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 dictating this as I drive in my car, on my way to buy supper that I have to cook at 7:03 PM.
I stayed in bed too long after my afternoon nap between 4:15 and 6 o’clock, because frankly lying in bed under heavy warm covers, reading through Twitter, finding what’s there, discovering which voices are saying what about their lives, is about the most pleasurable thing in my life, these days.
Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty – and I say plenty – of enjoyable experiences in my day. My life is never without them. But lying in bed, idling away, my mind afire with ideas from people who think on purpose, in a warm, weighted space is about the closest thing to bliss I can imagine, these days.
And reading the words of others, I think about my own voice. I think about my people. I think about all the Autistics I know and have known, and I think about what we bring to the world. Everybody knows what we bring, but very few people know that we’re the ones who bring it. And they certainly don’t know how we do it or why we do it. There’s no point in trying to explain. They think they have this Autism business all figured out. Some assholes with influence and power have decided it for society at large, and who are any of us to question that?
And I think about this writing. “Blogging” they call it. Makes it sound so simple. Makes it sounds so trite. An exercising in ego. Just a few words barfed out on the screen, in the hope that anybody’s listening… regardless of whether anybody cares. Ego-casting. Vanity. That’s how it’s often been seen, and sometimes we earn that reputation.
But still… it seems unfair.
The blogging medium has been mine for almost as long as it’s existed. I knew, right away, how powerful it could be. I’ve turned friends on to the practice, and some of them have become extremely successful at it, gaining followers and fans, professional connections and book contracts and staff positions as writers with publishers like Conde Nast. Pretty sweet. It’s way more than I’ve ever been able to accomplish, but I like to think my input made a difference.
Most of the time, that’s about the best I can ask for, anyway.
As for me, I just don’t have the energy to do much more than I already do. I don’t have a working partner to support me as I pursue my dreams. I don’t have a life that lets me spend hours and hours on refining my craft. And I certainly don’t have hours and hours to spend reading the words of others, as much as I’d like to. People put down the short-form reading and writing that abounds these days, but it seems to me that some of us can’t afford anything other than short-form.
We don’t have the time, we don’t have the money that makes that sort of leisure possible. You know — the stuff the people used to just take for granted – cozying up with a long book on grey, rainy day, sinking into it for hours at a time, becoming one with the material, being one with the story, feeling as though the author has crept into your cells and reconfigured them from the inside out. Who has the luxury of that, these days?
If you’re not chronically ill and trying to hold down a full-time job while you support your disabled, dependent spouse and keep your house in order, yeah, I suppose you would. If you don’t end up exhausting yourself jumping the horns of the 9-to-5 bulls in the Minoan circus ring of modern day society, yeah I suppose you might. If you don’t completely destroy any semblance of functionality in the course of just getting by on neurotypical terms, day in and day out, yeah I can see how that would be possible.
But me? Nope. That’s not the world I live in. And that’s not what’s possible.
So, I blog. I read blogs. I follow links on Twitter and I see what’s there, preferably something that’s a little bit longer than a 20 minute read, but not too much longer, because I have stuff to do. And I have to get it done, because nobody else is going to do it for me. I really don’t feel like dying.
It’s really easy to die when you’re Autistic. It’s really easy to just lose it. I lose it regularly. I usually can get it back, but it comes at a cost. It takes hours, days, weeks, sometimes months to get it back. Yeah, I can totally right myself again. But not like other people think I can. And that like I wish I could.
It’s taken me, what — 35 years? — to figure it out. I’ll say 35 because it sounds nice and it digits out to eight, which is the signifier of eternity for me, which is what pretty much everything feels like to be, half the time. Eternity. Infinity. Endless possibilities, with no end in sight… fortunately… unfortunately.
And as I pull into the supermarket parking lot, I’m happy. Because it only took me 13 minutes to get here, there was no traffic, the light rain is keeping people off the roads but not making my life that much more difficult to navigate, and I know exactly when I’m getting when I walk in the grocery store. I wish to God I had the time and the energy to write more.
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.
Okay, okay, I get it. We need to build support for folks who really need it. But I think at times that our Autistically rigid thinking keeps us aligned with some pretty rigid support possibilities, many of which simply aren’t available to all of us.
