Why we need more understanding about autism in the workplace
November 6, 2017
This blog post is by Gianna Hitsos, a senior at Gordon College majoring in Vocal Music with a Theatre Arts and French Minor. Hitsos is a autism self-advocate, public speaker and singer in the New England area.
Last month, I abruptly ended my college internship. Despite my college professors' hesitation that this particular internship may not be the learning experience that would enhance my major, they granted me permission to take it this semester. At the time, I felt that when you have autism, the opportunities are few, so you take advantage of the ones before you. After all, I had the opportunity to work a forty-hour week for the first time, work in an interesting environment, and live with other college students in the program. After beginning the internship, I saw that my college's hesitation was valid; it wasn't what I hoped it would be, but I decided to stick with it, until I couldn't anymore, due to the unimaginable bullying I experienced from my peers and co-workers because of my autism. I have always brought my autism to the forefront, and have been a self-advocate since I was in 5th grade, because of the childhood bullying I experienced in elementary school. I felt that if people knew I had autism, misperceptions would be less. I'm a speaker and singer at schools and organizations bringing autism awareness and promoting inclusion. However, I discovered that bullies don't stop their behavior when they reach adulthood, they just take it to a more hurtful level.
Before I started my internship, I had the opportunity to communicate via Facebook with the girls whom I was going to share an apartment. I told them I had autism, explained my particular circumstance, and told them that they were free to ask any questions, and I would understand if they didn't want to live with me. I received a resounding "Not a problem" from all of them. However, from the very first night we all moved in together, I was aware of how cold the girls were to me. I figured, “hey, maybe they’ll warm up to me, it’s really only the first day”. However, that wasn’t the case. They were purposely cold to me, running off to do fun things together and never inviting me, but instead ignoring me or dismissing me when I tried to start a conversation, and pretty much not acting as if I really mattered or even existed. It got even worse as time went on. My stemming (my rocking and pacing when I need to process things), and the occasional times when I talk to myself in order to formulate my thoughts were being interpreted as if I was mentally unstable. My voice volume, which sometimes fluctuates when I’m excited or upset, was perceived as aggressive. I had an evening work shift and got back at 11:00PM, and one roommate told me I couldn't turn the lights on in the room, so I had to use a flashlight to get ready for bed. The other girls did not have to do that! She would write nasty comments to me on a memo board outside our door for anyone to see who came in the apartment. Another roommate eavesdropped on phone conversations I was having with my mother, then lied to the other roommates about those conversations. During my stay, I had to also handle and process all of the sensory issues and concerns involved with an approaching hurricane, but there was no compassion. Instead of asking me about my stemming, they went directly to the housing representatives and told them that my mannerisms were disturbing and "threatening” to them, which was ludicrous and a blatant lie. When they told housing, I was greeted at my door by two security guards who took away my ID, and said I was to go before the company reps to explain myself, but wouldn't tell me what I was being accused of until the reps told me the next day. I was treated like a criminal. These events were horrifying, because I am a woman of faith, and attend a Christian college, and it is not in my being to be a threat to anyone.
Now, from the time I started this internship, even as far back as the summer when I requested disability accommodations, I was told by the company representatives not to discuss my autism with anyone at work or in housing. Supervisors could know what my accommodations were for the job (mine were earplugs, clear directions and one extra break), but not why I needed them. This policy to me sounded ridiculous, because if I had a physical disability, it would be obvious, so why hide the fact that I had autism? Because of this policy, when it came down to explaining why my roommates were saying lies about me, I was told, "we are not talking about autism with you". I had to write up a statement about what the girls said about me, and I made sure I put in that I was being bullied because of a disability. The housing reps said that they accepted my statement as fact, and agreed that I was never any threat, but I still could not discuss the autism with them, so the bullying continued. The misperceptions didn’t stop at roommates, because at work, co-workers saw the stemming and treated me like I was stupid, and would yell in my ears. Again, I could not bring any issues regarding autism to my supervisors. I was hurt, humiliated and felt defeated. The roommates didn't like living with someone with autism and my particular symptoms, and wanted me out of the apartment. They ostracized, bullied and lied about me for two months until I decided it was enough and I quit. It was only after I quit that the company's human resource representative called me, and let me speak to her about my disability, and she asked what I thought they could have been done differently. Too little, too late.
It is wonderful that companies are now recognizing the talents and abilities of people on the autism spectrum and beginning to hire them. The problem, however, becomes what happens once we are actually working in that company. As people with autism enter the workplace, how do we stop co-workers from misinterpreting stemming, voice volume fluctuations or any other mannerisms of autism that they don’t understand or make them uncomfortable? How do we change the horrible misguided belief in the workplace that people with autism are unintelligent, or even dangerous? If companies have policies that prevent disclosure of disabilities like autism, how do we protect ourselves?
I returned home and my college was wonderful about helping me make up my lost internship credits and go forward, so I will graduate just one semester later in December 2018. It was a very painful experience, but I learned a few things. Most importantly, I learned that there still is a great need to bring autism awareness, not just to kids, but also to adults in the workplace, before we see real inclusion and acceptance. As for me, I’m a vocal music major, and theatre and French minor excited to complete my senior year in college. No bully can ever take that accomplishment away from me. So, I’ll take my loud voice and I'll belt out a Broadway tune or the National Anthem, pursue my dream of singing, continue my awareness efforts and change perceptions of autism one song at a time.
If you or a loved one has experienced bullying in the workplace and need help, please refer to the resources below:
From the National Collaborative on Workforce & Disability (NCWD): Bullying and Disability Harassment in the Workplace: What Youth Should Know