Personal Stories, Strategies, Autism

Overcoming my Autistic pumpkin moments at work

Recently, I have been under pressure at work. With a "changing of the guard", I have had to say goodbye to several team members, welcome new team members and keep up the pace to ensure we are able to deliver on previous commitments.

This has left me increasingly trying to control the world around me, in an attempt to minimise disruption and avoid failing to deliver. It has also led to several pumpkin moments.

What is a pumpkin moment?

It is the moments when my brain becomes stuck and I am unable to logically think through new information.

It usually happens to me in team meetings where there is a lot of debate, when I am faced with an unexpected difference of opinion or when someone decides not to follow a pre-agreed plan (even if the plan is only known to me). These moments are more likely to occur when I am under pressure or during the "settling in period" when I need to get used to working with someone new, or when I feel powerless to influence the world around me. In these moments, my shutters come down, I find it difficult to accommodating and will likely argue long after is necessary. These are my difficult moments. The moments I am my most abrasive.

I will try to listen and think about the other possibilities but it is more like "I hear what you are saying, but I don't get it". The reality is that I just want them to see things my way, it is easier then. But I know that I need to consider alternative points of view, as I don't also know everything and quite often other people do have good ideas. My internal voice is just shouting out "this is not how we do it, it is not what we planned, they need to get on board".

This is a red flag to me, a signal to take a break and take some space otherwise it is not going to end well.

If pushed the tension will escalate and I lose my ability to control my emotions and what I say. This is the moment I say PUMPKIN, and excuse myself.

My team, who know what a pumpkin moment is, are learning that when I am like this I need some space and time. This is when we all agree to take a break, so I can spend time processing things.

The origins of the phrase "a pumpkin moment"

Last year before we headed out for the annual Halloween trick & treating, we explained to my eldest (aged 8) that we only go to houses with a pumpkin outside. It is the sign for "we have sweets", and are happy for people to ring our doorbell.

Halfway down the road, was a house that had gone to town with decorations. There was a crowd of children at the open front door, where the home owner was handing out sweets to eager little hands.

As my youngest joined the crowd to get some sweets in her bucket, my eldest realised there was no pumpkin outside the house. All those decorations, but no pumpkin. We couldn’t go, and we certainly couldn’t take any sweets.

As he pulled on his sisters arm insisting that they couldn’t have any sweets, we tried to explain that it was ok as everything else indicated that they were celebrating Halloween and had sweets to share.

No matter what we said, he couldn’t be convinced and he became increasingly agitated. We knew there was no point in pushing, so we headed off to the next house which had a pumpkin proudly on display.

For me, this moment perfectly describes inflexible thinking. It became the story I use to explain what is is like when your brain is stuck. No matter how much my son loves sweets, the number of indicators that the house was open for trick & treating,  and our explanations that in this case it was ok to not have a pumpkin ... his mind was struggling to deal with the unexpected. There was no possibility of us changing his mind in that moment, even if it was to his advantage. It was not that he was trying to be difficult, it just was not what we pre-planned or discussed and he was unable to change his mindset in that moment. He needed time to reframe his thinking.

It was his pumpkin moment.

Overcoming my “pumpkin” moments

When I find myself having a “pumpkin moment”, I need space and time to think things through.

To do this I need to have the key points written down or emailed to me, so that I can read through them and take the time to fully comprehend the other persons point of view. Sometimes this involves sitting down in a quiet space and drawing things out, at other times it involves talking at (not with) a third party. This helps my brain process the information.

In all scenarios I need to work through the different points of view - mine and theirs - before I can come up with a considered response to talk through.

Sometimes this can take days and sometimes I just can’t work through it. In the moments when I am truly stuck, I have to call in reinforcements and hand over decision making to someone else. It is not ideal, but I have yet to find a better way.

Working with my team

I have explained what a pumpkin moment is to each of my team members, and they know not to try push me if I say pumpkin.

They also provide me with backup in meetings, and support me if I am struggling with someone who doesn’t know about my pumpkin moments. The pumpkin moments are still stressful (for me and others), but being open about it means that they don’t escalate as much as they did in the past.

On a wider scale

Theory of mind, Inflexible thinking, working memory and processing speed can all lead to pumpkin moments.

How many times are people written off as aggressive, argumentative, stubborn, difficult or obstinate because they are having a pumpkin moment.

How different would things be if we talked to each other about what triggers our pumpkin moments, and more importantly agreed on a way of working that minimised our pumpkin moments both in terms of frequency and intensity.

Wouldn’t that be great?

Do you have pumpkin style moments at work, and how do you manage to work through them. If you are interested in sharing your story, stratagies or thoughts about embracing Neurodiversity then please contact me.

Author image

About Helen Needham

Helen is the originator and founder of Me.Decoded. A passionate advocate for Neurodiversity, - diagnosed as autistic in her 40's after a lifetime of feeling like she was on the outside looking in.
  • England