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Roger N. Meyer "...of a different mind "
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AS on the Job Four Months Following my Diagnosis

Roger N. Meyer 1997/2005

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[This lengthy post was sent to a group of AS adults who agreed to be my guinea pigs, on line, for the Portland Asperger Syndrome Employment Project.  I had formed the research group almost immediately following my diagnosis, anxious to get the facts on adult AS and employment.  I was already light years ahead of my co-principals in terms of envisioning the design of the project, and a few months following this post, the research group disbanded for reasons I review in the introductory chapter to my Asperger Syndrome Employment Workbook.  At the time I wrote this Email, I was winding down a 26-year career as a cabinetmaker.  Having been diagnosed with AS only four months earlier, I explain my predicament to other adults with AS as someone still working in an unsuitable career, conflicted with my growing knowledge about Asperger Syndrome, holding on for dear life to a past identity while trying on the clothes of a new one.  As is typical of the way I report things, I take on the "watch bird role," reporting almost as if I am a disembodied observer to an emotional scene in which I find myself intimately caught up.


I didn't realize that at the time I wrote this Email I was undergoing a delayed depression reaction to my diagnosis -- characterized by extreme outbursts of rage and a constant black mood.  This phenomenon was something I later explored in depth in my book chapter's description of a typical progression through the process of diagnosis, self-determination, and disclosure and in many Email posts to listservs.]



Date: Sat, 22 Nov 1997

Subject: The pigeons come home to roost:  Roger has a classic AS experience at work.



     Here's an anecdote about my AS and work.


     Still fresh.


     Several months ago I stood in danger of being terminated because not matter what I did, I couldn't meet performance standards.  I was removed from my job as a saw man, a lead position.  I begged, for the first time in my long career as a cabinetmaker, to be allowed to take any job, even as a cleanup person or a truck driver.  Anything.  The demotion was my end of the line.  I had seen it coming for a long, long time.  So here it was.  A new employee had just quit a quality control checking position.  I accepted it immediately, gratefully, cut in pay and all.


     A seven-year senior employee who worked undisturbed for a measured amount of time and knew all the shortcuts for the machine and handling inventory had set those standards.  He also happened to be my present boss.  Subsequent to my demotion, the shop has seen five new hires quit or be fired, even when the duties have been dumbed down, and other related tasks removed.  You can imagine my feelings to see the simplification of the job following my "retreat," and my not so secret delight in watching the revolving door of others who were hired after my displacement.  There seemed to be no end in sight to this show.


     The operation has grown from a garage-sized affair with five people on the floor to one with fifteen on the floor, and a second shift in the wings.  The man handling my former job now has to feed 15 folks to my eight, and four more who work occasional nights.  Only two employees plus the boss have been there over two years.  A fourth person quit shortly after my demotion.  He, like the other very senior employees, had seven years there.  The shop has thoroughly worn out equipment running twice as long during double shifts as only a year ago, and it was only a little less outdated then.  The senior employees are like the boss:  total company "men".  The boss has even brought his wife, small children, and a teenaged son in on Sundays to do company work off the books so his productivity figures, which he set, look impressive.  He cannot understand why he is having problems with his marriage.


     The shop has a good ethnic mix, considering this is Portland, Oregon.  Two Afro-Americans, two Latinos; four lesbians, 1 AS (guess who), and the rest fairly well distributed on the NT side.  Total sexual balance to the shop: 40% female, 60% male.  Rather remarkable for a blue collar manufacturing operation.


     I was demoted because my reaction to stress and multitasking, my poor organizing abilities and priority setting, my perseverance with non-functional behaviors and tasks, and my temper tantrums.  (Roger goes totally "Cracker Dog" as one character in All Creatures Great and Small used to say of her coddled miniature pet.)


     By time I had reached THAT sorry state, I had upped my medication to full-strength antidepressant level, combined with a full-strength anti-anxiety dosage.  My shrink prescribed this medication in such a way as to allow me to modify my dosage depending upon my stress.  Before the current experience, I was sub dosage everything.  I found that under "normal" circumstances, I did just fine with sub dosage.  Four months after my demotion to quality checker and preparation for finish or assembly, I finally got diagnosed AS.  It explained a whole lot.  I also went through the depression such a formal diagnosis often brings on, as if I hadn't had enough to be depressed about before getting my label.


