This guest post is by Phil Martin. Phil was diagnosed with Asperger’s, school phobia, and ADHD as a teenager. Today he currently works as Emergency Medical Services Dispatcher and serves as a fire department public affairs coordinator.
I started high school before I was diagnosed with Asperger's. High school was actually the moment when I knew something was different about my mind. After my severe social failure, I was moved into an alternative school that focused on students with behavior issues, which included autism. The school had smaller classroom settings and was structured to be like the type of environment that we would face after graduation.
We worked jobs in the school, received paychecks; we could even get fired from our in-school jobs. At that moment in my life, I thought this was great! We were receiving the building blocks we needed to continue to build our lives after we walked across the stage. Sadly, I wish I still believed this was beneficial for me.
I later would begin working as an EMS dispatcher for my current employer. It was there where I discovered how emotionally stressful working in a setting that wasn't educated on disabilities such as autism could be. Things started off okay. Everyone seemed friendly, everyone seemed happy to have me there. I felt as if I found my work home. Over the years, old employees left, new employees came, leadership changed. I started to be introduced to different attitudes and different styles of communicating. I started to be told that I talked too loud and I talked too much. I get anxious at times so I stand or walk and I'm told to sit. I'm touched without notice or with aggression.
I made it known publicly for the first time to coworkers that I had Asperger’s. I assumed that steps would be taken to teach more about the disorder because that I was taught to believe in school, that accommodations were made for people with disabilities. Whenever I would attributed any of my actions to Asperger’s, I was usually told that I was using it as a crutch or that I "didn't really have autism". I honestly started to believe that maybe I was doing the things I'm doing not because of autism, but I started to believe it was just me. I stumbled across an article published by Boston University and it made me feel bad for even doubting who I am or my own disability because of their comments and views.
Everyday, I'm learning that there is nothing wrong with me saying to someone that I need to do things differently because I'm autistic. People act differently with things they're unfamiliar with. When I originally began telling people, they were quick to say that I didn't have autism or that the things I did were unrelated to autism but we live in a society where people want to see things to believe and because they can't see what’s occurring in our mind, they're quick to try to debunk it.
My suggestions to employers and to coworkers who work with people on the spectrum are this: when you first learn that someone is autistic, take that opportunity to learn about the disability. That person spends everyday of their life around people who probably don't have the same mind, therefore they're constantly being forced to learn they way people without autism operate and function. Imagine that - having to spend your life interacting with people who don't understand the difference between you and them. It takes less than an hour to search a few sites and read a couple articles so that you know the basics of what autism is and how it might affect the relationship you will have with your coworker.
Take the time and learn.
At Autism Speaks we've just launched a new initative called TheSpectrumCareers to help individuals with autism find employment. You can learn more about TheSpectrumCareers.com here