Repost: The Importance of Dandelions

Since April is Austim Awareness Month, I wanted to share this post from exactly a year ago.

As I’ve looked back over my work history, there has been one overwhelming feeling that comes up over and over again: shame.

Since I entered the workforce in my 20s, my job history has been one of seemingly disappointing people.  I never met people’s expectations of me.  It wasn’t for lack of trying.  If someone said I did something that was not up to par, I would try to be better.  But the damage was done and I was looked at as incompetent.

When I got my diagnosis of Aspergers in 2008, I was hopeful that now I could find jobs where I would excel.  But in the eight years since knowing I was autistic, I’ve learned that while I changed, employers didn’t.  I learned that sharing my diagnosis didn’t help me at all.  Many folks didn’t understand the diagnosis and still saw some of my quirks as not caring or incompetent or what have you.

Even in the years following my diagnosis, I’ve tried to correct some of autism related problems to better fit in.  Not that it helped.  I think I was still viewed as a disappointment, a failure.

At the same time, I knew I had skills. I was a good communicator. I was okay with a camera.  I was getting better creating websites.  I was surprised I could make graphic designs.  I’ve been leading a church as pastor for almost three years. I had some of the skills needed to be a good employee to someone, but the package wasn’t attractive to employers.

Recently, I was reading fellow Michigander, Ron Fournier, a writer for the Atlantic and National Journal. He has a new book out about his learning to accept and appreciate his son who is autistic.  He shared a quote from Thorkil Sonne, a Danish entrepeneur who wanted to provide a positive work environment for people with autism, people like his son. Sonne used an interesting analogy to describe people who are autistic and their gifts to society:

To most people, the dandelion is nothing more than an annoying weed – something to be rooted out of our lawns and flowerbeds. But what a lot of people don’t know is that, when cultivated, the dandelion is one of the most valuable and useful plants in nature. In many parts of the world, the dandelion is known for its nutritional, healing and medicinal properties. The value of a dandelion is very much dependent on our knowledge and perception of its value.

Most of us don’t want dandelions in our lawns – they don’t fit there. But if you place a dandelion plant in your kitchen garden, and cultivate it, it can turn out to be one of your most valuable plants. Dandelions are used to make beer, wine, salads, and natural medicines. Quite simply, if you choose to cultivate dandelions, you will reap their rewards. So, is a dandelion a weed or an herb? You decide. The same can be said for individuals with autism. The value of what you see depends on your level of understanding and accommodation.

Hearing this made a lightbulb come on. I’m a dandelion.

Part of this sounds like that whole “I’m-a-special-snowflake” crap that has been pushed around these days. But this is exactly how someone with Aspergers or autism can feel. On the downside, they might feel like a weed, a nuisance to the rest of the neurotypical world. It’s how I’ve felt at times.  But the thing is, dandelions have benefits as well.  What might not fit well on a lawn, might make a good wine or a balm.

But I think most employers, even in the nonprofits, tend to go for flowers, people that are “beautiful,” put-together, who know how to make small talk and aren’t moody or plain weird.

Maybe this is why the unemployment rate among those with autism is something like 85 percent. (No, that isn’t made up.)  Our work culture is one that is geared towards efficiency.  We want workers we don’t have to really train, let alone accomodate.  So what happens when you get someone who is autistic and needs to be cultivated and isn’t geared towards being efficient?  They don’t last long in their jobs.

I don’t think the job market was always like this. I think there was a time when companies and groups were interested in investing in the worker. Of course those with autism were locked up in institutions, so the old days weren’t so good. But I think we need to bring back the notion or nurturing workers instead of making them fit some template.

What needs to be done is a radical overhaul of how we see those with autism.  In the profile of Somme, it is noted that employers need to gear themselves to be places that can accomodate autisic workers:

One significant challenge in utilizing individuals with autism is that many employers don’t always see the upside in hiring individuals who can be considered rigid and moody or a have poor communication skills. Because of this, Specialisterne focuses on developing new approaches that allow businesses to tap into the potential of this unique demographic. Sonne believes that innovative employment programs, that focus on individuals with special needs, can turn out some of the most diligent, dependable and productive employees.

