When Sarah was little, it was clear she was driven.
Despite a speech delay, she was reading on the eighth-grade level at age seven. When her mom asked the school to have Sarah tested, they found she had a high IQ and significant intellectual gifts. The school administrators placed her in the academically gifted program, where she enjoyed learning and being challenged, but Sarah faced challenges in the classroom. It was a morass of social interactions to navigate, and she was bullied.
At 10, Sarah was diagnosed with pervasive developmental disorder, and Asperger’s Syndrome the following year, which is now known as autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Her diagnosis means that Sarah is exceptionally bright and capable, but she struggles with social interactions. Sarah often heard that she was book smart but not street smart.
“I rejected my diagnosis for many years,” says Sarah, “because of the misinformation and ignorance of ASD, including my own ignorance at the time. I did not tell my teachers – I didn’t want them to think I was limited in any way. I especially didn’t want to start believing I was limited. If you tell someone they are limited, they will take that to heart, and it will hamper their potential.”
After all, evidence of Sarah’s accomplishments were everywhere. She excelled at detail-oriented work, was particularly good at memorizing numbers, and proved to be a talented student of musical instruments. By 18, Sarah was living independently, working two jobs, and putting herself through college for a degree in business analytics.
After graduating, Sarah gravitated toward work in IT, where she found she could use her strengths and continuously learn new skills, which was important to her. Over time, she held a variety of roles in IT, including work as a recruiter, a business development manager, and a production support analyst.
One of the ways Sarah learned to function at work without people knowing she was on the spectrum was called “masking.” Many in the ASD community use “masking” to describe the act of putting on different personas in different scenarios. “I studied and mimicked social interactions and mannerisms from peers and media to blend in and pass as neurotypical,” explains Sarah. “I thought I had come up with an excellent coping mechanism by doing so, but I found that it is actually very common for people on the spectrum and is not unique to my experience.”
While Sarah seemed to be experiencing what others might consider success, the expectations to conform to neurotypical behavior at work took its toll. “It is exhausting and emotionally draining to be extra cognizant of everything you say – your inflections and your body language,” she says.
Like Sarah, many people are afraid of self-disclosing an ASD diagnosis in the workplace. “They’re afraid it could be a hindrance to how they are seen by management and colleagues,” she says. “They’re afraid it could negatively affect their advancement. In many workplaces, functional labels and diagnoses can be harmful because they too often come along with stereotypes and unfair expectations.”
After working in other positions, Sarah decided she was ready for a change and began searching for work with a company where she could advance her career and bring her whole self to work. That’s when she discovered CAI’s Autism2Work (A2W), a practice of business and technology service firm CAI. “Taking the leap and applying to the program was a little nerve-wracking,” says Sarah, “but I knew that if I wanted to advocate for people with ASD, that I had to stop hiding who I was.”
Sarah completed a competency call with an A2W outreach and development specialist and soon after was scheduled for a phone interview with the A2W Team Lead. In May of 2019, Sarah accepted a full-time job as a Quality Assurance Analyst working for a large Fortune 100 pharmaceutical company. Today Sarah is an integral part of the A2W team.
In her role, she completes automated testing, manual testing, SQL querying, and analysis of scripts. Sarah also works in gathering data in SAP for test script creation and execution. She identifies, documents, tracks and retests for software defects and fixes deferred defects from SAP S/4 HANA System Integrated Testing.
Quality assurance work is an area where Sarah’s strengths can shine. “Everything must be documented accurately,” she says. “If one comma is off in the coding, it won’t work.” While Sarah’s penchant for accuracy and detail show themselves in her work engineering automated scripts, she also has a unique gift for understanding the whole picture of the business, including the supply chain, finance, communication, and IT infrastructure.
At work, she has become known for setting high expectations for herself. She is currently earning her certification in SAP and facilitating trainings for new hires. “Sarah has developed a strong acumen for the work we do,” says Vipul Patel, A2W Team Lead. “Currently, she not only contributes to ongoing delivery, bringing solution-oriented thought leadership to test planning and test automation, she also serves as a peer subject matter expert who helps cross-train newer team members and provides guidance to them on SAP and other automation tools. Her work ethic is unparalleled, and that commitment really shows in her work product and deliverables. We are proud to have Sarah on the team working on some very exciting projects for our client.”
Sarah says she is proud of working on a diverse team filled with great employees on multiple levels of the spectrum with different strengths and challenges. “In the past, masking my autism helped me professionally and socially, but it caused me some harm, too,” she says. “When I worked in other places where I was afraid to self-disclose and felt I had to ‘play a role,’ I felt I didn’t know who I really was. Now that I work for an employer that accepts me for who I am, I can stop putting so much energy into masking and focus on more important things.”
Sarah says an inclusive workplace is an educated workplace. “If you’re in an educated workplace, you don’t have to be afraid to disclose that you are on the autism spectrum. I don’t want to work somewhere I have to keep my wings down. A2W is somewhere I can spread them wide.”