I’ve been on pretty much of an emotional roller-coaster at work.
Everybody has been so busy, and there are a lot of changes going on. And we’re all pretty much at our wits’ end.
I was on a call with a co-worker, this afternoon, and he was giving me tips on not burning out, not taking on too much, how to delegate to others. He was talking about tips he’d given one of our fellow co-workers, and as he was explaining, he said, “I love B___________, I love all you guys, I really do. And I want to help make your lives easier. That’s all.”
At first, I was a little taken aback. I’m old-fashioned, I know, with a whole lot of working history that’s trained me to keep a professional distance from everyone, including my co-workers. But then I thought about it, and I realized that that’s something I say all the time, too. “I love you guys… I love them… I love _______.”
And that’s just how we talk to and about each other at work.
Plus, it’s how I’ve talked about my co-workers many times in the past. With love. About love. For love.
Despite all my complaining about my job and the hassles and the pain and suffering that comes with it, there’s still a lot of love there. For others. From others. Even the people who drive me to distraction and keep me up at night with their political shenanigans… I love them, too. And they love me.
That’s something you don’t find everywhere — especially the company of people who get that and reciprocate and who make it easy to talk that way. At work.
So, I’m feeling pretty positive, right now. Of course, it helps that I had a little nap after work, and I have three days off. But even so, there are worse things than working with people who feel as loving towards you, as you do towards them.
Back in 1987, I was stuck. I had just come back to the United States after studying in Germany for a couple years, and I had to find a job. Not just any job, either. I had to find a real job.
I had four years of college – two in the U.S. and two in Germany – but I didn’t have a degree. I also didn’t have much real-world 9-to-5 working experience. Running a paper route, tutoring students, typing manuscripts for an automotive industry translator, and doing manual labor in greenhouses, restaurants, and styrofoam cup factories, on and off, since I was 12 years old had all been great work experiences and instilled a great work ethic in me, but they hadn’t prepared me for the adult-world realities of finding — and keeping — steady 9-to-5 work.
I had to find a job, though. I was an adult, and at last I could legally get away from my parents. We’d had a difficult relationship for years, and I was sick and tired of the constant pressure to conform to their religious, heteronormative, homogenized way of life. I could never do anything right, in their eyes, even though I knew my own way of doing things was the perfect way for me. I was queer (though I was a bit fuzzy on the details at age 22). I wanted to be a writer, an artist, an explorer. I didn’t want the drab, boring, predictable life they were constantly pushing me towards. All I’d ever wanted, since I was 12, was to be independent… to get up and go to sleep whenever I chose, to write books, make art, find out what the world had to offer. I needed to carve out a place that was all my own. And since I was (finally) of majority age, I was in a position to do just that.
I was setting up house in suburban New Jersey, and the rent needed to be paid. Of course, with an unfinished double major in German and anthropology, I’d been told that I’d never find good-paying work. To do well for myself, I’d have to have an advanced degree in a specialized profession. But I was out of money for school, and I needed to get on with my life, degree or no degree. I needed a car, I needed new clothes, I needed to put food on my table and pay my bills. But after searching the newspapers for days and weeks, I wasn’t finding any work that appealed to me, and I was having no luck at all with sending out my rèsumé.
I was at my wits’ end.
Then I remembered a guy I’d known when I was in high school. He’d been a few years older than me, and he’d been living on his own for a while. He didn’t have a “regular” job, but he always provided for himself in perfectly legal ways. How? He’d signed up with a temporary employment agency, and when he felt like working, he’d pick up the phone and give his agency a call. Sometimes they’d have a couple of days of work for him. Sometimes they’d have a couple of weeks’ worth. He wasn’t the kind of guy who really liked to work (he was pretty lazy, actually, and he admitted it), but he sure did like to make money. His employment agency kept him working pretty much whenever he wanted to.
So, I thought I’d try that, too. Not knowing what to expect, I went down to a branch office of the same national temp agency he’d used, and inquired about getting work. I could type, I could file, I could do just about any office task you put in front of me.
It worked! Within days I was working and earning a regular paycheck. And the jobs just kept coming. I worked at various and sundry offices around the area — hospitals, industrial distributors, and general offices. I don’t remember many of the details about my first assignments. They were pretty boring, as I recall. And that doesn’t matter. The most important thing was what happened as a result of those assignments.
You see, my temp agency offered free computer training if I worked for them for two solid weeks. What a great opportunity! Now, remember, this was in 1987, before computers had taken over the world (how times have changed!), but I had a feeling I should get as much training and develop as many skills as possible to make myself as marketable as possible. So, I put in my hours (I can do just about anything for two weeks) and signed up to learn a popular word processing program through a self-paced tutorial at the agency’s office. As a result of my increased skills, I got assigned to progressively more challenging assignments, and each experience offered me a little more opportunity to learn than the last.
The rest, as they say, is history.