 

Sonne’s company Specialisterne, has a unique approach in how they hire and work alongside persons with autism:

Work Design: Traditional approach: Work design derives business needs from stable strategies and plans. Jobs are designed by determining the tasks a given job requires, translating these tasks into job descriptions and then placing individuals into stable organizational roles.

New Approach: Design jobs to maximize potential for particular individuals to create value. Project roles are customized so they “work” for short-term needs but can evolve as needs change.

But while I’m glad for Sonne and Specialisterne, I have to deal with this world, the world where autism is still a puzzle or frustration.

So, at the risk of offending potential and future employers, I will say this: I’m a dandelion. I am rough around the edges. I am not pretty, I am not great at small talk and I will not be easy to get to know. But if you work with me, you will see a creative side that can produce things you never even thought of. If you can see me as more than just a weed to be removed I can help your concern take it to the next level.

But you are going to have to work with me because I am not going to fit into your template. I’ve tried and I can’t. If you what you want is someone you don’t need to train, to just “set it and forget it,” then you are wasting your time with me. But if you want help mold someone to bring out the best in them, well give me a look.

I’m done trying to please people who won’t understand. I’m a dandelion, a person with autism. Either accept this and work with me or don’t. Either way, I’m done playing games.

An Anxious Time

I’ve been wanting to write something about some problems my own denomination is facing, but I’ve never been able to focus on that.  I think the reason is that my brain is stuffed with anxiety about several issues.  One thing you have to understand about me is that anxiety has long been a part of my daily life.  Past experiences have made me feel anxious about the world around me.  At some moment, when I least expect it, something will happen that will throw me into the unknown.  Most likely than not it is the news that my job has been cut that put makes me anxious about the anxiety.

Since I deal with depression, I think anxiety comes with the package.  It means that I act like a scared animal, ready to leap at the slightest sound of danger.  It is not unusual to feel this sense of freight all the time.  At some point, something or someone will do something that will alter my life.

Mixed in with this is a sense of depression, a feeling that no matter what you do, the reality is you don’t matter.  It’s the feeling of not being wanted or feeling like the last one picked to play softball.  I know those thoughts are false and medication keeps them at bay.  But they are there.

The thing that has been in knots right now is looking for work.  As most of you know, I work very part-time as the pastor of a church and part time as the Office Manager of another church.  Both jobs together isn’t enough to pay the bills, so I look for a third part time position or freelance work or a position that could replace my current weekly job with more hours and pay.  I’ve been basically looking for work since I was laid off two days before Christmas in 2014.  Over the last year, I’ve had several interviews and it seemed like things went well, but in the end, the job didn’t happen.  The worst was having someone call me from a local nonprofit, noticing my ad in a church bulletin board.  From that phone call to an interview, took two months and it took another to tell me that they chose someone else.  It was quite maddening to have to be on hold for three months when you didn’t know if the job was happening or not.  (Please employers, don’t leave someone holding for more than a month.  It’s thoughtless to keep them in limbo.)  The other frustrating thing is trying to talk to other graphic and web designers for pointers and they never bother to respond back.

So, you keep looking and keep sending your resume and keep sending your portfolio in the hopes that someone will at least see budding talent.  But so far, no one seems interested and it leaves you wondering if there is something wrong with you.

Looking for work seems to be a constant in my life.  I hate being laid off because it means that it will probably take 2-3 years to find something close to what I was doing. I chalk it up to being African American; I know it’s going to take longer because I’m not the first thing that comes to people’s mind when they think communications or technology.

This job anxiety also makes it hard to do ministry.  It’s hard for me to focus on church when I feel I have to constantly keep looking for work.  I want to have time to focus on worship planning and outreach, and I’m focusing on tweaking my resume again.

And the job anxiety then leads to anxiety (and shame) about barely being able to keep up my share of the house bills with my husband Daniel.

