A little #AutisticAwareness about #autistic #employment

picture of two men on a handcar, riding down a railroad track
You have to do the work that will get you where you’re going – no matter how humble, no matter how less-than-ideal

Increasingly, I’m seeing articles and videos about hiring and retaining autistic employees… as though we’re an exotic species that needs to be courted, wooed, accommodated, enticed… and employers need to be “sold” on our capabilities.

Huh. That’s funny. In 30 years, nobody’s gone out of their way to accommodate my personal requirements, although plenty of people have seen fit to employ me — without needing to be “sold” on me, aside from the skills I bring to the job. I have really suffered in some jobs. And for years, I was in a daily state of stress and distress because of working conditions that were just about unbearable. But I had to bear it. Because I needed the job. And I needed to stay in the job long enough to not look like a “jumper” who flits wildly from one situation to another without any loyalty or long-term commitment. The perception that you’re flighty will really work against you in the competitive job market. Employers frankly don’t want to hire you, if they’re not going to recoup their investment. That’s basically it, from what I can tell.

So, I’ve stayed in some pretty miserable conditions, over the years. Some jobs were so grueling, I was melting down on a regular basis. But I had to keep working. Didn’t have a choice, that I could see. So, I stuck in there. And here I am, ~30 years later, with a record of continuous employment that gets people’s attention.

I’ve heard statistics bandied about, that autistic folks are vastly unemployed or at the very least underemployed. Per an 2015 article in Huffington Post:

In total, the combined unemployment and underemployment for young adults with autism is estimated at 90 percent nationwide. People with ASD were said to have a worse “no participation” rate of unemployment than any other disability group tracked in a separate 2012 study from Washington University in St. Louis.

So, that’s dismal. And it also seems … not entirely accurate. I’ve been working for money since I was 12 years old, when I had a paper route. I worked all during high school, working in greenhouses, doing yard work for neighbors, washing dishes at a local restaurant… and delivering newspapers. I worked my way through college (my family wasn’t poor enough to qualify for full aid, but not wealthy enough to pay my way), and I got a job as soon as I left school (I dropped out, because I ran out of money, and I had a host of other autism-related issues that snowballed into legal and interpersonal dramas). Aside from a 2-month meltdown/shutdown in the fall/winter of 1987-88, I’ve always supported myself (and my household) through full-time jobs.

I’ve made my way through life as an autistic person working in a neurotypical world. It has rarely been easy. It’s been pretty damn’ tough, much of the time. But I’ve toughed it out, I’ve put in my years, and it’s paid off in a very big way.

I need to say a number of things about living and working as a decidedly autistic individual who’s had to work for others to make a living. There seem to be a lot of dismal figures making headlines, along with a combination of wretched prognoses and somewhat “pie-in-the-sky” solutions for autistic folks who need to support themselves.

