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Shattering the Silence About Autism and Workplace Harassment

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A dear friend of mine founded a non-profit organization consisting of three schools for autistic children. She and all her staff work diligently to enrich the lives of the children who attend.  They are preparing them to eventually go out and become productive members of society.  I fear for all young individuals on the autism spectrum.  I fear that they will encounter the discrimination, bullying, harassment, and hostile work environment which I’ve endured over 30 years now, 20 of those at my current workplace. I am autistic.

Let me tell you about my day at work yesterday. It was so profound, like my soul suffered a catastrophic massacre. I’m a Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist, and was walking down the hall towards my operating room to go start my last case of the day. Everything had been going smoothly all day, and it was Friday so I felt that sense of TGIF! A co-worker was walking towards me. She’s five months pregnant. She stops and says, “I’d like to ask you a question.”  I thought it was something job-related.  I replied, “sure,” and stopped. She began, “I was wondering if you know of any supplements that I can take so my baby isn’t born with autism.”

In that moment I felt like I’d been struck by a stun gun. The wave of emotion which instantly flooded my entire body was like a tsunami. I was looking into the eyes of a person who literally just asked what she could take so her child isn’t like me. Wow. Think about how you would feel right then. If she really wanted to know this, even little kids know how to Google things.

Last night I had difficulty falling asleep. That co-worker’s inhumane question was burning in my mind. It opened the flood gates of all I have endured in the workplace over the years. My thoughts drifted to the students at my friend Barbara’s school.  My heart got even more sad thinking they too might encounter such destructive comments at their job someday.

I feel the need to shatter the silence about what happens in the workplace.  Living life on the autism spectrum is a challenge in itself. I’ve overcome endless obstacles, accomplished great things, and have a very productive life. In the shadows, however, lurks the dark side of my successful career. Those involved like to simply sweep things under the rug. That’s the easy way out. I’ve found that when you complain to superiors, you become the problem to them because you are requesting their help to stop it.

I’ve been blessed my whole life with excellent support systems. My mom until I was 53, then my dear friend Barbara, and my husband Abraham, who’s also autistic. With this continuous support, and being a strong-minded person, I’ve made it through some very rough times in the workplace.  I’m not alone in this arena.  As an internationally recognized autism advocate, I’ve personally heard endless stories of similar harassment, and read even more.  It all needs to stop. The perpetrators get significant glee out of their destructive actions. I’m convinced these same individuals were the bullies in their school days, and their behavior just continues on into adulthood.

Let me share some of the “highlights” I’ve encountered over the years, most of which have been in the recent past.

About a year and a half ago, I walked into the operating room at 5:30 a.m. to begin setting up for the first case of the day. The scrub tech, as usual, had their phone playing very loud heavy metal. Everyone in my workplace knows I’m autistic, as I’m very vocal about it.  The shrill sound from the electric guitars was sending my sympathetic nervous system into a tailspin. At first I tried to endure it. I knew that asking them to quiet the music would not go well. Finally, after about 10 minutes I just couldn’t tolerate it any longer.

I guess I have some silly misconception that an operating room is a sacred place where we take people’s lives in our hands. There must be extreme focus and diligence. The operating room staff is setting up literally hundreds of sterile instruments while I’m drawing up anesthetic drugs and securing all necessary equipment. There are many things to prepare for administering general anesthesia to patients. It isn’t a nightclub, yet others don’t seem to share my point of view. They are all laughing, talking, and enjoying their party. Oh yes, I’d love for the patients and their families to see what’s going on. I’m betting they would be freaked out.

These people already know I’m autistic and can’t tolerate such music. I’ve brought this up in the past many times.  By this point I was nearing a meltdown from the massive sensory overload their music was causing.  I then stated, in perhaps not the prettiest tone, “can you please turn down the volume of that music!” Right then, the circulating nurse had walked into the room.  Hearing my statement, here was his reply.  He blurted out at the top of his lungs, “You minorities! You are what’s wrong with our country today! You people think the rest of us have to change to accommodate you!”

