The Black Box and the Clunky Stack (on asking for help at work)

Over on the roiling hellscape that is Twitter, in the calm bay of the neurodivergent community, Heather Cook (a neurodivergent therapist) is talking about “high masking” as a partial replacement for the problematic term “high functioning” in descriptive autism lingo. I think that’s brilliant and I hope to write more about that idea soon.

But here I want to noodle on an adjacent topic spurred by her posts: that autism and the traumatic effects of living as an undiagnosed neurodivergent make me bad at recognizing when I need to ask for help. Some of that is because of the particular things autism does to my emotional processing and some of it is the ND experience of being taught to doubt my interpretation of reality.

In a post on #HighMasking, Heather says, “[High masking] is what I’m calling it when you are so used to masking/pretending/camouflaging your struggles in order to pass as “normal” or avoid attention, often to feel safe, that your real struggles and needs are not noticed and [are] discounted when you bring them up.”

I remind myself of this idea as often as I can.

In fact, reminding myself of this is at least half of my strategy to get better at asking for help, especially at work.

Sometimes the thing that needs fixing isn’t me. We can’t fix it if I don’t speak up.

Imposter syndrome kills, kids.

One feature of my autism presentation is a heightened ability to sense when something “isn’t right” about a situation. Human systems especially: double binds, gaslighting, bad communication pipelines, likely failures of fit/skill/motivation. I’m the canary in your human system coalmine: my distress predicts your crisis.

That’s a really useful talent. Hypersensitivity is as close as I can get to identifying an autistic superpower, as problematic as the idea of superpowers can be.

(…and acknowledging of course that hypersensitivity extracts a massive toll on us, so it’s at best a superpower with a genuinely awful price in the absence of some accommodation*.)

*Here, I’m thinking chiefly of building-in support for executive function under stress, because (as I elaborate on later in this post) sensing the problem and acting on that sense quickly (usually under a deadline) can be tricky for some of us.

So yeah, the ability to sense hidden problems early is super useful to organizations and families and other groups of humans. And that’s a talent I’ll claim: I’m pretty good at what my team at work calls “looking around corners”.

I can taste risk. I can smell conflict. My feet trip on barriers. My central nervous system is a failure prediction engine.

However, and this is a big however, I’m pretty dang bad at knowing if the problem is mine to fix, or if I need to raise a flag and ask for help.

I tend to think “I saw the problem. I need to fix it.” But usually I don’t have the influence or reach to fix it alone; nor do I have the gravitas or hierarchical power to order people around.

Or I think “I caused this. I have to fix it myself or I’ll be exposed as incompetent.” I often think I caused things just cuz I’m near them.

Imposter syndrome kills, kids. Proximity isn’t causality. And autistic masking (this is the connection to Heather’s words above) doesn’t have to include taking on the burden genuine systemic problems alone.

Also, often my genuine mistakes are made possible by crappy conditions upstream that need to be fixed even if ultimately the responsibility is mine to sort the part of the problem that I caused*.

*I prefer to frame this not as blame-shifting but as responsibility-sharing, which is a thing I wish we all did more of.

An autism paradox

The failure to recognize that some problems aren’t mine to fix alone – and my failure to ask for help – I attribute to alexithymia.

Alexithymia is a common autistic trait (though it is not exclusive to or universal among autistics). It is a difference in emotional processing speed, causing those affected, like me, to take longer to recognize, name, and act on emotional signals.

Essentially, I get the headline really fast (something is wrong) but the details of what is wrong and how it happened travel by snail mail. I usually have to act to fix a problem before I’ve fully understood how I feel about it.

It’s a paradox: my autism makes me really good at a thing but it also prevents me from doing anything useful with that thing most of the time.

To sort this paradox, I need to do one of 3 things: reduce my ability to sense problems, reduce the pressure to solve problems before I understand what I’m feeling, or figure out what I’m feeling faster.

