I am not a special snowflake!
November 11, 2012 7:53 AM   Subscribe

Can you suggest some kick-ass female career/life role models for this social-sciences loving, radical left-leaning, and possibly autistic, woman? I need to read about other people who have been successful in the areas I've struggled in. Not Temple Grandin, please. Many snowflakes inside.

I had a childhood diagnosis of Asperger's Syndrome, and got a lot of early interventions--occupational therapy, physical therapy, resource room pull-outs. All of this ended after fourth grade or so; after that point my diagnosis was officially taken off my records. I got all the way through high school and college in honors classes, with solid grades and small-but-close circles of friends the whole time.

My first job after college 3 years ago kicked my ass. My boss accused me of not showing sufficient empathy for a co-worker, told me I was actually smiling at her as she was describing hardships in her life. Once, after I went on an errand with another co-worker to pick up condoms at the city health department, she asked me later how I thought the visit went. I said "fine," and she said "actually, co-worker told me that your body language was really weird and the health department worker didn't take you seriously." She went on to say that there was clearly something wrong with my perceptions if I thought that the visit had gone okay/uneventfully.

After a few months like this, that boss effectively forced me to go to therapy as a condition of staying at the office. She asked me, point blank, whether I had any mental health diagnoses, and told me that I almost wasn't hired because the woman who interviewed me perceived that I had "some kind of problem." It was at this point that I actually learned what my childhood diagnosis was--I knew I'd had interventions as a kid, but not exactly why. When I told my boss that I no longer have the diagnosis, she said "eh, it was the 80's, lots of parents wanted those labels removed so their kids would be seen as normal." I've since looked up the literature and seen that it is in fact possible to get those diagnostic labels removed, but I had no clue then.

I quit that job, and I've had trouble keeping work since. My last long-term boss, at a retail job, laid me off in part because of problems communicating with her. At this point I'm so self-conscious about my body language and my ability to read non-verbal social cues that I'm terrified of asking authority figures for help; I'm afraid that they'll chastise me for not picking up things that a "normal" person would figure out. I'm already in regular talk therapy for this, but I can't afford the neuropsych evals I'd need to verify or not verify the Aspergers, and frankly I'm not sure if I want to know. I just read autism blogs/books sometimes because I see some of myself in them.

I desperately want to be a nurse, but I'm afraid of being called out on the same old points about my body language, my fidgeting, how I show empathy. (It infuriates me when people accuse me of having no empathy-I feel, believe me I do, but maybe my facial expressions don't indicate that?)

Are there any good examples out there of autistic women who are successful in "helping professions" and/or involved in far-left activism? Blog articles, newspaper articles, books, anything? Something to counter this old nytimes article, which frankly scares the shit out of me in its talking about life outcomes for women? A lot of the writing that's out there about autism/asperger's seems to be written by men in tech/engineering fields who struggle with verbal/writing skills and sometimes have a bit of a libertarian bent. I'm a very verbal, radical/anarchist-inclined woman with no tech aptitude whatsoever. I'm also really not into "autistic pride" as a thing for me; if it makes other people feel empowered that's great, but my more stereotypically autistic traits cause me a lot of distress, and I don't like feeling pressured to embrace them.

Temple Grandin is the typical person who gets trotted out in this situation, but I find her stuff alienating too; I don't "think in pictures" at all, words come naturally to me, I would never dream of describing socializing as "boring".

I know better than to assume I'm a complete and total snowflake in this regard. Who can I read to confirm that I'm not alone?

Throwaway e-mail: bodylanguagefail@mailinator.com
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (15 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
It's not a perfect recommendation, but check out Penelope Trunk. She has Asperger's and is very social and in theory is a sort of career coach...if nothing else she is at least a very different sort of personality than Temple Grandin.
posted by feets at 8:03 AM on November 11, 2012 [2 favorites]

Also, just so you know it's out there: there are counselors who specialize in teaching body language and "neurotypical" social skills to Aspies, and I know someone for whom it has done considerable good.
posted by feets at 8:08 AM on November 11, 2012 [4 favorites]

Exceptional Nurse is an organization that supports nurses and related professionals who have various "disabilities" (as the site calls them). That said, it seems very small, and it's not even clear if it's still active, but it might be worth exploring the site and links, etc.
posted by seabound_coast at 8:22 AM on November 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

Perhaps Dawn Prince-Hughes? Was homeless as a teenager, worked as a stripper, became fascinated by gorillas, got a job at the zoo, is now an anthropologist who wants human rights for gorillas (who helped her learn to 'pass'), and is raising a kid in a same-sex marriage in Bellingham, Washington. Her insights are relevant to the nursing profession, argues the editor of Advances in Nursing Science.
posted by feral_goldfish at 8:49 AM on November 11, 2012 [5 favorites]

you sound like you need some very solid body-language and facial gesture cues, the US equivalent to a company like this.

