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Why Being a 'Team Player' Is Different for Me as an Autistic Person

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Right now my favorite online game is single-player Scrabble. Basically, I play on my own and see how high a score I can get. I usually get one of the top scores for the tournament, far higher than when I play someone else. I got such a buzz from playing it and a definite dopamine hit. It got me thinking about why I like it so much.

It’s simple. I’m the only person whose moves I have to predict. I can’t upset anyone else because there is no one else playing. No one can upset me because no one else is playing. I can plan ahead and think of several outcomes based on what letters may appear next. I can use the time as I see fit to execute the best moves. No one is judging me for the way I play, no one questions me and I don’t have to try and explain my thinking to anyone. Utter bliss.

When I was 11 I received my final school report from primary school. It had me in tears. Throughout my teacher had written how I wasn’t a team player, how I was overbearing and how I needed to learn to work with others. I was distraught. The report spoke nothing of how creative I was on my own, how I worked to solve a problem or how I could focus on detail. It simply talked about a lack of social skills.

Now, I’m not denying that I showed those characteristics because I’m sure I did. For most of my adult life, I have forced myself to work as part of a team. I have masked my instincts and held back ideas, all so I don’t upset people. Sometimes I’ve failed spectacularly and upset everyone around me. My ideas were lost to the emotion of the rest of my team.

I felt as though I was broken. But it wasn’t because teamwork didn’t come naturally, it wasn’t just that I wasn’t very good at it without hiding my true self, it’s because actually I bloody hated it. I despised it. The words from a teacher, “today you’ll be working in groups” were enough to make me feel physically sick in school.

Struggling to work as part of a group doesn’t mean you are broken or bad at what you do. What it means is that you have a role to play, and you may need to play that role on your own. You need a piece of work to be delegated to you and you’ll smash it. You can still contribute massively to the team outcome; you’re all working towards the same goal. The problem is that blurred lines and inconsistent and changing briefs on the task at hand are very distressing and exhausting.

So often you see on job descriptions and school reports how important it is to be a “team player.” You can be a team player and still be comfortable in yourself. Give me a task, give me a position on a sports team and I will do my job to the absolute best of my ability. I will take rewards and any hits as part of my team. I just need to know that I’ve done my part properly.

So if you or your child struggle in groups or with teamwork, perhaps think about finding your role within that team and asking for clear boundaries. If you dread group work, if your brain isn’t set up for it, it doesn’t make you a bad person. It means that you’re able to excel and exceed all by yourself, which I reckon is a damn sight harder.

Getty image by Alphaspirit.

Originally published: August 19, 2020
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