     From the moment I was hired, I did not hit it off with one of the senior employees, an area lead person.  For three months, since she wasn't my direct supervisor, I could dance backwards to her intimidating and bullying psychic lunges and nitroglycerine temper tantrums.  After having crawled and groveled my way to retention, I found myself faced with the supervisor from hell.  There was no way she would relent.  She badgered, hectored, threatened, intimidated, confronted, reported, and belittled me to her heart's content.  She thrived on my avoidance of confrontation.  She had found the perfect pliant, desperate mark.


     As the Alpha, she acted as Alpha's do.  Not only was she showing everyone that she was the boss, which of course she was anyhow, she also had perfect fodder for her fulminations.  She and the other senior women, and one gutsy and remarkable junior woman employee had a predictable ritual of duking it out, sometimes almost physically.  Accusations and insults hurled through the shop like lightening bolts.  When one, perhaps two or three had a "good" day, it was over something more than just bad hair.  There certainly was never a dull moment, and their tempers were the constant subject of lunchtime and work time conversation.  This supervisor has a perpetual scowl and smirk on her face.  It is remarkable that in the whole ten months I have been there, I have never seen her face settle into anything less than a grim, black, tense grimace.  Yet she was a senior, "one of us" as you would expect to hear -- and did, constantly -- from the boss.


     Somewhere in the round of quits and terminations in her department due always to her behavior, and in many cases, failure to meet the pace-set quotas set there in the same manner for all other positions in the shop, she was demoted from her supervisory position.  She had a floating status for a while.  During this hiatus, her behavior began to be quite civil.  She was under watch.  She had been directed to participate in anger management work through the company's EAP (Employee Assistance Program) as a condition of her continued employment.  Still, the tension was there.  The face softened a little, but always had a scowl.  Public displays of her temper went underground and "inner ground."  According to a coworker who knew her well, she had recently started to pound on her partner a lot.  Serious, go the hospital stuff.  Not a surprise, I thought, for a natural bully.


     In the kitchen cabinet and custom woodworking industry, the shop has a sterling public reputation.  Privately, no professional with an intact sense of self-esteem considers working there, and those that have, leave after realizing the difference between public fluff and shop-floor reality.  They hire off the street; they hire through the state employment agency.  They are non-union, while the rest of the general contracting side of the company is all union.   They do have a benefits package, though, that is a pacesetter for companies of their size.  It was one of the reasons I was desperate to hang on there.


     While I worked away from her direct supervision, she was promoted once again, this time to a side of the operations where people were very strong and assertive.  Still, there was enough fresh blood in her regency to induce her life to resume her "normal" belligerent mode of supervision.  She could not proceed with her charges as she had in the other department.  The boss was literally able to observe her every moment because his glass window faces her area's employees.  Any repetition of her previous behavior would no doubt lead to termination, and while few others were actually aware of that, people do have a good sixth sense operating with these kinds of matters.  She was clearly "on probation."  [She was finally fired after I was laid off.  Her attitude induced so many new-hires to quit that the company had to reduce its turnover rate.  As one of its prime causes, she was the first to go.]


     For those outside boss's view, things were somewhat different, but often passable.  People worked noticeably better with one another when she was out for a day.  More people told one another to "just ignore her" when she was in one of her black moods.  I felt the same sense of ease.


     Slowly, however, the pressure of incredible overtime, back orders, mistakes, mismanufacturing caused by bad or unclear or incomplete communication, and the consequences of new hire inexperience and pressure to have them perform without adequate or consistent training began to affect production.  Expensive mistakes were being made.  By everyone.


     I have never supervised anyone in a blue-collar work setting before.  I got off to a rocky start.  When there was just me, alone in the work area, I went slow but fine.  I was learning more about where all the components went in a completed cabinet.  I realized that a vigilant and zealous approach to perfection made no difference in many components, since the normal quality standards of the shop were flexible enough to allow imperfections for "non-critical" parts.  Knowing which these parts were, however, is part of the mystique of every manufacturing operation.  I often made a public ritual of displaying my knowledge.  (You know, the little professor who can't turn off his mouth grows up!)  When there was a laborsaving or materials-reduction aspect to an operation, I "flaunted" my knowledge, and made suggestions to the wrong people, inappropriately.  My attention to detail allowed me to do a number of exacting operations.




