Covid Life and Coping

Like pretty much everybody else in the current fun times that we are experiencing, the covid struggle has been both a blessing and a curse.

I am grateful to work for a fantastic company and I have been working remotely since March. Also, I’m introverted, so that helps a ton with the whole trapped in the house thing. I do have a husband and a smallish child though, so that does hinder the whole autistic introverted thing just a wee bit. I usually need an absolutely exorbitant amount of me-time. Kiddo usually wants an absolutely insane amount of momma time. And we are all pretty danged stressed by the current state of affairs in the world.

I started out pretty okay. I wasn’t particularly optimistic about this. I actually had no faith whatsoever that this would only be a few short weeks and then everything would go back to normal. In fact, I told all of my friends that this was going to be a long haul in early days. As soon as I realized that Italy was getting overrun and they had cases with no known travel, I highly suspected that we were pretty much done for here in the States. Travel was still a free for all here at that time. It was already game over and we didn’t even realize that the game had started without us.

So, overall, I started out pretty strong. I didn’t have a mad dash to buy a million rolls of toilet paper, I didn’t need to stock up on dried goods. I just finally actually did some home improvement projects I had been planning for, well, a while, and just never got around to because I could never find the mental energy to do them.

Put in some ceiling fans. Got my bar for my kitchen looking all spiffy. Kid hates virtual pre-k. Bribe her with chocolate to at least try and participate. I don’t pride myself at being the best parent with that, but hey, at least I did something.

Yeah, I’m not a great photographer, honestly.

Then summer hit. And everything kept lingering on. I think that we all know that this is when the Covid fatigue really start to hit us. It was beautiful outside, and the spread seemed to stop being so scary. I was walking my dog as much as I could, taking my kid outside. We went hiking.

I still hit an autistic burnout. I couldn’t handle anything. My brain was done. I was done. I couldn’t handle doing my job. I couldn’t handle existing. Couldn’t handle doing anything.

That was the roughest spot for me. I should have known it was going to happen. But, I didn’t want to use PTO to just, sit at my house. And some delusional part of me still hoped that by fall/winter we might be able to have some sense of normality.

It turns out that when I attempt to run entirely too many months in a row being super mom, rock star employee, a proper wife, take care of my pets, take care of my mental health, and finish my masters all while there’s something as small as a global pandemic and and some massive political unrest, I might kind of lose the ability to focus just a wee bit. Who’d’ve guessed?

So yeah, I hit the dreaded autistic burnout. I couldn’t function at all. I lost all social skills. Couldn’t make eye contact with a cactus. I had a phone interview during that time period and it was quite literally the worst interview I’ve ever had. Asked if there was anything I could clear up at the end and she was like “nope, I think it was okay, especially if you haven’t interviewed in a while and you’ve lost some skills”…

Ouch. Let me go get a band aid and some burn cream or something.

Since then, it has been a hard climb back up from that bottom. The time off from work helped a lot (again, very, very grateful that I work for a super understanding company with flexible benefits). I have had to make sure to take time to just relax. And to be totally honest, stim my poor little brain out.

Probably the best thing I did for myself in the fall is I upgraded my desk from a normal office desk to a sit/stand desk. I almost never sit or stand still. The normal office desk and chair station works, of course, but with the sit/stand I can get more comfortable in pretty much whatever position I want. Along with it I got a sit/stand wobble stool as well as a wobble board to stand on. Basically I have the ultimate fidget all day in whatever way you want desk now. It’s fantastic. Let’s me get all kinds of stimming behaviors out while I’m working.

I would be lying if I didn’t say that a lot of other stuff didn’t fall to the wayside as I’m struggling with the wreck of garbage that everything in these disastrous times have brought to us. I have a list as long as my leg of all of the things that I am behind on and need to get done. I find myself saying “I don’t have the mental energy to…” on so many things lately.

But, I have found, that I’m not the only one in this boat. My boat may look a little different than yours. Maybe yours is a little bit steadier, or maybe you’ve hit a couple more rocks and are struggling to stay afloat as well. Maybe you’ve seen some smoother seas lately. All I know is that it has been rough seas for so many people this year and that even those of us who have seemed to have it so much easier than others this year (myself included in this) have struggled to keep it together.