The needs of an Autistic kid in a city may be very different from the needs of a middle-aged Autistic woman living in the suburbs, and they may be very different from the needs of a 30-something Autistic man living in a rural area. And then we have our aging population… men and women… who have been through so much, and now face the double-whammy of becoming elderly (a challenge in society, in general) and having those sensory/social challenges which may become even more pronounced in old age.
I’m worried. Anxious. For myself and all my Autistic tribe. And I’m not alone.
The thing is, I suspect that anxiety takes the edge off my creativity. It locks me into rigid thinking. And it erodes my ability to come up with some really inventive solutions.
Personally, I think we Autistic folks are some of the most inventive people on the planet. For sure. I mean, look around — so much of what we have is the product (I believe) of an Autistic person with an intense interest in One Single Subject. That focus has produced some truly amazing things. And that same focus can help us fix our future.
So, the future… yeah. What does that hinge on?
Well, the past, for one. And also… patterns! Patterns, yes. We plot our course forward by referencing patterns — this leads to that, this causes that, if you do this, you can logically expect that. And we gain a sense of where we are in the world by watching other people and seeing how their lives have shaken out over time.
We are constantly learning from other people, “ingesting” their experiences, learning from their mistakes, and taking cues from their stories. Humans are story-loving creatures, and each of us has thousands of stories of our own that we collect over the course of our lives. They can be based on our own experiences, or they can be from our observations of others. Or we can make them up as we go along. But we have them. We use them. We rely on them to no end.
Earlier this week, I was chatting with an older Autistic man who spent time with younger Autistic people. He said he was really alarmed at how traumatized those young people were, how harrassed they were, how on-guard and roughed-up by life they were. These were young people who all had the advantage of knowing they’re Autistic, but it was such a burden for them.
I personally don’t think we do a good enough job as a community, sharing our strengths and accomplishments… our joys and ecstasy. Autism for me is every bit as much about bliss, as it is about struggle — equal parts, I’d say. But the discussion so often centers around the struggle, perhaps because I think I’m going to get commiseration and support from others who know how I feel. Unfortunately, that’s seldom the case. If anything, it works against me. And I end up getting sucked down into the Pit of Despair, as I perseverate on the idea that somehow, somewhere, sometime, I might get some help.
I won’t… 93.72% of the time. Now and then, I will, but I spend far too much time working towards that 6.28% that’s occasional and intermittent at best.
So, where does that leave me? Sorta kinda where a lot of queer folks were left, back in the 1990s, when so many of us were coming out, but most of the media about being queer (especially movies) were so full of angst and pain and suffering. Suicide, too. Ugh. How many gay and lesbian movies (long before the concept of being queer took hold) showed us being miserable and downtrodden and better off ending our lives? To be honest, it wasn’t altogether unlike what Autism$peak$ has done. And while I’m not 100% on board with comparing Autistic folks to queer folks, all across the board, there are some pretty pronounced similarities.
Being different embarrasses our families.
They try to make us different — more like them.
If we’re lucky, they fail. If they succeed, we’re twisted into a version of ourselves we don’t understand.
Ostracism, misunderstanding, violence. Etc.
Anyway, this is a really long-winded way of saying I think the Autistic community could learn a thing or two from the LGBTQ+ community (and yes, we do overlap), especially insofar as the Pride movement is concerned. Celebrating our differences, developing our own culture and community, taking our place in the world just as we are, and having a lot of fun while doing it… There’s real power in that, I believe. And it’s where I hope we go with our Autistic community building.
I’m not gonna tell anybody what to do or how to do it, but I can do something in my little corner of the world. I can talk about my life in positive terms. I can share my triumphs and joys. I can really celebrate the successes of other Autistic folks. I can focus on the good, the strength, the fortitude, the brilliance. None of this takes away from the challenges we have — it’s merely ballast for my proverbial vessel as I sail the high seas of life.
There are so many wonderful, positive things about Autism that get lost in the crisis, anxiety, difficulty, drama, and shame of growing up Autistic. They get lost to parents, they get lost to us. They get lost to society, in general, obscured behind the ignorance and judgment. We go into hiding. Because it’s safe there.
