Monday, November 28, 2011

Of Librarianship and Asperger's Syndrome

I was diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome in June of 2010. Because it is a recognized disability protected by ADA, which EEOC enforces, I believe I was able to remain employed with the public library system that hired me in a paraprofessional capacity. I had to accept a demotion along the way to Clerk, but I remain gainfully employed. I like my job, so the purpose of this post is not to complain about it; I have been shifted to working in Interlibrary Loan and enjoy it very much. One day I'd like to transition to being an full-fledged ILL Librarian in a University setting if possible; perhaps with some secondary Reference duties.

No, the purpose of this post is to reflect on the challenges faced by a person with Asperger's Syndrome, and just how unexpectedly inhospitable most libraries are as employers to persons with Autism/Asperger's.

I've read in some employment guides to people with Asperger's Syndrome that libraries and librarianship represent a potential career path to consider. I became interested in becoming a librarian before I was formally diagnosed. But I now take issue with the suggestion that libraries are necessarily a "good" place for an Aspie to work.

What I have learned, and what I realize looking back, is that libraries are highly political work environments, usually far worse than any so-called "office politics" that I ever dealt with in my previous Corporate employment gig. This is definitely where the person with Asperger's Syndrome is at a distinct disadvantage. Between our general social awkwardness, our struggles with small-talk, our seeming aloofness, seeming tactlessness and bluntness and literal-mindedness and our ability to piss people off without even meaning to, yes, the Library workplace is like a minefield for the person with an ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder).

Moreover, as Libraries have continued to re-define and re-structure the role of the MLS degree-holding Librarian, increasingly insisting that the MLS act as a de-facto MBA and that EVERY librarian with an MLS *must* be a manager of others rather than a solitary expert or professional in his or her own right...there is because of this a kind of discrimination built in at a unconsciously structural level against people with Autism Spectrum Disorders. Management is really NOT our "thing". We suck at it. Books are already filled with case narratives of successful Aspies in technical jobs being promoted into managerial roles and then stumbling and falling because of their inherent difficulties in dealing with people that is part and parcel of having an Autism Spectrum Disorder; It is not a psychological phobia, it is a neurological problem having to do with how our brains are wired differently from Neurotypical (hereafter, NT) people. Aspies succeed where they can do highly individual, highly technical work requiring our legendary focus. They falter where they must be responsible for and manage others.

I suffered greatly due to my ignorance of my AS condition at my previous library employer, a major state university in Northern Texas. I had no clue I was an "Aspie" at the time. I grasped at straws, chalking up my difficulty in communication with my boss as having to do with my inherent introversion and guessing (incorrectly) that she perhaps was an extrovert. She wasn't, but she WAS definitely Neurotypical, and in hindsight, therein lay the biggest problems.
I also tried to understand our difficulty in terms of gender differences, hetero male and hetero female...and while this investigation did yield some results, the overshadowing reality of Asperger's looms large only in hindsight with enough perspective and distance. The gulf between us in terms of gender differences was miniscule in comparison to the yawing canyon between NT and Aspie.

It angers me now in hindsight to realize that what I suffered in North Texas that last year was de-facto job discrimination based on my Autistic condition, but because I was undiagnosed until AFTER I was long gone, and thus not able to disclose to that employer at the time my job was in jeopardy, I have no legal recourse against what amounted to blatant job discrimination against a person with a neurological disability.

There was a time in the past when probably a lot of old-school catalogers probably were undiagnosed persons with Asperger's syndrome. And since it is much harder to DX females with AS and since most librarians are female, the historical data just isn't there and can only be conjectured, and even contemporary data would be hard to compile and of limited use since on ethical grounds it could only be arrived at by voluntary, anonymous self-disclosure. I solicited such anonymous disclosure on AUTOCAT once, but only got a few respondents...only one person confirmed having received the actual DX and she had a similarly spotty/difficult job history as my own. Among working catalogers who did respond, some said that they felt they had "some" Aspergian traits but had not sought a formal DX.

Unfortunately, long gone are the days when the lone "Aspie" cataloger could go off to a cubicle by herself and catalog all day long with minimal interaction with anyone else. The job has changed due to technology, library restructuring, etc, nearly always all to the detriment of the cataloger with AS. The professional cataloger with an MLS is often the sole "professional" cataloger on staff and as such must report directly to a non-cataloger manager, such as an Assistant Director for Technical Services, frequently an acquisitions person, or directly to the Library Director in a smaller organization. There is, in my experience, little or no mentoring of new librarians trying to enter cataloging fresh from Library school.

Had I "known the rules" (another Aspie deficit), I would have "known" that the usual cataloger career track includes a lengthy apprenticeship as a paraprofessional "copy cataloger" who is expected to earn her MLS while full-time employed as a Copy Cataloger. Those who DON'T follow this track are at a severe disadvantage upon graduating. It's not just the hands-on cataloging skills, which are crucial enough, to be sure, but it's also the social networking, the vital face-time at state and regional library conferences and within one's own library system. Breaking into a career in librarianship is not unlike seeking exclusive membership in a prestigious country club. There are differing levels of membership and not everyone is allowed in.

