I’m very high-functioning

Although I think of myself as having a single, neurologically-based disability with a variety of manifestations, I’ve collected a variety of different diagnoses.

The first one I remember receiving was “Tic Disorder NOS” in high school, after my parents finally brought me to a neurologist for my neck tics (which were the inspiration for my current pseudonym and were severe enough that I now have degenerative disc disorder in my neck, although they’re currently well-managed with medication).

I came back to the same neurologist in college, complaining that I was still having issues with compulsive skin-picking and hair-pulling and that I would occasionally get “stuck” in certain activities for hours even when I had other things to do. That earned me a diagnosis of OCD.

Parents and educators had been trying to get me evaluated for ADHD since at least middle school, and I rather clearly had it, but I refused to submit to an evaluation or take medication until law school, when many of my academic self-accommodation strategies (such as participating extensively in class to keep my mind from wandering) stopped being available. Finally, in Spring 2008, I finally caved and went to a neuropsychologist to be evaluated for ADHD. I also suspected Asperger’s by that point, and told them to the evaluator, including a pretty comprehensive description of what I was like as a child. She agreed, and diagnosed me with both ADHD and Asperger’s.

When I mention pretty much any of my diagnoses other than Asperger’s, people mostly just nod and accept it. Of course it’s possible to be a successful human being and also have ADHD, OCD, or tics. But whenever I mention the Asperger’s diagnosis, the response is frequently something along the lines of “really?”, “I find that hard to believe,” or “maybe, but it’s very mild.” After all I have excelled academically and have a job at which I’m competent, and not even as a scientist or programmer or one of those other jobs that people on the autism spectrum are supposed to be especially good at. How can you even BE a lawyer and have Asperger’s?

This sort of response is exactly why I haven’t explicitly disclosed this diagnosis to more than two people whom I know professionally. I want people to perceive me as a competent employee or co-worker, so I can’t exactly respond to their skepticism by listing all of the things I can’t do or have significant trouble doing. I’ve spent years learning essential career skills, often to the exclusion of general life skills, and consider myself highly competent at activities relevant to my work performance. But if I start listing all of the non-work things that I have trouble doing, there’s always the risk that someone will have a hard time believing that I can’t do those things but can still work.

Discussions about social skills are particularly problematic. The main symptom that people associate with Asperger’s Syndrome is serious social deficit – the stereotype is of a person who absolutely can’t understand the feelings of others and is constantly committing social faux pas and ranting about boring topics. However, I actually think that, when you define “social skills” appropriately, I now have at least average social skills and higher-than-average social self-awareness. Although I had serious social problems in childhood, my usual response to those problems was to spend tons of energy trying to figure out what I was doing wrong and fix it. I read books on human behavior, studied psychology, and pestered my friends for detailed analyses of their feelings.

When people describe me as “high-functioning” and doubt my Asperger’s diagnosis, they’re usually thinking mainly of my ability to carry on a natural-seeming conversation for a short period of time, including making eye contact and reading facial expressions. It pleases me that they think I’m good at this, since I worked hard at that skill, and I have absolutely no interest in convincing them that I am actually less socially skilled than they think I am. At the same time, there’s usually a reason that I told them that I had Asperger’s, so simply letting them believe that I don’t – or that its effects on me are negligible – is not an acceptable option.

So far, I’ve settled into the habit of saying something along the lines of “thank you, I worked hard on that skill, and actually Asperger’s involves a range of sensory and attentional differences aside from social conversations. In fact, I was mainly mentioning my Asperger’s diagnosis to explain xyz,” where xyz is usually a past experience, a sensory or attentional issue that I’d like to be acknowledged or accommodated, or a very specific “social” issue such as my extreme difficulty remembering people’s names or faces (incidentally, I do recognize faces well enough to tell that I have met someone before, but I have difficulty remembering their name or where I’ve met them and frequently have to “reconstruct” this information from contextual cues. I would rather people know that this is a neurological issue than think I don’t care about them enough to remember them).

I have to say, even this hasn’t entirely worked. I am even in a bit of a war with my cognitive-behavioral therapist (whom I see to treat my social anxiety and compulsive skin-picking) on whether my Asperger’s diagnosis is even relevant to my treatment. And I’m constantly worrying that my one co-worker who knows I have Asperger’s is now underestimating my social skills and judgment. I desperately wish that I could tell some friendly colleagues about my diagnosis so that they can give me advice about networking, which is a significant lacuna in my social skills repertoire and has the potential to dramatically interfere with my career (I am currently looking for a new job), but it seems like a dangerous move.