It can be learned, but until it becomes conciously something you do regularly you may find a formal diagnosis is a protection for you in the work sphere.
No matter how well you learn social scripts, it's useful to have support. Have you found your way to Wrong Planet?

You'll need someone you can trust to maybe remind you every so often. e.g I whisper the word "Bubble" for spatial bubble to my husband when he has become distracted and is too close to the person he is speaking to, or in the queue behind, you'll learn a whole range of reminders or techniques that can help. If there is someone you can trust to help it would be good.

Because Aspies have such a strong sense of natural justice I have no doubt you can help in the social sciences area but it may not be front facing or customer facing role. In may be in the support side, strategic planning, policy development, where there are whole projects that require intense focus.
good luck
posted by Wilder at 9:07 AM on November 11, 2012 [2 favorites]

s.e. smith? Genderqueer and autistic, and writes on social justice issues (feminism, disability rights, income disparity...). Was a nominee this year for a Women's Media Center award.
posted by momus_window at 10:03 AM on November 11, 2012 [3 favorites]

"I desperately want to be a nurse, but I'm afraid of being called out on the same old points about my body language, my fidgeting, how I show empathy. (It infuriates me when people accuse me of having no empathy-I feel, believe me I do, but maybe my facial expressions don't indicate that?) "

I don't have a book for you, but a friend of mine who has some problems with her affect is a nurse. (She has strange body language, responds inappropriately to others' emotions, misses social cues, etc. She is a lovely, caring, warm person, but she doesn't communicate that terribly well unless you know her pretty well.) She is an ICU nurse and she is FANTASTIC at it. Her patients often don't like her that well, but they LOVE her. She doesn't become BFFs with her patients or their families, but she is straightforward and honest with families, doesn't let others' emotions throw her off-balance, and her odd affect comes across as calm detachment in a crisis and she gets shit done. Families will ask for her at crisis points because they find her NOT touchy-feely style competent and reassuring.

She had a dreadful time getting through, like, family-practice nursing rotations (or whatever nurses call them) where you have to be very personable and develop relationships with the family. She struggles in situations where the nursing is mostly about relating to patients and being supportive over a long term, and does brilliantly in situations where the nursing is more about applying skills as part of a team in shorter-term care situations. (Good labor & delivery nurse, terrible on the maternity ward.)

There's an awful lot of space in the medical world for people whose personalities are slightly off -- pop culture most often shows us the arrogant surgeon who can't interact with humans, but there are all kinds of places where someone who's a little different can thrive, and there's a fair amount of tolerance for it. I teach an ethics class for nursing students from time to time, and I stay in touch with a lot of my students, and there are some real odd ducks who go into nursing, find their niche, and are very happy and successful. VERY odd ducks. You're going to have to be a little strategic in making sure you pick a specialty and a workplace where your differences can be a strength and not a problem, and some of nursing school will be a struggle, but if you want to be a nurse, you go be a nurse, and you will be a great nurse.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 10:34 AM on November 11, 2012 [12 favorites]

Oh, Lord, do NOT take Penelope Trunk for a role model. She is the very opposite of someone who manages her challenges at reading social cues effectively, at least in the stories she shares (live-tweeting her miscarriage is only the most egregious).

This short essay by a UK doctor with Asperger's talks about some of the challenges he or she faces.

This blog is by a nurse with an Asperger's diagnosis.

Does it help at all for you to reframe things like "responding to social cues in ways others expect" and "demonstrating emotional response in ways others expect" as skills you can work on improving, if you choose, as part of your professional development? Because it sounds like the boss you describe framed the issues as ways you were lacking as a person, rather than as particular professional skills that needed improvement in order for you to do that specific job more effectively (at least in her opinion)?
posted by Sidhedevil at 10:44 AM on November 11, 2012 [4 favorites]

Could it be that your need for these books is actually getting at a deeper need, which is a change in understanding about what it means to "help people"? The people who write about what it means to "help people" and work in a "meaningful" profession are generally highly empathetic extroverted people, and they are the ones setting the tone for what those of us who want to "help people" are "supposed" to do.

