Saturday, June 8, 2013

Asperger's, Frustration, and Depression; Feeling Lost in a World I Don't Belong In


In a previous post, I talked about the feelings of anxiety and frustration that are common in individuals with Asperger's. In this post, I'm going to talk about another cause of frustration, anxiety, and ultimately, depression. In a study on autism and depression, the author notes that depression has been seen to affect as many as 30% of high functioning autistic people in small studies.

Social Pressure and Bullying at Work

As we have previously talked about, the personhood of the person with Asperger's is bound up with the Asperger's that they have. Now that we understand the connection between Asperger's and personhood, we can examine some of the problems that they face. For me, I face two main problems:
  • People that are unfamiliar with my expectations and limitations in social environments
  • Supervisors and Coworker's misunderstanding my strengths and weaknesses

Social Environments

People with Asperger's have different expectations in a social environment than NT's. We prefer communication that is honest, efficient, specific, and straightforward. This is very different than the NT preference for small talk, nuance, 'politeness,' and hierarchy. Most Aspie's evaluate people based on intelligence, and most social graces seem to Aspie's as a illogical waste of time. This causes Aspie's to seem rude and uncouth to many NT's... most neuro-typicals cannot handle our lack of pretense and nuance. For example:

I have several times been told something by a coworker that is a rude comment masked as a compliment. When I say so what your really saying is "... blah, blah... " they get defensive even though they won't deny it. I am amazed that they dare to say something so rude, and it is considered Ok because they mask it in something that sounds nice.   

I always wonder why it is Ok for one to say rude things if the statement is masked in the correct social statements. Strangely, to a neuro-typical, telling a the insult in a dishonest way somehow makes it less insulting. To me, the ultimate insult is to try to be dishonest with me;  to be dishonest with me is to assume that I am stupid, and this means that when someone behaves as the coworker in the above example, they have twice insulted me.

Many neuro-typicals are seemingly uncomfortable around people unlike themselves. Many of these people also seem to have trouble accepting that anyone is different than themselves. This is quite sad. I know that some people will find me upsetting even though I am just being "me", and am doing nothing wrong, rude, or uncouth. The Asperger's way of being is unsettling to them, and they will purposely make life difficult for me in an effort to make me "more normal" so that they don't have to be around someone different.

Because of the social pressures listed above, a person with Asperger's will often find it harder to fit in and succeed at gaining friends than other kids. This is most unfortunate, and yet people don't understand the "outbursts", "illogical frustrations", and depression?

Workplace Issues

What is it like to be a person with Asperger's at work? First of all, we need to understand that for the Aspie working hard does not always equal success; workplaces are socially and politically complex places. Often promotions and raises are more based on who is liked than on who is outstanding at there job. This means that for someone with Asperger's, the workplace success that they will experience is not intrinsically tied to the amount of effort that they put into their job. Like many things for the Asperger's adult, the fact that the amount of effort does not correlate with the amount of success, leads to a feeling of helplessness. Some adults with ASD will deal with this lack of control by becoming aggressive, angry, and obsessive; more commonly, they will deal with it by becoming withdrawn, a bit lazy, and passive.
Not only is achieving career success difficult for many autistic people, the success they experience is not intrinsically tied to the amount of their efforts.
It is not true however, that autistic people have trouble at work; they have trouble being successful in workplaces that they could never fit into. The workplace often is a place where the Aspie doesn't belong. He is judged by standards equal parts unfair and illogical.

The ideal job for the Aspie is one where they can apply some obsession to being better at their job than their peers. This however, does not always garner respect. I have often been better at my job than my peers and yet have taken flak because I am not as politically savy as others. As we have noted, some people do not like the honest, straight forward, and energetic way of the Aspie. We govern our lives by sometimes simplistic and naive logic, and workplaces often require the acceptance of obviously inferior ways of doing something simply because that is the "right" way to do it according to the company. Also, often doing things "by the books" is less respected than it "should" be; companies often reward shortcuts and doing things in a vaguely defined political ways instead of following policy and chain of command. This is difficult for the Aspie to master.

The role of a workplace mentor cannot be overstated. My workplace mentors have been invaluable to me, and I am lucky to have had several other minor mentors including a pervious supervisor that I connected with and that often understood me. If possible, connect with the person that seems like a good mentor. Often this person is not in management, is older and more experienced than you, and reaches out to you. This person often sees the honesty and technical potential of the Aspie and wants to reach out.

An Aspie needs to figure out early if he or she is introverted or extroverted, and whether his or her talents lie on the technical or the artistic spectrums. Most Aspies are introverted and technical, and many of these people will fit into the stereotypical fields of computers and technology that rely on strength of science and math expertice. In reality however, not all Apsies fit into the stereotypical math genius that does well with computers and likes to work alone. Some Aspies are extroverted, and many hate math. I have met many Aspies that are more artistic in nature than they are technical. Do not try to fit into a stereotype... go where you will succeed.