The world needs more professionals who are open about being on the autism spectrum. I know I am not the only Aspie in the legal profession – I am pretty sure I wasn’t even the only one in my law school graduating class (not by far). As far as I can tell, this is the only way to make the profession (and other similar professions) a bit more friendly to people on the spectrum, and I can’t exactly count on others to do what I’m too scared to do myself. Someone has to blaze a trail. But being an autistic trailblazer, especially early in my career before I’m well-established, is daunting. Even if I’m socially “high-functioning,” disclosing a disability – especially one as stigmatized as autism spectrum disorder – is a minefield even for people who are highly socially competent. I hope that talking about it here will help me sort through how to act, what to say, and what to expect.


Filed under Being Weird, Practicing Law While Weird

22 responses to “I’m very high-functioning

  1. Pingback: Autism 101: A guide to Autistics Speaking Day, 2011 – What Is Autism In Children?

  2. Pingback: What autism means in my case | WeirdLaw

  3. Matthew

    I’ve been a lawyer for 15 years but just had to stop. I completed an online test which was not a diagnostic test, but the result suggested I could have this problem too.

    • Sean

      Mattew: Why did you stop? Have you found something that you enjoy doing more? What kind of law did you practice? Did you experience a great deal of anxiety practicing with aspergers?

  4. What you said reminded me so much of my own situation. I also am an Aspergian attorney, although I practice two types of law more neuroatypical friendly than P.I. or criminial defense, that is bankruptcy and tax. I’d be interested in finding out info on any chat groups for Aspergian professionals.

    • Sean-alexander Smith

      Have you searched through “wrongplanet” or “aspietribe”.

      I am an aspie at 21 and just about to begin what will probably be a long journey to study primatology. I searched “aspie primatologist” and came up with a some chat groups.

      Also Twitter has helped me to feel much less lonely

      Best of luck mate

  5. Sean

    I am a young lawyer who has had three jobs, all of which have been rocky. I am out of work again and I suspect that perhaps I have had difficulties because I seem to meet some of the asperger’s traits. I need to be able to talk to other lawyers who have figured out what to do to fit in with associates, partners and clients. I am very high functioning but it seems like I am criticize for not listening or doing what is required. I overwork files and look for complicated solutions when a simple one will do. I love to reseach and write and know that I have skills that would be a benefit if I could figure out what I am doing wrong.

  6. Being a lawyer with aspergers: being constantly told that your not acting appropriately by judges, being told that your mood is inappropriate, that you need to be more “stoic” and “philosophical”. Winning every case, but beimg made fun of during and throughout the entire proceedings by the judge and/or other lawyers. Never being apologized to after you win. Being constantly told that you are too happy/ not happy enough / too young sounding / too old sounding.

  7. Nothing you do will ever be good enough. You just have to deal with constantly disappointing people with your bad behavior, and never being loved by anyone. The only thing you have is money.

  8. Lynne Robb

    Thank you, you give me so much hope. I am 33 years old and just now attending college, finally pursuing my dream career of practicing law. If one more person tells me that people with ” My issues” shouldn’t waste time with education, I think I just may scream. Hearing your story gives me more hope that it can be done!

  9. Ashley

    Hello, I found this page after googling for aspergian lawyers. I’m an aspergian solicitor too. Gosh that sounds weird doesn’t it. I haven’t been practising law for very long. I feel very lucky to be with a firm with a less conservative culture than most commercial law firms. My employers appreciate my attention to detail, drafting skills and work ethic. In relation to my quirks and general social strangeness, my boss and I seem to be doing ok so far at meeting each other half way. In return for my firm’s willingness to tolerate and accept my quirks, I give them my loyalty and I basically do all I can to be an awesome employee. It can be exhausting but I am feeling very happy and motivated. I really hope this can last. What I love most about the job is legal drafting. What I dislike the most is attending settlements, especially when it’s in a noisy environment, people are being impatient, people are talking all at once, and at the same time I am trying to focus on checking all the documents, and while all this is going on I am often aware of being judged about having poor social skills. I can’t let it bother me too much however, I just do what I need to do. I’m pretty proud of the fact that despite being on the autistic spectrum I am practising law and overall doing it pretty well.

  10. AspieLawyer

    Hi there. I’m an Aspie lawyer and am quite good at what I do. I have my own practice, which helps. I think self employment is best for Aspies. It is hard working for someone else. I also see a lot of other attorneys out there who appear to have Aspie traits. I think the profession is filled with us, but we’re mostly undiagnosed. Aspergers benefits me in my practice because I get straight to the issue, don’t mess around with small talk, and am extremely focused. Most of my practice (civil litigation) is paper practice, which is my forte. Federal court, for instance, is almost all written practice, with very few hearings. And the more I practice, the better I get. Like anything, the practice of law takes just that, practice. Anyway, I wish there was an online forum for us to meet up, at least in cyber land. I am anonymous and also do not publicize being an Aspie because I fear the negative stigma attached to having a so-called “disability.” For me, AS is not a disability; it is simply the way I think. I am not disabled. However, I wish I could open up, come out of the closet, so to speak. Maybe we can start a group?

