Autism, Coworking, and Stereotypes

In my day-to-day life, I work for a company called Automattic. We’re totally distributed – everyone works from home, and there is basically no central office. I have a home office, but I also have a membership at a local co-working space. This is pretty cool, and it gets me out of the house when I’m restless.

You can read some details about how it works on their site, but basically it’s a place with a bunch of open tables in different configurations, and I can drop in and use one any time I want. There’s also a big community aspect, since most people using the space are entrepreneurs running small startups, or freelancers/consultants — people who don’t have coworkers to socialize/network with. I end up not engaging with this much, since I do have almost 500 coworkers – they just all work in different cities. But sometimes I see an email go by that catches my attention.

“Autism Spectrum Disorder in the modern workplace” was that a few weeks ago. Another workbar member was writing an article & wanted input from anyone with experience with ASD. Hey, I do! So I emailed with him, we chatted some via email, and he published the post: What to Know When Coworking With Someone With Autism (I’m the “Kelly” quoted)

In addition to the stereotypical “Blue Puzzle Piece” stock photo, I felt like the whole thing was kind of … othering-while-trying-not-to-be. I think the author went into the article expecting to find that “autistic people have trouble sharing workspaces.” In our emails, he asked “What is your feeling towards the flexibility, shared resources, and social aspects underpinning the coworking experience? Do you devise work-arounds or embrace them?” Maybe he was reading too much into a previous email I sent, but I feel like he was making assumptions about what I have trouble with, rather than letting me talk about what works/doesn’t (like, I don’t really have trouble with the “fluid workspace”, I just answered his question).

Unfortunately, I think the article spirals a bit at the end. For one thing, I’m not sure what this is meant to mean: “Unlike other civil rights movements, autism awareness suffers from its own diversity.” Every civil rights movement splinters on some topics, because every person has different priorities. This is true in feminism, queer activism, disability activism… Autistic activism is not really any different in that regard. Also of all things, Big Bang Theory is divisive amongst geeks in general, so a strange thing to highlight here.

The snide comment at the end doesn’t help much either. “It seems that with ASD there is no such thing as too much information.” It really set a bad end-note for me, because it’s a remark commonly lobbed at autistic people when we’re talking about a topic of interest. I mean, it’s also true, given time we’ll tell you way more info than you need (I also almost sent books & blog posts but was running short on time) – but it’s not strange to assume someone writing about ASD would want to know more about it before writing. Maybe it would have prevented this ill-thought comment.

Overall I’m only being so critical because it’s an important topic, and I’m not sure it was handled as such. There were also good things— he’s at least trying to have the discussion. I’m also glad he was able to find autistic people to speak with, and that we’re well acknowledged in the post. I was a little worried I’d be a footnote.

(Neither here nor there: he also mislabelled me as “having aspergers” when I’m pretty sure I only ever said “I’m autistic”…)

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