That last one is where I think I can make a difference for myself. I can’t stop being sensitive to problems in my environment and I’ve only had spotty results in lowering the pressure to act fast. But I am confident that I can get better at:

  • understanding context more quickly
  • figuring out when to ask for help (problems I shouldn’t hide)
  • surfacing what I know to people around me who can help organize a fix

And I can pitch in to help.

That’s what I’m working on now at work*: quickly seeing the what/why of problems so I can ask for help early, before there’s a crisis in the system.

*Context: I am a program/project manager at a medium-sized tech company. I do learning strategy and planning. The problems I usually encounter are in the area of UI/UX or scalability but sometimes it’s about interpersonal stuff or my marriage or friendships or housework or the state of the world.

A database/library/toolkit of memory lego blocks (and mixed metaphors)

So how do I speed up my emotional processing so I see solutions faster & ask for help sooner?

My gut says to lean into two autistic talents: pattern recognition and rehearsal. (It seems those are the most powerful and underused levers in most areas of my life, but especially at work.)

I need a better internal vocabulary of the patterns around the problems I see, and I need to build a set of rehearsed, reliable responses to those problems based on pattern observation.

So I’m consciously starting a mental library of moments and memories of problems I encounter, and essentially rehearsing my best response to each one. Like legos or kit house modules or database records, these memories can be snapped together and rearranged until they start to resemble a map to the solution.

I need to notice and capture memories like:

  • THIS is what THAT problem feels like in my body. This is what I learned the last time I felt that way.
  • THIS emotion goes with THAT type of problem. This is what that feeling prompts me to do.
  • When I see THIS clue, I should look for causes/fixes in THAT area and get help from this list of people or functions.

Again, a more neurotypical person might look at all this cataloguing and remembering and think it’s dumb or painful overthinking, but that’s because some of this is more intuitive for them than it is for me, someone whose brain is not the socially-supported standard model.

I need to notice those moments of clarity and capture them, which for me means expressing them visually or verbally. I need to talk through or write or draw:

  • what I saw
  • how I knew it was significant
  • how I felt physically and emotionally (the “flavor” of the stress, the sense memory)
  • what ultimately was the cause or solution for the problem

That memory library becomes a bunch of little snap-together maps from which I can construct an action plan quickly: who to ask for help, who to work with on a solution, how to avoid knock-on effects, etc.

With a little stack of memory blocks, I can get help faster than waiting for my sluggish emotional processing to catch up.

I can compare now stuff to past stuff, find matches, and improve my solution-guessing average. Another way to look at it is I’m freeing up some much-needed executive function.

(I think this is how neurotypical brains get the benefits of experience, possibly effortlessly if they’re lucky. For me, though, slow emotional processing has impaired development of the wisdom of age. I’m not unwise but I have learned the wrong lessons often, usually out of shame or self-doubt*.)

*The shame and self-doubt come from bad narratives. I have that common undiagnosed ND habit of blaming myself for everything bad that happens near me.

At work I’ve had success twice recently in asking for help. In both cases I asked for help because I saw the clues and interpreted them early, largely because the situations resembled recent situations that ended poorly but were very instructive in post-analysis.

The stuff stressing me out was in one case an organizational gap (we needed a new process) and in the other a technical limitation due to early poor planning (about which I needed to alert leadership, then adjust my timeline to compensate).

1 The Black Box

First some backstory. The departure of my over-functioning unicorn boss created a number of gaps on our team. The gap that affected me most was not being able to see what work was coming my team’s way. Critical facts about product release roadmaps and longer-term priorities were suddenly invisible to me. The future was a black box. I couldn’t plan the work or ask for funding for additional help. My team was at risk of an unreasonable and varying workload. The internal audience I serve was in danger of not getting what they need from us in a way they can trust.

What we needed was a new process for planning and managing the greater team’s workload that is transparent to all of us and predicts the level of effort needed to get it all done.