After the storm blows through, the greens of the plants always looks so much greener than they ever did before. In the eye of the hurricane there is quiet. We can and will persist, I wish all of us the best through what is hopefully the last bit of this long haul of this covidian nightmare.

Behavioral and Cultural Fit Interview Questions

Cultural fit questions are so much tougher for autistic individuals than the knowledge based questions, am I right? So much more anxiety-inducing and if you’re anything like me, you probably lose way more sleep over wondering if you messed these up than you ever did on your actual field-relevant questions.

I definitely know that I nailed my cybersecurity related questions on my recent interviews, but the vagueness of culture fit and behavior related questions can be so thoroughly nerve-wracking. The worst part about it, at least for me, is that I leave the interview feeling fantastic about how I did. And then everything starts to sink in and by about an hour, maybe two hours later, I’m convinced that I didn’t even resemble a human.

So, let’s get to it and tackle some of the questions that stress us out the most, shall we?

Do you prefer to work alone, or with a team?

Now, I always will tell you to answer questions honestly. And, if you love teamwork, good for you, definitely go ahead and answer that honestly. If you’re like me and definitely prefer working solo, this can be a harder question to answer, as it can come across negatively.

My personal favorite wording that I’ve come up with that sounds better is “While I do prefer to do my actual work independently, I like to have a team available to lean on and ask questions and bounce ideas off of”. Basically “I do like to work alone, but play well with others”.

What we’re trying to avoid is trying to sound like you’re too arrogant to like working with others or that you can’t handle any criticism or just generally can’t play well with others. This one can definitely be a struggle for autistic individuals, since we typically aren’t the greatest at first impressions, so we might seem a bit standoffish or short. If you prefer individualized working styles, come up with a phrasing that highlights that you still value your team in some fashion.

What about this role do you think will challenge you?

This is typically looking into how much you really investigated the position, make sure you still have the posting available and have assessed it compared to your skills and have a good idea of where your weaknesses are compared to your strengths. Don’t be too afraid to be honest about it, just don’t simultaneously undersell yourself at the same time!

I don’t honestly come across this question too often, but it stumped me really badly when I was asked it the first time because it was super unexpected for me, so I wanted to throw it in here. My personal opinion on this question aside, it’s a great opportunity to showcase how you want to continue to grow your skills in the position that you want. If it’s a chance to increase your coding skills? Highlight that. Chance to increase your public speaking skills? Perfect opportunity to mention that. Leadership? You get the gist of it now. This shouldn’t be anything that is at the core responsibilities of the position as you don’t want the interviewer to start to wonder if you’re really capable of doing the job after all.

Questions about the company’s core values/How you identify with the core values.

A big part of this is going to be about proving that you researched the company a bit and are interested in the company itself. For instance, some of Amazon’s leadership principles include frugality and always learning and remaining curious, so you’d want to point out that you have a thirst for knowledge and prove it through the fact that you are always looking for new courses on Udemy to pick up new skills while they are sale.

How do you handle when you have multiple situations come in at the same time that all need to be handled?

I am in mostly ticket-related type situations due to the types of positions I have had, however this can relate to a variety of positions as well. It’s typically somewhat related to basically determining how you’ll prioritize in a moment of stress. My typical answer for this is to basically always get an idea of what each situation needs and then do a quick triage assessment and go from there: anything of total urgency comes up first, or anything that can be resolved in a few seconds might take the lead just because we can get it out of the “queue” immediately before moving on. Perhaps there is a customer that is of more importance with a super important issue that we can delegate, etc. Basically the concept of get a triage assessment going so that we can properly assess a proper order to handle all of these situations.

Tell me about a time when you dealt with a difficult customer/client/coworker.

The main purpose of this question is to get an understanding of how you de-escalate an angry customer or situation. The best method is to say that you’ll hear the person out and attempt to resolve the problem and mitigate any issues that you can. It is important for the other person to feel listened to and reassured that they are heard, otherwise you will never be able to make any progress toward resolving whatever the issue is.

