The OOD Office of Communication catches up with Chris Dille, OOD Office Professional 2, for some Q & A.
Q: You shared that you were diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome at age 10. While you were still in school, did you take any special steps to prepare for your career?
A: At first, my focus was on learning social skills. Eye contact, body language, facial expressions, idioms, and sarcasm that my peers took for granted, were alien to me. Also, I had to learn to recognize when I was feeling upset or stressed, working on routines, and coping strategies when things did not go how I planned. My parents and I were set on my becoming an independent adult, but I had to start with these basics. I was lucky to have my parents in my corner from the start. They worked with the school’s social workers to find the best practices to get me up to speed. I used flashcards with different facial expressions, lists of idioms, and other methods to teach me what other kids learned by observation and osmosis.
In high school, there was probably more I could have done to prepare myself. I was more socially capable, but there was still so much more to learn. Some of that learning comes with experience. Meeting with a career counselor was helpful in narrowing down some of my options. I continued working on social skills and several close friends, including one who has been a best friend since high school. It is very important to have solid friendships.
Q: Describe what you did following your high school graduation.
A: After high school, I settled on a career in game development because I liked playing games. I decided to attend college at DeVry University. I never lived away from home, had no experience with the change in rules and expectations from high school to college, and never had roommates. In addition, I did not have enough of a foundation in math and programming to make it through the basics. After two semesters, I crashed and failed out. It took me years to find out depression was a factor, too. It was manageable when things went well but crushing when things started falling apart.
I moved back home, regrouped, and started building myself up again. I recognized that even in pursuing independence, I still needed help and support. No one is an island, nobody can do it all alone, and that goes double for all of us who struggle with what society says are “basic” activities. I got a job, enrolled in the local community college, and switched my major to a passion I knew I excelled at—English. Three years later, I moved into my own apartment.
Q: What was your first job, and what was it like?
A: My first job was “Customer Service Specialist” at Best Buy. Retail wasn’t exactly my dream job, but my parents wanted me working since I had student loans to pay off. I was still socially awkward, but retail work was consistent and routine. It was easy to rely on a script and good practice for social encounters.
My coworkers were friendly, but I did not make any friends. Sometimes might say something odd, or I would stumble on the script, and all I could do was keep going. It took me a while to grow more comfortable in the role, and I’m not sure I ever really fit in, but it was a valuable work and learning experience. I was able to apply myself to training and move up to the Geek Squad, which led to my first job in a company’s Information Technology department.
Q: What supports have you used as an adult?
A: As I grew up, I found a great deal of supports are only for children. Kids need all the support they can get, but I am glad that more resources are becoming available for adults.
The biggest support has been family and friends. I have been very fortunate, privileged, and blessed to have amazing and supportive parents. I have a sister and brother-in-law who have been excellent supports and advisors. Despite being long-distance and struggling with health issues, my boyfriend is caring, and we work to cheer up each other. I keep in touch with my best friend from high school, and I’ve made many more friends along the way. I have gotten better at making friends with coworkers over the years too. While I am new at OOD, I’ve yet to meet anyone who isn’t friendly!
In addition, professional help has been invaluable. I’ve seen several psychologists and therapists over the years, each with their own methods. Sometimes it has taken a couple of tries to find the right fit. Aside from the social and sensory challenges inherent to autism, I have mild to moderate anxiety and depression. The former flares up when I’m in a crowded, noisy place, or overwhelmed; the latter tends to snowball when I am stuck in a rut or slipping in life (which can quickly spiral downwards from there). Medication helps. However, there is no magic pill. Coping strategies, a strong support network, and self-awareness are all necessary parts of staying mentally healthy, just as exercise and diet work for the body.
For my professional life, I make sure I know what is expected of me, and I have the resources to accomplish my tasks. I do not like feeling adrift, especially when I get the sense that I should be doing productive work. This shutdown and working-from-home situation with COVID-19 almost feels that way—every routine is upended, many regular job duties are changed or suspended. However, over the years, I’ve learned to identify when I am treading water and ask which direction I can swim. I keep an open line of communication with my supervisor and anyone with whom I am actively working. I was a little worried the crisis would leave me floundering, but I have found myself rising to the occasion and pushing myself to learn new skills. There is always room to sharpen existing skills and/or explore new ones.
Q: While still new to working, what was the most surprising challenge you faced?
A: Socializing with coworkers. Awkwardness made it more difficult to connect with people. I feel like familiarity eased some of the barriers, but it took a while.
Q: Worst job ever?