And then, when we grow up, we can be so alienated, so accustomed to hiding, that our actual development isn’t recognized. Or people are so used to looking at us as they remember us, once upon a time, that they don’t give us the chance to shine.
I think that needs to change.
I can’t speak for anyone else, but I plan to change it on my side… do my best to unleash a torrent of writing about how absolutely excellent it can be to be Autistic. It might piss a lot of people off, because it may undermine their message about how we need help and support. But I’m not going to lose the good parts of my life, while I wait around for the government or some organization to meet my needs.
Certainly, it would help… but I think we can do more than that.
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.
The snow is finally melting, in my corner of the world. It’s warm today, 50°F and 10°C, and it’s raining a little bit. Mist is rising up from the snowbanks as they melt and evaporate. The process always fascinates me, because it seems like it should take more energy or more heat to turn water into steam. And yet, here we are, surrounded by fog.
I’m so glad it’s Friday. It has been a really long week, and everybody I talk to at work feels the same way. We are all very happy the work week is nearly over, and since this is Easter weekend, a lot of people have even more time off. So, that’s good. Things should be pretty quiet today, especially this afternoon, so that means I can concentrate on my work without distraction. I might even get into my zone, if all goes well.
I’ve been thinking about how being autistic has helped me over the years. With Autism Awareness Week, the theme seems to be, how many people have been left behind and are not being helped as they struggle through life. I’ve had plenty of struggles, myself, and being denied a diagnosis for years really complicated things in my mind. However, objectively speaking, Autism has also been a huge advantage for me. And not necessarily in ways you would expect.
One of the biggest and most helpful ways, is how it makes me pretty much oblivious to what other people think of me. Now, in some cases, that is a real drawback. It doesn’t help me when I am in touchy social situations where I need to read people properly to get by. It also didn’t help when I was growing up and all the other kids were sending out magical signals about what they did and did not like, what they would and would not tolerate. I was persona non Grata a bunch of times throughout my childhood, and that really hurt.
On the other hand, now that I look back, I see that being on the outside didn’t actually stunt me the way you might think. It didn’t ruin my ability to bounce back, didn’t keep me from becoming resilient. In fact, being on the outside taught me many important lessons, and it really became an advantage for me. Because those experiences taught me how it feels to be on the outside, which I would never want to make another person feel. It made me a lot more sensitive to differences in the want more excepting of limitations, all of which have helped me connect better with the world around me.
Plus, I was really, truly happy being by myself, and I took so much obvious pleasure in the things I was interested in, and I devised a way of life that worked for me, so other people were intrigued, and they actually responded favorably to me after a while.
In fact, over the years, my outsider status has often worked in my favor. I have been outside the “in group” More than I have been on the inside, but because I’m actually fine with it and I seem happy and content and fulfilled in it, it piques the interest of others who want to enjoy life the way I do. They see me enjoying myself, being happy, being content, and they want to know what all the excitement about. I will happily share what fascinates me, any old time, and one thing I seem to have learned from my autistic grandfather, is how to translate my passion into excitement for other people. So, my geeky nerdy obsessions with obscure stuff really truly helps bridge gaps between me and others. Anybody who’s looking for a little tidbit of trivia they can use to impress people a cocktail parties is welcome to ask me for my input. Invariably, I can find something they can use later to improve their social status.
Everybody wants to be happy, everybody wants to be accepted, everybody wants to feel like they belong. It never really mattered to me that I didn’t belong to certain groups, or that I was not the most popular kid in the class or at work or in town. What did matter to me, was that other people felt welcome, appreciated, even loved, when they were around me. I learned how to transfer my sensitivity about being left out along with my deep interest in life, other people, and how things work to the social scene around me. And because I was Autistic and could not read negative reactions from people, I found myself able to be open to others in ways that most people can’t.
I can’t emphasize enough how helpful this has been. Alexithymia, or the inability to sense emotions, has actually worked in my favor, in that I have defaulted to openness and acceptance, if I needed to fill in any blanks about what people thought about me. In fact, there have been many, many times when other people have approached me with anger, judgment, aggression, or other negative emotions, and because I could not sense them, I just assumed they were friendly, and I treated them as such.