Over the course of the past 30 years of working in the 9-to-5 world, the longest I’ve ever been out of work against my will was two weeks. I’ve taken time off, like the month I took off in 1992 to move across the country, the month I took off in 1995 to move back, and the first six weeks in 2006, when I started my own publishing company. I’ve changed jobs a bunch of times (as one does in this economy), and I’ve chosen to work part-time when my health was poor or I was perpetually burned out. But I’ve never had trouble connecting with great opportunities.
This is all because I got my start doing “temp work”. As maligned as it is, temping provides a huge number of benefits and advantages, especially for folks like me who have chronic health issues, problems with Autistic Burnout, and who get just plain sick and tired of dealing with neurotypical people, day in and day out. Time and again, I’ve parlayed my experience at short-term assignments at big and little companies into long-term positions, including lucrative full-time employment. With the right combination of social observation, practical skill, and an eye for opportunity, I went from being a jobless college dropout without much of a future, to earning six figures at a multinational financial services firm. And I did it in just over ten years, as my three-month temporary assignment turned into nine years of building technology with a leading financial services firm.
Temping made it all possible. In fact, I think it’s safe to say that if I hadn’t been temping most of the time between 1987 and 1999, it might never have happened. In the coming weeks, I’ll discuss why that was, and how I did it. I’ll lay out the kinds of steps I took to “trade up” from temp jobs to a steady work in a field that’s got plenty of opportunity. And I’ll lay it all out in common-sense terms that I hope you can apply in your own life. If I managed to do this, maybe you can, too. With the right attitude, approach, and techniques, I’m convinced other people can do it, too.
Bottom line, I wouldn’t be where I am today, without temping.
It’s so important to talk about Autism and suicide, and it’s important to talk about things that can substantially make our lives better. Things that can keep us fed and housed and connected to the rest of the world in constructive, mutually beneficial ways.
Having a job and/or finding meaningful work is a big part of what keeps me going. As much as I complain about my job, and as much as it exhausts me, it provides me with the following necessary elements of my life:
Structure. I know where I’m going to be, each weekday (pretty much). And I know what’s expected of me. The corporate world is very much an institutional environment, and that suits me. Behaviors are regulated. Interactions are prescribed. There are guidelines for everything. And expectations are made clear.
Predictability and Routine. My days and weeks have a predictable rhythm. And even if it’s exhausting and depleting, at least I know what to expect. I not only know what to expect from myself, I also know what to expect from others — when they’ll be around, what they’ll be doing, etc. That’s so important and helpful for me.
Social interaction. Even though I absolutely dread dealing with other people, and I avoid it whenever I can, at work, I can’t NOT interact with others. I’m forced to. But the interactions are all structured and defined by our roles at work, and I can very easily leave a conversation under a completely believable pretext: I have work to do. I can interact with other people — both Autistic and non-autistic (I work in high tech) — on a regular basis, but I can always get away. And they understand. Because they’re supposed to be working, too.
Community. This is more than just social interaction. It’s a sense of belonging, of knowing others and being known, and finding commonality and shared purpose. It’s about being part of something bigger than myself. Even though I would never personally choose to hang out with 98.72% of the people I work with, I’m still part of their “tribe”, and they seem to like me. I like them, too, within the work context. No, it’s more accurate to say we all actually love each other. That sounds strange, considering the work environment, but there’s a loving-kindness and comaraderie we share that I haven’t found anywhere else. Someone out there cares about me. And that helps immensely.
Money. Obviously this is a big deal. For me, more than many others. Being Autistic puts me in an extremely vulnerable position, with all my social and communication difficulties that can literally get me killed (either slowly or quickly) in the outside world. But “money talks”. And when I am in a financial transaction with others, giving them money, they have to be nice to me. Or they don’t get my money. Money is very much a “crutch” for me. It opens doors that would otherwise be shut tight — and crush me like a bug under a steamroller.
Status and Social “Lubrication”. I’ve made a point of working for Big Name Companies for years. I learned back in the late 1980s that, for some reason, people are impressed by certain “brands” and they cut everyone slack, when they are associated with them. Score! And it works. I’ve literally been in social situations that were going terribly, until I mentioned where I worked — and people were so impressed (huh? whatever…) that they started treating me like a human being. So, I’ve actively sought out a series of jobs with big, recognizable names. Like money, that paves the way through social situations that I’d otherwise not fare well in.
Those are six big things that I get from having steady work. There are more, but I have to get to work, so I’m running out of time. I’ve sacrificed a tremendous amount, over the years, to get where I am now, and it has not been easy. It’s driven me to the edge, more times than I can count. But I’ve always come back from the edge. And one year after another, for over 30 years now, I’ve made progress.
