“Everyone is a genius but if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree it will spend its whole life believing it is stupid”. (quote often incorrectly attributed to Albert Einstein).
Although my pen name may suggest otherwise, as an autistic person trying to fit into a neurotypical workplace, I am a fish trying to climb a tree.
I have spent my life as a fish trying to climb trees, being told I should be able to climb that tree, telling myself I should be able to climb that tree and beating myself up for not climbing the tree.
At school I desperately tried to climb the trees, I was told I needed to. Trees of organisation, neatness, paying attention in class, finishing homework, socialising with the other children, getting through a PE lesson without falling over. Teachers despaired.
“Oh she’s so good at swimming”, they told my parents. “Why can’t she climb those trees?”
When I started work, I flitted from job to job, moving on before it became obvious I couldn’t actually climb trees. The job where I upset my colleagues. The job where I was called into the manager’s office and told the clothes I wore to work weren’t acceptable. The job where I so badly managed the office petty cash, I secretly made it up out of my own money. And the job where I was presented with a big pile of outstanding work on my first day and told to get on with it. I never caught up in the nine months I was there.
Eventually after a lot of trial and error, I got lucky with a job which consisted more of swimming than tree-climbing. I became more confident. There was enough support to manage the tree-climbing I was expected to do and though not diagnosed with autism at the time, I did have support for my mental health at work. I performed well, got a promotion and contributed to the organisation. I heartbroken when I was made redundant from that job.
My next job brought more trees to climb in the form of socialising. But my work mainly involved swimming and I was able to skirt around the trees (although I did suffer some ostracising as a result).
Which brings me to my current job.
This job was a step upwards. But it seemed an interesting challenge. I knew there would be trees I looked at all the trees I would be expected to climb and thought “No problem”. Blithely ignoring my piscine nature, I told my manager I would climb the trees with ease. I was not attempting to purposely deceive him. I genuinely thought that if I could swim as well as I do, I could climb trees too.
Yes, it may be hard at first but I would do a good job and make the tree-climbing a success.
And as the weeks and months progressed, I struggled. My attempts to climb the trees were met with repeated failure. My manager didn’t really notice as I was still hiding my scales and fins and when I got the chance to do what I was good at – swim – my work was good. But I was losing confidence in all my abilities as all my focus was in that I needed to climb the damn trees.
I sought advice on whether I should talk to my manager but was told, “no don’t worry, you’ll learn to climb the trees. You’re new in your job”.
I remained convinced that I would climb the trees. If I kept trying eventually I’d find a way. And I did try. I worked hard. I worked in the evenings. I didn’t want to fail. I didn’t want to let anyone down. But I was lost in a forest of trees flapping on the dry, dusty ground as I tried to gain traction to jump up.
I became anxious and depressed. I beat myself up and berated myself for not trying harder. The trees seemed to grow taller and taller and more and more impenetrable. I felt as desperate as I used to in my 20s at work.
I ended up telling my manager I am a fish. My manager listened sympathetically then gave me three more trees to climb. I wanted to prove that my being a fish wouldn’t negatively affect his business and attempted to climb the trees. More overtime, more stress.
Then I came across this excellent article, You can do more when you remember you’re disabled, on the Real Social Skills blog. They say:
“People with disabilities are often taught the anti-skill of pretending to ourselves and others that we have no disability-related limitations.
Most people (disabled or otherwise) have the related anti-skill of assuming that everyone present has pretty much the same physical and cognitive abilities. (Or, in other words, that no one present has a disability that significantly affects physical or cognitive functioning.) This often leads to the assumption that people who aren’t doing a task either haven’t been told what to do, or aren’t sufficiently motivated to do it.
These two anti-skills can make it very, very hard to solve problems when something goes wrong for disability-related reasons.
This kind of conversation tends to happen a lot:
- Someone: You need to do the thing.
- Disabled person: I’m having trouble with the thing.
- Someone: “Can’t you just do the thing this way that sounds reasonable but is actually impossible for you?”
- Disabled person: “You’re telling me it’s possible in tones of absolute conviction and are making me forget that I won’t be able to do it that way. Ok, I’ll do the thing from now on.”
- The disabled person, predictably, fails to do the impossible thing.
- Someone with an entirely reasonable need for the thing to get done: Why didn’t you do the thing?!
- Disabled person: I don’t know. I’m sorry, I’ll try harder, I’ll do it from now on.
- This, predictably, doesn’t work either.
- The task doesn’t get done, because it’s impossible to do things that way.
In these situations, disability is neither acknowledged nor accommodated, and things end badly for everyone.
A light bulb went on when I read that. Oh yes I have that “anti-skill”. I’m very anti-skilled. I could anti-skill for England.
I’ve been told all my life I “should” be able to climb trees and so I believe it.
I assume that, because most people can do something, particularly things that require executive functioning or social skills, I can too. I even have a picture in my head of me succeeding at it. And when the reality turns out to be different, I get depressed and confused.
I blame myself for failure, instead of accepting that this is something I find hard because of autism. I also downplay my successes and the things I’m good at.
Things have to change. I’ve got a referral to a team who may be able to help me. I’ve got a meeting with my manager next week and I’m going to tell him that because I’m a fish I need help to climb trees. I’ll also tell him I swim extremely well.
It may be that my manager wants a monkey rather than a fish. In which case I’ll need to consider my options.
Maybe I’ll just go and find Dory.