Another problem is workplace bullying. I can attest that this is a problem, and I have dealt with it for as long as I have been in the workplace. There is often a double standard for the Aspie; while coworkers can weasel their way out of 'murder' by kissing tail and political maneuvering when confronted about a fault I tend to be honest and generally take responsibility. This means I have often been punished for things that other people got away with. Secondly, As we have often said, some people simply do not like Aspies or see us as easy targets to take out their unhappiness on; because of this, we are often the victims of teasing, whispering, and grade school like bullying. Often this is stressful and frustrating, yet hard to prove. This makes it hard for us to prove to bosses that the abuse is occurring. Many times I have been told to suck it up and not being sensitive despite the abuse being real simply because the NT coworkers knew how much they could get away from. Yet another form of abuse is the 'good natured' teasing that gets old as I rarely know how to craft a zinger to send back that deflects the humor. Aspie humor is different than NT humor (yes we have humor) and I've more than once told a joke that no one else gets. This too is humiliating.

If your a boss and suspect or know that you have an Aspie working for you, remember a few key things. First of all, nurture the technical expertise of your employee. You have a potential expert on your hands, and experts of the depth that Aspies often become are rare to find. We often eat drink and sleep our business and can be the consummate professionals. Secondly, value their opinion and realize that they will be the best person to honestly tell you how a project is going. This is valuable also, and while we eschew being 'yes men', we will put the good of the company first if you gain our trust. Remember that we would never try to hurt your feelings, and assume that if you ask a question that you want an honest answer; if you want your ego stoked, go to someone else. We specialize in honesty and logic, not kissing ass. Third of all, realize that we are vulnerable to being abused and set up by coworkers. Bullying, both intentional and unintentional are a reality for us. If we say we are being bullied, we probably are. Be kind enough to protect us a bit and do NOT allow us to be abused by coworkers. Make it clear to coworkers that we are valuable and to be respected despite being unique. Make it clear that the company needs our unique talents. If we are protected at work, outbursts of frustration and workplace meltdowns are much less likely; they however do happen, and if they do, be understanding and give us a quiet place and possibly a gentle listening voice to calm us down. Last of all, it is extremely rare to find an Aspie that excels at customer service or working in large groups. We thrive however when integrated into a small group where we are respected and are particular expertise is valued.


In conclusion, I believe that many autistic people, especially those that are the highest functioning, find that they have frequent bouts of depression tied to an uncertainty about how to live in a world that is not designed for us. We face discrimination at work, academic environments unsuited for us, and business and social models alien to us. Due to facing these problems, we often achieve much less than we would like to, and find family, friends, and social support groups impatient with us. 

In addition, our strengths are often not well received either socially, politically, or in the work world. One of the most frustrating things I personally deal with is seeing people with less work ethic, intelligence, or dedication promoted into positions that I cannot seem to achieve in the work place despite considerable effort.

For the woman with Asperger's, these effects are even worse; she will often find that she doesn't even fit in at the Asperger's support groups where here colleagues will be mostly male. She finds herself to be a talented yet fragile human that is rarely understood. Add to the feelings of misunderstanding that a male autistic has an even deeper feeling of estrangement, and that from a female that has all the same feelings and depth of emotions that most women have.    

This lack of respect, is a serious cause of anxiety, depression, hopelessness, and feelings that we are not in control of our life. These causes of stress are neither well documented, nor are they understood by our loved ones and so called experts.

In many cases our loved ones and those who are professionals in the field continue to believe that if we "tried harder" and "dressed differently" or learned to get along with people better that we would somehow be successful. What many of these well-meaning people do not understand however, is that they are attacking the very human essence inside of us. As we noted above, the the part of us that is autistic is inseparable from the part of us that is human. Because many people will not grasp this, and continue to treat autism as a disability similar to having an amputated leg, we will continue to be treated as defective humans. The social and emotional impact of the continual pressure to change the very human essence within us is often catastrophic to our ability to lives as confident, happy adults.  

My hope is that by talking about these difficult issues that families, professionals, and the general culture will  better learn to deal with the problem of Asperger's, frustration and ultimately depression.


  1. Fantastic post.Can totally relate. I am an adult lady with Asperger's. Took years to be able to keep a job and am still massively overqualified for it, but at least I feel respected nowadays.

  2. I think actually a lot of NTs (if not most) would agree that rudeness is rudeness, however it is masked (and that indeed, to mask rudeness is manipulative!)

  3. I think it's important for us to remember that a lot of NTs behave inappropriately (by NT standards!) That's an advantage of the presence of spectrumites when we confront them on what they really mean :) I hear what you are saying though: there is some conditioning happening so that *some* NTs have come to feel that it's OK to use insults masked as kindness.

    Re "good-natured" teasing: I've heard some people (presumably NTs) complain about co-workers being rude or giving them "a hard time" for riding their bicycle to work (the Australian "anti-cycling" sentiment!) I've never yet asked anyone this, but I'm guessing what they are receiving is ostensibly "friendly stirring" that you're "supposed" to be happy about but masking some level of negativity and a "them and us" attitude!

    Another thing about good-natured teasing and it getting old: one thing I'll never forget is once I was on a bushwalk and some older men thought it was funny to "stir" me for no other reason than that I was female and not matching the stereotype i.e. not requiring assistance.... I felt like saying to them the joke quickly gets old! Thinking about it afterwards, I thought a lot of women would find that offensive..... and that it's similar to how if, for example, an Asian bloke were on the walk and they were "stirring" him for being able to cope if he was smaller/weaker than they were - which no doubt a lot of men do ("stir" on racial grounds), and no doubt when it happens it very often causes offence!

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