When I wrote up the incident and took it to my boss, he did reply that “this isn’t good. I’ll look into it.” The resulting action was they didn’t assign me and that nurse to work together for about the next 10 months. But just a week ago the same nurse started talking about about a traveler scrub tech who worked at the hospital about a year ago for a few months. He started saying “That guy was f***ing autistic!  He was a real freak and remember all the weird things he did?” To which all present burst out laughing.  I just stood there looking at all of them, feeling deeply offended by the whole incident.

Here’s another one. Yes, I know I walk in an unusual way, typical of people on the spectrum. Did I really need a doctor to say to me in front of others at work that I “waddle like a duck when I walk?” Another doctor I work with regularly, who’s from another country, overheard me talking to someone about autism.  He said, with a big grin, “In my country, people with your problem are locked up in mental institutions for their whole life!” This doctor will frequently say things like, “Your autism is all in your head! Just forget about it!”

A few years ago, I was doing anesthesia on a case and the surgeon had the music volume turned up to the max. I couldn’t even ask the circulating nurse a question because it was so loud. I finally asked the surgeon if I could turn down the volume of his music. I thought I was being polite to ask and not just go turn it down. He got enraged and yelled, “I don’t care about your f***ing Asperger’s! That’s your f***ing problem!” After the case was done, I called the hospital hotline to report the incident. Several days later I received a call from someone at the hospital stating they talked to that surgeon, and it won’t happen again. I was never assigned to work with him after that. I do hear other staff complain about his loud music, which he still plays.

Once one of my bosses asked me when I was going to “get over” my Asperger’s. “How long are you planning to string it out?”

A surgeon and his assistant, both of whom I’ve been working with for 20 years, seem to get much fun out of saying extremely derogatory things to me in reference to being autistic. They know I do an excellent job with the anesthesia.  They also know I’m on the autism spectrum, and they know I’m greatly affected by heavy metal being played loudly in the operating room. Obviously, I can’t escape it so I’m trapped. They are both extremely religious and frequently talk about their Christian activities. None of which seem to include treating someone who’s not just like them with dignity and respect.

Several years ago, they had their music turned on maximum volume, starting at 6:30 a.m. for our first case of the day. I suffered through the next several hours like that. I developed a raging headache and was literally sick all over.  Around 1 p.m. I finally said something. I asked if the volume could be turned down. I didn’t ask for the music to be shut off, just turned down. My request was not well received. He stopped operating to look me right in the eyes and state that my autism is my problem, and tough luck for me. Knowing that he is so religious, I replied that I was going to contact Billy Graham to ask his advice on the situation. Boy did I get a rise out of him when I said that. His face scorched dark red and he started slamming things around. Gee. He didn’t like it that I touched upon his religious interests, but it was OK for him to discriminate about my autism.

Each week I work with them one, sometimes two days. The assistant gets there first, and is sure to say, “Let’s put on some loud heavy metal and watch Anita’s face!” He thinks it’s so funny to say that. Each time he does, I feel harassment and discrimination. Of course, the others in the room break out into hearty laughter. All except me. They regularly ask me about my “disease.” They are laughing as they say it.

The majority of my co-workers avoid and ignore me. It’s really obvious in the break room where I have to eat my lunch. They simply act as if I’m not there. Like I’m invisible. There are a handful who do talk to me, but the others just avoid me.

I’m still numb for the pain inflicted by my co-worker’s question of what supplements she can take so her baby isn’t born with autism. What was she thinking? What on earth would possess her to say that to me? I am devastated and terribly wounded.

Discrimination and harassment on the job should no longer be happening in 2018. It needs to stop. It’s up to bosses, supervisors and administrators to have zero tolerance for this kind of behavior in the workplace.

Getty image by Jacob Lund.

Originally published: March 1, 2018
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