When I hear about how only 16% of Autistic people are fully employed, I have the same reaction as “the ratio of Autistic men to Autistic women is 4:1”. Bad data. Incomplete data. I’ve worked around tons of Autistic folks in the past three decades, and all of them have been more than fully employed. There are lots of tips and techniques that we all just used to find out organically — because different generations actually talked to each other, and we passed survival information from one to the other. I can’t even count the number of conversations I’ve had with folks much older than me who I now would ID as Autistic. They gave me lots of info about how to deal with the working world, they propped me up and helped me sort things out. And they let me know, I was not alone in my suffering. They were suffering, too, but they’d figured out how to deal with it.
Of course, today, it’s much more en vogue to sequester yourself in your own generational peer group, so tons of info doesn’t get passed along. Maybe that has something to do with it? Or maybe it’s about expectation. Back in my early adulthood, it was simply expected that I’d find work — whatever position I could find — and work my way up in the world, just like everyone else.
The world has changed, needless to say, but some things don’t change.
It’s just that nobody’s telling others what they need to know nearly as freely and completely as they used to.
Oh, but I’m digressing. Time to go to work. More to come.
I’m putting “career path” in quotes, because I can’t say that I’ve ever really had a career path. More like, looked for opportunities and followed them where I found them.
In setting myself up for success, I’ve used temping / contract positions regularly to get a foothold in certain industries. I also used it to get free training, as well as support myself during times when I could not — NOT — handle working 40 hours a week, for 50 weeks out of the year. Whenever I’ve needed to take a break from the political nightmares of full-time employment (and for this Autist, they are nightmares), I’ve just bailed out of the full-time scene and switched over to contract / temp work.
Irononically, it tends to pay better — see the spike in 2014 when I was making significantly more than in the years before and after? That’s when I was on a contract with a company just 10 minutes from my home. So, why did I leave? Because I couldn’t stand those people. They treated me like an idiot, even though I was more experienced than they. The whole environment was deeply infantilizing, and they acted like they were doing me a favor, tolerating my presence. Oh, please. More like the other way around. The money wasn’t worth it. Plus, I was approached by someone with a really great position — less money, but more influence, and the chance to really feel like my work was making a difference in the world.
This is how it’s always been with me. I haven’t deliberately set out to get certain kinds of jobs — they’ve just come to me, actually. It might sound weird, but here’s the thing:
If you set yourself up with all the right external props to cue employers about your intrinsic value, you can “engineer” your work life to sync up with good opportunities. And they will actually come to you.
In other words, if you make sure you have all the right pieces in place, the industry of your choice will make room for you. It’s not magic. It’s science. And art. And doing a handful of things in a considered, deliberate way.
Sound unlikely? That’s been my experience for 20+ years, and it keeps happening. And this, while I’ve been without a college/university degree, I’ve been chronically ill, absolutely wiped out by the demands of the neurotypical world on my Autistic self, and supporting a disabled spouse.
I haven’t had the time or energy to map out a “career path”. So, I’ve arranged to have it mapped out for me.
My system is basically a “career hack”, if you will. And it saves me considerable time and hassle — because I just don’t have the time or energy or even the confidence to come up with a career plan and expect it to work out. It just never has for me, so I’ve had to do things differently.
Oh, I’d intended to post the first part of my “insider’s guide to using temp / contract jobs to get ahead as an Autistic individual” here, but I’ve gone down a tangent…
Well, I’ll start posting that in a little bit. It needs some cleaning up, since I wrote it 12 years ago, and some things have changed, since then. Not a lot, but some.
Talk about an uneven developmental trajectory… Here’s my earnings history over the course of the past 32 years. Here are the jobs I’ve had:
Direct mail coordinator
Web dev / project mgr
Web dev / team lead
Web dev / team lead
Web dev / team lead
Web dev / team lead
Web dev / project mgr
Web dev / project mgr
Web dev / project mgr
Web dev / project mgr
And my earnings have changed significantly, over time – particularly when my health took a turn for the worse, or I picked up new skills that matched the market demand.
I’ve never had a “career path” in the sense that others do. I’ve basically just gone where the opportunity is, where the need is, where the money is… and what I know for sure I can do. People say that I’m too hesitant about taking on work I’m not 100% sure I can do, but frankly, the stress of not being 100% proficient at something actually erodes my capabilities, so it ends up being a self-fulfilling prophecy. Plus, working as a woman in STEM, there’s a lot more pressure on me, as it is, so that also factors in.
I do want to write more about this later, but given how flat-out busy my life has been, of late, I’m not sure when I’ll be able to get to it. I do feel, though, like I’m approaching another point where I need to take a lower-paying job to take some of the pressure off and give myself a chance to catch up. I’ve been saving money really aggressively, and I have over 6 months worth of living expenses saved up. So, if I do change jobs and make less, I can offset the “hit” I take. For a while, anyway.
Oh, lord… I’ve been caught up in that high-tech mythos that Everything You Do Has To Have Global Impact, or it just doesn’t matter.
Huh. How ’bout that. I’ve been thinking a lot about how my life has unfolded, and I’ve been feeling badly that I haven’t Made A Global Impact, the way we’re expected to do, these days.
No matter what we do, these days, we’re supposed to Go Big. Especially online.
