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How My Boss Helps Me Succeed as Someone on the Autism Spectrum

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Not many people on the autism spectrum are employed; I’m one of the lucky few.

I say lucky, but it isn’t luck; it’s a lot of perseverance, blood, sweat and tears. I can’t even say it’s all because of my hard work. Without the support of my co-workers (save for the ignorant few) and bosses, I wouldn’t be where I am today.

There is one boss I owe the most to, Linda. Linda was originally in charge of another department, but was always friendly and kind to me. About a year and a half ago, she became my direct supervisor/boss. At that time I was struggling a lot with anxiety and depression, and I couldn’t mask my autistic traits.

She helped me through anxiety attacks and autistic meltdowns; encouraged me to get the help I needed through my doctor and therapists. She fought and advocated for me to others. She saw my worth when I didn’t.

After a rough few months with my mental health worsening and my physical health starting to follow, reaching the point of a suicide watch, I had to take a leave of absence to get better. I learned new coping mechanisms to deal with my ignorant co-workers and to get my medications at the right dosages. Through these months, Linda was the only person to contact me from work. Not as a boss, but as a friend checking on me, seeing how I was. She cared.

A few months later I returned to work, and Linda had actually become in charge of my department. I remember my first day back vividly. She had scheduled the shifts so those co-workers I mentioned before weren’t in. She helped me through the day, giving me words of encouragement.

Coming back from my leave, I felt like I had lost years of skills I’d developed. I still don’t think I’ve reached where I was before. I was finding it difficult to stay on task, complete all my duties, remember things, and multitask without making my station look like a bomb had exploded. I was quiet — some days mute, some days stuttering. From a boss’ perspective, having a once fully functional employee struggling would be extremely frustrating. Linda took it all in stride.

With the patience of a saint, some gentle nudging and a bit of pushing, we slowly made me back into a competent employee. Here are some of the ways she supported me:

  • She never yelled or raised her voice at me. Yelling, even if it isn’t directed at me, affects me a lot.
  • She never got frustrated with me, and believe me, I would have gotten frustrated with myself. I asked her the same questions over and over again, making mistake after mistake despite trying my hardest. I would have an anxiety attack or meltdown at the worst times.
  • “Three steps forward, two steps back, is still one step forward” is her favorite saying; anytime I got frustrated or angry with myself, she would say this. “Look at a month ago to now, look how far you’ve improved.” “You couldn’t have done that a year ago.”
  • She takes the time to explain, slows down and repeats things for me. She gives me time to absorb the information. Every day she would write a task list to help me stay on track. It was almost identical each time, but autism thrives on repetition. Now she doesn’t leave me one unless there’s something important that I usually don’t do but need to do. I’ve learned to write my own list now. I thrive on lists and writing things down.
  • Another common autism trait is focusing on the small details rather than the big picture. I would focus on the most unimportant task, while the rest of the department is in shambles. With Linda’s guidance, I’m now able to prioritize and see the bigger picture. Not 100 percent of the time, she still makes “suggestions” aka “don’t do that right now, do this instead” but without saying so. I’m able to see that my area is ahead on things, but my coworker has a massive backlog and their product is more important to get on the shelves than mine. I’ll jump over to help them catch up. Or there are holes on the shelf but the stocker isn’t in until this afternoon; we’re losing sales. Let me take 10 minutes and fill them up. Linda taught me things that would be common sense to anyone else.
  • My coworkers would leave me with headaches as I tried to follow their actions, lies and words that didn’t match up. Linda is always happy to answer my bombardment of social skill norms, and why x did y. Although extremely slow, I think I’m improving my skills in that regard.
  • She knows my strengths and uses them to her advantage. I’m good at counting and sorting things, and love doing it (yes, I know, autism stereotype). Guess who gets enlisted at inventory time. She gets accurate numbers, I get the best day of the year. She asks me my thoughts on improving sales or changing something, and the next day she gets a 10-page essay with my thoughts and ideas (Oh, how I wish I was exaggerating). Or how I’m mechanically oriented and can figure out how things work and repair them, without needing to call in the expensive repair people (I wonder which came first, the autism stereotypes or the autistic person).
  • Linda can tell when I’m starting to get overwhelmed or anxious. I don’t know if this is some neurotypical witchcraft or what, but whatever it is, she helps me be able to regroup myself and then get back to work instead of melting down and having to go home. After 23 years, I’m still not good at knowing when I need to take a break.
  • Linda cares about me as a person. I was bullied as a child and never really had any friends or anyone who cared about me other than my family. So the fact that someone actually cared about me and my well-being, beyond just a co-worker relationship, is foreign to me. It still is weird and different to me, but in a good way. I know I can trust her completely, and I hope she knows she can trust me as well. I can be myself around her with no judgment. We crack jokes and playfully insult each other daily.

I know a lot of people say you can’t be friends with your boss. I disagree. I’m able to follow her orders and do what she says without a problem. There’s no favoritism, heck, I think I end up doing more work than the rest of my co-workers. What’s that called? Reverse favoritism?

I really like this friendship thing; I wish I had more of a chance to learn it as a kid, but I think I’m getting the hang of it. My emotional intelligence/reasoning skills are severely lacking. I have the emotional range of a teaspoon (Harry Potter reference)! But I know when Linda is upset or frustrated, and I bring her a tea (I did it before Sheldon from “Big Bang Theory,” thank you very much). And although I feel like I do a lot more “taking” than “giving” in our relationship, I hope she knows how much I appreciate her and everything she does.

I sincerely believe without her help and support, I wouldn’t be where I am today, I doubt I’d be back to work. Actually, to be entirely honest, based on where I was last year mentally, I doubt I’d even be around at all.

So Linda, if you’re reading this, I want you to know I mean everything I’ve written. And I hope you know this is only a small sample of everything you’ve helped me with or supported me on. I could write a novel on all the support and encouragement you’ve given me over the past few years. For lack of any better words, thank you.

Getty image by Zephyr18.

Originally published: November 25, 2019
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