    • windchime

      I’m an aspie lawyer too and I’d totally be up for starting a group. I haven’t told anyone about my neurology but I know if affects my work both positively and negatively. There are a few lawyers in the courthouse where I work who I suspect may be aspies too but I wouldn’t embarass them by asking and it may be they are undiagnosed or do not even suspect it.

    • Run4Fun

      I wish there was a group. I am an attorney as well and believe I might be Aspie. It would be nice to have someone to ask questions of and also ask for advice.

      • Desperate Aspie May 2018 JD

        I’m a 2nd year law student, planning on opening my own practice after law school, and going through legal ethics while simultaneously learning the ethical lapses in our state court system is about to drive me insane! I’d love a group! Of course, I’m Aspie! 40 years old, 2nd career after being forced out on disability after 15 years in 3rd party pension administration. Hoping to stay in federal court as much as possible, but the injustice I see that’s rampant in the state court system is hard to ignore.

  11. Sherril Babcock Wells

    I’ve been an attorney in California for almost 26 years. I did not find out I had Asperger’s Syndrome until I was in my 50’s. I settled into an insurance and class action practice for 15 years. Office disfunction finally caused me to leave and become a reasearch attorney. I suspect certain fields of law are better for Aspies than others, and insurance is a good one. I also like discovery motions, which is very strange indeed. I am able to be candid in my current job about my condition, although I am still not sure what all it entails.

  12. yassi

    Happened upon this site. My son recently finished law school and passed bar in two states. Looking hard to find a mentor to guide in the PRACTICE of law – seems the curriculum skips that part or thinks it self-evident.
    I’m an RN, and our professional education REQUIRES concurrent CLINICAL ROTATION through major specialties: med/surg; maternal/child, community health etc. Differing CLINICAL INTERFACE points of service: hospitals, clinics, schools, home-health etc. …true for each and every graduate.
    How is it that any well ranked law school is able to graduate even a single student into this profession without similar hands-on experiences. They ought to be sued – kidding!

  13. Susan Kostal

    Hi, I’m Susan Kostal and am a freelance journalist in San Francisco. I am doing a long piece on neurodiversity and civil rights, and talking about the broader issue of needing a neurodiverse workforce and society. As part of my piece, I am highlighting careers in which those with Asperger’s do particularly well, and having covered legal affairs for 25+ years, I believe law is one of them. I realize some lawyers have difficulties with some aspects of practice, but I agree with Sherril that certain practices, appellate work, for example, are perfectly suited to your talents. I would love to interview any and all of you. You can be anonymous, if you choose. You can reach me at skostal@mac.com, 415.378.1764. Google me and you can see I’m a legit journalist. In the meantime, I wish you all well. Best, Susan

  14. Greetings, I am writing about a friend, she has Aspergers, and her psych nurse is, after rifling her through all kinds of antidepressants, and antipsychotic’s, and Benzo’s, and bad side effects,and now she is trying to have her committed because the meds are my working , PLEASE Help us, where can we find a Lawyer to help my dear friend Laurie
    Thank You
    Bruce A Fisher

  15. Confused Lawyer

    I am a 43 year old lawyer. i have been taking these online Asperger’s tests and generally scoring in the Asperger’s range. The few people I have told that I I think I may have Asperger’s have laughed at me and said I was crazy, etc. I guess it is because I always had good grades, some friends and am acceptable socially. However, I worked at the social part of it and still feel awkward in most social situations unless it is with family or close friends. I am very much routine oriented as well. I don’t like practicing law, however, I have responsibilities to others and it pays the bills.

    I’m not sure if I should seek a formal diagnosis. Any suggestions on this?


    • Twitchy Woman

      Getting an adult diagnosis can be difficult and expensive – be prepared to try and hunt down school records or other evidence of what you were like as a child. I was diagnosed as an adult and I think I found it helpful, but many other adults who suspect they’re on the spectrum are content with what we’d call “self-diagnosed, peer confirmed.” There are quite a lot of adults who weren’t diagnosed as children because Asperger’s wasn’t recognized at the time.

      Try seeking out groups of other autistic adults and see if you feel a sense of mutual recognition. Many are pretty welcoming to people who haven’t gotten an official diagnosis, since it’s so common for people our age not to have gotten one. That support can be really helpful and can help achieve some clarity.

    • Windchime

      I think it would be a good idea to get a diagnosis if you have time and can afford it. For your own piece of mind and also for the purpose of obataining reasonable accomodations in the office or in court. I myself had not had the courage to ask for them yet but there are so many sensory issues which have a direct impact on my ability to practice. I wish that judges and court personell as well as partners at law firms would create an environment where we were able to ask for such accomodations. For me air conditioning, overwhelming crowds and a lack of a quiet space for occasional retreats are the key triggers.

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