  1. Self-Employment Isn’t A Magic Elixir for Autistic Folks. I’ve heard a number of people singing the praises of going it on their own, and I applaud them. But not every one of us can do that. I’ve tried going freelance a number of times, but it never “took”. Executive function issues got in the way. The stress of not having the right insurance. The stress of having to put my own schedule in place and enforce it. Also, the need to constantly promote myself to drum up business… yeah, that didn’t work at all. I work much better in an “institutionalized” situation, where somebody else has created the structure and rules, and the rest of us follow along with those common agreements, and Big Things happen as a result. There’s no shame in working for a big corporation. In fact, for people like me, it’s actually one of the best solutions.
  2. Being Under-Employed Isn’t A Sin. Never — not once — have I ever held a job that used all my talents and abilities. Never. Ever. So, technically, I’ve been under-employed my entire life. And yet, I have made a good living (some years – or decades – better than others). And my resume has a continuous string of positions that aren’t glamorous, but they’re there. And even in the most demeaning, lowly positions, I’ve managed to parlay the situation into something better — doing work that suited me, in addition to my daily slog tasks. The idea that under-employment is a horrible thing that should never ever happen, is patently ridiculous. If you’re working, period, and you’re making ends meet, that’s something to be glad about and proud of. Screw anyone who says differently. Anyway, it’s all part of an ongoing process of change and (hopefully) improvement.  So, everybody needs to Get Over the dread specter of “under-employment”.
  3. Job Interviews For Permanent Positions Are A Useless Horror For Me. And sadly, I’ve always gotten the job. Not once. Not twice. But at least five times. And I regretted nearly every single time I got a job through interviewing. I can never for the life of me figure out if I should take a job from an interview. Every single time I went through the traditional interview process, each position seemed like a great opportunity(!) And they nearly all turned out to be huge mistakes that I couldn’t get myself out of easily or cleanly. Oh . My . God… when I think about how terribly I misjudged those situations, based on a handful of discussions with hiring managers and future peers. How awful. I still twitch, when I think back on them.
  4. Contract-To-Perm Positions Are The Magic Ticket For Me. That is to say, I do best in a “try before you buy” arrangement, where I get to check out an employer before committing to them, and vice-versa. Frankly, when I tell people what I can (and will) do in the position, should I get it, nobody believes me. The performance bar is set amazingly low for employees, apparently. Either that, or they just assume that — like so many NT applicants? — I’m lying through my teeth and making big claims I can’t back up. What they don’t know, is that I can back it up. I always do. They have to see it to believe it.
  5. Trading Up Is The Way To Go. Say you identify a company you want to work for, but (according to them) you don’t have the experience or qualifications to do what you want to do. You can get a lower-level job and do that for a while — a few months, maybe a year or two — then move up in the company. I did that at a little publishing company I worked at, after I left university. I got a job as a lowly administrative assistant (1 of 3 admins doing boring-ass paperwork all day). I showed initiative, jumped into some impromptu projects for the boss — one of the VPs — got her attention, and got a promotion after a few months to run part of their direct mail marketing program. I grew the program from 3 mailings in the US, to 4 mailings in the US and 2 additional ones in Canada. We made a lot of money in the process, and I got to be part of something pretty cool. It never would have happened, if I hadn’t taken that lowly job as someone at the very bottom of the food chain and given it my best.

Basically, I think people are incredibly rigid and narrow-minded, when it comes to getting and keeping jobs, as well as moving up in the world. I’ve done a lot of different kinds of work, focusing mostly on technology since the late 1990s. I’m still in it, and I’m earning enough to keep a roof over my head, put food on the table, and actually fix up some stuff around the house. We can take vacations, too. Not a lot, and nothing too extravagant (cruises are way over budget), but one or two a year — long weekends help, as do business trips that have extra “play days” added to the beginning or end.

So, all the wailing and gnashing of teeth about autistics not being properly employed… that’s worrying. And I fear that unrealistic expectations and pie-in-the-sky over-the-top standards for what constitutes “decent” employment are getting in the way.

No, my career trajectory hasn’t been perfect. But I’ve not been out of a job since 1988. And that’s something.

4 thoughts on “A little #AutisticAwareness about #autistic #employment

  1. I’ve stuck with my (very large) employer even when headhunters or people at vendor companies have come to me with offers. I know how to navigate the “politics” at my employer. I don’t want to change insurance. And I’m not interested in introducing uncertainty. I’ve mostly “tried out” new positions in different organizations before leaping, but have regularly advanced. Being a white male has definitely helped a lot. But so has being very good at what I do. Have I ever had a job that “used my full potential”? No. Nor could I survive such a job. I would crash and burn before too long and some part of me has always known that would be true. Besides, a portion of my hypothetical “full potential” has always greatly exceeded any expectations anyone I’ve worked with or for has ever had. 🙂

    I did do a lot of crap jobs, labor, and such, sometimes with gaps, between ages 16 and 20. And my initial jobs at my current organization were pretty menial and repetitive. I built on them. I have tenacity. Somehow, I’ve always kept moving forward. It’s often been really hard and I took my first real “vacation” (a major planned trip as opposed to time off and maybe a short nearby trip) last year. But I’ve supported a household and raised a bunch of children. So yeah, it hasn’t been some sort of perfect or glamorous career. But it’s provided what we needed and I made it work.

    I won’t be able to retire then, of course, but I’ll finally be eligible to retire in 4 years. That’s the next milestone on which I’m focusing. Push through until then and it will be time to take stock and focus on the next marker.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. VisualVox

      It’s always fun, contemplating retirement, isn’t it? I vascillate between humor and regret on that one. Then again, I’m not sure I could ever retire, anyway. Even if I were “retired”, I’m sure I’d be up to plenty!

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Pingback: 25+-Year #Autistic tech veteran – completely left out of the #WomenInSTEM movement – Aspie Under Your Radar

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