By: Domenic F. Fraboni
An employee highlight on Francie Dahlin.
“I learn just fine. Well, in most subjects. Some topics like math or economics may not come as easily to me, no matter how hard I try to understand them. I always did well in other classes though like English, language, reading, or social sciences. I love to learn by reading about all sorts of different topics. I’d actually say I am a perfectionist of sorts, especially with my piano playing. My issue was applying this knowledge and skills to social interactions with others. When I find myself trying to discuss work with someone, confront someone about something I disagree with them on, or even just chat during lunch, that’s when my anxiety surrounding social situations might start to pop up. Words may start to come out all wrong, or I may come off with a different tone than I was hoping to. I didn’t have many friends in high school because of this, college either for that matter. It has always just seemed kind of difficult for me to find my place in this world.” ~A paraphrased quote by Francie Dahlin
A Difficult Situation
Francie has something called Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). The form of ASD that she has would have likely been classified as Asperger Syndrome before all autism diagnoses folded into a single diagnosis (ASD) in 2013 with the publication of the DSM-5 diagnostic manual. Growing up, Francie knew there was something different about her. She did beautifully in some classes, but struggled heavily in others. Francie also realized she was a perfectionist, nearly to a fault. It was the imperfections in her life and in her tasks that would continually gnaw away at her consciousness until she did something about it. However, Francie’s largest barrier was with her classmates. Some may have thought she was “weird” because of the way she spoke to people or what seemed like her lack of ability to properly interact in specific social situations. It even could have been these interactions that caused Francie to further avoid potentially anxiety producing person-to-person interaction.
After high school, Francie attended Winona State University where she graduated in 2001 with a degree in Recreation and Leisure Studies Therapy. She continued to devour information through her studies, during which she also continued to fall short in fitting in. After graduation, Francie seemed to bounce from job to job, not sure if she would ever find her niche in the adult world. My question: Where at any point throughout this young woman’s first 20 years of life was a mentor, advisor, or counselor? Someone who would be able to help Francie understand the challenges she was facing? Someone to help Francie work through the anxiety of social interaction and expose her to communal situations in which she would be able to succeed? Someone who could help a brilliant, growing individual focus on advancing her abilities in order to overcome the “invisible disability” that had seemed to plague her during her early life? Just when this lack of mentorship seemed to be leaving a hole in Francie’s life, an individual here at Mayo Clinic Rochester quickly grabbed a shovel and helped her start filling it in.
A Hopeful Situation
Francie ventured on to Mayo Clinic Rochester campus and obtained a job at the Charter House in 2013. After working at the Corner Cupboard for several years, Francie began to look at positions within Mayo to grow. It was at this time that she was introduced to Dawn Kirchner. Dawn is a Diversity Recruitment Specialist in Human Resources. Dawn focuses on aiding individuals with disabilities find career placement within Mayo’s system. Since meeting, Dawn and Francie have formed an incredible mentor-mentee relationship. They now have weekly meetings every Thursday at the Mayo Building’s grand piano, one of which I crashed to hear all about Francie’s incredible story. This meeting is where Francie told me that Dawn simply “gets it.”
It didn’t take too extensive a conversation with Dawn and Francie for me to conclude what that meant. Dawn is able to field the concerns and challenges that Francie faces without telling her what those challenges are. She is also able to help lead Francie to solutions without directly instructing her how to mitigate the challenges. Dawn has even been able to introduce Francie to social situations in which she has smashed the ball out of the park. Yes, Francie has had an exceptionally complex path to her place here at Mayo, but it has resulted in her connection with an individual who has really been able to understand where she comes from and where she wants to go.
An Inspirational Situation
Now as an Animal Care Technician in comparative medicine, Francie has shown incredible growth in many of the areas she once found exceedingly difficult. She is now able to discuss concerns with coworkers without allowing it to become a huge confrontation. Even imperfections in her daily work, something that used to drive Francie up a wall, are now more tolerable. She told me sometimes she just needs to “let go of the dirty corner” when her overall task is to clean and organize the entire room. No, she still isn’t perfect in all of these regards. However, Francie now understands how to work within herself to mediate some of the barriers that her ASD presents in daily life.
Recently, Francie has taken a huge step towards overcoming some of her social anxieties. She did this by sharing all of the strategies that she has been learning through her journey here at Mayo. There are many out there living with a diagnosis of ASD and facing comparable workplace obstacles to Francie. She felt responsibility to share all that she had learned about succeeding in the workplace with ASD. Francie spoke at a recent MaxAbility event, “Autism - from the Mailroom to the Boardroom.” At this event, Francie presented her Top 10 Tips for People with Autism in the Workplace to over 60 professionals from the Rochester community. What an incredible example of doing a 180° on disability.
Moving forward in her career, Francie has aspirations to work in a lab. In August of 2015, she obtained an Administrative Clinic Assistant Diploma from RCTC with hard work and relentless studies (resulting in very good grades – I may add). She shared with me that her medically based classes were her favorite and she willingly consumes all knowledge dealing with medical concepts and terminology. From my interactions with Francie, I have no doubt she would excel in a laboratory position.
The meeting I had with Francie taught me a lot. I was floored at the poise and composure with which she spoke to me. She is blossoming into an incredible advocate for all those trying to succeed in the workplace with ASD. Francie told me she is leading the charge to “break on through to the other side, but not like the Kool Aid Man does.” Among the multitude of impressive feats Francie has accomplished in the past few years, one of the most impressive things to me was watching her work the piano. Dawn and Francie told me the piano was there initial bonding ground after finding they shared a love for music. The piano has become a great place where Francie is able to lose herself in the keys and forget the stressors that may have been plaguing her day. Dawn even shared with me that she becomes emotional listening to Francie play. Once I had listened for a few minutes myself, I felt what Dawn meant. I was so glad I had decided to spend an evening at the ivories with Dawn and Francie.
Francie’s Top 10 Workplace Tips for People with Autism in the Workplace
- Be Kind
- Decrease drama
- Drama can be manufactured intentionally or unintentionally
- When in Rome, do as the neurotypicals do
- It is okay to fit in
- Unless you are in the ER, black and white thinking is dangerous territory
- Don’t be afraid to ask if you aren’t sure
- Ask questions, and listen to the answers
- Be work centered
- It’s not about you!
- Avoid becoming too focused on perfection
- “Let go of the dirty corner”
- No matter what your mood, it’s always appropriate to act professional
- There is no “I” in TEAM
- But there is an “I” in patient
- Needs of the patient come first
- Every interaction is a connection
- Use your interactions to form relationships that help you learn more about yourself
Acknowledgements: Thank you so much to Francie for sharing her incredible story and acting as an advocate for those with ASD in the workplace. Another thank you needs to go out to Dawn Kirchner for the work she does to act as an ally and mentor to those with disability, especially to help aid them in their career search here at Mayo.