I begin every Saturday morning with a pleasant, albeit long, drive to Hay-On-Wye, Wales, where I work in one of the town’s many bookshops (Frequently voted among the best!) It’s honestly one of the highlights of my week and I thoroughly enjoy my time there.
The rest of my employment history has been, alas, a tale of woe.
In some ways it is immensely painful and perhaps even risky to write this; but after over two years of chronic unemployment, something has to give. This is not okay. My voice and story need to be heard. Needless to say, this led me to research the topic of autism unemployment a while ago – and I was shocked by what I found.
Back to me, for a moment. I find myself at a fork in the road from which I cannot move on. I am in desperate need of a job, but so tired of every attempt I have made to hold down one that slowly (but inexorably) the fight has been driven out of me. Every time I have tried I have been shot down.
This is not a ‘rant’ post. If anything this post is meant to be an eye-opener. So many others are going through the same struggles. I am one of the luckier members of the autistic community: that is to say that I am part of the 32% of autistic adults in the UK who are in any kind of paid employment, according to National Autistic Society statistics. Four in ten unemployed autistic adults have never worked. Of those unemployed 77% say that they want to work; but only 16% of adults with autism are in a full-time position. (These are UK figures).
Recently I came into contact (via the internet) with a 49 year-old man with Asperger’s Syndrome who, still living at home, has started to volunteer in a local shop, after swearing that he would never work again following the way in which he had been treated by previous employers.
If you know anything about autism and Asperger’s, you will know that many on the spectrum possess qualities that may be put to good use: qualities that may be considered special gifts. This is why the current state of autism employment is such a tragedy. So many of us have talents that are being overlooked by employers, who are unwilling to support autistic people in the workplace, in spite of their claims that they are ‘Equal Opportunities Employers’.
The unfortunate but unsurprising truth is that the majority of mainstream work environments are not suited to autistic individuals, nor are many workplaces capable of catering to the needs of those on the spectrum. Work is, for most people, an intensely social experience and the social skills of an employee often play a part in their workplace success and career progression. Socialising on a regular basis and reading social cues, even for those of us who are experts at ‘masking’* our autistic traits, can be an immensely difficult experience. Many of us take the words of other people very literally. It is not uncommon for us to misinterpret unspoken messages in conversations, which can cause confusion, disruption, work delays and even conflict. Workplace bullying is, unfortunately, encountered by many autistic individuals who are victimised due to their differences.
The work environment is often a busy one, fraught with noise, people bustling about and constant demands upon an individual, whether that be personal performance goals and deadlines, etiquette required when working with the public and other expectations placed upon the worker by the employer.
Many autistic people experience heightened sensory perceptions and may exhibit extreme reactions (that can manifest themselves both internally and externally) to sounds, sights, smells, tastes and feelings. Some like myself may have difficulty working quickly and/or under pressure due to poor, underdeveloped motor skills (hand-eye coordination). We may also struggle to take in complex instructions and might need these to be explained to us very clearly in order to avoid embarrassment and confusion.
A number of us, myself included, have developed mental health disorders such as Anxiety and Depression. Given the difficulties faced by us as autistic individuals growing up in a predominantly neurotypical (non-autistic) world, this is hardly surprising. In my case, Anxiety is my greatest enemy. Whilst I am not officially diagnosed with an Anxiety Disorder, my daily use of prescribed anti-depressants indicates just how much of an impact Anxiety has upon me living my life. My Saturday job aside, the last paid employment I undertook was a full-time position sorting books in a warehouse. On paper, it seemed as if it was ideal: I would be able to put my wide knowledge of books and authors, as well as what I had learnt about unusual books from my Hay-On-Wye job, to good use. In reality I lasted three days in the position.
Unfortunately many of the excellent skills I could have applied to the job because of my autistic traits were overlooked due to an unwillingness to compromise on my employer’s part. (Continue reading for for information on the positive aspects of autism in the workplace).
The environment, which was noisy, cluttered, enclosed, dull-grey in colour and busy as a hive of hornets was sensory hell for an autistic person. Then there were the performance demands. After only a very short time in the role I was being asked to work at speeds I simply wasn’t capable of. For every time I did something right, something new and unexpected set me back three paces in the wrong direction.
I began to experience what I now unfortunately associate all too regularly with the mainstream work environment: panic attacks.
I find myself, at 23, feeling burnt out. I just don’t care anymore. Anxiety is a natural response created by our mind to help us avoid harm and danger. An Anxiety Disorder, whilst being a nightmarish, compromised version of basic human instinct, does have a basis for existence in the daily lives of many of us. Going into the workplace means going into an environment where I am looked upon differently to others, where I struggle to deal with the people, let alone the workload. I must work in a manner that pleases my non-autistic employers, all the while knowing that we on the autistic spectrum should be encouraging both ourselves and others to ‘drop the mask’ as understanding of autism increases in our society.
If my body is telling me not to put myself in a situation that is likely to cause me stress, embarrassment, panic and depression, why should I ignore what it is telling me? Whilst it is true that the best way to deal with many fears is to face them, this is not a fear that I can ‘defeat’ or ‘overcome’ through the act of facing it. I will always be different, no matter what I think of that fact and no matter what I do to hide or change it. Luckily for me, I am wise enough to not only accept my autism, but to appreciate the many gifts that it grants me. For those reasons I would never wish to change it in spite of the many difficulties it brings.
I am not going to end this picture I am painting with a big ol’ dark, brooding sky, however: I am going to end it with some ‘happy little trees’ to quote Bob Ross. I am justified in doing so, because autism brings with it many skills that some employers have recognised. Others are gradually seeing the light as well.
Take me, for example. I have the ability to focus on particular tasks with immense attention to detail. I once heard autistic focus described thus: where a neurotypical might take in all that they see and then form an overall idea or opinion, an autistic person is very likely to work in the opposite way, taking in one or two small parts of the whole and focusing intensely on these details, before coming to an overall conclusion. This, for obvious reasons, is an incredibly valuable skill to possess in a work environment. Autistic people have the capacity to see problems from an entirely different point of view, making them invaluable teams members. After all, a group comprising of a wide variety of people with alternative approaches to a task will increase the chances of overall success.
Then take into account what I mentioned earlier: my interest in books and authors. People with autism and Aspergers obsess over certain subjects that are referred to by us as ‘special interests’. Often these interests are all-consuming to us to the point where little else matters beyond them (at least in a relative sense, we care deeply about our loved ones and other aspects of our lives, of course). Needless to say, the more a person knows about a particular subject, the more likely they will be able to talk about the subject with conviction or put their knowledge to practical use. When the subject of these special interests contain areas of professional importance, the sky can truly be the limit for an autistic person working in the right environment with the right people and the correct adjustments made for them in the workplace. There was a very good reason why Hans Asperger often referred to the children he studied as ‘little professors’.
Also worthy of note is the fact that autistic people are known to be (on the whole) very loyal and routine-orientated. Most take matters of time-keeping and similar formalities very seriously, making them, in many respects, model employees.
Thank you for reading. Peace and love to you all.
*Masking is the term used among members of the autistic community to denote somebody trying to ‘hide’ their autistic traits in order to better fit in with mainstream society.