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When I Was Afraid of Asking Too Many Questions at Work as an Autistic Person

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I am a disability advocate who has encouraged others to be open about their needs, yet there are times where I have been hesitant to advocate for myself. Worrying if the assistance I need or questions I want to ask will hold others back or affect perceptions of me, I will keep my emotions tucked away. This is a struggle I am gradually learning to overcome.

When I first started working as Program Administrator for the MMJCC Film Department, my two supervisors and I had weekly meetings to review current and upcoming tasks. These weekly meetings were put on hold when work for the ReelAbilities Film Festival started kicking up and my supervisors grew busier. I felt unease over losing this tool, which had aided me as an autistic person, yet wanted to prove my independence.

A factor I struggled with was prioritization. Two supervisors were providing me different instructions for different responsibilities. I felt tossed around in a flurry of emails, names, discount codes and film requests. It seemed every time I thought I knew what I would do for the day, something new would pop up in my inbox. I would constantly discard previous plans to get to new tasks, feeling like I was coming across earthquakes eager to swallow me whole.

Another factor I struggled with was knowing when to ask questions. The stigma surrounding autistic people and their capabilities led me to feel embarrassed about asking for clarification on tasks, especially if they were ones I had done before. What can I ask? I wondered. How many questions am I even allowed to ask? If I ask questions, won’t I just be slowing everyone down? Shouldn’t I just know what to do on my own?

My struggles culminated when, in a half-conscious autopilot state, I sent a series of emails with incorrect information to filmmakers. As I panicked and made corrections, hot shame flooded my body. Had a mistake been made when I was hired? Would a non-disabled person have been better for this job?

Hours later, I received a Google Invite for a Zoom call from my supervisor. This is my punishment, I thought. I am going to be reprimanded for what I’ve done.

It turned out that the call was an update on new tasks. I hid the absolute relief I felt as my supervisor and I chatted. She did bring up what happened with the emails, but instead of lecturing me, she taught me the importance of taking my time with work. Grateful for her understanding, I felt comfort expressing a large struggle I previously hid: “Everything feels so important with the festival starting up. I don’t know what to prioritize.”

My supervisor suggested we schedule a call between me, her, and my other supervisor to discuss this and get everyone on the same page. I worried if my capabilities would be put into question but agreed since it felt necessary.

The call was super helpful. My supervisors instructed me on what tasks I should emphasize, how many business days I could wait to respond to newly-arrived emails, and other tips. During this conversation, I blurted out my other largest struggle: “I want to ask questions, but I don’t want to slow anyone down ‘cause everyone is so busy with their own work…”

“Miranda,” my second supervisor said, “struggling with how to get something done on your own is going to take longer than asking for help.” It was blunt advice but said for my sake – and greatly needed.

I have used my supervisors’ tips for prioritizing work since that meeting. I also created a new strategy for myself: before my work hours, I go through unread emails and label what type of task the email falls into. This has helped me immensely with knowing which tasks are imminent and which can wait.

Communication-wise, weekly meetings have returned, which has been extremely helpful for both me and my supervisors. I have also been less hesitant in emailing questions and will practice patience when waiting for answers. While I still occasionally feel embarrassed by my questions, I know my supervisors appreciate them because of the messages they have sent me of “Thanks!” and “You rock!” The presumed closed-off nature of the workforce has been broken in favor of openness and support.

Self-advocacy is not simple, but it is necessary. No one should “suck up” their emotions and work alone. We need to ask questions and communicate, gain allies and tools. It not only makes us better workers, it makes the workplace better.

Originally published: May 27, 2021
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