The United Nations is celebrating World Autism Awareness Day. We at FABL’STYLE believe in a world inclusive of all the beautiful gifts and abilities that humanity brings. We have a strong vision of creating a safe environment, where all people can contribute in their very own unique ways. We celebrate the kaleidoscope of humanity. We celebrate their differences!
FABL’STYLE is grateful to have this conversation with Eric, 38, a contact centre agent with a bachelor degree in communication, information and media. He is residing in the Hague, the Netherlands and he also has the diagnosis of Asperger syndrome. We are pleased to have the opportunity to sit down with him for a candid talk on how he perceives the world, the many challenges he faced at workplaces, how he balances his private and social life and much more.
We hope that this conversation will contribute to bringing to light what autism entails; the challenges that are faced daily and in turn how our world is experienced. The interview is split into two parts, the second part will be posted next week.
A quick note to our readers. The interviewer and Eric share a deep friendship that has lasted over a decade and were once in a romantic relationship. We share this information for context reasons.
FAB: Thank you so much for talking with us, Eric.
ERIC: You are very welcome, thank you for having me here.
FAB: Your diagnosis is Aspergers, maybe you could explain to our readers the difference between Asperger’s syndrome and what people commonly associate with ‘classical autism.’
ERIC: It is a bit hard to explain… Aspergers is in some circles is not exactly acknowledged as official autism, strangely enough, even though it’s very much in the spectrum. That is because Aspergers, unlike ‘classic autists’, are very able to adapt to social situations and they have certain qualities that kind of mask the autistic attributes.
One of the common traits that both ‘classic autists’ and Asperger’s share is that we have little control over the impulses that our brains receive. Most people can control the number of impulses. It works differently with autists. It just comes with one BIG roaahhhhhhh!
FAB: So it’s very overwhelming.
ERIC: YES. Maybe a better word to explain it is, that the brain can become easily overstimulated. Does that sound good?
FAB: Yes, that makes a lot of sense. So, in a nutshell, and overly simplified, the difference between what most people know of autism from movies like ‘the rain man’ and people with Asperger’s syndrome is that you guys can be chameleons and fit into society if you use a lot of effort while ‘classical autists’ cannot.
ERIC: Yes, we are adaptive. And we possess some social skills, we can learn certain social skills. I don’t believe that myself but that’s a different story.
FAB: You don’t believe you have social skills? Because I think you have great social skills.
ERIC: I believe in social skills very much, though I don’t believe in the whole concept of what other people identify as social skills, how they mask true intentions etc…
FAB: Yes (laughing), that is a different discussion all together though. Can you remember at what age you were confronted with the diagnosis and who brought it to your attention?
ERIC: Yes, I remember quite vividly. From the age of about 11 years, my parents started sending me to various institutes to conduct certain tests, mainly of a behavioural nature. My official diagnosis came when I was 13 years old. You must understand that’s the age when you usually hit puberty or are already in the middle of it. So it was quite a thing to take in!
FAB: Did you suspect before that you had ‘something’ or was it a shock?
ERIC: It came as a bit of a shock. When you are that age, you don’t really think about stuff like that. Some things did feel a bit different, but I was always amongst friends, I had a social life, I had my sports. I wasn’t doing too well at school at that time, that could have been a sign.
FAB: How did you experience schooling in your younger years versus your adult education? Because your bachelor degree was obtained at a later stage in your life.
ERIC: I studied a lot in my younger years. I went to several schools, and I also went to university after high school. High school wasn’t that much fun. Most of my friends were outside of high school. I was a bit of a loner at school. But I started developing from the age of 17, I think.
FAB: That’s when you took your studies seriously?
ERIC: No, that’s when I really developed my… that’s when people started accepting me for who I was.
FAB: Though you did finish your bachelor’s degree later on. You started several studies without finishing them. Do you think that had to do with your diagnosis or were you just young and didn’t really know what you want?
ERIC: I think it was a combination of both. One thing I am not good at is structuring my life. I am more able to do it now. I have a very clean house these days, now I can pay my bills on time, I can keep it up! But back in my teens and twenties, I was very unhappy, very overstimulated by life. That probably had to do with autism, but I didn’t want to know about that.
FAB: When did you fully accept your diagnosis? I remember it was still a struggle for you when we were closer. I could always see these gifts and talents in you, but you didn’t quite see them.
