An invisible disability is still a disability–even at work.

Photo by Ola Dapo on Pexels.com

Today was a typical day for me, in that I had to deal with my son’s frustration with his schoolwork. For those who haven’t read this blog for very long, he has Asperger’s Syndrome, a high functioning form of autism. And I have it too, but we are different in how we display it. (I’m older and more experienced in trying to work with it or around it.) He’s having difficulty with keeping up and understanding what he needs to do with his class, and he texted me today to say that his instructors were claiming that they had never received his accommodations form at the beginning of the year. I remembered when that came in, and I was sure that he had sent it to the head of the department at least (he’s only taking classes in one department). Since my son has given me permission to go into his school email, I was able to find the accommodation form as well as the original email, and so I emails the professors on his behalf, forwarding the information to them, and saying that if he needs to get more accommodations that will help him succeed added to his form, he’ll work with the school office that helps with that stuff to make it happen.

It made me think about everything that I’ve had to do in my life, not knowing that I was autistic as well for most of my life. I can definitely sympathize with my son, and I didn’t have the same kind of encouragement and help that he gets. One of the things that we have in common–which is definitely a sign of our autism–is that when we get overwhelmed, we shut down. We won’t be able to move forward or back or any direction until we get help. This is often misinterpreted as being lazy. Now, this is not to say that we can’t be procrastinators or lazy like others in the world. We absolutely can. But we need to differentiate what’s being overwhelmed and what’s being lazy. Sometimes the difference is razor thin.

One of my son’s fears in speaking up for himself is that he doesn’t want to look stupid in front of the class–or his instructors, for that matter. He’s afraid to say, “Hey, I’m confused, and I’m not sure what I’m doing,” even if the instructor just gave him the instructions. You can imagine his frustration that with the topic he’s learning, he knows he has to learn it as part of the curriculum and certification process that he’s going through because it’s going to be an important part of what he’ll be doing for his career, so he does need to understand how to do it. I’m the first to say my son is not an academic, but he IS smart, but is learning-different. And being learning-different is invisible. He’s still learning how to speak up for himself and advocate for himself, and this is when Mom (me), his dad, and people in the disabilities office at school try to advocate for him or teach him how to advocate for himself. When he’s frustrated, he gets overwhelmed and it’s hard to separate what he needs to do to advocate for himself and his anger and frustration. It’s tough.

But I understand it. It wasn’t until I was much older–twice his age–until I understand how to do it for myself. Now I’m a little TOO fierce when I advocate for myself sometimes! LOL But the difference is that accommodations at school and having your parents intervene is not the same at work. There are those in the workforce who think that accommodations is solely for needing wheelchair access, visual readers, closed-captioning, and ergonomic chairs and wrist rests. What’s often ignored in the workplace is the invisible disabilities–autism, dyslexia, dysgraphia, sensory integration, anxiety, and things like that. When someone is in school, there are support systems put in place to help people with these kinds of invisible disabilities. Sometimes, at the college level, they’ll have it, depending on the college, but it’s limited (this is what we’ve tried to take advantage of at my son’s college when possible). But at work…nope. Nothing.

For me personally, I’ve usually divulged my autism after I’m hired and settled in, because most of my career has been done without that knowledge, and I want to be hired on my accomplishments and merits without that information. But once I’m in, I try to make sure that my manager and my teammates understand some of my limitations. For example, I can listen and take notes, but I can’t process the information at the same time. I can’t condense it quickly to take down the notes, and move on. The person giving me the directions or talking about something might have moved onto the next thing before my brain actually can process whatever’s being talked about. So I find I have to tell people to SLOW DOWN, and I have been taught to review my instructions back to the person to make sure that I understand them. The last thing I need to do, which is a natural reflex for most people, is to say, “Sure, I understand,” when I don’t, and then mess up the entire situation. This used to get me in trouble–a lot more than anyone else who was around me either at school or work. So, I had to learn to do this so that I didn’t mess anything up. Other times, I’ve had to learn how to step up and say I’m overwhelmed, especially if everything–meaning many tasks assigned–all became a “priority” or “urgent” at the same time. I have learned how to gauge my own bandwidth, and call out if something is unrealistic, and ask my manager to prioritize the priorities as well, because I can only do so many things at once without feeling overwhelmed and having a meltdown. I will even have to make sure that I say something that I’m on the verge of feeling overwhelmed, and ask for help to navigate, because I do want to do a good job and do well. Some of this is the sort of thing that my son is still learning how to navigate, and I can only teach him so much about this without being with him at all times.

