone for going out of their way, and thanking them for treating me (as an autistic person) with the basic dignity and acceptance they would afford to any human being. The line isn’t always clear, and varies for different people. But for me, here is what I aim to do:

I will thank someone for doing a particular bit of work, or for helping me with a task I was struggling with (whether or not due to my autism). We all have different strengths and weaknesses – maybe I will be helping them the next day. But I will not thank someone for working with me. Every person has a different working style; thanking someone for accommodating mine implies that mine has inherently less value than theirs.

I will thank someone for changing a planned activity, or going against the majority preference, to accommodate my needs. That might be choosing to go to a different pub for dinner because the first choice was too noisy or overwhelming. But I will not thank someone for being my friend. If I have to thank someone for tolerating my presence in a social environment, then they are not my friend.

I will thank someone for providing clear details in written format, whether after a meeting or in preparation for an event. That’s something most people don’t need and I do, so I’m always grateful when it’s accommodated. But I will not thank someone for listening to me and taking my words at face value. I say what I mean: nothing more, and (unfortunately!) nothing less. I don’t need to apologise for the words someone else has written in the gaps between my own.

I will thank someone for quietly explaining my body language or behaviour to avoid a misunderstanding. Particularly when I am stressed, it is very difficult for me to explain without making things worse. But I will not thank someone who knows me for letting me stim (rock or fidget) in a safe space without interruption. That’s a basic need, and they know that. I should not have to apologise for not masking in their presence.

But on a final, more positive note: one thing I will always thank a person for is if they have seen me in distress and done the right thing. Actually, I will thank anyone who has done their best to do helpful things, even if they got it wrong. The people who genuinely help you out when you’re melting down in a public place, or non-verbal, or shaking so hard you can’t sit still – the people who at that point still treat you as a person – are the people you want and need in your life. For those people, I am truly thankful.

Building safe spaces

One of the things I’ve come to realise I need more and more on an everyday basis is safe spaces. These are spaces where I don’t have to pretend to be normal, with all the anxiety and eventual exhaustion that can bring. In a safe space I can take off the mask, ignore what I have been told is the fundamental strangeness of my own body language, and concentrate on the task at hand.

Since I got my diagnosis I’ve worked on making lots of everyday spaces “safe” for me as I am. I started small: with little changes to my negative internal dialogue home quickly became a safe space, and I found some quiet places at work where I could escape for periods of respite. But then I started to look at work in the wider sense, as somewhere I spend 40 hours every week and have to achieve certain goals. I enjoy my work – especially when the science is going well – but I’m not given the space to be alone and concentrate. So I realised I had to try to make more working spaces safe, even though I might encounter other people.

The process was objectively straightforward, but slow, and it wasn’t easy. Starting with my manager and a few trusted colleagues, I took each person aside individually. I talked to them about the fact that I was autistic, and that my behaviours and responses might not mean what they expected them to mean. I told them about taking things literally and not always knowing how to act in social situations. The responses were generally encouraging, if awkward at times, and I gradually gained confidence in talking to people I did not know so well. Later I organised some formal training to help give my colleagues a wider overview of what autism actually means. Now my desk at work, despite the open plan layout, can be an almost-safe space maybe 90% of the time.

Recently I’ve started working on safe spaces for other parts of my life. I go to a couple of choirs, and I’ve started to pick out individuals who might be supportive. What I’ve realised is that unless there’s an outright bully in a setting like that, it only takes two or three people to know what you’re struggling with to make the space relatively comfortable. Making routine activities safe is the difference between fighting my environment every time I leave the house, and only fighting it once or twice a week. I have more energy to deal when things go wrong.

I’ve been really lucky in encountering positive attitudes with everyone I’ve approached. An integral part of that was being surrounded by the right people, but there was also work on my part to help things go smoothly. Painstaking care and preparation went into choosing who would make a good ally and who would not. It’s important to trust your instincts here: anyone I didn’t feel I could or should approach, I left to the formal training at work, and in other settings I have learned to avoid. Timing and setting are also important, if you can control them. Disclosing in a crisis (which has happened to me on occasion) is not ideal!

But the lesson I’ve learned over the past year or so is that while “alone time” is crucial as a safe space where I can be myself, it’s not the only one. Other people can help to build and defend safe spaces for me throughout my world. Those safe spaces will be more transitory, and less than the 100% safety of solitude at home, but they are there. Learning to identify those transitory spaces and ask for that help to build has given me more confidence, and I hope will continue to do so over the years to come.