Spreading my wings in the workplace

By Sarah Hutchins | February 26, 2020
Photo of Sarah Hutchins sitting at her desk in front of her computer

I’ve always worked hard, but I haven’t always felt I could bring my whole self to work.

When I was in the second grade, I was reading on the eighth-grade level. My mom asked the school to test me to help figure out my strengths and weaknesses, and they placed me in the academically gifted program. I enjoyed the academics, but I still struggled at school. It was full of too many social interactions, and I was bullied.

At 10, I was diagnosed with pervasive developmental disorder, and Asperger’s Syndrome the following year, which is now known as autism spectrum disorder (ASD). This diagnosis typically means a person is exceptionally bright and capable but struggles with social interactions. I can’t tell you how many times I heard that I was “book smart” but not “street smart.”

I rejected my diagnosis for many years because of the misinformation and ignorance of ASD, including my own ignorance at the time. I did not tell any teachers – I didn’t want them to think I was limited in any way. I especially didn’t want to start believing I was limited. If you tell someone they are limited, they will take that to heart, and it will limit their full potential.

After all, I knew I could hold my own. Detail-oriented work and memorizing numbers have always come easily to me. By 18, I was living independently, working two jobs, and putting myself through college for a degree in business analytics. I’ve always had a job – self-reliance is important to me. After graduating, I gravitated toward work in IT, where I could use my strengths and continuously learn new skills. I worked in a variety of roles – as a recruiter, a business development manager, and a production support analyst.

Playing the Role

Over time, I learned to function in the workplace without people knowing I was on the spectrum. This is because I learned to do something called “masking.” Many in the ASD community use “masking” to describe the act of putting on different personas in different scenarios. I studied and mimicked social interactions and mannerisms from peers and media to blend in and pass as neurotypical. I thought I had come up with an excellent coping mechanism by doing so, but I found that it is actually very common for people on the spectrum.

While I was experiencing what others might consider success, the expectations to conform to neurotypical work behavior took its toll. It is exhausting and emotionally draining to be extra cognizant of everything you say – your inflections and your body language.

I’ve found that many people are afraid of self-disclosing an ASD diagnosis in the workplace. They’re afraid it could be a hindrance to how they are seen by management and colleagues. They’re afraid it could negatively affect their advancement. In many workplaces, functional labels and diagnoses can be harmful because they too often come along with stereotypes and unfair expectations.

Looking for a Change

After working in other positions, I was ready for a change and began searching for work with a company that defined itself as wanting to make a difference. I wanted to advance my career and bring my whole self to work. That’s when I applied to CAI’s Autism2Work (A2W) practice, which provides workforce training and full-time employment opportunities in IT and business operations for individuals diagnosed with ASD. At the time, I was working as a Business Development Manager with one of CAI’s partners. I had heard from clients and managers in the company about the successes of the program and had even referred several people to apply. The thought of finally taking the leap and applying myself was a little nerve wrecking, but I knew that, if I wanted to advocate for people with ASD, I had to stop hiding who I was.

Finding my Place

When CAI offered me a full-time role as a Quality Assurance Analyst for a large Fortune 100 pharmaceutical company, I accepted right away. Now I am an integral part of an A2W team working in Allentown, Pennsylvania. We are conducting automated testing, manual testing, SQL querying, and the analysis of scripts.

My attention to detail makes me well-suited for quality assurance work – in automating scripts, if one comma is off in the coding, it won’t work. Like many diagnosed with ASD, I can pay attention to the detail and see the big picture – how the supply chain, finance, communication, and IT infrastructure all must fit together. This helps me think more holistically and be a better problem solver.

In the past, masking my autism helped me professionally and socially, but it caused me some harm, too. When I worked in other places where I was afraid to self-disclose and felt I had to “play a role,” I felt I didn’t know who I really was. Now that I work for an employer that accepts me for who I am, I can stop putting so much energy into masking and focus on more important things.

Building a Better Workplace

I know a lot of people diagnosed with ASD who have not been as lucky with employment as I have. The traditional interview process can be a big obstacle, keeping many people with potential from having the chance to demonstrate it. A2W’s Job Readiness Training is designed to give individuals diagnosed with ASD an opportunity to show their skills in a supportive environment. Because it is a hands-on workforce development training and competency assessment, it gauges strengths and opportunities for growth at the same time as it prepares candidates to be successful in the work environment.

I am proud of working on a diverse team filled with great employees on multiple levels of the spectrum with different strengths and challenges. A2W is committed to providing ongoing support, building a non-discriminatory and accepting environment, and encouraging us to be our best.

An inclusive workplace is an educated workplace. If you’re in an educated workplace, you don’t have to be afraid to disclose that you are on the autism spectrum. I don’t want to work somewhere I have to keep my wings down. A2W is somewhere I can spread them wide.

Learn more about CAI's Autism2Work practice here.

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