We’re supposed to “generate content” that gets lots of views / likes / responses.
We’re supposed to “engage” on a global scale, and that’s allegedly going to change things.
We’re supposed to Go Big Or Go Home. And anyone who doesn’t aim for BIGness is a liability and a drain.
Huh. How ’bout that.
As it turns out, even after being in high tech for 25+ years, I’m deeply skeptical of the whole promise around dramatic, lasting global change. If anything, I’ve become more skeptical. Yes, it’s possible to have a global impact. And yes, it is possible to really make a huge difference in the world. But will it last? Will it have the intended results? It’s still too early to tell.
Plus, the way we measure what does and doesn’t matter seems pretty much based on numbers linked to volume (views, likes, sales, etc), and that doesn’t actually show us what kind of impact we really have in the world, qualitatively speaking.
See, the difference I want to make is about quality, not quantity. I don’t want to have to worry about volume of likes and views and shares and whatnot. I just want to do what I do, and have it make a difference. I want to do something constructive, every single day, and see the tangible results of my work.
I also need to provide for myself, pay the bills, and keep the money coming in, so I don’t end up living on the street (that happened to me years ago, and once is enough for one lifetime, thank you very much). That’s been a huge concern of mine. But I just ran the numbers for the trajectory of my financial situation, and it looks like I’m actually going to be in good shape, provided things stay relatively stable over the long-term. The big opportunity for me are the years between when my house is paid off in another 12 years, and when I am slated to retire, another 10 years after that. Once my mortgage is taken care of, I’ll be able to save most of what I earn, and I’ll be doing that pretty aggressively.
Of course, all this is assuming that I continue to be employed… that I can keep earning at an acceptable rate. But honestly, since I’m a little on the low end, earnings-wise, I’m a bargain. So, I get to keep my job. It’s easy to price yourself out of the global job market. Don’t want to do that.
But it’s not just about money. One of the key ingredients of my ongoing employment is making a substantive, positive difference in people’s lives on a daily basis. If I contribute to the well-being and success of people I work with on the job, they have incentive to keep me around, and even advocate for me. Making a constructive difference means I’m contributing. It means I’m integrated into the ecosystem I’m operating in. It means there’s a reason for people to keep me on.
And this is where being Autistic keeps things interesting. See, I didn’t even realize all this until somewhat recently. I’ve been in the everyday workforce for 30 years, and it took me this long to comprehend all this. I mean, intellectually, I understood the principle of making yourself useful and contributing. But it hadn’t really sunk in about how my day job fits that focus in my overall life. I strive to help people I meet outside of work — but helping people on the job? That was of no interest to me, quite frankly. If anything, other people were an intrusion and a drain to be avoided at all costs.
For so many years, I treated my day job as just that — a job, a way to make money to fund the things outside it — the things that really mattered. I wasn’t interested in getting invested in the relationships with people I worked with, because I just didn’t see myself as part of it all. I was too cut off, too separate, too intent on protecting myself and making sure I had what I needed, regardless of how that impacted others.
But now, I realize that what really matters to me, is living in a comprehensively connected way, finding paths to contribute and be a part of something bigger than myself. While I’ve never before considered my job worthy of full investment, now that’s totally changed. It was partly because I was so busy managing my Autistic issues without having a full understanding and appreciation of them, how they impacted me, what impacted them, and so forth. I didn’t have a whole lot of bandwidth to get personally invested in what was going on — especially because so many jobs I’ve had involved long commutes and really tough environments which were loud and open and constantly challenging.
Now, however, I have a job where I can work from home whenever I need to. That means I can often take a nap when I need one. And I get a break from the busy-ness at the office. I don’t have to drive in rush hour traffic. I don’t have to constantly make eye contact and figure out social interactions. I can relax… Even lie down, if I need to, while I read and answer emails on my mobile phone.
And that makes all the difference.
I can take care of myself. And I can take care of my work, my relationships, my future. The thing, too, is that I notice that others I work with are doing better when aren’t stuck in the office 5 days a week, as well. I find that people who work really effectively in a remote environment can be more mature, better at managing their time, more motivated, and more adept at building and sustaining relationships than people who have to be at an office to do their jobs. So, the types of people I’m working with are also more compatible with me.
It’s a win. For everyone. Especially me.
So, while I’ve been feeling a little “slacker-like” for not having turned the world upside-down with my dramatic innovations and whatnot, I’m finding that I’m much happier just tooling right along, taking care of myself, taking care of my relationships, taking the pressure off. Just living my life… Doing something meaningful each day, wherever I am, whatever I’m doing.
It all matters. It’s all connected. And after so many years of stress and strain, I’m finally really getting it on a deeply felt level.
And that’s a good thing. A very good thing, indeed.
It’s #AutismAwarenessMonth, and I’m already tired. Ha! Of course I am. Sheesh, the ongoing … onslaught… of misinformation, disinformation, and all these otherwise unaffected-by-Autism people weighing in with their observations… it all gets to be too much.