It’s pretty easy to shoot yourself in the foot with this issue, if you say that you’ve never dealt with any difficult people ever it’ll sound like you’re lying. If you pick a situation where there was absolutely no fault on your end and communicate it poorly, it could sound like you place all blame on the other party and accept no potential fault and you may not take criticism very well.

As an example, very early on my career, I had a very bad secret shop done on me while I was working in a coffee shop in an airport, way before I even knew I was autistic. The secret shopper walked in, high energy, practically yelling hello and waving. This behavior was entirely out of line for normal behavior in an airport so my assumption was that he either knew someone in the shop or he knew my coworker and was addressing them. And then.. Nobody responded to him. My coworker and I looked back and forth between him and each other clearly confused. The secret shopper, perturbed at not being replied to, quite excitedly addressed us again. I basically lost the draw between myself and my coworker, so I went and took his order (and was the lucky one to get the score from this secret shop).

Needless to say, this secret shop was poorly scored because of this first impression. A couple years later, I used this situation in an interview for another coffee shop as a time I had messed up and what I had learned from it. I also did not stop talking when I saw the interviewers eyes go wide as soon as I told her the score I got. I did not stop talking as I continued to watch all of the negative body language as she watched me continue on to explain how he had completely caught me off guard because I didn’t know how to react to this situation that was so entirely unexpected.

At that point, she had basically entirely stopped listening to me and already decided not to hire me. Yet, I was thinking if I just got to the actual apex of this story, the entire point here that I could actually save myself. I had learned from this situation and never scored lower than a 95 on a secret shop again. No luck. I did not get hired at the coffee shop. I don’t think I even got a actual rejection from said coffee shop, just the application black hole. Don’t be me. Don’t pick literally your worst example with a redemption story arc.

Tell me about a time that you made a mistake at work and how you resolved it.

This is a big one, for quite a few reasons. They are looking for you to obviously tell how you handle making a mistake and how you go about fixing it. This is a very straightforward question for me, because I have no issue whatsoever with admitting that I make a mistake and owning it. My general process is to immediately admit that I make a mistake and let’s get this fixed.

My advice for this particular question is to start keeping a situation in mind for it, should it come up. It’s started becoming common especially in tech companies, I don’t know about how common it is outside of tech companies, but just keep a couple of good situations ready to fire away. Nothing over the top bad, but nothing too minor. A typing error does not count as a mistake at work. Be willing to admit that you, too, are in the category of human and, unlike many others, you are willing to admit that you make mistakes, even semi-big ones.

At least it’s kinda hard to kill important documents with coffee now that everything is in the cloud now, eh?

How could a manager best support you?

This is one of those questions where I’d like to remind you that an interview is going both ways. This is a very good question to answer honestly. For me, personally, I am highly intrinsically motivated. I work best when I’m allowed the opportunity to set my own goals and know what my expectations are for my role. I will perform pretty dang well when I’m left to my own devices and allowed the freedom to figure out how to meet all of the requirements of the in and outs of my role. Feel free to give me nudges back to those if I start to veer off to one side, but generally let me have the freedom and I’ll be a happy worker. I personally don’t thrive very well under a manager who wants to manage the nuance of all of my individual goals as well as the fine-tuning of my daily schedule and effectively micro managing my day.

So, again, you are also interviewing the company and team at the same time as you are being interviewed. If the manager that you would thrive under is not the type of manager that is interviewing you and not the type of team that is interviewing you based on your answer, so this opportunity doesn’t work out. That’s perfectly okay! It wouldn’t have been a situation you would have wanted to stay in long.

How do you deal with a disagreement with your boss?

This is similar to the earlier question about the difficult customer/coworker situation, where it’s basically about making sure that you can handle it in a reasonable method. Pretty much everyone has had some kind of disagreement with their boss in some fashion. For me, my example for this question and the next are effectively the same, so I’ll give it with the next and just a general answer here.

