Are We Clear Yet? Or, Travails at Work, and How Can I Help You Help Me with This Invisible Disability
I was inspired by a description of someone in high school who blogs under the name “apdwarrior17” being accused by her teacher — who knows she has APD — of not paying attention or possibly not trying hard enough, and how that accusation from someone who knows of her disability triggered some discouragement and related emotions to process on top of simultaneously trying to respond to the instruction.
I usually don’t dwell on, or analyze, all the snafus that come up in daily living with this condition. However it seemed that risking sharing too much about a recent communication breakdown might shed some light into how we cope with and react to expectations that are sometimes uninformed or unrealistic.
In my recent example, APD contributed to creating confusion and maybe suspicion about motives or abilities.
My manager had poked her head into my office while I happened to have open a new puzzling spreadsheet she’d emailed us to keep track of our paid time off. I asked her that as long as she was there, could she show me how to use it. Without coming over to look closely over my shoulder as I’d hoped, she essentially said “it will total automatically” and continued off down the hall.
As I looked at it and tried to understand how to use it, first, I got confused because the bi-monthly dates didn’t seem to have a routine order and because it was not filled in for the past few months. When I filled in the times the numbers didn’t appear in the same color as the existing ones — one clue to a difficulty — and a thin border around the table did not extend to the new data. Nor did the value auto-sum, even if I tried to highlight columns and use the “sum” command.
So, I calculated totals on a calculator, wrote in the result, and emailed the filled-in sheet. She sent it back saying I’d filled in previous fiscal year, and that there were two sheets (I’d missed checking for the small tab at the bottom indicating an underlying sheet). I copied the information I had added to sheet one (last fiscal year) to sheet two (this fiscal year) and erased it from sheet one. She wrote back that I had changed the total on the last fiscal year. She attached the form again and told me “this is what I sent on …” citing the exact date from a few months back (not a helpful detail at this point — it had only been sent once). The attachment was the same version I was using. However, in case mine had become corrupted by my blundering, I re-saved her attachment with a slightly different name, pasted the information in, and sent that. She wrote back saying she believed I’d sent the same file and appeared to have accidentally subtracted days rather than hours. She had filled it in and asked me to check it.
I sat there feeling glum for a few minutes about my failure and realizing I had to do a balancing act of getting past those feelings of being blue and mad at myself in order speak up for what I need while being polite and respectful of her.
Then I wrote back saying that I don’t know the program enough to do it without being shown, had re-named the file, and her completed version looked correct. I felt bad she had to go to so much trouble, and apologized.
During our weekly status check meeting that happened to take place later that day, I had a slight sinking feeling when she appeared with the sheet printed out and penciled on and began by showing me how the columns and rows are organized. I said let’s just explore filling it in on the electronic form together (I had my laptop). She asked me to first listen to her tell me about the sections of the form she’d penciled with explanations. So I waited for her to show me her markups, which essentially were showing me time entered into the cells will subtotal in different categories going down and across – which was not a point of confusion.
Then I said again, I learn best by doing, let me try, and opened the form on my laptop (which I bring to the meetings to show things we discuss sometimes). She told me then that if I highlight the cell that was filled in and pull my cursor down to an empty cell below, the lower cell will auto-fill. I tried and nothing happened. Then I noticed the cell had a small triangle in the corner and I pulled it. The cell below auto-filled. She said that I had other technical skills so didn’t realize I didn’t know the software to that depth. I said I could fill out the expense forms she’d made on Excel but this form was beyond my ability to figure out.
It had hurt to be critiqued on email and in person prior to being shown how. I feel I covered myself as having a constructive and professional approach by a) having asked off the bat for assistance and b) clarifying when reiterating what I need that I do not know the software. I only reached a successful resolution by venturing to repeat how I learn best despite being brushed off the first time. Maybe I did overlook whether I was subtracting hours instead of days, but going over what wasn’t done right felt, to me, unproductive and a little punitive if the goal is to discover how to make the form work and to become self-actualized in using it. The scolding didn’t provide information I could use and implement.
I’d attempted to stumble my way through after not receiving instruction upon asking, since I’d rather not create extra work if I can be a help and take care of these details. Perhaps just trying to dive in and do my best was poor judgment – but with APD we are often cutting corners, guessing, and filling gaps as a way to muddle through, and sometimes that works well enough.
Although I cringed a bit at belaboring an analysis of the form itself, it helped to pause and tolerate that so she could express her rationale for how the form was designed – even if the explanation was unnecessary for my understanding, she was wrapped up in wanting to feel heard and understood so I needed to be patient and hear that out even if the explanation felt like being chided or treated as if I am dense.
Some employers might offer more training on filling out their specific forms, so that aspect of running into difficulty may be a little unusual. Where APD came in was my approach. I might not have been fully and specifically clear the first time about what the nature of my not knowing how to complete the form was (since negotiating interactions on the fly and clearly expressing needs is not always very successful). I tried (as can be typical with APD) to live up to assumptions about what I ought to just already be able to do (and ended up having trouble with anyway, despite my best intentions). Being inattentive with days vs. hours might have reflected a little stress and subsequent shortfall in working memory — not taking in every nuance — which is more common when pressured, or sometimes just when trying to mentally organize abstract, dry, detailed, confusing forms and data. Again, that oversight might have been compounded by not wanting to make waves or draw attention to my difficulty, and so having tried anyway.
She has commented previously that working with financial documents is not a strong suit and difficult to focus on for her, so maybe that discomfort with this sort of material was part of why the responses felt a little blaming or like she was looking down her nose a little and attempting to dissect my errors (that resulted from my guessing and trying my best) without determining the underlying source of difficulty or offering instruction. (An example of the tone being a little accusatory was she asked if I had intended to change the total on the first fiscal year — I think it was a rhetorical question meant to soften pointing up that apparent confusion; I doubt she truly wondered if that had been my intent, and hope I don’t seem like I would arbitrarily start changing an already agreed-upon figure for some reason . . .). As for her style, she is not someone who is strong at hand-holding someone through something new or being asked to shift gears and provide a lesson, and I am not complaining about that — just observing that as an employee, it is our task to adapt to our employer’s style and preferred way of operating.
With APD, because the challenge is not apparent, it can be hard to feel deserving, or be emphatic enough, when someone unusual like us needs more reinforcement with a new task than the average person would. The natural tendency from the people we are addressing seems to be to have that need tuned out and dismissed, or to be treated as if we are then messing up for some unknown reason and need to be called on our failure. However, even if the root cause is invisible, politely and respectfully advocating or persisting with a request may be one of the best possible ways out of a dilemma that arises when there are unrealistic expectations, negative assumptions, or a communications breakdown. Because it is our issue, nine times out of 10, it may come to us to be the one advocating what we need rather than someone else remembering we are different. Having to make nine-tenths of the effort does get old, but I don’t know what the alternative is — it is what is in our power to control.
If the disability has not been disclosed, one way to describe the nature of the need is to refer to it as a “style”. Raising the issue may be awkward sometimes even though being sensitive to where others are coming from can help to build a bridge. Even if interactions do not go perfectly well or very smoothly, the best I have come up with is to either risk speaking up while realizing the experience won’t always be finessed completely, or just withdrawing and trying to not create friction. I don’t like that it sometimes feels the choice is between speaking up poorly — say, in an unintentionally brusque or abrasive manner, perhaps partially due to missing social cues or slow processing speed — or not at all. But about the most we can hope for is to just be accepted with our quirks, idiosyncrasies, and shortfalls — and positive intentions.