I work at an autism nonprofit, a store-front, family-friendly center where people on the spectrum, siblings, parents, and even the occasional pet can stop in and find resources, support, and community. I love the center, and I love my job, which is the perfect balance of lots of creativity and freedom and chances to type and a little bit of typical office details. Since it’s an autism center and everyone who comes in has some connection to autism, no one blinks an eye when I growl at the malfunctioning computer program or borderline freak out when I’ve finished a project and realize it contained a mistake. All in a(n autistic) day’s work, right?
One day, we had a situation in which a family wanted to come to some of our programming. One of the family members was Deaf, and we needed to figure out how best to accommodate the whole family’s needs. My boss (who is more accurately my dear friend and beloved mentor, but in this situation, the boss roll predominated) handed me the cordless phone and asked me to do some sleuthing about how to handle this situation. The issue wasn’t that I didn’t know how to figure out what calls to make; I’m a master of Google! It was just the actual phone that scared me.
“I’m right here, and if you need to hand the phone over, I’ll take it. If you mess up, no matter what you say, you know I won’t be mad.” My boss reassured me that this was as safe as it got, that I had a serious safety-net in place… and that it was time to jump!
The story ends very anticlimactically when I made the calls and found some answers and lived to tell the tale.
But, a week later, when my mom and I were alone at the center, manning the ship while my boss was away on a trip, the phone rang… and I picked it up.
“[Autism Center], this is Lydia, how can I help you today?”
It was my dear friend, beloved mentor, patient boss… “Hi, Lydia!”
“MISS MARY–DID YOU HEAR ME ANSWER THE PHONE!” I can’t deny that I squealed. I totally squealed (just don’t tell anyone, okay?).
Hearing those words come out of my mouth, as well as other professional-isms like them, is like hearing my voice in a foreign language.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t catch your name.”
“I’d be happy to help you.”
“Just a minute please; I have to check my calendar.”
Those little phrases that I’ve heard so many times in my life sound utterly foreign when I hear them in my own voice. Who is this person? What language is she speaking?
When I expressed this observation to my mom, she said that it’s something every young adult goes through when she transitions into a professional life. I think the difference for me, as an autistic young adult, is less that it feels so funny in an inexperienced way and more than it feels funny in a “haha” way, too. Slipping those phrases and questions into my repertoire in a way that sounds remotely natural is a hilarious thing, because it is anything but natural and, true to my Aspie nature, I am extremely aware of the logical silliness in the whole thing. Why should I put on such a pompous act in order to show someone that I am a capable resource? Why is there an entirely other language just for communicating in professional circles? Why is this true across societies and not just in our own, and why does each society have such different rules about professional relations? I think about the Japanese tendency toward deference, such that a response of “I’ll think about it” (which, in Japanese culture, is a blatant “no”) led a United States president to think the two nations had reached an agreement.
I think about all these things, and I pick up the phone…
“[Autism Center], this is Lydia, how can I help you?”
…and inside, I laugh at the silliness of it all and contain my intense desire to engage in the ways most natural to me (“Hi, how’s your cat?”). The conversations that follow aren’t a problem; I have a true loyalty to the center and its mission, and I love to engage with families about their kids and what we do and how we can help. It’s not the meat of the conversations, but the salad that starts the meal, well, I’ve never been a fan of salad, either. Pretense is not my thing in any form–give me the real deal. But, if I’m honest, I feel a sense of pride at my somewhat sudden ability to do the proverbial salad talk at all. A year ago, it would have been impossible, but today, I’m pretty much rocking it, even if I do think it’s silly and even if I would really much rather talk about cats.