Autism Interview #109: Nic Laughter on Masking and Removing Barriers to Employment

Nic Laughter is a developer and public advocate with a new podcast called Autistic AF that focuses on autism in adults. He writes and speaks about issues related to autism with a special interest in eliminating the barriers many autistic face to entering the workforce. This week he shared his diagnosis story and discussed different ways society can be more accommodating to autistics in social and professional settings, and his goals for improving autistic access to meaningful work.

You struggled throughout high school and college in “typical” academic settings, yet you succeeded in a variety of other pursuits during that time, including the time management and energy necessary to date, hold more than one job, volunteer, learn to play music, and play in a band. What was it about the academic settings that were so ill-fitting at the time?

I think, for me, most of it came down to whether I was doing something I genuinely wanted/believed in vs. something I felt obliged to do. Thinking back on each of those things, I guess you can say I “succeeded,” but the reality is that, without understanding my diagnosis and its implications at the time, most of it was dysfunctional at best. My dating life was generally a disaster, and even when dating and after marrying my wife, we fought constantly and (much as it kills me to say this), I caused her a lot of emotional hurt. I never stayed at any one job longer than a year (often less than a few months), and my band was constantly teetering between making music and having fist fights in my parent’s front yard (no joke). And those were all things that I desperately, keenly wanted. So, take that level of difficulty and apply it to something that either bored me, or that I even explicitly didn’t want to do, and you have a good picture of why schooling never worked out for me. 

It’s interesting to note that, while my diagnosis helped me in navigating all those areas where I struggled and helped me to achieve a level much more closely defined as “successful,” I tried going back to school afterward and it was just as impossible for me. I didn’t feel that the school’s accommodations were very helpful for someone with autism (really the most they offered was to have someone take notes for me). Having achieved a stable career as a software engineer, I’m comfortable with never getting a degree. But I do highly encourage anyone to at least try to get a degree at some point in their life, even in something they don’t intend to get a career in. 

On the subject of work, I think this is something that most autistics have a hard time with. The issue with me was similar to why school was so difficult, which is mostly a lack of stimulation. I had mastered “The Thing” and got bored. It’s not that we don’t want to work or do a good job, but since we’re so driven by our interests, a failure to provide an environment that is regularly engaging and continuously interesting will continue to discourage neurodiversity in the workplace. The fact that only 17% of autistics are gainfully employed in the US (https://www.autism-society.org/what-is/facts-and-statistics/) says much more about the culture of the workplace than it does about the average autistic’s ability to actually work. I had to realize that in order for me to succeed anywhere longer than a few months, I needed to be transparent about my needs and not to accept sub-par accommodations as “the best they can do.”

The good news is that the law is on our side, so as long as you’re making a reasonable accommodation request to your employer, they have no legal right to deny it (all the better if you can get a doctor’s recommendation for it).

How did you first learn about your diagnosis? How did you process this?

I’ve always known I wasn’t like everyone else, ya know, I think everyone did. I mostly just kind of assumed that I was the only person that was “logical” or “mature” and everyone else was just dumb and overly-emotional. My parent’s didn’t really know about autism beyond the conventional knowledge of the time being that “autistic people are crazy children that don’t speak and flap their hands,” or whatever other nonsense was going around at the time. I remember specifically having a conversation with my mom when I was 19 where she said she thought I was autistic, but even then it seemed like something to be feared and ignored.

When I was in 4th grade, I went through some tests because my teacher thought I had some kind of learning disability, and the results put me on the same level of reasoning and problem solving as a senior in college. So I think my parents sort of took that as indicating that I was simply misunderstood and were comfortable leaving it at that.

When I was 27, a combination of fighting with my wife, burnout at work, and a few frustrating encounters with customers (I worked in support at the time) pushed me to a place where I had to find answers. I guess I just got to a point where I felt like I had to understand why I struggled so much. I sought out a local psychologist that specializes in childhood autism (he’s all I could find) who almost laughingly concluded that I’m “absolutely autistic.”

Processing it has been a long journey. I think the hardest part for me was opening up to people. I spent so much of my life trying to fly under the radar and pretending not to be different, so I think I struggled most with realizing that people would look at me differently once they found out.

And let me tell you, people did. But what’s interesting is that I think it led to a lot of opportunities to build relationships. For instance, my older sister (and only sibling) and I practically hated each other growing up, and I think that learning about my diagnosis helped to establish an ability to accept and respect each other. Now we talk all the time and have a real friendship; it’s really pretty awesome. It’s been difficult getting to a point where I fully embrace it as part of myself, but I’m grateful for it.

How did you become involved in your current work as a software engineer? What are your favorite types of projects to work on?

I’ve always been intrigued by code. I remember back in junior high taking a computer class and being so excited to learn about how computers work, wanting to build them and program them. I was so disappointed when I got to the first day of class and realized it was going to be focused on increasing typing speed and using programs like Microsoft Office that I just stopped going.

Fast forward to before my diagnosis, I was working as a door-to-door salesman and was just so dissatisfied (it was about the least stimulating job I ever had) that out of desperation, I picked up coding. I always liked Apple products, so I started digging into their new language, Swift, and it immediately began to make sense to me. I got my first app on the App Store about a month later, and within the year I had launched four others (I’ve since taken them all down because they were pretty rudimentary, but it was confirmation to me that I could do this job). I spent about two years taking on odd jobs/freelancing until I found my first full-time engineering job.
I specifically enjoy working on iOS apps, but I would love to be in an environment where I have the opportunity to learn other stacks like front end web and Android.

You mentioned in a recent article that you don’t think you would be verbal if it hadn’t been for your ability to intensely study and imitate conversation. Is socialization still something requiring great effort?

