Accommodations make life easier, but as Otterknot pointed out in a recent comment, asking for accommodations often sounds simpler than it is.
Why is that? Why are we so reluctant to ask for something that will improve our quality of life, our relationships or our ability to succeed at work or school?
The biggest obstacle is often disclosure. Asking for an accommodation or support means disclosing that we’re disabled. Accommodations are for disabled people, after all. For those of us who have spent a lifetime instinctively trying to pass as nondisabled, it can be hard to make the mental shift to being openly or even semi-openly disabled.
There is also the question of whether the other party will understand the nature of hidden disabilities. Unlike a visible disability, a hidden disability carries a certain burden of proof. So we hesitate, wondering whether the other person will believe that we really need this particular accommodation or perhaps dreading the amount of explaining and/or convincing that will be involved.
Finally, there is the specter of self-doubt. Do I really need to ask for this? Can’t I just continue to suck it up and power through like I always have? Maybe if I work harder, I don’t really need any supports.
For late-diagnosed autistic adults, this is a big hurdle. Often, we’ve gotten this far in life by doing our best to get by. Not only are we inexperienced at asking for accommodations and supports, we’re also often inexperienced at recognizing when we need them.
We worry that we’re imposing an unnecessary burden on others by asking for “special treatment.” We feel conspicuous and singled out for having atypical needs. We’ve spent a lifetime working hard to blend in and suddenly we’re being told that it’s necessary to proactively announce our differences.
Building a Foundation
As Otterknot pointed out, many of us have to do some foundation work first before we can feel comfortable asking for accommodations. Here’s what I’ve been working on:
1. Recognize that I have needs, that my needs might be different from those of others and that’s okay. I wrote about this a bit last year–about how hard it is for me to identify my wants and needs, let alone seek out ways to meet them. I’ve made some progress in this area, but it’s something that I constantly have to work on bringing to the forefront of my consciousness.
2. Admit that denying, dismissing or minimizing my needs is more harmful than helpful. My instinctive reaction to needing something, especially something that I think will make me appear “weak,” is denial. I assume that by “not making a fuss” about something, I’m doing everyone involved a big favor. But I’m not. Because it quickly becomes evident when I’m struggling and my struggles can have a ripple effect, resulting in unpleasantness for others.
3. Remember that other people want to help. I’m very self-sufficient, often to the point of ridiculousness. I’m working on asking for help and/or accepting it when it’s offered. Accommodations aren’t always help per se, but the underlying principle is the same.
4. Make peace with the discomfort and self-consciousness that being different can cause. Yes, sometimes receiving accommodations or supports will make me stand out from the group. Yes, it will confirm to other people that I’m different. Yes, it will (rightly or wrongly) make me feel like I’m making a concession to my disability. I’m slowly getting better at being with those feelings, even though they still make me uncomfortable at times.
Mostly, I try to remember that by asking for a change in a situation, there’s a good chance that I’m improving the odds of success, not just for me, but for everyone involved. For example, at a big family gathering last year, I felt myself on the verge of overload. I’d spent two days surrounded by people and just as we were all arriving at the rental cabin for a big afternoon cookout, I felt a sense of panic set in. Too many people, too much noise and commotion.
In the past, I would have simply dealt with it. And by “dealt with it” I mean ignored my feelings and ended up in a classic shutdown before the afternoon was out. Instead, I told The Scientist that I was feeling overwhelmed and panicky. Actually, what I said was, “I need to get out of here. Now.”
He brilliantly deduced the overwhelmed and panicky part, and suggested that we go for a walk. We spent about an hour walking along a stream nearby and being quiet. When I felt ready, I told him and we went back to join the cookout. The hour of quiet allowed me to enjoy the rest of the afternoon and avoid the shutdown that had felt inevitable earlier.
Not only was my day better, but The Scientist (and other family members) didn’t have to spend the rest of the afternoon worrying about why I was feeling miserable.
How to Ask for Accommodations and Supports
There’s no formula for requesting an accommodation or support. Instead, think of a continuum ranging from a casual to formal requests. Often, it’s possible to ask for a minor change in a situation without disclosing your disability (if you prefer not to). Here are a few examples of places along the continuum:
Casual request: This works well with friends, family or acquaintances in situations where a minor change will make a big difference for you and have little impact on the other person. For example, you’re meeting a friend in a coffee shop and they choose a table right next to the barista station. Knowing that the noise from the machines and constant chatter will make it hard for you to focus on the conversation, you say, “Do you mind if we sit at that table in the corner? The noise from the counter will make it hard for me to hear you clearly.” Or “hard for me to concentrate” or “hard for me to focus on our conversation.” Whatever makes the most sense to you.
Although this is phrased as a question, most people will assume it’s rhetorical and go along with your request, unless they have a competing need (i.e. your preferred table is next to a cold drafty window). If you want to be more assertive, you can say, “Let’s sit at . . .” or “I’d like to sit at . . .”
Firm statement: A statement of your needs is appropriate in situations where there is an imbalance of power or you expect to experience pushback. For example, you’re in the car heading home from a long afternoon of shopping and your partner/parent/friend is feeling chatty while you’re feeling overloaded. To prevent yourself from melting down, you take out your headphones and say, “I’m feeling overwhelmed and need some time to chill out so I’m going to put on my headphones and listen to music until we get home. It’s nothing personal and once I’m feeling less anxious (overwhelmed, tired) I’d like to hear more about __________.”
In this situation, asking the other person to stop talking may be perceived as rude or offensive. Phrasing your statement as being entirely about you and what kind of self-care you’re going to engage in reduces the chances of a misunderstanding. The other person may or may not be bothered by your actions but at least you’ve attempted to explain it in a way that doesn’t blame them (i.e. they’re being too noisy) and have offered to resume their preferred activity once you’re feeling better.
Formal request: In a work or school situation, you may have to make a formal–perhaps written–request for supports or accommodations. This will also involve disclosing, if you haven’t already, your diagnosis to your boss, manager or professor. I wrote about making formal requests in the Disclosure post from the Adult Diagnosis series, so I’ll refrain from repeating myself here.
Practice, Practice, Practice
I’m still a novice at asking for accommodations but I’ve been making a conscious effort to practice and it’s slowly becoming less difficult. One thing that’s helping me along is the steady deterioration of my language skills. For the first time in my life, I’m feeling truly disabled. Not social model disabled or medical model disabled but just plain “I can’t do this thing” disabled. That’s forcing me to think seriously about the types of supports and accommodations that will continue to allow me to pursue the things I enjoy while not beating myself about how much I’m struggling. And that’s probably a whole other post.