     I was joined at my workstation by new-hires.  Some had limited trade experience; most had none.  Some had "attitude."  These were young adults, often only a couple of years out of high school.  For most, this is their first "real" job.  For many, the adjustment from the street to the workbench is a wrenching experience.  These are not work-hardened individuals.  The pay is pretty lousy too.  The work is both dull and demanding.  Dull because repetitive.  (Roger loves repetition!).


     Challenging because of expectations to use judgment.  Judgment that has no antecedent, no training, no formal instruction.  Judgment expected to be exercised "out of the blue," judgment which entails reading eyebrows, posture, positional stance, judgment which entails "picking it up on the job," judgment that requires common sense, judgment that involves good questions and adequate answers and knowing when not to ask more questions.  Judgment which demands you keep your mouth shut, judgment which means you hold your temper, you know when you are overloading, when you are "checking out," when you are closing down, when you are "losing it," when you should take a walk and cool down.


     Judgment which requires you to own your mistakes (no problem here for AS folks, right?), that you accept responsibility, that you be flexible in the face of inflexible demands, confusing demands, demands at cross purposes, demands made that "one time too often, too much, too loudly," demands made in the context of a noisy, swirling, dusty, quick-paced environment.


     Judgment that selects the major good from the miniscule imperfect, judgment that means that people do not always mean what they say, that you can do it a different way than first announced if the situation has changed.  Judgment that means you not follow your notion of honesty to your ultimate thread, but to a reasonable conclusion.  Judgment that prompts you not to have the last word, to tidy up each tidbit, each morsel, each sparkler's fire of new possibilities, of endless variations to your theme.  Judgment that allows you to see the glaze overcoming others' eyes during your stories, your endless chattering, your demands for recognition, your demands for acknowledgement, your demands for "fairness."


     Yes, you'd make a wonderful Solomon; yes you'd show the wisdom of Deborah in your deliberations.  If only we were kings and prophets!


     And so, a couple of days ago, things got so bad with this evil person, this person I was convinced had me in her crosshairs, this person, this person.  After her last, intimidating non-sequiter, I told her to direct any comments to me through my supervisor, that I would not tolerate her insinuations, her smirks, her badgering any longer.  I, in turn, would talk with my supervisor, asking her to convey my requests for information, my "where are's", my "why is", my every question that seemed to exasperate her so.


     And so it came to pass that on the next day, that God created the heavens and the firmaments, the thunder and the lightening.


     There she stood.  She planted herself in front of me, arms crossed, asking me whether I was aware of unwritten shop policy that I was violating, that I was using a the wrong tool (I have used this tool for over 25 of my years as a cabinetmaker) on components.  Here she stood, a towering, accusative inferno of confrontation, the detractor of my stature.  I told her that I was competent to decide which tool to use for attaining a company-standard effect, that I had been given permission by previous supervisors and the boss to use this tool, that it was being used on non-critical parts in an efficient, safe, professionally-accepted manner.  That my job involved quality control.  That I thought we had an understanding not to talk directly to one another.  That she was not my supervisor any longer.


Following our toe to toe dance, she walked in the direction of the back of the shop, where my supervisor was working alongside the boss.  From my past experiences with her, I knew her travels would eventuate in a "report."  Our tempers had both been long past the "lost" stage.


     When I tantrum, I do it big.  I raise my voice.  I am very loud when I raise my voice.  I let everyone know I am angry.  I don't care who hears me.  I don't care what I say.


     I get red inna face.


     The boss was a spectator to this whole sordid confrontation.  He came over and directed me to take a walk.


     I did.  It was 4:45, nine and quarter hours into an eight-hour day.  The fourth day of overtime this week, the fourth week of 50 and 60-hour weeks.


     Earlier this day I had gone ballistic with a truck driver delivering doors and drawer fronts that I am charged with checking in.  The last time they delivered, they did so on a shrink-wrapped pallet.  If we don't reject a shipment within 72 hours of its hitting our production floor, we "own" the product.  I hadn't been able to check in the last pallet shrink-wrapped from the vendor for over that time.  In my last count, they had been one piece short.  I caught it then.