A: I have been very fortunate to not have any “nightmare” jobs or bosses. The closest I have come to “worst job” is having no direction and nebulous expectations, which I have experienced several times in my working career. I remember reading an article that said the worst jobs are not your 1 out of 10, where every day is a nightmare, because you have every reason to get out of there. It is the 3 or 4 out of 10, where you are getting ground down, but it is comfortable enough, pays enough, that the uncertainty of searching for a new job is almost worse than the day-to-day. The best advice is to try and break out in your role—ask for more or better work, strive for efficiency, set boundaries where you can, take care of your physical and mental health, and keep an eye out for better opportunities (internal/external). Even if all goes well, there’s going to be downsides and boring parts to every job.
Q: You seem to have a strengths-based approach? Where does that come from?
A: My parents, primarily. They have always known I was different, and that became more apparent through my early childhood. They were also quite persistent about finding answers—my dad is a retired microbiologist who knew where to look to find the latest science. By the time I was out of grade school, my mom had more continuing education credits in autism/special education than the school counselors. My parents wanted me to be independent one day, but they were not rigid in their expectations. They pushed, but didn’t shove, and were very supportive when I was growing up. They were not “helicopter parents” trying to solve my problems for me. I had to be the one who wanted it, and who made it happen—and I did, on both counts.
Q: What are your top three tips, perhaps for others on the spectrum, when it comes to launching a career?
A: I am not sure I can claim any authority or expertise in making a career for oneself. I like to joke that I am still figuring out what I want to do when I grow up! For added difficulty, autism is a spectrum. My advice might be totally wrong for someone else. I will say what has worked for me—I hope can help someone, somewhere.
First, communication. You have to know yourself: your interests, strengths, and weaknesses, and convey information in an understandable manner. Communication is a broad skill that takes experience and practice to improve, and between neurodivergence, sensory dysfunction, anxiety, and/or other possible conditions, we are not always the best communicators. However, that is no reason not to try. Scripts can be made ahead of time for predictable encounters (e.g., making appointments, ordering food), and multiple people can “roleplay” or practice conversations one might have every day. There are communication classes, professional coaches, and groups at libraries or cafes, to more established organizations like Toastmasters that can provide social interaction regularly, with varying degrees of structure and purpose. Volunteering is also an option. Also, professional networking is a good end goal for finding opportunities and advancing yourself.
Second, know your strengths and weaknesses. Leverage the former and work around the latter. Autism is a disability, and it can be disabling, but I hate it when people refer to it (or us) as a disease or cause of suffering. When I get interested in something or can bend my attention to a task, I hit it with laser intensity. I credit my neurodivergence for giving me strong attention to detail, creativity, and an analytical mind. None of this came automatically. Even with natural talent, you still need smart practice and experience to make the most of any skill. Furthermore, I tend to “think outside the box.” There are many things about myself I want to improve, but I would not want to “trade” my autistic brain for a neurotypical brain. I wouldn’t know what that is like. I would not be me anymore. I do take pride in the strengths I have been given and continue to work on them.
Even after years of work, there are times I feel like I am still on the same planet but in a different world. I miss social cues. Flickering lights are like the visual equivalent of nails on a chalkboard. I can easily stumble when I am caught out of a routine or expected scenario. I have to catch myself to keep from freezing up in an unfamiliar situation. I get decision paralysis when there are too many options, like multi-page restaurant menus. I can be a self-perfectionist and end up procrastinating when I am more afraid of “good enough” than “not finished.” If you know where you stumble, you can start working on it. For example, I used to get overloaded by loud sound at movie theater to the point of nausea. Then I started wearing earplugs. After the first half-hour, I would adjust to the sound and could take them out. Also, I used to hate making calls and leaving voicemails—still do—so I made a “Hi, this is Chris, my phone number is X, and I’m calling about…” script to remove the uncertainty. You do not want to force yourself through a barrier and meltdown into a burnout. But neither can you be afraid of the edges of your comfort zone.
Third, know what careers and jobs are out there, to have a realistic picture of the day-to-day in a career you want, and to manage your plan to get there in actionable steps. As mentioned, I wanted to be a game developer, but I had no idea what that looked like. I didn’t have the proper foundation in math. Also, I didn’t do enough programming to realize I did not want to do that for 40 hours per week. Game development is still a dream, but it’s not something I can actively work towards right now. The message is: dreams are very important, but don’t set yourself up with unrealistic expectations. Do the research, figure out if a career path is even valid, and work the possibilities from there.
Q: What has been your high point while working at OOD?
A: I’ve been working at OOD for a little over four months. While many parts of it are still new, I love it. As I mentioned earlier, I have yet to meet anyone here who isn’t both friendly and devoted to their work. I feel like I am giving back for all the years I have been helped. My high points have come when I have been able to leverage my strengths, skills, and experience to go above and beyond what the job requires, whether helping other departments with projects or being able to develop “best practices” for the front desk. This is a stepping-stone role into a career in state government. I have every confidence that my highest points are ahead of me.