The anxiety and depression can lead to a feeling of despair.  Not a despair like I’m going to take a bunch of pills, but despair that I have to give up on what I really want and just accept something, anything to pay the bills.  I don’t know how many emails and phone calls I receive about going into sales (something I am terrible at doing) or customer service (which I’ve done and consider something akin to the 10th circle of hell).

I will keep plugging away looking for work.  Something will come about someday.  Until then, I have to remember to take my medication, see my therapist and most importantly, talk (but mostly listen) to God.  It’s the only way I’m going to deal with this time of anxiety.

The Importance of Dandelions

As I’ve looked back over my work history, there has been one overwhelming feeling that comes up over and over again: shame.

Since I entered the workforce in my 20s, my job history has been one of seemingly disappointing people.  I never met people’s expectations of me.  It wasn’t for lack of trying.  If someone said I did something that was not up to par, I would try to be better.  But the damage was done and I was looked at as incompetent.

When I got my diagnosis of Aspergers in 2008, I was hopeful that now I could find jobs where I would excel.  But in the eight years since knowing I was autistic, I’ve learned that while I changed, employers didn’t.  I learned that sharing my diagnosis didn’t help me at all.  Many folks didn’t understand the diagnosis and still saw some of my quirks as not caring or incompetent or what have you.

Even in the years following my diagnosis, I’ve tried to correct some of autism related problems to better fit in.  Not that it helped.  I think I was still viewed as a disappointment, a failure.

At the same time, I knew I had skills. I was a good communicator. I was okay with a camera.  I was getting better creating websites.  I was surprised I could make graphic designs.  I’ve been leading a church as pastor for almost three years. I had some of the skills needed to be a good employee to someone, but the package wasn’t attractive to employers.

Recently, I was reading fellow Michigander, Ron Fournier, a writer for the Atlantic and National Journal. He has a new book out about his learning to accept and appreciate his son who is autistic.  He shared a quote from Thorkil Sonne, a Danish entrepeneur who wanted to provide a positive work environment for people with autism, people like his son. Sonne used an interesting analogy to describe people who are autistic and their gifts to society:

To most people, the dandelion is nothing more than an annoying weed – something to be rooted out of our lawns and flowerbeds. But what a lot of people don’t know is that, when cultivated, the dandelion is one of the most valuable and useful plants in nature. In many parts of the world, the dandelion is known for its nutritional, healing and medicinal properties. The value of a dandelion is very much dependent on our knowledge and perception of its value.

Most of us don’t want dandelions in our lawns – they don’t fit there. But if you place a dandelion plant in your kitchen garden, and cultivate it, it can turn out to be one of your most valuable plants. Dandelions are used to make beer, wine, salads, and natural medicines. Quite simply, if you choose to cultivate dandelions, you will reap their rewards. So, is a dandelion a weed or an herb? You decide. The same can be said for individuals with autism. The value of what you see depends on your level of understanding and accommodation.

Hearing this made a lightbulb come on. I’m a dandelion.

Part of this sounds like that whole “I’m-a-special-snowflake” crap that has been pushed around these days. But this is exactly how someone with Aspergers or autism can feel. On the downside, they might feel like a weed, a nuisance to the rest of the neurotypical world. It’s how I’ve felt at times.  But the thing is, dandelions have benefits as well.  What might not fit well on a lawn, might make a good wine or a balm.

But I think most employers, even in the nonprofits, tend to go for flowers, people that are “beautiful,” put-together, who know how to make small talk and aren’t moody or plain weird.

Maybe this is why the unemployment rate among those with autism is something like 85 percent. (No, that isn’t made up.)  Our work culture is one that is geared towards efficiency.  We want workers we don’t have to really train, let alone accomodate.  So what happens when you get someone who is autistic and needs to be cultivated and isn’t geared towards being efficient?  They don’t last long in their jobs.

I don’t think the job market was always like this. I think there was a time when companies and groups were interested in investing in the worker. Of course those with autism were locked up in institutions, so the old days weren’t so good. But I think we need to bring back the notion or nurturing workers instead of making them fit some template.