One of the big things that the pandemic and the last four to five years has been about is people trying to encourage each other to be kind, patient, and flexible with each other. There’s no better place–outside of your own home–than your workplace, where people spend almost as much–and sometimes more–time with co-workers than with family. So many practices came into play a century ago that are still used today that don’t work. This isn’t “feel good” talk, but rather common sense and decency towards each other. We don’t all work the same way. We don’t learn the same way. Heck, even I get frustrated with other people when they don’t understand something that I do! But, having an invisible disability or not, we all need to figure out the best way to work with each other and make compromises. Sometimes that starts with someone who’s at a natural disadvantage that they can’t help.

What do you think? Do you think corporate society does enough to accommodate invisible disabilities? Include your comments below.

About TechCommGeekMom

Danielle M. Villegas is a technical communicator who currently consults for Cox Automotive, Inc., and freelances as her own technical communications consultancy, Dair Communications. She has worked at the International Refugee Committee, MetLife, Novo Nordisk, BASF North America, Merck, and Deloitte, with a background in content strategy, web content management, social media, project management, e-learning, and client services. Danielle is best known in the technical communications world for her blog, TechCommGeekMom.com, which has continued to flourish since it was launched during her graduate studies at NJIT in 2012. She has presented webinars and seminars for Adobe, the Society for Technical Communication (STC), the IEEE ProComm, TCUK (ISTC) and at Drexel University’s eLearning Conference. She has written articles for the STC Intercom, STC Notebook, the Content Rules blog, and The Content Wrangler as well. She is very active in the STC, as a former chapter president for the STC-Philadelphia Metro Chapter, and is currently serving on three STC Board committees. You can learn more about Danielle on LinkedIn at www.linkedin.com/in/daniellemvillegas, on Twitter @techcommgeekmom, or through her blog.
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3 Responses to An invisible disability is still a disability–even at work.

  1. Viqui Dill says:

    Thank you for starting this important discussion. For some disabilities, we don’t see the wheelchair, and this is especially true for autism. It’s hard for those of us who want to be good allies to know how to be supportive. We need y’all and the superpowers you bring to the community. Let’s not give up.

  2. Johanne Lavallée says:

    Hi Danielle! Madame fromage here… I will read this to my son, it is precious insight for him. As he is starting high school, he is trying to avoid accommodations, but we received a few warnings of homework not being handed in. The hardest part is when to talk with him because he is so tired coming back from school. I hope reading this to him will start a conversation!

    • Oh, I know this pain! All people (not just kids) want to think that they don’t need accommodations or stand out because they do. I get it. But I think I’ve learned that it’s a mistake. We all need different kinds of support, and those of us with autism are just as capable if we have the supports in place. Some of the supports can be small, but they make a difference. Sometimes, those supports are bigger, but in the end, I think the goal is success in whatever we’re doing, right? And if that’s the end goal, then let’s promote whatever it takes in order to attain that success. If some people need to read the closed caption on videos–even if they aren’t hearing impaired, then it helps! If taking more time or having better explanations helps, then do it! I often tell managers that when I first start out, I ask a lot of questions (most people don’t), and often they are more about validating that I’m doing something correctly. And sometimes I’m a little slow at first in learning something. But once I do master it–I fly! I’m sure it’s that way with a lot of other people. When I have the right supports in place, I do well. Same for my son. This isn’t something that should stop when school stops. Asking for help is not a weakness, but a strength, and that’s a stigma that as a society–differently abled or not–that we need to resolve.

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