     I didn't with this one.


     When the vendor's driver delivered the pallet, I upbraided him for defects ultimately discovered following his previous deliveries.  I was full of myself.  I ranted and gesticulated; I blamed his shop for problems not of his making.  He was polite; he was civil.


     He was enraged.  Roger didn't see any of this during his little maelstrom.  Today the shop got a formal complaint from the driver.  Right on target.  Deserved.


     There was the pallet.  It stood on the floor, glistening with its shrink-wrap, for three days.  This was the fourth day.  The pieces were all stacked on a low dolly, sandwiched and neatly interwoven.  There was no way I could get an accurate count as I normally do when accepting a delivery.  Once counted, we worry about condition and defects later.  I got one large cart and stacked them vertically.  I got another cart for the overflow.  Two carts.  Nearly 80 pieces.


     I counted.  Aha.  All there.


     The previous days' scene?  Avoidable?  You betcha.


     I learned about the driver's complaint in conversation with the boss today.  I learned this after having calmed down last night, having taken a walk as he directed.  After having returned to my area, having left two recently hired employees with the scene of my tantrum.  After having left everyone in the shop within earshot, stunned.  I had cooled down.


     I blow out, but I cool out.  No problem I say.




     I left a little early at the urgings of my supervisor.  I left the guys in my work area to clean up, to talk between themselves.  To wonder about this crazy guy who blows hot and cold all the time, who really does help and mentor and explain, and wants them to succeed in the worst way.  Who loses his temper.


     I went home.  I got right on the word processor and typed up a formal workplace harassment complaint against the hothead alpha.  I printed out one draft.  A couple of typos, a title change.  Noted.  Printed out four "perfect" copies.  I was serious.  It was cool.  I let loose all my five syllable words.  I named names; I gave dates.  I told them what I was experiencing.  I used the magic words that I knew would prompt a formal investigation, as federal law and company policy requires.  Hostile Environment.  Intimidation.  Badgering.  Inappropriate Public Rebukes.  I had never ever done this before, but I know the buzzwords; I know the red flags.


     I can write real good.


     This morning, I gave the "draft" copy to my supervisor, who is really with it.  She said she would read it after she got folks set up for the morning.  An hour or so later, I reminded her that the paper involved something urgent.  Could she take the time?  Of course.  I told her I had not submitted the edited versions to the boss, to his boss, to the company human relations person who is also a company vice president.


     Not yet.


     An hour later the boss called me into his office.  He was visibly rattled.  I was calm but determined, and he sensed that.  He had read the draft.  "You put a lot of time and thought into this," he said.


     I said, "Well yes, it took some time last night, but all it involved was a presentation of my concerns.  They had developed over months."


     "Is there anything I would like to see happen?  Now?  Right away?"


     I said, "No, nothing specific."


     I knew it was his responsibility to do what he thinks is proper.   I was agreeable to anything that would improve the present situation.  I proposed professional mediation between myself and the other person.  He noted the suggestion.  He would start a formal investigation and would be back with me later before the day ended.


     This is the man who hired me.  This is the man who demoted me.  But this is a man who does his best to be a good manager.


     Several months ago he called me into his office and we talked for an hour and a half.  On shop time.  He had observed me over the time I had been there, and said he really didn't understand me.  Could I help him understand me?  He really wanted to know.  When he hired me, he knew I had something to contribute to the shop.  We had this talk two weeks before I formally received my label.


     Now he was confused.  Several months ago I received my diagnosis.  Now I was in the midst of post-diagnostic despair.  I was learning a lot about Asperger's Syndrome.  I told him that I had been seeing an MD for meds, because I had been depressed recently.


     I had just experienced the loss of the second new hire in my work area.  The work wasn't being done in time.  I was doing a lot; a lot had been put on my plate.  An enormous flood of work was now bulging its way through the shop like a rat swallowed by a snake.  I could see its inevitable approach to my stage of the work, and I was really concerned.


     "Let's talk more about you," he said.  "I really want to know...I really want to understand you."


     I told him of my diagnosis.  I told him of my current depression and despair, my sense of overwhelm in the midst of multiple responsibilities.  I loved the work.  I enjoy the process.


