This blog has been written by an anonymous, autistic guest blogger. They have shared their experiences of employment and what they learnt so far in their career.
Years before my Aspergers diagnosis, when I was in my early 20’s, I got my first job. I was living at home and my mum was feeling helpless and frustrated. I felt lost in life and didn’t know what my ambitions or goals were.
I was applying for jobs but I was never successful. Having no self confidence or no life experience I was stuck in a hole. I finally applied for a position in retail and I was offered the job. It was my first foray in to the real world and was a harsh reality. It was pre-diagnosis and although I felt somewhat different I never really knew what the problem was. I thought I was, for lack of a better work, “dumb”, so getting this job and going to the interview was terrifying.
I was interviewed by a lady who turned out to be my manager. She was lovely. I felt nervous but before the interview I read up on the background of the company and ran through a list of questions I could be asked. I am good at absorbing information, so I used it to my advantage. In the end I got the job – my mum was ecstatic; I was finally starting my employment journey.
My First Job and the First Signs of Struggle
Even though I applied for the job, I hadn’t thought about what the role I applied for entailed. To me, retail was simply working on the shop floor – which just proved my naivety. My job role was visual merchandising; taking stock from downstairs in the basement and filling up shelves on the shop floor in the homeware department.
Having had no prior experience in a working environment, a lack of communication with work colleagues, and zero self-awareness, I knew this wasn’t going to go very well. Looking back now, I had thrust myself in to an environment that I was ill-prepared for.
Lack of Social Awareness and Failure to Understand My Surroundings
My working pace was very slow. I would start the day by bringing up the stock from the basement to fill up the shelves on the shop floor. If a customer approached me to enquire about where an item was, I would walk them to where they were and just stand there, staring, waiting for the customer to ask another question or until they politely shooed me away. It didn’t matter if it was kitchenware, or cutlery, or quilt covers; I would walk the customers over to the items and stand there staring.
Upon reflection, this must have been very unnerving for the customer. Simply pointing them in the right direction would have been sufficient enough but at the time I had no self-awareness. My failure to understand what was going on around me was so bad that I didn’t even realise that I wasn’t getting any work done. If I didn’t understand something, I would never ask any of my co-workers for help; I was too shy and always kept my head down.
Being Taken Advantage Of
I couldn’t differentiate the different departments in the store. All the staff worked on one floor, but there were different departments with different staff and a different manager assigned to each one. I just saw them all as one.
There was a lady who was working on the department next to mine; candles and picture frames. If a customer asked her about a certain item that they didn’t see on the shelves, she would call me over and ask me to go downstairs to the basement and check for her. She did this more than once in a day. Without even questioning, without even asking her why she couldn’t do it herself, I would do it.
Looking back, I should have told her that I had my own work to do and it wasn’t my responsibility. People can take advantage if they can see someone is vulnerable or unaware, so it was something that I needed to look out for. Meanwhile; whilst I was helping my co-workers, my stock wasn’t being put out – I ended up going home late because I wasn’t finishing my work on time.
The Conclusion of My First Experience in Employment
After a few weeks of not being able to get my work finished, it finally caught up with me. My manager asked to see me in the basement. As we were both walking down, I knew what was going to happen.
In front of other staff members she screamed and shouted at me. After this embarrassing experience I went to the toilet, sat there for 15-minutes and cried. I was unsure of what to do. I walked out and never went back again.
My New Job: The Turn Around
After a few months, I managed to find another retail job. This time I had some experience behind me. Although it wasn’t a positive experience, it was something to build on. But, I still had a long way to go and was still scarred from my first experience of employment.
This job had a different atmosphere. It was a lot more busier, had a lot more staff and I felt I could “blend in” a little more.
What I Learnt
I learnt to finally differentiate between the different departments, managers and staff. I knew what my department was and my role. It wasn’t easy, and took me a few weeks, but I learnt.
I kept to my own department and had colleagues come to me and ask if I could do a task for them, when this would happen I’d just explain that I had my own work to do – and they were fine with it! If I got my work done early, I would go to another department and help a colleague, and they would help me in return. This was a great way for me to learn how to communicate with other people.
If a customer enquired about a certain department, I would point them in the right direction. If I knew that my work would get done and I could see they were lost, I would take them there and make my way back – without any awkward standing around and staring.
If I misunderstood an instruction or a task, I would simply ask a co-worker for help. I started to walk with my head high and even started greeting my colleagues when I saw them in the mornings.
I would put myself forward for certain jobs, such as tills and stock take. My learning speed has always been slower than average, due to my autism, but learning these new skills was a right of passage for me. I learned that I needed to carry on and learn as I go; that giving up on things meant I would never learn anything.