I have applied for several paraprofessional positions in Adult Services Reference and also professional Reference positions (Librarian I) over the past several months and despite my actual job experience as a librarian, despite my two Master's Degrees from impressive universities, I keep getting passed over for these jobs by people who are younger, fresher out of library school BECAUSE they "knew the rule" and started working in the library system as clerks and paras before ever starting library school. They are "known" to their future library managers already, already have a job track record, etc, and slide easily and upwardly into these new Librarian I positions, whereas I am passed over despite my superior credentials, superior intelligence, general education, well-roundness and being better read.

Because I am an individual with an Autism Spectrum Disorder, it's probably believed that I am not able to deal with the general public in a Reference setting, but my exemplary customer service record at my corporate job belies this assumption.

Libraries are very political environments and very unforgiving of honest error. I admit on some technology applications my skills were lacking and at my previous job I often sought the aid of the E-Resources Librarian who was far more skilled at such things than me. She was always polite and willing to help and I would repeatedly thank her and apologize for being such a bother, etc, which she would waive off with a laugh. I only later learned that I caused her lots of added stress to her already stressful job and she would blow up at my boss (who was also her boss) behind my back, complaining about me. This again is another NT vs. Asperger's divide. My colleague behaving like a predictable Neurotypical, while me, the Aspie, dealing honestly if naively and taking things at face value. I can't help thinking "If helping me was really such a stress-out for her, why didn't she just TELL me to my face to go jump in a lake or dammit-go-learn it myself?"; Perhaps if my boss had not intervened first, eventually she would have...and it would've caught me completely out of the blue, with no warning, same as my then Boss's very suddenly negative annual review that precipitated the beginning of the end of that job.

I know in my adolescence I always admired individuals who were forthrightly blunt and didn't sugar coat things, who were unafraid to speak the truth, no matter how ugly or uncomfortable. Hell, I still do.

I'm so put off by and unnerved by the oft two-faced nature of so depressingly many Neurotypicals. It seems their guiding Modus Operandi, and it's difficult to conceal my contempt at times.

I feel like the ideas I've scribbled down here could be honed and polished into a half-way decent essay, as I feel it's an area ripe for investigation, discussion and eventually, activism. I should probably re-launch this blog and call it "Aspie Librarian" (unless of course there already exists such a thing...should probably check that, eh?).

Australian psychologist and researcher Tony Atwood, who specializes in Autism Spectrum Disorders and Asperger's Syndrome in particular, has written:

"You don't suffer from Asperger's (syndrome). You suffer from other people."

That's certainly true, even, or perhaps especially, in library workplaces.


JP said...

I was diagnosed late in my library career. When I reacted poorly to patron who yelled at me. Fortunately, and I did not realize how fortunate I was at the time I was taken out of public service and put in a catalog department. Life is not perfect here but it far better than working with the public. I have trouble dealing with the details here. Yes the politics hurt,but it is safer than public service.

Advocate said...

My son has worked as a casual in a public library for over four years. For two of them he took on all extra responsibilities like branch relief on his own, systems and technology n hs own, and everyone thought how fabulous he was with all he could do as a young man straight out of school. He loved his work. Unfortunately when they added having to check for druggies needles to the list he had a melt down and had to come clean about his phobia and having AS. Funny thing that since then he hasn't done any sub branch work at all. It's like they don't trust him anymore and forgotten what a great job he had been doing for them. Now little by little his work hours have been reduced till at one point he had no work for six weeks and now flat out to get two hrs a week . Granted they have all permanent positions filled now but the other casuals are still getting reasonable shift. One of the biggest slaps in the face was after he had filled in doing a job for two years and applied for it once released as vacant, another person who had been doing a different job there casual was given his job because she had that piece of paper. He was told it was no reflection on his ability of doing the job for the two years. Just the process of HR. he had felt like part of the team for three years and then all of a sudden he wasn't good enough to put on permanent. That just made him feel used for those two years doing the job. Since then things have just gone down hill and he can't live on fesh air. Thank goodness he still lives at home so we can help support his needs. He has been trying to study to get qualifications in Library Information Services, but has always found study difficult (short attention span) so takes him twice as long as anyone else to get assignments done. But produces fabulous work in the end. So I as his mother am not sure it was such a good move to start into this field because it now seems he will never get a permanent job there unless he gets a degree and Uni is something he would never cope with. Just trying to get his Diploma is proving hard enough. I am lost as to how best help him any further when it comes to work. He does do a little casual work at a technical library too which he prefers. I have decided having AS means you need an advocate to help support you navigate having any sort of career opportunity.

JP said...

The unfortunate truth about library work is that a Master's degree is the only one that counts. I know brilliant people with a BA or BS but no MLS who will not advance beyond the pre or para professional level. They may get the assignments but will not get the pay and ultimately be replaced by someone with an MLS degree.
In the library profession either get the Masters or get out of the profession if you want to advance. It may not be fair but it is the truth. This applies to us with Aspergers and those without it.