     (What I didn't tell him and have never told anyone until now, guys, is that I love repetitive work.  I love cleaning up.  I make a great janitor.  Don't look at my apartment though.  I have always secretly wondered what it would be like to be a cleaner, a detailer.)


     I am ashamed.  Such a job for a Phi Beta Kappa in his junior year, a Summa Cum Laude graduate of a tough state university when honors theses were eight in a graduating class of four thousand undergraduate, where tough stuff was taught and learned!


     I told him I had Aspergers.


     I had read a lot about it.  Many things he had observed are absolutely in line with what I discovered about the manifestations.


     I said I would try to write a description of the disorder applicable to adults.  We know there isn't one that is appropriate for precisely this kind of situation.  I would wing it, I thought to myself.  I wouldn't get wordy; I would just digest the criteria and show how they apply to my experiences in the shop.  As I have told you, I haven't done that homework until now.  When I started to write this, I didn't even intend to make this posting a post-mortem bio.


     Today, as I awaited my fate at the boss's hands, I was tense.  I blew it with a guy in the shop who has the answers, the stuff right under his nose all the time, and he bugs everyone with questions about a job one piece at a time.  He's a senior employee, and everyone depends upon him to make things right.  He just has this habit, see, of bringing you one goofed-up piece at a time.  He knows I can make it right.  I can make him look good, just like others have always made him look good.  He is good.  He just needs this special help.


     I'm a nice guy.  I stop what I'm doing, and I go on a one-piece mission.


     It's been an all-day-problems-day for him.  All day.  Just not a good day for him.  Not a good day for me, either.  We got most of the goofs investigated and found out.  I re-cut a few parts for him.  I grabbed other parts out of pre-cut, pre-machined inventory.


     I'm a good guy.  I unhesitatingly do everyone favors.  I try to anticipate their needs, knowing that I've satisfied some of them in the past.  I'm the good guy.  I also lose focus of my own responsibilities, my own guys, my own work when I do favors for others.  Like the old add for breakfast cereals, "Hey, let's try it on Mikey.  He'll try anything!"

Mikey likes it.  Mikey's a good kid.


     This Mikey forgets what he was doing, forgets whom he was going to get back to, loses track.


     This Mikey.


     Mid afternoon, my supervisor calls me into the boss's office.  I like her.  She says that they have decided to reduce their demands on me so that I can properly train and supervise my folks.  (Please! only two).  She says she knows I can do it.  She says I am good at it.  She's been watching.  I'm a good teacher.  "The one guy with marginal English, we'll get Jaime to help you translate for him."


     "He's a Cuban," I say.  "Cubans talk so fast in Spanish that even Jaime can't understand him.  Jaime tells me Cubans are like that.  They have flash tempers.  They are proud."


     No matter.  Jaime can handle Jorge.


     I say, "Good.  Jaime is great.  He's been a great help this way in the past."


"We'd like to see you delegating some responsibility over checking parts for proper dimension, number, species; the whole accounting procedure as it gets to your area."


     "Great, I say.  When two folks, even three are doing that simultaneously, it gets cumbersome.  The papers shuffle all over the place.  There's no single place that everyone puts them when they are done with their tasks.  Also, we don't have enough tools, so we share them."


     "That would be a relief," she says.  "For now, start asking one person to check all the parts, the other to process them.  Then switch.  Then start giving whole small jobs to one person.  See how it goes.  Then start with the other one. "


     "Wonderful," I say.  "I so much want to see them learn.  I can't always be there for them when they need additional training.  I'm trying to do my job, and then they come over and ask me to help them do something new.  Or maybe the slower one...he forgets.  It's the same thing he's done a hundred times, and he still asks me."


     She tells me how she can actually observe me shutting down, my mind freezing, my stims -- she doesn't call them that; she doesn't know -- increasing.  "I see you get visibly rattled," she says


     "Yes," I say.  "I lose track."


     She says she sees me struggling to resume what I was doing before the work or task that took me away from it.  That I sometimes go from that distraction, once completed, to another, to another, and only then return to my prime task.  I forget where I put things.  I have to have my special pen, my tool, my checklist.  I need them always in the same place.  If they're not there, I go bonkers.