So of you are interested in helping people in health care, we are told that this means you should pursue general nursing or be a primary care physician rather than becoming a nurse anesthetist or becoming a surgeon. It means working as an activist in a non-profit where it is apparently considered a workplace norm for employees to discuss their personal problems in detail with their coworkers and get the coworkers reprimanded if their are not sufficiently nurturing rather than working in a more analytical role with like minded coworkers.

Just keep in mind that the professional world you are drawn to, as an expression of your value system, is what people who are most definitely not like you think you should do with your life. They have a specific tempermant and value system that makes those kinds of jobs a good fit for them. It is not the "universal" or only professional path for people with your values.

So maybe what you should be looking for is less about how people on the autism spectrum manage to succeed in nurturing non-profit environments and more about how people on the autism spectrum succeed in helping people and doing good outside of what the people on the extroverted, empathetic, highly neurotypical think it means to help people and contribute to liberal causes.
posted by deanc at 10:56 AM on November 11, 2012 [4 favorites]

It sounds to me like one of your problems is that your first workplace was toxic. Your boss sounds at least insensitive, at worst bullying (though we're only seeing one side of the story; maybe she was a good person trying her best with a challenging employee - but it doesn't sound like it). What I see as an issue with many people on the spectrum is, first, that they don't have the clues that neurotypicals do that shout "Danger! Toxic workplace ahead!" and second, if it's harder for someone on the spectrum to get hired in the first place, desperation might override danger signals.

In your place I would not just be looking at job categories or career trajectories - I would want to develop as many skills as I could for avoiding toxic work environments. Sometimes (many times?) your career is just fine - it's your workplace or boss that's awful.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 12:09 PM on November 11, 2012 [2 favorites]

3rding to not take Penelope Trunk as a role model. Her stuff is vile and manages to alienate and annoy lots of readers. There are better role models around.
posted by kellybird at 12:33 PM on November 11, 2012 [3 favorites]

Not to discount your childhood diagnosis but you only mention two work instances in which both bosses sound like bullies. You don't mention your friendships (btw, small groups of friends are pretty standard unless you're extravert-central) or your family interactions.

Please keep in mind that some bosses are total freaking arseholes who will exploit and manipulate anything minor thing for any number of reasons (they're stressed, they're bored, they get off on it, they're insecure, etc). This particularly happens when you're young and unsure about how to behave appropriately in professional situations or just unsure about yourself in general. The result is high level anxiety that makes it extraordinarily difficult to pick up on social cues. Focus on decreasing your anxiety and the types of jobs you're looking at - as it's been said, there are many ways to help people and there are environments that are far less bullying than others and indeed helping professions where the ability to have a poker face is an asset.
posted by heyjude at 2:11 PM on November 11, 2012 [7 favorites]

Yes, bullying bosses can get you off-track for years, specially if you are a reflective and sensitive person. But I second the ICU-nurse prospect. Actually, to me, most nurses seem a little more "cool" and detached than other people. Even my own sister. (But my sister is awesome, and I wish she'd be OK with me linking you up, but she is too busy). In ICU, there is a very strong focus on results, and for some people that is a liberating situation.
posted by mumimor at 2:49 PM on November 11, 2012

Just popping in to say that I know an "odd duck" who has been a successful nurse at an urban VA hospital for years. When I met her, she appeared extremely withdrawn, although she was apparently doing quite well at her job. She's been in a good relationship for years and has become more outgoing socially. But even in her "quiet" years she was able to work a good nursing job and will probably retire with federal benefits. Not bad!
posted by Currer Belfry at 4:36 PM on November 11, 2012

Ok, I apologize for nominating Penelope Trunk.

When I wrote her name I was thinking less of "here is a person to model yourself on" and more "here is a famous female Aspie who isn't like Temple Grandin, observe diversity in the famous-female-Aspie population, don't feel like you have to be an IT guy to be a 'real Aspie.'" I also think she can be brave and interesting/unashamed (there is a video where she's interviewed by CNN's Rick Sanchez talking about the miscarriage tweet, and her unapologetic discussion of miscarriage, unwanted pregnancy, and legal abortion was IMO pretty awesome).

That said, Penelope Trunk has a lot of controversial opinions/behaviors and life-drama, and I shouldn't have recommended her as a "role model." Sorry
posted by feets at 11:51 AM on November 12, 2012

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