“Likeability” as a job requirement: an open letter to employers from an autistic

I am exhausted. I am so tired of fighting to survive in jobs where I am made to feel less human because I cannot connect socially. I’m tired of hearing about my communication skills (particularly my social communication skills, because I have spent decades honing all the communication skills that have rules in an attempt to develop the criticized “communication skills,” and it has not worked). I have a neurodivergent friend group who are happy to chat about big topics over the internet and occasionally satisfy my intermittent desires for face-to-face friendship. Still, I haven’t been able to crack the employment puzzle.

I am good at so many things. I learn intuitively and have an innate understanding of systems. I am phenomenal at finding information. I have developed extensive skills in structured communication: as a speaker, teacher, facilitator, and writer. It is devastating to feel that I am still not enough. When I see neurotypicals struggle in areas where I am strong, I want to scream that the world needs us both. That if you can embrace my strengths and accommodate my weaknesses, I have so much to offer.

I am not resisting or refusing to learn. On the contrary, I’ve been unintentionally spooking neurotypicals for over 30 years. If peer pressure and social ostracisation haven’t taught me the art of socializing, I’m not sure how I’m supposed to figure it out now. And the continued attempts cost all of my energy.

Imagine you are trying to communicate with someone in a language you have studied academically, but you do not speak fluently. Think about all the energy it takes to try to translate to and from your native language in your head because you cannot think in this other language. Think about how you are likely to use incorrect or awkward phrasing because you are unaware of subtle or colloquial meanings. Imagine how often you might be left grasping for words that you need but cannot find. Think about how overwhelming it can feel to talk to a native speaker. Now think: how much attention are you able to pay to your body language in this situation? How about your tone of voice? If you are using this language in a different cultural environment, can you perform this culture’s inflections, gestures and body language?

Maybe you even start to feel stressed and frustrated if you are trying to communicate with someone and cannot understand each other. However, you aren’t stressed or frustrated by what the other person is saying, but by your struggles. Are you able to maintain a conversation in the same way?

Now imagine that this is how social conversation feels every day. Imagine that you try and try and try, and you never become more fluent. Imagine always having to translate every word in your head back and forth between your language and one that is not your own. Social communication is this much work for me all the time. And because society assumes that this language is intuitive, no one can understand that I can only access it academically. And even more, no one can grasp why I can’t just learn it! Why I have never been able to learn it. Why “practice” inevitably leads to exhaustion because my brain wiring means that I will never become fluent.

Small talk is confusing and draining, and even highly stressful, as it is generally only a matter of time before I say something that is accidentally inappropriate or taken the wrong way. Please meet me halfway and understand how hard this is for me. Invite me to share if I learned anything interesting instead of asking what I did last night. Be willing to gently and kindly inform me if I am monologuing. I will not be offended. You can be not so gentle and make it a joke if you want as long as it is with me and not at my expense. I will be grateful you told me instead of sending cues I missed or saying nothing at the moment, but then calling me out later. I won’t know what I did, and I will only feel more like a broken human. Knowing that I can expect a clear signal that I am straying would do wonders for my anxiety. I wouldn’t constantly be trying to monitor for things I can’t even see. Please tell me if my voice is beginning to sound a certain way to you. It is seldom my intent. If it is a true reflection of distress, it is often my internal distress at managing or incorporating change into my routine or my inability to read a social situation.

I need compassion. I need patience when I ask questions to try to understand, and I need you to ask me questions before jumping to conclusions about what I mean. I need an understanding that these interactions are exhausting for me, and I need expectations lessened about how often I engage in them.

I am not asking to be a “lone wolf” who does not work with others. It is simply that my collaborative skills do not extend to the social realm. I love to brainstorm with others if there is a clear plan, and I have context and time to prepare. I am an excellent teacher (again, if I have time to prepare). I am quick to notice and praise excellent work by others. I will even praise my coworkers to supervisors and employers because I genuinely care about other’s success (and I have zero awareness of social hierarchies, but that is a different conversation). I can work well with others. I will likely never “bond” with them, but that is ok! Mutual respect is an excellent basis for a working relationship.

Questions? I’m all ears!

A fawn pug and puggle both sitting and looking directly at the camera.