And yet, I can’t seem to look away. It’s like a train wreck. All month long. And it’s only the 4th of April. Good grief.
One of the really depleting things about this month, is that I become all the more aware of how much more difficult my life has been, because I had no idea about how being Autistic was affecting me, or what to do about it. I spent so, so many years struggling, not knowing what the deal was with me, not understanding that there was literally something distinctly different about me that put me at a disadvantage in some ways (and at an advantage in others). It wasn’t luck or happenstance. It was a structural difference in my makeup that set me apart and introduced specific challenges to me.
I had no idea. I had no awareness. So, I couldn’t manage my situation. I couldn’t adjust. I couldn’t find any patterns, because my mind was so turned around by everything that I didn’t know what patterns to look for. I couldn’t tease out the differences from one day to the next, and did that ever have an impact.
Well, that being said, now I know better. And now I can do better. True, I did not manage to finish college (despite earning 90 credits). Too much going on. Too much to overcome. Too little information on one and, and too much on the other. It’s rarely actually been a huge problem. With a few exceptions, where my advancement opportunities were limited because I didn’t have a degree, I’ve always managed to find good-paying work that let me make the most of my abilities. I have a “nose” for opportunity, and I’m really proactive and a dedicated team player, so I’ve always had that to fall back on.
But now I’m getting older, employers are relying on web-based resume intake systems, and without a degree, I can’t even get pasts the “electronic gatekeepers” to make my case for getting the job. Plus, if I want to change careers, which I’m thinking about doing, after 25+ years in high tech, I need a degree. Because taking credit for building out key features of a leading financial services website and optimizing technology just doesn’t have the same cachet outside this gilded cage of high tech.
I need something else to fall back on.
I’ve been looking for degree completion programs for years, but none of them were accessible for me. Either they were too expensive, or they were too time-consuming and the pace was dictated by the institution. I was expected to carry a consistent courseload for two years straight, which — if you’re me — is a clear warning shot across the proverbial bow. There’s no way I can commit to that workload with absolute certainty.
Can we say meltdown? ‘Cause that’s where I’d be — probably frequently — while scrambling to keep up / catch up. Call it Executive Function issues. Call it inconsistency. Call it what you will. It’d wreck me, for sure, what with my full-time job, caring for my dependent partner, serving on town boards, keeping my own interests alive, and keeping myself healthy and fit… on top of a degree completion program.
But I believe I’ve found a solution. I found a program that’s self-paced, that gives me credit for what I’ve done, and it lets me earn a degree in what I’ve been doing for the past 25 years. And it costs a fraction of what a traditional degree completion program would cost.
I’m a grown-up, with adult responsibilities and a full life. And I’m Autistic. So, I need to choose and act accordingly. I need to be constantly aware of my strengths and my limitations, to accommodate myself and not take things for granted. I took so much for granted, when I was younger, thinking that if I just kept pressing on in the same ways, I’d be able to eventually succeed. But I was doing things the way I saw all the neurotypical people in the world doing it. I tried to mimic what they did, and how they did it, assuming that I could just power through.
Untrue. I burned myself out, over and over. I overloaded myself, pushed myself to one meltdown after another, drank too much, got pulled into the wrong crowds, took the wrong jobs, stuck with the wrong schedule, and I got hurt. I crushed myself. And that was no good.
Now, I actually have a chance to turn this around, and that’s what I’m doing. I started the exploration process a couple of weeks ago, and I started the application process last week. I’ll work on my application some more today, since I have some time. And I’ll gear up for this process, the start of this new journey, with my limits clearly in mind.
It’s not that I’m going to let my limitations define me. Far from it. I’m just going to factor them in and manage them accordingly. If I know about my limits, and I know how they block me, it’s up to me to figure out how to either adapt or avoid them. If I’m in a position to actually do something about my situation (and I am), it’s up to me to handle things properly.
If my energy levels are dropping, I need to step away and recharge — and then bring myself back on point in the future.
If I’m getting overwhelmed, I need to step away and take steps to get myself un-maxed-out again… then resume what I was doing before.
If I’m able to work faster than the “norm”, then I need to kick it into high gear, because at some point, I may need to slow down. So, I have to plan and act accordingly, so I can keep ahead of things and make the most of my up-times to offset my down-times.
And so, I shall. With Autism in mind. Awareness. Acceptance. And action.
This next step (going back to school) has been a long time coming. I’m gonna make the most of it.
Ever since I was a kid, I knew I didn’t want to live like my parents lived. I didn’t like their friends, I didn’t like their values, I didn’t like how they behaved, I didn’t like their life choices. Everything — from food to clothing to how we worked (we did a lot of that) to what we did in our free time — was at odds with what I wanted for myself.