The amazing thing is, those other people backed off their negativity and took my positive lead. They realized that I was not intimidated by them, I was not put off by their behavior, I was not going to fight with them or stir up more trouble, and I really just wanted to interact with them like decent human beings. Because I had a better and frankly more enjoyable solution to the dynamic, they followed my lead.
I sincerely doubt any of that would have been possible if I were neurotypical. If I were able to read the aggression the other people feel, if I were able to respond to their emotional state with a response like what they were putting out towards me, I’m sure my life would’ve become very different and taken many darker turns. But the fact of the matter is, people look for leaders, and they look for better solutions in life. And if you lead them in a way that steers them away from their bad behaviar, on an individual basis, In personal encounters, change can actually happen.
Of course, I can’t speak to systemic inequities, as well as racism, classism, bigotry, and all the other isms that drive modern human behavior. Those are larger, more complex issues that deserve a deeper discussion. But in my own personal life, I have found that Autism actually gives me an advantage when it comes to dealing with people. Provided that I take the lead and I set the tone, really positive changes can happen whenever I encounter people who could potentially be a problem.
It’s not for everybody, and not everybody has interest, or wants to develop the skill, but I can tell you that it works. I can also tell you, I didn’t learn how to do this overnight. I didn’t magically receive divine dispensation of this glorious secret. The set of skills was hard-won over many decades of trial and error. But right now, in my current life, it works for me.
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.
All kinds of feisty, racing around, slamming into each other… the cops are out en force, and I’ve seen plenty of people pulled over, sometimes with lots of extra emergency vehicles around them.
Traffic on the way home was crazy tonight, with people flying all up in each others’ tail-lights, beeping, roaring… you name it. And this is even more than usual.
Something must be up in the world.
But you know what? It’s been 2 days since I looked at the news, and I have no idea what bees might be in their bonnets. Nor do I care. I mean, I care, but not so much that I’m willing to sacrifice my own well-being for others.
And I realize, that’s what I’ve been doing, lo, these many years that I’ve been paying attention to what other people do in the public arena. What a poor use of time. It’s useful to keep in touch with who votes in my favor, and it’s a good idea to participate in positive change. But all this other… crap that’s all over the news… yeah, it just doesn’t make sense to follow any of it.
Especially when nothing really seems to change much, even after all the upheaval and drama. There are so many other more constructive uses for my time and energy, than “following” the antics of people who are all into the drama for drama’s sake.
Me? I want to actually accomplish something.
So, I do. I’ve been reading a lot, lately. Spending far less time online. Chillin’. And it’s good.
Have a lovely evening — or day, if you’re reading this in the morning.
This is going to sound strange, but it’s actually easier for me, when people aren’t nice to me.
When they don’t say and do nice things for me, befriending me, and so forth.
I find it confusing. And the reciprocity thing makes my head feel like it’s spinning.
And I’m going to get it wrong.
Either I’ll get too close, too fast, or I’ll keep my distance when I’m not supposed to.
They’ll expect me to hug them. And that’s no good. I’m a terrible hugger, objectively speaking. I don’t know how to get the right pressure, and I always seem to dig my chin into the other person’s shoulder, which is a weirdly intimate thing to do, when I think about it.
They will say things and expect me to respond in kind. But my brain doesn’t work at their same speed, so I’ll end up saying something stupid or coarse or reflexive that’s unconsciously meant to push them away.
It’s better, if people aren’t nice to me.
That’s not to say I don’t like people. I do! I really enjoy their company, and I like to spend time chatting about things that interest us. Even the dreaded small-talk is fun for me, at times. Banter. Witty banter. Laughs. Ha-ha-ha. 😀
But other than superficial fun times, I prefer that people are objective and a little cold towards me. Matter-of-fact. Because facts really matter a lot to me, and it’s more important for me to handle things in the correct manner, than it is for me to “exchange energies” with potentially needy others.
I don’t mind the chill. I prefer it, in fact.
Just don’t be rude.
Rudeness I cannot countenance. Standoffishness, yes. But rudeness, no.