Hidden Disability

The daily routine is consistent and predictable. After stopping for morning coffee and bagels, hoards of white collar professionals crowd downtown office buildings to start another day. The workers are undeniably “corporate” in mannerisms and their approach to the herculean task of representing the elite companies in the world. Among this group of employees are men and women on the autism spectrum. Some of them have been diagnosed with Aspergers, while others are simply considered high functioning autistics. This is the group that represents the seldom talked about and frequently neglected segment of autism. These professionals on the autism spectrum are very successful in many instances, as they occupy key positions in some of the world’s dominant companies.

Further, they are independent, driven, and highly respected in fields ranging from education and research to engineering and finance. From all appearances, they fit in perfectly with peers and have the same challenges as others in their chosen careers. In this scenario, appearances can be deceiving because lurking below the surface are myriad problems. Admittedly, we are referring to high performance professionals, yet their disabilities are largely invisible. Anxiety and depression are commonly associated with autism spectrum disorders, often requiring medical attention. Managing either of these conditions can be challenging, especially in high stress environments.

Conditions may go undetected for years as employees elect not to disclose medical issues for fear of reprisal or being perceived as the “weak link” among a competitive team. Moreover, there is internal pressure to maintain production to gain promotions and pay increases as the years go by. In addition, a number of professional employees on the autism spectrum experience some degree of sensory irregularities. This may range from regulating bodily temperature, adjusting to surrounding lights, handling noise levels, interpreting non-verbal communication signals, and adapting to routine management changes. Beyond the environmental issues that everyone is subjected to, many autistic adults experience physical and bodily functions unique to their own neurological makeup. For instance, there are extremely intelligent people who can only understand the written word if its read out loud. Others struggle with homonyms and how to use the right word in proper context; dear and deer is an excellent example of this type of problem. Each autistic person has his or her own communication challenges that manifests differently depending on how their brains are wired. None of these issues are visible, but they can create tremendous stress in the lives of those living with autism at all levels.

Beyond the communication nuances, there are many autistic adults involved in support groups for various concerns. For them, group participation is an important part of life as it provides an outlet to share with others with similar perspectives. Further, being active in a support group helps many adults on the spectrum remain grounded in situations that may otherwise become unmanageable. While some high functioning autistic adults are married or involved in committed relationships, others have difficulty forming and maintaining relationships. This is a matter of personal choice, but some autistics have voiced concerns regarding the lack of intimacy in their lives. Having a social network extends to friendships and the companionship they provide during times of difficulty or uncertainty. Some of the well polished professionals occupying downtown offices each day lack the closeness of human relationships. To their credit, white collar professionals on the autism spectrum have developed incredible coping skills, in both the personal and career paths, which results in maximum levels of performance.