I didn’t want to eat their greasy, fatty, carb-filled meals at 7:15, Noon, and 5:30, that left me feeling worn out… and tied my gut up in anguished knots of pain every single day. I wanted to eat a leisurely continental breakfast, followed by a mid-morning snack (second breakfast!), a light lunch, a mind-afternoon munch, and then a solid dinner, preferably late in the evening (Spanish style).
I didn’t want to “rough it” camping in campgrounds with bathhouses that reeked of disinfectant and bug spray… going on long hikes with loud gangs of people, in the process getting all sweaty and covered in bug bites and various scratch organic matter… sleeping on the ground in a tent that didn’t keep out the noise or the mosquitoes. I wanted to spend my days on a university campus, preferably in the library, reading… studying… writing… and taking solitary walks through the silent woods or along an isolated beach.
I wanted to be free. Free of their small-minded limits. Free of their food choices. Free of their priorities. Free of their roughness. Free of their fear.
And my ticket to freedom was work. Getting jobs that would pay me enough that I could do what I wanted, when I wanted, how I wanted, as much (or as little) as I wanted. Getting out in the world and finding out how other people lived their lives. Coming up with my own ways of doing things, based on what I learned from others.
I left home at 18, going off to college in a state that bordered Canada, which had heavy Canadian influence. Most of the television, radio, and news were Canadian. This was in the early 1980, before there was cable and internet and DVDs and whatnot. The world was much bigger then, and it was easier to get away.
So, I got away. I took off and got the hell out of there. I was going to school out-of-state, and because I’d gone directly against my parents’ wishes, my parents cut me off financially. They wanted me to go to the Christian college they’d both graduated from, because then I could get a scholarship – a kind of family discount – but there was no way I was doing that. You had to sign a “morality agreement” saying you wouldn’t do certain things. But everything I actually wanted to do in college was on that agreement — drinking, smoking, dancing, loud rock music (a-la big-hair 80s guitar bands — rock on!) So, yeah, ix-nay on that college choice.
Because I went out-of-state (I couldn’t get away fast enough), I paid higher tuition. Now, mind you, that means I paid $8,500 a semester, versus $25,000 — times have changed — but when you have limited funds, and your family has cut you off, that’s a lot of money for an 18-year-old to come up with.
But I did it. I shopped my typing skills around, making extra money re-typing bought papers for my peers, who didn’t feel like writing them, themselves. I tutored a local kid in German. I did work-study programs during the school year and over the summer. I worked it out so I could stay in-state for the summer between freshman and sophomore year to get my state residency and get lower tuition the following three years. It worked.
Unfortunately, I got myself in a bit of trouble over that summer. And the following year was pretty rough, with me dealing with police and the law and a stalker. But again, the thing that saved me was finding work. I went to Germany for a “semester abroad” and liked it so much, I got a job with an American translator and was able to pay my way to stay a full 2 years.
I did get extra help from friends, who paid for more dinners than I could count. I generally paid for my breakfast and lunch — which cost next to nothing for students, in those days. I could get a full lunch meal for less than $2.00, so long as I wasn’t picky about what went into the “Eintopf” — a stewed mix of whatever was leftover from the day before. I had to eat. I didn’t have the luxury of picking and choosing. And the dinners I made for myself were vegetarian, because meat was expensive, and I could get all the nutrients I needed from veggies and rice.
When I reached the end of my 4 years of college, I was out of money and out of options. I didn’t have a degree, yet, because I had lost touch with my home university and didn’t pay close attention to the requirements. I didn’t care about academic requirements! I was an artist! A writer. I was going to write novels and poetry. What good would a math class do me?
Back in the 1980s, you could still get by without a college degree, so I went back to the United States and proceeded to figure stuff out. My life was a lot more complicated and messy than I can describe here, but the one thing that kept me going through it all was work. Having a job. Having a regular income. No matter how screwed up I was, or how messed up my choices were, or how much life seem stacked against me (in terms of crippling chronic pain and coming out as a lesbian in the days when even saying the word “lesbian” out loud could get you beaten up, fired, or cast out of your circle of once-cozy friends)… as long as I had a job, I had choices. I had freedom. I could move. I could grow. I could make art. I could write.
As long as I had a job and kept working with a steady income, I was good.
And I knew that as well as anyone. I’d worked since I was 12 and had a paper route. I’d worked tons of sh*tty jobs in back kitchens of restaurants, at nurseries transplanting hundreds of tomato seedlings (I got paid per piece), delivering meals and meds at a nursing home, and I’d supported myself a number of ways through various illicit activities (selling speed out of my locker and procuring booze for classmates in high school , for example, as well as retyping contraband papers in college). No matter how crappy the job was, every single one taught me something. And I learned as I went.
Work was my ticket to independence, to creating my own safe Autistic haven from the non-autistic world. The money I made allowed me to make choices with how I was going to live, where I was going to live, what I was going to do with my free time, and if I had free time at all.