ERIC: True. I think when I moved back to the Netherlands for you after having been abroad, that was the period when I really accepted it.
FAB: You were how old then?
ERIC: I was 28.
FAB: What are the greatest difficulties you faced in the workplace, and how can these difficulties be overcome?
ERIC: One of the big difficulties was that I am very outspoken, also when I shouldn’t be (laughs). Another big difficulty was that people didn’t accept me for who I was, that they didn’t have the time or the energy to focus on what makes me tick.
I am very fortunate to be in a different situation now. I work for a great company with great colleagues and especially great team leaders. One of my team leaders really took time to get to know me, and she focuses greatly on what makes me tick. She really tries to get into my mind. She really tries to discover how my mind works, and what I might be thinking. She tries to find out how my brain connects certain things that, for example, happen on the work floor. She also made sure that my coach was financed by the company. And my coach gave me a lot of insight into the world and how to use my brain in combination with my heart. That was great!
I recently came across a new team leader with who I also have a great bond with as well. We have a strong social connection, and we can work well together. She also finds a way to get the best out of me. She found a good way to approach me positively. Being sociable is very important, to have a social connection with your team leader. I would like to take the opportunity to really thank them both here. The two of them have very unique skill sets, they both do a great job in getting the best out of me. So a BIG THANK YOU to them.
FAB: That’s amazing! That’s really high praise coming from you because I remember that you went through a lot of different job situations.
ERIC: I have.
FAB: You mentioned before that you’re really outspoken when you shouldn’t be. Do you know in the situation that you shouldn’t be?
ERIC: Now I do. I learned.
FAB: So that wasn’t always the case?
FAB: Can you read cues and tells from people’s faces, read their facial expressions?
ERIC: That is difficult for me. I can read them but I can’t comprehend them.
FAB: Because your brain is so overstimulated?
ERIC: Maybe. I can’t automatically connect a thought or a feeling to someone’s facial expression or someone’s non-verbal expression. Even though I acknowledge the non-verbal or facial expression, I have too many thoughts about it.
FAB: Did you ever come across criticism at work and how did you deal with it?
ERIC: I came across quite a lot of criticism on the job. And I used to not be able to deal with that but now I can. I used to get very scared as I thought I was doing something bad, something not right. But now I see criticism as positive feedback. When one gives criticism to the other, the other has the opportunity to improve.
FAB: So your message is that it’s an individual choice whether to see criticism as a stepping stone towards improvement or…
ERIC: Yes, it’s a matter of perception.
FAB: How do you think that Corona has affected the efficiency level of today’s different professions and through the home office?
ERIC: Hm… It’s a very interesting question. (long pause)
FAB: Are you more productive and efficient now that you work from home? You work from home now most of the time, is that correct?
ERIC: Yes. Well, apart from being over-stimulated, it’s also possible to be under-stimulated. What I really miss is the contact with my dear colleagues, the whole dynamics of a work floor. Working at home does however allow me to research things better as I don’t have so many distractions. One can really get into certain cases and solve them. There are many pros and many cons about working at home.
FAB: Yes, like with everything really. Do you see yourself doing something else professionally?
ERIC: In due time. As I said before, I am very happy in the position I am in now, surrounded by great team leaders and nice colleagues.
FAB: And you get to use your language skills as well because you work with both Dutch and German business associates? Is that correct?
ERIC: Yes, and in English as well. My German of course – as you know – is impeccable!
FAB: Do you have any advice on autism that you might have learned along the way? It could be beneficial to the support that family/friends offer in the future towards strengthening awareness and acceptance.
ERIC: Yes! Focus on the strength of somebody instead of trying to hide their shortcomings. Focus on what makes somebody unique, what makes somebody ‚tick.’ For example, I am good at languages, and I have a great memory. My parents always told me that I should use my talent for language to discover certain social patterns. Through language and the use of language, it’s fairly easy to discover patterns and that makes it easier to adapt to society. That’s something that really worked for me.
My advice is to focus on one’s strength and not to focus on one’s weaknesses. If you focus on somebody’s strength, a person can blossom!
What are your thoughts on this topic? Next week we will hear more about Eric’s family life, how he balances work & leisure and the challenges of fatherhood, amongst many more things. Stay tuned and be FAB!