Basically you’ll want to provide an example of what the situation was, and how you handled it. Ideally with a conversation with your boss where you spoke it out and how you compromised and reached the agreement.

Have you ever disagreed with a company policy? What did you do?

Again, basically to see what kind of behavior you’ll do and how you’ll approach the policy and what kind of action you’ll take. My example that hits both of these questions was when I was working at a chat center, we had a new head honcho who came in and wanted us to change our process for starting up and closing chats and every single agent using the exact same entrance and closing script so that no matter who the customer was talking to, it looked exactly the same.

So, y’know, the policy was now that the customer should expect a robotic response and closing rather than a personalized greeting and closing from individual agents. My boss expected me to fully back this horse to our team since I was the team lead. Problem? I whole-heartedly disagreed with the entire policy. I thoroughly believed that utilizing the robotic scripts would harm our agents stats because they had personalized opening and closing scripts (the last things that the customers saw before they received surveys) that added some additional flair that seemed (in the past) to have dramatically increased the positive survey totals.

Handy dandy robot chat agent, reporting for duty!

Boss-man wanted me to be positive about it and jazz it up a bit to the team because he knew the team would follow my lead. If I wasn’t so hot on it, then the team would be even less likely to want to follow this new policy. Turns out that was just the right amount of fluffing up my ego, so I agreed to test it out when I would take chats to help out and would jazz it up to our team in spite of my personal feelings.

It turned out that using the required scripts had no real impact on my personal stats and didn’t seem to alter the frequency of my surveys. As a result of my willingness to work with the boss-man through my disagreement with the policy, our team were the earliest adopters of this new policy when compared to other teams on the floor. And it turns out that it did not negatively impact our team’s overall stats, which was my main concern with this policy.

Other good examples for this question would be where you approached a policy and found that the policy was lacking so you found evidence the policy was lacking and got the policy changed or revoked. Basically anything other than “I pretended the policy didn’t exist and repeatedly broke it”.

Handling Job Interviews

One of the most common questions I have seen come up with autistic folks is how to handle job interviews. It’s pretty obvious that it’s one that we’d struggle with, we know that first impressions aren’t always things that we excel at. And sometimes we aren’t the best at answering the questions that people are actually asking instead of the question that they asked.

Yeah, I’ve totally bombed some interviews myself. I’ve stimmed so hard in spinning chairs that I’m pretty sure that the interviewer thought I was on drugs. Or showed up massively under dressed because I didn’t realize that the slacks and a polo shirt was absurdly casual for a mall department store women’s clothing section. Despite the fact that my mother used to work in one, I’d somehow never really picked up on the fact that those ladies are usually dressed up pretty damned nice?

Once I found “my” field, I’ve typically done much better. I fit in pretty well in the tech world and I definitely answer questions about my knowledge well enough to make up for the fact that I am always fidgety and questionable in a lot of the skills that everyone is told not to do in interviews because it makes you look awkward and everything else. I also gave up on a lot of the advice giving to neurotypical individuals for job interviews because I can never fake it well enough to make it work for me. I can mask pretty damned well, but I can’t do it super well in a highly anxiety inducing environment, and I’m willing to bet many other autistic individuals also struggle with this as well.

General advice:

  • Make jokes when you can
  • Be honest
  • Ask questions to be sure you understand their questions

To expand that a little bit further and clarify. I deal with stress by trying to make myself laugh, which translates to I usually crack some kind of joke during an interview, which will usually make my interviewer laugh. Everybody likes to laugh, so it kinda warms them up to me. If this isn’t your nature, don’t try to force it, but if it is, this can definitely work in your favor. Don’t try to stifle it just because you think it might not work for you. I’ve definitely made some jokes that your traditional career help office probably wouldn’t recommend in interviews that I’ve landed jobs from (self-deprecating jokes, Big Brother jokes, etc) but it generally works for me. General standard caveats of nothing off color.