Absolutely, and sadly I have begun to notice my ability to do so starting to weaken. I think that, for autistic people, many of us are probably more similar than the outside world perceives, due mostly to a difference in masking ability. I think that our differences are much more concentrated in what we show the world than in what’s happening inside our heads. That’s why so many of us have a similar level of imagination, emotional connection to right/wrong, etc. For me, I would love for nothing more than to use words a few times a week. But part of my masking skill is in recognizing that that’s not practical for living amongst NTs, so I put on the show. 

In a recent article I published, I plead a case for employers to embrace remote work and asynchronous communication for this exact reason, and how it contributes to autistic burnout. 

What can neurotypical people do to make you more comfortable in a social setting?

One thing that is hard to recognize is that society may never be entirely accepting of us, meaning that I think there will always be people in social situations making masking feel necessary. Even in the past week, I can recall specific moments where I said something that people had those thoughts about, “Wow, that was weird,” “Why would he say something like that?” etc., and that’s around people who know that I’m autistic. It’s not that NTs want things to be that way or that they’re rude or what have you, it’s just that we’re called “atypical” for a reason – we break the expectations of what typical societal interactions look like. 

That being said, if there was one thing I wish I could magically make all NTs understand is just how important it is to be ok with whatever we do – or don’t – say/do. Sometimes I’ve said everything I needed to say and want to be able to just walk away without you feeling offended. Sometimes I want to be able to say the cool little tidbit that popped into my head without you calling me “random” or “weird.” The biggest problem we have in social situations is NTs trying to read into the things we do or say, and usually making big (and wrong) assumptions. So just not doing that would be awesome.

What mistakes do you see autism advocates make?

Probably the biggest one is vilifying other autistic people that don’t fit their agenda. I was in an autistic support group on Facebook where I responded to an article that I felt was pretty aggressive and unhelpful. I voiced my opinion (what I felt was very respectfully) and was immediately bombarded by people calling me names, accusing me of victim-blaming, sea-lioning, and more. I was banned from the group, and when I contacted the admin to ask about it, she said, “I will sleep well knowing I removed you and that all of the marginalized autistic people in my group don’t have to feel bad for the poor privileged oppressor.” Sadly, this kind of silencing of any sort of difference of opinion seems to be commonplace in many autistic communities. So that’s probably the biggest one, vilifying or discrediting autistic people simply for having a difference of opinion.

Next to that, I think we need to be more vocal about calling out organizations that are just making money off us. Organizations that suggest that there’s some kind of cure for autism, or language like making us “better” almost exclusively comes with a link to a website where you can buy gluten-free pancake mix or other nonsense. These organizations prey on scared, vulnerable parents and make their wonderful children out to be the impending bane of any semblance of happiness they once had. We need to unilaterally denounce videos like Autism Speaks’ “I Am Autism” and together provide resources that actually help parents and autistic people.

I guess if I could summarize, we need to stop attacking each other over petty crap and draw attention to the real enemy, which is the people seeking to make a buck saying we’re a menace to society.

How did you become interested in advocacy work? What inspired you to present at AltConf? What other messages/topics might you like to present about?

One of autistic people’s most admirable traits is that we naturally tend to connect emotionally with those who can’t defend themselves. And what I saw when navigating the waters of my own diagnosis is that so many autistic people, so many children, are the subjects of truly evil people toying with them. When I first heard about Jim Humble tricking people to force feed their children bleach, something flipped in me, and I just lost it. I had enough, and decided I had to join the many other autistic voices in an attempt to help spread reason and knowledge about how our brains work. I’m currently reading Steve Silberman’s NeuroTribes where he details the atrocities perpetuated on countless defenseless children under the Nazi regime in the name of “curing society,” which has left me sobbing more than once. So although these monstrosities have a long history, it has no place in a modern civilization, and I can’t rest until I see it effectively undone.” People harming us for their own gain has to end.

Having worked in the tech industry for so long, I’ve seen firsthand how the corporate world is unwelcoming to autistic people. In another one of my articles, I relate it to how someone in a wheelchair would never work at a company you can only get to by stairs, but due to lack of education, most companies in the developed world have what are effectively neurological staircases we have to climb to succeed, or even just to get the job in the first place. My dream is to one day create a unified autism job placement network where anyone that’s autistic can get professional mentoring and job placement help without having to jump through all the hoops that are expected of everyone else.

As for other subjects, I love presenting on technical subjects. I had the opportunity to go to Tokyo this last March to present on an Apple technology, and I hope to be able to give more technical presentations in the near future.

How might a conference center (or any speaking venue) be more accommodating to the needs of presenters on the spectrum?

Oh, this is a huge one that I’ve spent some time thinking about. Probably the biggest thing would be to set aside a sort of “quiet room” where people with sensory sensitivities can escape loud crowds, lighting problems, etc. Having a separate room where a presentation can be streamed with headsets for the audio would be a big first step to making conferences more accommodating. If that’s just not possible, at least providing a quiet location where people can retreat to during breaks is the most minimal accommodation I could think of.

Listen to Nic’s new podcast Autistic AF on Apple Podcasts or Stitcher. See the description below:

Meet Nic, an autistic adult. Yes, we exist, and we’re going to talk about it. Sometimes he’s crude, often he’s inappropriate, but he will always tell it like it is. This ain’t your typical autism mom’s podcast. Each week we’re going to talk about the many faces of autism in adulthood. So come in, sit down, and have a listen. It’s gonna be a wild ride!

You can also join Nic’s Slack support group My NeuroTribe for people on the spectrum. You can sign up for an invite using this link which contains a code of conduct for the community. 

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