So, I was super-motivated to always have a job. No matter what, I always had a job. Working full-time, whenever possible. More, if possible. And I’ve typically worked extra gigs on the side, even while working full-time. This has been going on for 30 years, and I’ve never, ever been under-employed. If anything, I’ve been over-employed, with barely any time left to just catch my breath. But that’s my choice. That’s by design. And it’s worked for me.
I mean, look at me — virtually, of course, since you can’t actually see into my life, right now. I live in a 2100 square foot garrison colonial house in one of the most affluent towns in my county, with woods surrounding me and an amazing view of the western mountains from the front of the house. I’ve got to cars in my garage (well, one’s in the shop right now, but it will be back this coming week). I sit on a town board and participate regularly in my town’s government. I used to volunteer at a local botanical garden (till my life got too busy). I have a 6 month financial safety net in the bank, and this month I get two bonuses from work that will allow me to renovate two of the bathrooms in this house.
I’m presently sitting on a nice burgundy colored sofa with a cushy, soft grey pillow behind my back, with my favorite Samurai-design mug of coffee on the t.v. table to my right. Beside it is a ripe banana that looks really tasty, and beneath it is a woven place mat with a folded paper napkin beside it. To my left is my mobile phone, which is playing my favorite tunes, a full box of tissues, a pile of comfy, cozy blankets I can wrap around me if I get cold. Across the room is the fireplace which is built from cobblestones retrieved from a historic district in Boston. You can see chips in the stone where horse-shoes probably struck them.
I’m surrounded by comfort — the two Amish-made rocking chairs in front of the fireplace with an engraved copper coffee table my aunt brought back from Africa between then. Lovely rugs on the floor, a basket filled with Christmas cards from friends and family, an entertainment center with t.v., DVD player, VCR, and cable box… and many, many knicknacks my partner and I have collected over the years. To my right is a bookshelf full of books and papers, and the desk and main computer & printer we use for all-purpose activities. And across the room, the bay window looks out on a woodlot where firs and hardwoods sway in the wind, as hawks circle and call to each other overhead. Upstairs, my partner of 27 years is fast asleep. Later, she’ll get up, and we’ll touch up her graying roots with a “touchup kit”. I’ll do a bit of work for my day job. And I’ll take care of some other stuff for another business we have together.
I’m not listing all my blessings to make anyone jealous. For every nice thing I have, there’s been a lot of pain I’ve endured. But I am listing all these great things to make a point.
Keeping working with a steady income made all this possible. If I hadn’t been able to keep working, very little of this would be possible.
By no means am I vastly wealthy. Far from it. But because I’ve had steady work — a steady income — all this is now possible. It’s been a long and winding road, and to date (over the past 30 years), I’ve had something like 20 employers. Some of them (temporary employment agencies) were simultaneous. That was by design, because I couldn’t afford to be out of work. At all. If I had to sign up with three different agencies and play them off against each other, that’s what I did. And worked for me. Looking around at my life now, I can see just how well it worked.
Personally, I think people are really messed up about work, these days. Everybody seems to think you need to find a career and stick with that, from Day One. Er, not exactly. I’ve had four distinct “careers” in the last 30 years, and they all just happened organically. I learned different things at each job, and then I applied what I’d learned to the next one… and the next one… and the next one.
To say that my parents were horrified by my… meandering “career path” would be an understatement. I can’t even count the times they openly despaired of my future — usually in front of other people, so they could vindicate themselves and avoid public shaming.
But you know what? It worked for me. And although my future is far from guaranteed, I am a heck of a lot happier than most people I know, I have a life that really, truly works for little ol’ Autistic me, and I have the things I value most in life — Books, books, and more books… and the leisure time to read them, write, and truly enjoy myself.
Because I kept working. When one job didn’t work out (and there have been lots of them), I moved on. I cut my losses, learned my lessons, learned to portray it to others in a light that made me look like an opportunity-seeking winner, not a loser fleeing my last failure in a long string of screw-ups. I learned how to work the system and find exactly what worked for me. I didn’t hang around longer than I had to, if things got sour. And I never shed a tear about moving on. As a matter of fact, I’ve been actively interviewing for other jobs, so I can keep my hand in the game. I actually turned down a really great offer at the end of last year (because I could), and I have another interview on Monday, which I’ll probably ace, but plan to turn down, because their schedule requirements already look like they suck, compared to what I’m doing now.
Most people I know would get a little green around the gills, if they followed my path. It’s not for everyone. The point is, it works for me. And it’s paid off in some very big ways.
It boils down to the following set of non-negotiable rules I have for myself:
Always work. Never don’thave a job. Keep the income coming in. If possible, get more income coming in. If your day job doesn’t fulfill you, pursue your passion on the side and let that fill in the blanks of your spirit.
Never, ever talk disparagingly about past work experiences, but emphasize the positives. Always look for the benefits and things that other people value, and emphasize them.
