Autism Awareness Month, Day 10: Employment

What have you been doing with your life?

Uh…professional killer.

Oh! Good for you. It’s a…growth industry.

~from “Grosse Pointe Blank”


Marty, I like you. Your clients never complain.

I’m sure many of my readers were wondering when I would address the proverbial elephant in the room: that of employment. Anyone who knows me even as a passing acquaintance may know that finding and keeping a job, despite my high aptitude scores, has been my bete noire for over a decade. Like Achilles, the legendary Greek warrior, I was given many gifts at birth along with one fatal weakness. In the case of Achilles, it was the vulnerable heel which still bears his name. For me, it’s a combination of often-crippling social anxiety and an inability to empathize. This is one reason among many why some researchers estimate the unemployment/underemployment rate among the autism community to hover between 80-90 percent.

Some of the lucky ones may wind up in the “stereotypical” AS career fields like engineering, computer programming, or library/archive work. I’ve finally found meaningful work after many, many years of trying and many, many failed jobs…but I’m still largely searching for “the coming thing,” to borrow a Bruce Campbell-ism. For the unlucky ones (and I was there, believe me,) it may be an unending, Danteesque series of low-paying jobs, navigation of a complex disability system, or crushing depression.

My name is Reg, and I’m here to apply for a job (and yeah, I’m scared)

The catch-22 for many adults with AS is that they were not diagnosed until adulthood and have thus fallen behind. Because no special education programs or mentors existed for them as children, they may see themselves as defective or hopelessly inept when it comes to jobs. They get stuck in a low-paying, low-reward job, say, in a warehouse or fast-food restaurant, and are unable to move on to bigger and better things. These Aspies are usually lost when it comes to corporate politics, office alliances, and “playing the game” as it pertains to getting ahead in life. They are the last to speak up for their rights and the first to get overlooked when it’s time for promotions. In short, they are the invisible employees.

There’s good news and bad news for Aspies on the job front. The good news is that there are many employment agencies, including state programs such as Vocational Rehabilitation, which cater to the special needs of adults on the spectrum. AS is also considered to be a disability under ADA, and an employer cannot use AS as a justifiable firing excuse if the employee shows him or herself capable otherwise. Also, the work being done by organizations like GRASP (a national AS support group for adults) and AS individuals like Rudy Simone (author of Asperger’s on the Job) is making headway for autistic adults and increasing visibility and understanding of autism differences.

The bad news, of course, is that the country is still mired in a deep recession, and just finding any job is difficult even for NTs. The “headache” of online applications and job interviews, endless paperwork and background checks, is enough to drive even the most even-tempered NT to madness. For an uber-logical Aspie, it can be a backbreaker.

“Why can’t I just prove to them I can do the job?” Aspie X might inquire. (I myself asked this question on countless occasions.) “This idiot might have a degree or five years’ relevant experience, but I’m a harder worker and I know the job a lot better.”

Typical NT and Aspie at work...

The world is not set up that way. “Meaningless” pieces of paper and Byzantine “personality inventories” usually determine who gets the job and who is left out in the cold. Real-world experience, or the more intangible quality of “savvy” count for little in most corporate hiring environments. And that’s just the first step in the hiring process. If an applicant is lucky enough to get his or her resume read, the next step is an interview or screening. I often equate how this feels to an Aspie to a deer being invited to an NRA convention. It’s a sensation of abject terror, anxiety, and knowing one isn’t going to make proper or adequate eye contact.

That all being said, I’ve gotten plenty of jobs in my life, so obviously I was doing something right. I’ve also lost plenty of them within a month or two. Someday, when the pain has lessened, I might write a humorous memoir about all these short-lived gigs. There was even a memorable occasion when, just out of curiousity’s sake, I took the ASVAB military aptitude test and was informed by a bemused sergeant that I might consider a career as a sniper. I’ve tried everything from being a stable groom to typing legal correspondence, and, with very few exceptions, none of them has kept my interest or skill set for very long and I’ve simply moved on. If it were the equivalent of romantic relationships, I’d be a regular Casanova.

Back to my original train of thought, which is meaningful and rewarding careers for Aspies. Now that I’ve navigated the treacherous waters of employment, I hope to help many of my fellow Aspies get to where they hope to be. I’m no career counselor or psychologist, so I can only share my personal experiences as to what works or does not work. There is no one-size-fits-all approach that works for every Aspie.

1) Start by making a list of everything you know you like, including special interests. Then, find a Career Inventory book (libraries and career centers often have them) and try to match occupations with interests. The first step in finding meaningful work is to know what one actually wants to do.

2) College is not for everyone. This may be an unpopular view, but many self-made millionaires including Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and Rush Limbaugh either never attended college or did not finish. If you are an entrepeneurial-minded type, start offering your services online or through a network of friends. If your work is good enough, you’ll start to get word-of-mouth assignments.

3) Work does not have to be full-time. Many Aspies can work a part-time or volunteer position and still draw SSI or other disability payments. If you are financially able to do this, it is an option.

4) Test career waters through volunteering. It’s one thing to try something only to find out you did not like it at all, and many times a long-term commitment is not necessary. It’s also a good way to network and get one’s foot in the door for future (paid) positions.

5) Sometimes the best network is the one you already have. I know Aspies like me dread “networking” and having to talk to those they don’t know. If you have family members or friends who know you are in need of work, ask them to help get the word out. You may even find allies in unexpected places: a coach at your gym, your doctor or veterinarian, your support group. These people know lots of others and are more likely to be understanding of AS.

6) Remember that it’s OK to start over again. Just because one is older than college-age does not mean it’s too late to learn new skills. Plenty of libraries and community centers offer free education and resources to brush up on old skills or learn new ones.

7) The Internet has plenty of upside, but also lots of downside. Be wary of online job offers such as Craigslist ads and be sure to investigate any offer fully. If something sounds too good to be true (ie, work-at-home jobs), it usually is. Any reputable business will be listed at the BBB or a similar site.

8) Relax. The job market is tough, especially for Aspies, but things will hopefully get better as the economy improves and AS becomes less of a mystery to employers. Remember to treat yourself after a hard week spent job-searching.

My many thanks to all those who helped me on my current career path. I could not have done it without your support. (You guys know who you are so I’ll spare you the embarrassment.)

Perfect jobs for Aspies...someone has to do them!

I’ll be continuing this theme tomorrow with good job choices for Aspies. If you enjoyed this post, don’t forget to click “Like,” recommend P&Q to your AS friends,and get a free subscription!


~ by Howlin' Mad Heather on April 11, 2011.

One Response to “Autism Awareness Month, Day 10: Employment”

  1. […] the original post here: Autism Awareness Month, Day 10: Employment « Prawn And Quartered Bookmark It This entry was posted in Careers, Education and tagged aspies, […]

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