If you were to meet me at work, you would think I’m just like everyone else. But I am autistic.
I cringe at loud noises and my eyes often dart around to track all movement around me. When I am looking at you, I am not usually making eye contact — I am reading your lips to find your words in the cacophony of sounds going on around us. You see, I have an inability to filter sound. You may think you’re in a quiet room but it’s only quiet to you. I can hear the buzz of the lights, the drone of the air conditioning, and other noises that for most people just blend into the background of so-called “white noise.”
Living with autism is challenging. My role requires me to be on conference calls most days. Sometimes I even travel for work. In those times I look for ways to reduce my stress so that I can focus and concentrate on the task at hand, but I know that my autism can make those interactions difficult. At a week-long on-site meeting last year, one of my colleagues thought I was mad at him but I wasn’t – I was just concentrating. When I am concentrating, I forget to use appropriate facial expressions. Those don’t come naturally to me; it’s a conscious effort to use the right one.
I have found that different communication channels are easier for me than others. If I am meeting with you over the phone, I don’t have to interpret your facial expressions. Email is even better than conference calls because I don’t have to interpret your tone of voice. In fact, one of the reasons I love being a business representative on technology projects is because our technology teams are some of the most culturally diverse teams we have at Bank of America. With that blending of cultures, I have found that people tend to be more literal and rely less on the non-verbal communication that is so difficult for someone like me.
If you meet me, I may seem “normal,” but I’m just pretending. Aren’t we all? The difference is that it comes naturally for you to switch between your “work” hat, or your “hanging out with friends” hat, or your “home with the family” hat. For me, it’s a conscious effort, an exhausting effort. I can’t begin to count how many books and articles I’ve read on interpersonal relationships and communication. If you think I’m “normal,” it means they worked. Just know it takes a lot of energy — energy that I would much rather spend coming up with process improvement ideas for my division.
That leads me to why I love working at Bank of America so much. My autism issues historically made it difficult for me to stay in one job for longer than a year or two. Here, I started off six years ago in an entry-level role but management recognized my talent and moved me into a role that helped with issue resolution, which led me to where I am today. I now get to brag to my friends in the autism community that I have a job that allows me to leverage my “autistic specialty” every day.
Everyone with autism has something that they are really good at and specialize in learning about. It can be anything from dinosaurs to vacuum cleaners, but for me, it is process improvement. Thanks, Bank of America, for being diverse and inclusive and allowing me to be me.