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Autism and team work

This is a personal blog written by Danielle in 2020 about her experience of team work.

If you ask someone what their favourite online game is right now, the majority of people will be able to answer you right away. Mine is online scrabble. It saved me during lockdown. It kept my brain busy, it was social without having to be actually social and kept connections (however vague) with people who are important to me. It even rekindled some friendships from years ago.

I was playing at 3am this morning (kiddo was up as usual) and I felt a sudden pang of excitement when I saw the single player scrabble tournament had begun. I know this sounds unbelievably geeky but bare with me…

I dived straight in and as usual had one of the top scores for the tournament, far higher than when I play someone else. I got such a buzz from playing it and a definite dopamine hit. It got me thinking about why I like it so much.

It’s simple. I’m the only person who’s moves I have to predict. I can’t upset anyone else because there is no one else playing. No one can upset me because no one else is playing. I can plan ahead and think of several outcomes based on what letters may appear next. I can use the time as I see fit to execute the best moves. No one is judging me for the way I play, no one questions me and i don’t have to try and explain my thinking to anyone. Utter bliss.

When I was 11 I received my final school report from primary school. It had me in tears. Throughout my teacher had written how I wasn’t a team player, how I was overbearing and how I needed to learn to work with others. I was distraught. The report spoke nothing of how creative I was on my own, how I worked to solve a problem or how I could focus on detail. It simply talked about a lack of social skill.

Now I’m not denying that I showed those characteristics because I’m sure I did. For most of my adult life I have forced myself to work as part of a team. I have masked my instincts and held back ideas all so I don’t upset people. Sometimes I failed spectacularly and upset everyone around me, my ideas were lost to the emotion of the rest of my team.

I felt as though I was broken but it wasn’t because team work didn’t come naturally, it wasn’t just that I wasn’t very good at it without hiding my true self, it’s because actually I bloody hated it. I despised it. The words from a teacher, “today you’ll be working in groups” were enough to make me feel physically sick in school.

Struggling to work as part of a group doesn’t mean you are broken or bad at what you do. What it means is that you have a role to play, and you may need to play that role on your own. You need a piece of work to be delegated to you and you’ll smash it. You will contribute massively to the team outcome, you’re all working towards the same goal. The problem is that blurred lines and inconsistent and changing briefs on the task at hand are very distressing and exhausting.

So often you see on job descriptions and school reports how important it is to be a team player. You can be a team player and still be comfortable in yourself. Give me a task, give me a position on a sports team and I will do my job to the absolute best of my ability. I will take rewards and any hits as part of my team. I just need to know that I’ve done my part properly.

So if a child struggles in group or team work, perhaps think about helping them find their role within that team and help define clear boundaries for them. If you dread group work, if your brain isn’t set up for it, it doesn’t make you a bad person. It means that you’re able to excel and exceed all by yourself, which I reckon is a damn site harder.

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