Autism, Gaslighting and Working in Corporate America

I have been thinking about this post for a while. It seems as though my personal situation is not unique. So many people, especially women, are being diagnosed as autistic in the last few years and from most accounts I’ve seen, the diagnosis is freeing. It feels like coming home, or finally having found the family and sense of belonging you have always been missing. Validation! We have spent our whole lives being turned away for our novel ideas and approaches to problems. Made to feel inferior or unappreciated because others were not able to quickly grasp what we were so desperately trying to communicate. The speed at which business requires us to move and make decisions does not allow for taking the time to understand complexities, especially when there is an additional “language barrier.” This causes problems to get only half-fixed, bandaged over, and with new problems stacked on top and has caused my career to be continually stunted. Not to mention my complete emotional shutdown on multiple occasions, primarily because OTHERS failed to have the patience and empathy to meet me halfway or to help me build systems within the organization that would help myself AND OTHERS find their way to get ahead, while building emotional investment in the company. An emotionally invested employee is the best employee, but that requires the company to create the environment where all people are empowered to perform their best and trust is not only performed, but prioritized across the organization.

It was not always this way. About 8 or 9 years ago, my company merged with our largest competitor, though it was quite a bit more like a corporate takeover. The winners in the equation were the other guys; my location lost all manner of respect or authority. There were ways to go about this merge without systematically forcing subservience and causing mental breakdown of employees in the taken-over company, but in this case, our “leaders” were more interested in proving their dominance than creating a new company where the best of both worlds could be elevated.

I’ve come to realize that this top- down leadership style is not only inefficient and ineffective at producing best results in any industry, but it is also exclusive, exhausting and abusive to employees. It enforces a conservative-dominant hierarchy where those who are elevated are those who parrot the bosses line, not those who point out the flaws in the plan. Even if you are in the “chosen” class, i.e. legacy employees from the other company who know the ropes, you also lose out on company successes that could have come more quickly and easily had the experience of all employees been honored and respected from the beginning. The only thing the “leaders” succeeded in was churning through some brilliant middle and upper level managers for years who all figured out in about 1-2 years that they too would be micromanaged and berated in exec meetings. This hierarchy created a toxic caste system that is still in effect today, even though several of those “leaders” have moved on.

Now the company has been bought out and taken over again. I have some hope things are on the right track with a strong and active Diversity and Inclusion Council. There seems to be a general awareness that an organization cannot be “inclusive” if they are not actively asking for and acting upon people needs. Feedback has become more valued for the first time in years and I am VERY SLOWLY beginning to trust again. There can be no trust when you report an issue up the chain and are consistently told that it isn’t actually a problem, or you’re overreacting, or whatever. I may lack political skill, but I’m no dummy! I have started to receive small statements of validation from some people that they understand what the last several years must have been like for me and that they believe I am not crazy. So simple and yet truly amazing.

“Cautiously optimistic” may not be a good enough mood to keep me at a company that I have been forced to emotionally detach from almost entirely to save my sanity. I will now openly state that I am unwilling to be shined on by anyone at my workplace. Everyone has a role and mine is not that of decision-maker in nearly any context, but those who do make decisions need to hear and respect my input; if they were smart, they would be asking for it proactively. If they do not, they will hear about it from their manager. I will no longer be the sponge to soak up everyone else’s discomfort. Life has been uncomfortable for me for 40-plus years. Y’all can handle it, I promise. I will not be gaslit at work again.

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