Honesty definitely needs a clarification. During a job search, pretty much everyone and their mother’s dog will tell you that you need to embellish your resume and skills in order to land a job. I don’t and I won’t. Embellishment is a waste of mine and everyone else’s time. I do list skills on my resume that I am working on, usually in a section clearly stating that I am learning/in classes for and during interviews, when asked about these skills or what I have done with these skills, I always answer with “I have limited experience in a working environment, however, in my personal lab/in this project at school/etc I did XYZ”.

The worst thing about misunderstanding a question is that you may not even realize that you answered a totally different question and didn’t even answer what was asked and have a grey cloud hovering around you now. I can’t even tell you how many times I have had an HR/initial phone screen wherein I was asked a yes or no question which I answered in the affirmative and had nothing else said and they moved on to the next question and I’d then be black holed and I’d never hear anything again.

I was entirely confused until I saw an internal documentation at a company for a posting that we had with a similar question for the recruiters to ask potential candidates and what to look for and it was looking for examples. A yes or no question. And they were supposed to provide examples. Why ask a yes or no question and then expect a full answer with examples?

It seems obvious in retrospect, but it still kind of blows my mind because a yes or no question has a short answer of yes or no, not “Yes, examples a, b, c” especially in a short screening. So never worry about asking for clarification to be sure that you are actually answering the question that the interviewer is expecting you to answer. No need to sell yourself short because you answered the wrong question.

Should I Get Diagnosed?

This is a super personal question, there is honestly no right or wrong answer to it. If you’re here, then you probably have been through a lot of reading and basically come to the conclusion that you feel like Autism is probably the right answer for you.

You’ve likely seen the statistics on how girls who aren’t don’t need more support go under diagnosed by the system. The research was done primarily with boys, and all of the data was biased toward boys and how they present. It’s not exactly hard to make it to teens or adulthood as a lady without a diagnosis.

For many, the self diagnosis is really enough, it answers the questions they always had about themselves. They read the stories, they feel like they finally found their soul sisters and they suddenly had this massive weight they didn’t even know they were carrying pulled off of their shoulders. The relief is enough because they finally know that they aren’t alone and that other people feel the way they feel and see the world the way that they see the world.

There’s also likely some anxiety that they will be dismissed, experts will see them make some eye contact and just go “well, eye contact happened, not autistic, have a nice day” (and honestly, that might happen). It doesn’t mean that your journey is over. Get a second opinion, or a third. Research for better specialists, ask your general practitioner for better specialists.

For others, the official paper that says “yes, I do have this thing” is important. For me, it is important. It was important for me to get it for my daughter. I wanted to have the “yes, it’s true, I really can’t handle this unless I have X to help me out” or “no, my daughter can’t do this situation the same way as the rest of her class, but if you let her take breaks in a quiet room she’ll be able to handle it”. For my daughter, I really wanted her to know throughout her life that she isn’t broken, she is just different.

When I approached my daughter’s pediatrician about getting my daughter assessed for autism, we had the general conversation about why I believed she is autistic and then I told him that I know that girls have a very hard time getting an accurate diagnosis and I wanted him to recommend to me not just any specialist but I wanted him to recommend to me specialists that he knows have previously worked with girls who were on the “higher end” of the spectrum. Specialists who had worked with girls who present similarly to my daughter. I specifically told him that I was not interested in approaching this through the school district because I wanted to reduce the likelihood of getting the older school of thought of autism only presents this way because of research in boys.

Her pediatrician printed out the normal list and he went through each of the referrals that the office can make and he circled three or four, but when he got to a specific name on that list, he said “this one, she recently did a fantastic write up for another one of my patients who is very similar in behavior to your daughter”. And she was fantastic. Utilize your resources as much as you can and be clear that you know there is a struggle in diagnosis for girls and women and that you want to try and limit the search for specialists that understand that there is a struggle for girls and women. Leverage your doctors and psychologists if they are on your side to help you in this search as much as you can.

In my opinion, there is no harm that can come from a diagnosis, only benefits that can come. But there is no need to disclose your diagnosis to anyone unless you want to after you get it.