In situations like this in the past I might have voluntarily borne the burden of creating and enforcing a new process alone, without the leverage or time to sustain that effort on top of all my other work. Disaster. Bound to fail. Super bad for me personally and professionally.

This time, though, I recognized an old feeling from a previous employer: gut-watering terror. That’s a longer story for another time, but the key thing here is that I learned (and later remembered) that you can’t fix a systemic problem from a single point in that system.

So I sketched out what I think the process should be on a literal napkin, took a picture of it, and sent it to one of our stakeholders, a nearby manager (not my manager, ‘cuz process isn’t his jam), and a couple of my peers. I got some feedback, then I drew up some simple slides and put it in front of the big boss. He loved it.

We are now collectively in the throes of spinning up a cross-functional planning “board” made of team leaders and stakeholders to manage the flow of projects for us. It’s scalable and has pretty solid initial support across everyone involved.

And I’m not crying at my desk or bracing for a job-ending oncoming train. I mean… I think that’s good, right?

2 The Clunky Stack

(Again with the backstory.) While making a change to our greater team’s technical infrastructure (the “stack”), we discovered a clunky connection between two pieces of the platform that makes for a potentially catastrophic usability problem for our audience. The folks in charge of these systems knew about the problem but it wasn’t a high enough priority for them to fix soon, given limited resources.

After a little asking around I learned that the problem started because in the initial plan to set up the new system they didn’t know to consider the very specific, apparently atypical way my team would use these systems.

It’s an understandable thing, not total incompetence, but failing to fix this oversight could be embarrassing for me, specifically, as the manager of the content that is served from this part of the stack.

I could imagine how to fix the problem (a little UX layer that provides a slightly better user experience) and I almost had the skills to build it. It was tempting to just say, “I got this,” and devote my free time and some sleepless nights to building something simple. But it would be shitty and badly coded… and I would then have to maintain it in perpetuity, alone.

What stopped me this time was actual nausea. I felt a churning in my gut and an extremely woozy stomach sensation that I recognized, again, from that same previous employer. The stress of that situation had led me to switch companies and jobs. My memories of the experience were a jumble of poorly-recalled executive function challenges, but I remembered one thing with absolute clarity: Stop trying to impress leadership by working outside your wheelhouse. (You’re not a handyman and this isn’t a one-room schoolhouse.)

That was all I needed to jumpstart the process of asking for help.

Now people with more power than I have are figuring out priorities and getting the skilled hands we need, while I focus on an interim low-effort way to soften the problem for our users. That’s my wheelhouse, the center of my skillset.

That shit’s a lot better than sobbing at my desk while searching job boards because I’m exhausted and feel like a failure.

And now the real work begins

Improving my asking-for-help skills is a slow process for me. I have a lot of lessons to catalog and turn into blocks, a lot of iterations of seeing problems and noting how I feel. I don’t know what I’m doing yet and I will fail a lot. It will take a while to build a good library of instructive experiences that cover enough of the problems I encounter to resemble actual seat-of-my-pants executive function.

I’m hoping doing this consciously helps me learn faster.

If I may spend a moment on a familiar soapbox, this is the power of knowing that I’m neurodivergent, finally. Most of my life I didn’t know my brain was different. I thought I was just born to fuck up. Because I have better models now for how my brain works and what it needs, I’m learning to how to build into my daily work and home life some of the supports I need to function more effectively, to thrive.

Fingers crossed my optimism lasts through the next year of problem-solving.

This is an expansion of a thread tweeted earlier by Agitated Spiders for Human Rights 🇺🇸🩸🦷 (@HorriblyJane) on November 9, 2022.

One response to “The Black Box and the Clunky Stack (on asking for help at work)”

  1. sooooo many feelings & resonances reading this, but the words for any of it? nowhere close to my vicinity after a wildly hyperspeed month of learning. so i will just say: resonance, happening right here.

    Liked by 1 person

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