Category: Workplace

Fieldwork as an Aspie

Fieldwork as an Aspie

Fieldwork is all but certain to play a part in your career as a natural scientist. Even if you plan on exclusively analyzing data, working in a lab, or teaching, your education will likely include a field component somewhere along the line. Working in the field can create challenging situations for Aspies that aren’t an issue in other types of work. Whether you are taking a course at a field station, occasionally collecting samples for your research, or working a full-time field job, you should be aware of and prepared to meet these challenges.

Perhaps the most obvious issue with fieldwork is socialization. Not only will the number of people with whom you can regularly interact decrease, but you will probably be spending long periods of time in their company. For some work you will have to spend weeks at a time working with only one person. As an Aspie this can be a terrifying prospect. What if interacting with this person drains you too much to work? How do you cope if you don’t get along with this person? How do you move from seeing a person on and off during the workday to spending the full day working exclusively with them? Socially exhausting situations like this are unfortunate, but they may be unavoidable depending on your line of work.

My first full-time field job is a good example of this struggle. After graduating from college I spent a summer working as an electrofishing technician for a state agency. My unit would send out 2-5 person teams on 4-day data collection trips every week, weather allowing. This is what the job demanded. My first time working with a new person was always socially intimidating, especially if it would only be the two of us that week. Working ten plus hour days together, eating dinner together, then doing that three more times can get exhausting even for neurotypicals, so you can understand how an Aspie might be extremely stressed.

Your first line of defense concerning fieldwork is deciding whether a position is right for you. The last thing I want to do is discourage Aspies from pursuing fieldwork, but you should know that the nature of the job often requires situations like the one I’ve just described. It is important that you read up on a job before applying. You need to have a good understanding of what that position will expect of you, and what you need in order work well. Don’t despair if this limits you, though, because there are plenty of jobs that can give you field experience without the socially intimidating conditions. You just need to sort out which ones are which.

When in the field, try to identify and retreat to “your space” whenever you can and feel you need to. This can be your hotel room or cabin if you have one, a walk away from the campsite, etc. It won’t always be possible to do this, but there will be opportunities for you to step away from your partner/group. You can explain that, when appropriate, you need a little alone time. This is not an unreasonable request, and your teammates will understand. Even if the whole group eats dinner together, you are not required to eat with them. Neurotypicals may consider you rude for disappearing without explanation, but most will understand so long as you make it clear that you need time to unwind, and that it isn’t personal.

Another helpful strategy is to familiarize yourself with the expedition details beforehand. If you are preparing for a marine research cruise, there may be an opportunity to do a walkthrough of the ship before departure day. This will allow you to start acclimating to the environment gradually, potentially striking that from your list of stressors. If you will be spending some time at a field station, you are likely to find online photos, videos, and maps of the station that can similarly help. For short-term expeditions, I recommend you participate in the planning process as much as possible. Provided you are not in charge of the trip, hearing those who are discuss equipment and methods that will be used, as well as the team’s goals and priorities will give you a better sense of what to expect. This will also give you a chance to ask questions.

Finally, know that it is ok to discuss your needs and apprehensions with your partner or teammates. If you feel comfortable having an open conversation, your team’s understanding can go a long way toward alleviating your social stresses. In my experience, scientists are generally aware of Asperger’s Syndrome and tend to be supportive of their colleagues on the spectrum. However, you should not feel pressured to share your diagnosis and personal struggles with anyone. Only do this once you trust your teammates and are comfortable enough to be open with them.

I hope these strategies for coping with the challenges of conducting fieldwork as an Aspie are as helpful to you as they have been to me. This post will be updated as I continue my career, encounter new challenges, and develop new ways to meet them. If you have your own related challenges or advice that you would like to share, feel free to reach out. I am always happy to learn from the experiences of others.

I would like to clarify that the above personal anecdote is in no way a criticism of or complaint about any of my coworkers or the agency in general. The people I met in this job were all wonderful, fascinating people, and I did enjoy my time there. I simply want to characterize the fears and frustrations I experienced as an Aspie in this situation that my neurotypical coworkers likely did not.

Working with Neurotypicals

Working with Neurotypicals

As an Aspie or otherwise autistic person, you’re probably aware that the majority of the world isn’t like you. According to the CDC in 2014, approximately 1-2% of the human population is autistic. The harsh truth of living as an autistic person is that this world wasn’t built for us, and in many ways simply isn’t well-adapted to our needs and abilities. This can cause miscommunications and problems in the workplace, especially in high-pressure jobs. Regardless of your career path and goals, you will statistically work for many neurotypicals during your life, and most of your coworkers will be neurotypicals. While your bosses should (key word) make an effort to adapt to your way of communicating on the job, you should always try to meet them in the middle. The importance of getting along with your coworkers should not be forgotten either. This post is meant to share a few lessons I’ve learned while working for and with neurotypicals that apply at several different levels of employment, from minimum-wage high school student to degree-holding scientist.