Of course, all of this is assuming that you have ready access to decent healthcare and professionals who are caught up with the times and won’t need to hop through multiple professionals and/or travel extremely far in order to find an adult autism specialist.

Girls Can Be Autistic

The first time I really heard the word “autism” I was sitting in a university level psychology class listening to my professor tell us that autism was just a different way of seeing the world. I’m sure I had heard of it before, but I had never really thought much about it or reserved much mental energy about it.

The second time I really paid any attention to the word was on an entire wing of school building I was working in for what would have been called the “special-ed” kids when I was in elementary school “The Autism Wing”. And I went home that evening and posted a rant on my newsfeed on Facebook. “Not all autistic kids are learning disabled and not all learning disabled kids have autism” and of course got the “yeah, but many kids with autism are severely disabled” response back from someone I respected and just felt like an idiot.

I have had many labels thrown my way over the years, some of them stuck: gifted, odd, quirky, sassy, bitchy, smart, focused, shy, quiet, reserved. Some of them didn’t: ADD, bipolar disorder, just to name a couple specific diagnoses. So many labels that were close but not really fitting. Yeah, I do have depression and anxiety. But they can’t even really call it anything other than “Generalized Anxiety Disorder” which basically just sounds like “yeah, basically you just don’t really operate like normal, yeah?”

The third time I paid attention to the word “autistic” was when I stumbled upon the same screener that many people who suspect they may have autism or Asperger’s have taken. I scored in the range of high amounts of autistic traits and recommendation to see someone for a potential diagnosis. Problem? I’m a girl. Girls aren’t autistic. Everyone knows this! I basically read the entirety of both the DSM IV and V and it’s pretty well known that it’s statistically improbable that girls are autistic.

So, of course I sent that to my friend and had him take the test, he also scored in that range. We talked about how of course we scored high because we are mathy people (him being an engineer and all, me just being a nerd). But my brain still wouldn’t let it rest so I sent it around to a few more people. Funny thing, though, everyone else I knew was in the low autistic traits range.

Fourth time I really paid attention to the word, you can probably guess: same friend sought a diagnosis. This hit me a wee bit too close to home. I actually wasn’t capable of accepting this. He and I are so freaky similar. He can’t be autistic because I can’t be autistic. Because, you know, girls can’t be autistic. Ergo, since we are basically the same person, he can’t be autistic. Can’t argue with that flawless logic, can you?

Doesn’t matter how much my brain screamed “no” — you can’t stop reality.

Guess what? He totally got diagnosed. Still took me years to stop being in denial about myself because, y’know. Girls can’t be autistic.

So here I am. Ready to tell you that girls can, in fact, be autistic.

We look “different” than textbook. We typically hid it a little bit better than our autistic brethren, partially because girls tend to want social connections more than boys. There are starting to be studies done to see how autistic girls perceive the world. This one that I’ve looked at found that autistic girls basically use other parts of the brain to respond to social cues outside of the part of the brain that neurotypical girls would use in order to translate social cues.

So basically, our brains were impaired and sort of “realized” that they were impaired but found a new traffic route to try and improve it, but it’s not quite as good as neurotypical girls. So we found a new way to respond somewhat well to social cues. We aren’t as good at it as most neurotypical girls, but we are better at it and get more reward from it than our autistic brothers do.

And of course, because no entry post on autistic women and girls is ever complete without a mention of masking, let me go ahead and dive right into it. Masking is living every day as if you are participating in a stage play without a script.

Everyone else knows what is going on, but you are sort of flying by the seat of your pants and needing to improv a wee bit. You put on this shell of what resembles a human being and a character that other people mostly respect and you never let anyone get close enough to find the cracks where the real you falls out, because the last time that happened…

As a girl, this was resolved by having a few close friends that I was always around for each task that I was doing. It was almost like I didn’t realize that my art class friends could be my friends in other places. Or that my playground friends could also be friends in class. I mostly had hobbies that I could do entirely by myself (yay books!) We also moved so much that it was never weird to anyone that I never kept friends through different grades.

It turns out that research is finally starting to realize that girls are, indeed, autistic too.