     Someone borrows a tool from me; something is missing.  I stop all work until I find it, until I retrieve it, until it is "just so" (Oh, poor Poo!).  She knows I am trying.  She has seen me work by myself when it is late, when the guys go home and I stay to finish the job.  There, quietly.  Roger's happy.


     I say, "Liz, you are wonderful."


     My eyes fill with tears.  I tell her I have Aspergers.  Everything she sees, everything she has observed, that's it!  I couldn't have provided a better description of the manifestations resulting from stimulus overload, from multitasking, the reactions to my honesty, to my tactless interventions.


     "Do you think these things we've talked about will work?" she asks.


     "I don't see why not," I say.


     "Good.  Let's start tomorrow."


     Twenty minutes later the boss calls me back into his office.  He says he has completed the investigation of my harassment complaint.  He has heard from others, now would I like to tell him what happened?  I do. I get carried away a little; I lose my train of thought.


     He is patient.  "We have been here before," he says.  He likes the idea of mediation.  "We'll do it on company time, at an EAP location close by, or wherever their mediator can arrange."


     "Fine," I say.  "Fine, I know."


     Fine:  I was a mediator in San Francisco for ten years, during the crucial development of the community conflict resolution process involving pure mediation by trained community people who are your neighbors who can help, through a three to five person panel.  I was a panelist.  I was a trainer of new panelists.  I was a trainer of trainers.  I was a caseworker, working the projects, the tenement high rises one day, the law offices of two bickering partners the next, on the corner where a neighbor's tree blocks the view, litters the sidewalk, where the dog barks all night, where the loud music and partying goes on.  I know what mediation can do.  It is wonderful.  I also know that it works."


     He's let me rattle on.  He knows that once I start, others have to wait until I wind down.


     How do I see the situation following that? he asks.


     I say, "I would expect nothing but improvement.  We will have taken our conflict in private, worked it out, and having arrived at mutually satisfying arrangements and commitments, trust one another to undertake the commitments at work."


     A little odd.


     This sounds like one of my scripts I developed when explaining how mediation works to a second party in conflict after I've convinced the first party that mediation is a good thing.


     Although the referral is not "voluntary" in the true sense, both of us have a great deal to lose if we don't enter mediation in good faith."  I say, " I am not a person to hold grudges, and it pains me to have these feelings toward this woman.  I know that my distrust will change when we both demonstrate faith in the process; that eventually that belief will become the basis of trust between us, step by step."


     More of the San Francisco script.  The words come flooding back.  It's been eight years since I've said that.  I'm on a roll again.


     I change scripts.  I wasn't done with my Asperger speech.  Here's the little professor grown up, rattling on:


     "You know," I say," everything that my supervisor shared with me about her observations, that's Aspergers.  There is no one who could have done a better job describing what I do"


     I then reviewed her statements to me for him.  I don't ask him whether he's heard them from her directly.  I said, "I don't know whether it's necessary for me to write something for you now.  I think we have enough an understanding so that you can read through some of the medical terms in some of the articles I have saved.  I'll bring them in.  Most describe children's manifestations, but they apply well to adults.  We don't outgrow our wiring.  I know of a psychiatrist at Kaiser who is the system's Asperger ( I don't say autism) specialist.  I will contact him, and since he works a lot with kids, adolescents and young adults, he is familiar with some of the things that AS adults do to compensate for their deficiencies, to overlay, to function well within their limitations."


     I mention scripting.  I mention rehearsing.  I mention some forms of behavior modification.  I want to try that.  I mention our Portland research project.  I mention that we have a work group founded to help people write their stories, to make their own connections between work and Aspergers.


     "Good," he says.


     "Good," I say.




     He was my last employer in the trade.  When I was laid off during a cyclical slow-down the following March, my boss called me into the office, as others who were laid off had also been called into his office, and he told me the no-news.  We both nodded.  "It was time, "he said.  "You know we won't be calling you back when work picks up."


     "Of course," I said. " I know that."


     This was not a let-down.  I had come to Portland eight and a half years earlier to study social work in graduate school, a short-lived experience that mirrored my previous aborted shots at graduate education.


     This was my ticket home.


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