Better to Ask Sooner than Later

This one applies mostly at lower-level positions where your boss gives you a task to complete unsupervised while they do other work. As soon as you are given the task, think it through from beginning to end. If there is a part of the task that you aren’t sure how to handle or that you know you’ll have to ask your boss about, do that immediately, rather than waiting until you reach that point of the task. I have been very guilty of failing this in the past. It’s often uncomfortable to ask a long series of questions after your boss explains a task, and it can be tempting to just say “Ok, sounds good!” and let your boss walk away. You know you’ll have to go ask for help later, but at least for now your boss isn’t worrying about you and trusts you to handle it, right? While it isn’t the end of the world to interrupt your boss half an hour later to ask them where a tool you need is, or to clarify a detail, it’s simply better to ask about any issues you foresee up front. Your boss will likely appreciate that you think through tasks from the beginning, and you get to avoid interrupting them if they start a different task or take a phone call.

Dealing with a Social Manager

In any job that requires you to work as part of a team, there is always the potential for a bad manager, project leader, or supervisor. The term “bad manager” can have many meanings depending on the context, but I have found a particular flavor of bad manager that often spells disaster for Aspies: a Social Manager. These types of managers tend to prioritize the social environment created by the team over other measures of success. While trying to foster a positive work environment is admirable, these people take it too far by focusing on getting the employees to like each other. Aspie employees are less likely to share this priority, and may find themselves on the manager’s bad side even while doing their jobs well. Social managers rarely have written protocols for work tasks, instead preserving them socially by relying on older employees to teach the newer ones. This can be infuriating for Aspies because communication isn’t always our strong suit and many of us benefit from specific, written directions. Social managers may also play favorites, granting employees with higher social ranks more implicit authority than others, even when everyone officially shares the same rank or job title.

These factors can create a confusing and stressful environment for employees on the spectrum, but there are steps you can take to improve your situation. Step one, buckle down and focus on getting good at your job. Step two, be polite and courteous to your coworkers and manager, but don’t worry about trying to befriend everyone. Step three, do your best to stay out of any workplace drama. Step four, if you would benefit from written protocols or something similar, be the one to write them! With any luck, you will become known as the hardworking employee who handles their responsibilities, doesn’t start any trouble, and measurably improves the workplace. Dealing with a social manager can be intimidating, but if you are diligent about working hard and staying out of any drama, you will probably be just fine.

Take Criticism Gracefully

Neurotypical or otherwise, your boss and coworkers are going to criticize you. Hopefully this will happen in a constructive and respectful way, but it is essential that your priority is to grow and learn from the experience regardless. I’ve been on the receiving end of a handful of dressing-downs over the years, some of which were arguably undeserved. While there is something to be said for standing up for yourself when treated unfairly, there are times when it is better to grit your teeth and move on. Picking your battles is a learned skill, and a vital one at that. I’ve also witnessed a number of coworkers, both autistic and neurotypical, dispute criticism from supervisors that was entirely warranted! Don’t let this be you! To succeed in any workplace, you need to approach each day with humility and in good faith. You are there to get work done, and to maintain a positive work environment. If a coworker or your boss is giving you any kind of criticism, remain calm, apologize for any mistakes, and focus on solving the problem at hand. More than likely this will 1) Get the work done faster, 2) Show your work ethic and drive to improve, and 3) Earn you respect from those involved. If a coworker is bullying or mistreating you, you should always be able to go to your superior about it. Be discrete and professional when doing so, but this is not something you should be afraid of doing! Lastly, if you are frustrated with petty workplace drama or feel that you were unfairly criticized, vent at home! Don’t air your dirty laundry at work, that will only create drama. Find a friend, family member, or significant other you can talk to and get things off your chest.

I’ve made a handy flowchart for handling criticism at work! It’s pretty simple, but this is the kind of thing I would have appreciated when first learning to handle conflict.

Respect Your Colleagues’ Time with Proper Communication

I don’t care if you’re the world’s foremost expert in your field, you need to respect others’ time and treat them fairly, or no one will want to listen to you or work with you. This means responding to emails as promptly as can be reasonably expected, not rudely dismissing the thoughts of your lab-mates or coworkers when planning a project, and actually showing up for meetings/events that you have committed to! This seems like a no-brainer, but I’ve seen high-level professors become essentially unreachable because they were too busy to respond to emails for days at a time. Many of the same people have to reschedule meetings with students multiple times because their time-management skills are lacking. If your job requires frequent scheduling and other communications regarding plans, consider those communications one of your work responsibilities. Responding to any relevant or urgent emails should be on your daily to-do list, and if you decide you can’t make an appointment or event that has already been scheduled, contact the others involved as soon as you can. These habits will show your coworkers, supervisors, and students that you respect them and don’t want to waste their time.

Photo Credit to Pexels