Being an Autistic School Librarian
I was diagnosed as autistic in my early 40s. This was both a relief and difficult at the same time.
It was a relief because it helped me make sense of my life and the experiences I’ve had.
It was difficult because I felt angry about not being diagnosed earlier. It also meant that many of my experiences growing were chalked up to me being “strange,” “difficult,” or “anti-social.”
Another aspect of being autistic and being completely unaware of it or what it even meant was that I struggled greatly with employment. I could not keep a job as a young adult or even a regular adult.
It turns out I don’t really like people telling me what to do, which is a problem, because that’s what 90% of work is. I also lost a lot of jobs because of communication issues or refusal to “play the game” socially with co-workers. I have had many, many terrible jobs so I consider myself lucky that I was able to become a librarian.
I think this career suits autistic people. I’m not saying that it would fit every autistic person’s career choice, but I personally feel it suits us.
There is a stereotype that autistic people are all like Rain Man, that film has done a huge amount of damage to the autistic community. We are not all like Hoffman in that film, we are as different and complex as anyone else. I can only speak from my own experience and would never assume how I feel about something is the same thing that another autistic person would feel, but I know we are not all like that movie.
Being an autistic school librarian can be difficult just like any other job I’ve had in the past, but for whatever reason, I’ve manage to stick with it and even have some success.
However, I struggle with many things that make working in general difficult. Here are a few examples, and these would make any job difficult, but I’m talking about being a librarian in this particular article.
If you tell me something to my face, I probably won’t remember it. One reason is I will be avoiding eye contact (something I simply cannot do and don’t know why) and another reason is I will be masking. Masking is when an autistic person performs certain behaviours we think others want to see. The problem with masking is that it’s very, very draining and we often do it multiple times a day. It is for this reason that I won’t remember your request or whatever you are asking. This is the same for being on the phone, I hate using the phone, I will avoid it at all cost as it brings me great anxiety. I prefer email. When I write an email to someone I write it in the style that I hope other people write their emails to me. I write very clearly and in bullet point format, I do not email huge paragraphs because I personally struggle to read big chunks of text.
I struggle a lot with noise. I have a bell above my desk, it sounds like an old fashioned workhouse bell from some Dickens novel. I hate it and am working on getting it removed. However, it’s not just jarring sounds like this that get under my skin, it’s the sound of people drumming their fingers on a table, people talking loudly in a corridor, people snuffing their noses. I could go on and on. I do not wear headphones at work as I don’t work in a cubicle, I have to be “on” the entire time I’m at work. This is a challenge working in a school but the great thing about being in a library is that yes, it can be quiet at times and that’s a very good thing. I also do not like the noise in the staff room, so I avoid it as much as possible. This makes working in a school tough because there is a lot of noise everywhere all the time. What it means is that I’m concentrating extra hard to focus and get drained easier, I’m usually exhausted by lunch.
I know, there’s a billion people out there who say “I hate small talk too, and I’m not autistic.” That may be true, you may dislike small talk, but does it make your stomach hurt to think about having to do it? Does it make you sweat thinking about what you’re supposed to say, act, and look like while you’re saying it? I once had someone tell me eight years ago that my smile didn’t match my eyes. That was because I wasn’t interested in what this person was saying and was pretending to be fascinated. I never forgot that, though. Eight years later and I’m always thinking “make sure your eyes match your smile,” whatever the hell that means. Avoiding small talk means that others think you’re stuck up, but the opposite is true for most autistic people. It’s often just a way to avoid crushing anxiety. Luckily, in a school environment, everyone is so busy that you can usually avoid others most of the day. What I like about working with younger people in the library is that their spirits haven’t been ground down to ash yet and they don’t care about small talk, they get right to the point, which I like. This is why working in a school library is good for me, because I can create a rapport with students that I find difficult with many adults. Part of it is the lack of pretense most students have, they come in, they are there for a reason. They want a computer, a book, a safe place to take part in a club. I can provide this for them, job done.
Again, this can happen to people who are not autistic and people who don’t work in school libraries. However, for me, feeling overwhelmed is a daily struggle. If I concentrate on a specific task, I find it very hard to get my mind off that task even when I am doing other things.
The great thing about a school library is that it is always busy.
The downside is that it is always busy. I am constantly interrupted to do something, and I don’t mind doing any of them but it also adds a feeling of great anxiety in that I have in my head a timeframe that I want something completed and I can feel it slipping away. Once this lost job piles up with other jobs to do, I can crash and burn in that I sit and do nothing, I get burned out very easily. I am not an expert but I feel this differs from what is called Autistic burnout. Autistic burnout (which I have experienced in other situations) is a very serious issue that is often not taken seriously by neurotypical people. It can severely affect mental health and even result in loss of skills. It can result in months-long exhaustion and create major problems in autistic people’s lives. We all feel overwhelmed, but if you’re an autistic person, you’re living in as world that is not set up for you, it’s not accommodating and people will sometimes gaslight you by telling you to suck it up or try harder. It’s tough, and it means you will feel completely overwhelmed and upset a lot of the time.
I want to move on to the positive things now, because there are positives to being an autistic librarian.
Sometimes autistic people have a special interest that they love to talk about, research, collect, whatever. Mine, which I’ve just re-discovered in the past three years, is Dungeons and Dragons. However, I also am of course obsessed with reading.
So, how did I become a librarian? I had just been fired from a terrible job in Bristol, UK, selling salt and pepper shakers on commission (I am not kidding) when I went back to my apartment and thought about what I’m good at.
Nothing, was the first answer my brain gave me. Then I thought, well, I am good at reading. I then Googled, “what jobs are good for people who like reading.”
Never once even making the connection about librarians. Most likely because where I grew up in Canada, we didn’t have any that stood out to me or even existed. I eventually found that you could have a degree in library studies and, out of desperation, decided to pursue it.
It means that because things like reading are my special interest, I can discuss books with great excitement, perfect for pitching books to students. I can also spend a lot of time thinking about ways to make reading more fun, cool activities around books, and by being as fearless as possible when it comes to interactions with authors and other entities. No, you don’t need to have autistic or have bookish special interests to be a librarian but in my experience it has helped me greatly.
This ties in with the one above as well. I am not crafty or musical or good with my hands in any way, but when my mind is clear, I think of good ideas for the library and I enjoy acting on those. Being a school librarian means I have much more freedom to try new things out like create a podcast for the students to record interviews with authors, get our D&D team to meet an actual D&D writer and for them to play test a new campaign, take a group of kids to see the Knights Of publishers in Brixton when they first opened to help stock the library and interview the owner. It goes on, but being a school librarian allows me to not get bored, which I would be if I was stuck in a cubicle somewhere.
My entire approach to being a school librarian is to create an atmosphere that I would have enjoyed as a lost, confused, and anxious kid. I want that kid to have somewhere safe to go with someone cared in charge.
My Advice to Employers or Managers if You Have Autistic Employees
Avoid in-person meetings, use emails instead.
Give autistic people time to process, more time than usual.
For me, I’m always assuming people are upset or angry with me, any ambiguity leads me down a spiral of anxiety and dread. Be clear with expectations and instructions.
Be aware that this person may not want to make eye contact, it doesn’t mean they aren’t listening or don’t care, it means they cannot stand to make eye contact.
Understand that they won’t like to make small talk.
Understand that if this person has a special interest, they may talk about it a lot and with great enthusiasm, they may also interrupt conversations or find it hard to use social cues to move on in a conversation.
These are the things I find challenging, I am fully aware there are more. I really enjoy being a school librarian and feel it suits me, I don’t think I could do anything else.