What needs to be done is a radical overhaul of how we see those with autism.  In the profile of Somme, it is noted that employers need to gear themselves to be places that can accomodate autisic workers:

One significant challenge in utilizing individuals with autism is that many employers don’t always see the upside in hiring individuals who can be considered rigid and moody or a have poor communication skills. Because of this, Specialisterne focuses on developing new approaches that allow businesses to tap into the potential of this unique demographic. Sonne believes that innovative employment programs, that focus on individuals with special needs, can turn out some of the most diligent, dependable and productive employees.

 

Sonne’s company Specialisterne, has a unique approach in how they hire and work alongside persons with autism:

Work Design: Traditional approach: Work design derives business needs from stable strategies and plans. Jobs are designed by determining the tasks a given job requires, translating these tasks into job descriptions and then placing individuals into stable organizational roles.

New Approach: Design jobs to maximize potential for particular individuals to create value. Project roles are customized so they “work” for short-term needs but can evolve as needs change.

But while I’m glad for Sonne and Specialisterne, I have to deal with this world, the world where autism is still a puzzle or frustration.

So, at the risk of offending potential and future employers, I will say this: I’m a dandelion. I am rough around the edges. I am not pretty, I am not great at small talk and I will not be easy to get to know. But if you work with me, you will see a creative side that can produce things you never even thought of. If you can see me as more than just a weed to be removed I can help your concern take it to the next level.

But you are going to have to work with me because I am not going to fit into your template. I’ve tried and I can’t. If you what you want is someone you don’t need to train, to just “set it and forget it,” then you are wasting your time with me. But if you want help mold someone to bring out the best in them, well give me a look.

I’m done trying to please people who won’t understand. I’m a dandelion, a person with autism. Either accept this and work with me or don’t. Either way, I’m done playing games.

Dennis Sanders, Sacrificial Lamb

So, a few days before Christmas, I found out that my position was eliminated due to budget cuts.

Needless to say, I was devastated…and I still am a few weeks later.  The sad thing is that this isn’t the first time that this has happened to me.  I’ve received layoff notices more than once. It’s also part and parcel of my long work history, one where work and I don’t seem to get along.

It’s not that I don’t want to work: quite the opposite, I love to work, I love being industrious.  But in the 25 or so years in the workforce, it has always been a struggle to find employment and a struggle at times to maintain a job.

Part of my problem is being on the autistic spectrum.  My communication difficulties make it hard for potential employers to connect with me.  A lot of job-hunting is people-oriented and I have a time figuring out how to best present myself to a potential employer.  How I present myself can probably give off the message to people that I don’t care which is the total opposite of what I mean.

But the other part of the problem is that I seem to always be “layoff bait.”  In several instances, when an organization is facing some kind of financial problem and they need to cut staff, I seem to always been at the top of the list.

I wish I knew why.  Was I not a good enough worker?  Was I not friendly enough?  Why didn’t the other guy that sits around all day not lose his job?  It feels as though there is an invisible sign that says, “please cut my job when the finances get to dicey.”

What this all means for me is going back to square one and starting over again.  When I was 25 or 35 I could do that, but at 45 I should be much farther along.

I’m also cruelly reminded that I can’t write my own ticket.  I’m not so desirable that I get to keep my position and I’m not so desirable that other organizations want me.

I understand that budgets need to be balanced.  But I wish it wasn’t me that always has to be the sacrificial lamb, the “surplus man” that is considered a luxury in leaner times.  I’d like to not be the guy that people feel sorry for.  I’d like to not have to rely on others, hoping they might pass my resume along to others.  I’d like to feel that my job is vital enough to the organization that people don’t think my work can be easily done by others. I’d like to be part of the solution when organizations have to economize instead of just being asked to clean out my desk.

So, I look for another job with some trepidation.  Will this new job just be like the last one, a position that can go away at any moment?  Will I be viewed as an important and vital part of the team?

I’m thankful for the jobs that I have had in that they have given me rich experiences and skills.  But I’d like to not end up on the altar of balanced budgets.

Note: I still have my part-time work as pastor, so it isn’t a total loss.