And whatever you do, always, always, always work. I don’t care if it’s a crappy temp job shuffling papers for personal injury attorney — I did that for a while, and it was horrible, every single day, but I still showed up and did my best. Even if it’s a seasonal gig selling Christmas trees or lemonade on the corner… even if it’s delivering newpapers or putting flyers on people’s windshields at the mall… always, always, always work. Even if it doesn’t suit you. Even if it’s exhausting. Even if it’s demeaning. Doing shitty work is required, if there’s no other work to be found.
That’s been my secret. Tolerating awfulness and learning from it. Turning it into something better, on down the line. Not getting stuck in lost causes or beating myself up because things didn’t work out. I experience, I learn, I transform, I move on. And I move up. Because I can. And lots of other people can, too.
These days, it seems like everybody has such high expectations from the workplace. Careers. Professions. And so forth. You get out of college, and it’s all supposed to be set up for you (Pro Tip: it’s not, by the way). On the other hand, some of us have to work our way up in the world. And I’ve observed tha those of us who do, who have all those rough experiences we learn from, are worlds ahead of the rest of the entitled set-up crowd, when it comes to long-term prospects… not to mention general happiness and satisfaction with our work and life situation.
When you’ve slogged through the muck, you appreciate and value the clean, well-lighted places like they’re your ever-renewing lease on life life.
Because they are.
So, that’s my riff on working while Autistic. There’s plenty more to say, but I’ve gotta go get some things done in my own clean, well-lighted sanctuary.
So, my Major Deadline has passed. It went off pretty much without a hitch.
Just in time for Thanksgiving. I’ve got some time off, next week, but I’ll probably check in on my project to see how it’s going, now that it’s “live”.
It’s been pretty brutal, overall. Really, really taxing. And it’s taken just about a year to get this “15-week” (Hahahahahaha!) project ready for prime-time.
Now it’s out there, and it’s time to step back, think through all the lessons of the past year, and figure out the next steps. Because this sh*t isn’t going to stop. I’ve got another phase of this project just around the corner in less than 2 months’ time. So, get a little rest, and get back into it.
One of the BIG lessons of this has been seeing just how non-verbal I am, when I am in problem-solving mode. Make no mistake, I’ve been mostly in problem-solving mode for the past year. So, I’ve been mostly visual-spatial. Which means I haven’t been thinking well in words — or the times when I’ve had to think in words (and talk), I’ve been at a disadvantage. And the talking has cut into my non-verbal problem-solving.
I’ve known I’m a visual / non-verbal thinker (this blog nothwithstanding) for many years. And I’ve known for just as long that having to switch my mode between words and pictures is a problem and makes both sides more difficult. But not until this past year (or two) have I really seen so clearly just how much of a problem this can be.
In my job, I have to communicate to people.
But communicating just doesn’t happen, when I’m in non-verbal mode. So, I don’t do my full job. And it works against me and the people I work with.
Huh. If I had more energy, I’d dig into this more, but the bottom line is, I need to figure out how to meet the requirements of verbalizing, even while I’m in heavy-duty non-verbal mode. Because the job requires it. And it’s not that I don’t like to do it, or that I can’t do it. It’s just that I need to find a better balance between doing it… and not.
Well, that’s a line of thought for another day. After I’ve caught up with myself and have the time and space to really think it through.
I’ve had a lot of important (for me) insights, over the past weeks, just haven’t had time to note them all down and expand on them. I’ll get to it. Just not yet.
Okay, so maybe it’s not mythical that autistic folks are under-employed. I’ve been working jobs far beneath myself for years – ever since I got back to the States in 1987 after living in Europe for a couple of years.
I’ve had all sorts of low-level jobs that were “far beneath me”. One of my bosses even asked me, onetime, why I was working for him, when I was capable of so much more.
And all my life, my parents have wailed and gnashed their teeth, that I wasn’t using my talents more. “When will you stop wasting your talents!” they cried. Oh, the wringing of hands…
Here’s the thing, though. If I spend all my time and energy “living up to my potential”, I’m just gonna ruin my life workin’ for the man. Professional life, beholden to an employer, or an industry for that matter, using up every last bit of energy and focus for the sake of some employer…? Yah, no thanks.
I’m not saying we’re not under-employed. I’m saying it’s not a tragedy. At least, it doesn’t have to be. There are plenty of other things we’d rather be doing with our time.
I have other things I’d rather be doing.
Like studying things that have nothing to do with anything commercially viable. The 12th Century Western European Renaissance. Heraldry. Obscure symbolism. Esoterica. Even a little bit o’ alchemy, here and there. Women mystics of the Middle Ages. Certain kinds of snakes. Or what ever else I find interesting, at any given point in time.
Nobody’s going to pay me big bucks to study those things. Even if I did write a fantabulous monograph thinga-majiggie, it won’t pay the bills. And I’d rather be 3/4 employed and have a bunch of energy left over to ply my own trades, than be fully employed and 100% exhausted at the end of every day.
Sorry, there’s just not enough of me to go ’round.
So, yeah. I’ve been underemployed my entire life. I still am. But I’m here. And I’m having a wonderful time. For the most part, anyway.