The Glass Maze: Autistic Travels Through the Wilderness of Work
Once upon a time, a young woman stepped off the neatly paved cobblestones of higher education — slightly mossy, with plants peeking through the cracks between pavers — and out into the open grasslands of the working world. Her family and mentors had warned her that she needed to find any way she could to survive in the great expanse of work. And so, like millions of young people before her, she embarked on a rite of passage that would test her every conviction and skill: the Job Hunt. She spent days and nights holed up in coffee shops and libraries, tapping away at draft after draft of a resume with endless permutations — careful arrangements of different facets of her life, presented in ways that would most appeal to as many different kinds of employers as possible. Finally, after throwing dozens of copies of her resume into the void-like sky that hangs above the Plains of Work and receiving nothing in return, she got something back: a glass key in a large white envelope.
That’s a very dramatized, very condensed fictional account of the time I spent between my graduation and the onboarding for my first post-collegiate job: a part-time sales associate position at two New York City retail locations for the notebook brand Moleskine. After two months of submitting online applications for entry-level positions in arts management, the non-profit sector, publishing, museums, and the New York Public Library — all sectors where I felt my recently acquired anthropology degree would be an asset — the only key I had received into the working world was one that felt disappointingly stereotypical: there she goes! Another Ivy League/Seven Sisters/liberal arts grad, working retail to pay rent.
But that fragile glass key was all I had. I understood that, regardless of what doors my fancy degree was supposed to have opened for me, this was the one that stood before me; I was not so proud that I would turn my back on it. I put it in the lock, turned it, and pushed through into the next phase of my crash course in adult working life: the glass maze.
My job history since then tells a story that will sound familiar to anyone who knows or loves someone on the autism spectrum: coming home from a socially demanding job too exhausted to care for myself, struggling to manage simultaneous demands on my attention, learning the basic realities of workplace expectations the hard way, desperately holding a mask of socially acceptable behavior to my face — and doing damage control for the moments when that mask slipped. My knowledge of what would be expected of me in each role I worked in — whether retail, cosmetics PR, or teaching — appeared to be a path clear enough to walk on when laid out before me. However, as time went on, I discovered that being a successful adult wasn’t about walking the path I could see beneath my feet, but about navigating a maze of glass walls that everyone except me seemed to avoid with instinctive ease.
The initial stages of my walks through the glass maze shared a similar pattern: I learned quickly, took on whatever my managers asked of me, and did everything in my power to make sure I seemed as neurotypical as possible. After a while, though, the fatigue of pushing myself to become whoever my role required me to be would make me clumsy; I would arrive late for shifts, or send incomplete press clippings to clients, or forget the cycle of behavior management. It was around this time that I would retreat from having to “perform” normalcy in social spaces or interactions with colleagues, forgoing the opportunity to connect with people who could have become resources or helpers when I needed more support. Once I had reached a critical mass of “conversations” with a manager or senior figure about my performance, I started to freak out whenever they called, emailed, or asked to meet with me — even when those reasons had nothing to do with my job performance.
As I became more and more tired, I became more and more likely to collide with the walls of the glass maze; if I wasn’t conscious of my tone of voice or my posture or my facial expressions or my choice of words, my colleagues and bosses saw my behavior as hostile, defiant, or rude. Pressing the mask to my face harder only exhausted me more, though, and by a certain point I resigned myself to wandering the same two or three familiar paths of the glass maze at work (where I knew I would not make waves or upset anyone), and stumbling out at the end of each shift or workday feeling thin and gray and empty. This phase usually came just before and immediately after a Moment of Reckoning; my boss bringing in another employee to witness him issuing my final warning before termination, or sending me home early after a series of public mistakes and poorly handled reactions — or in one case, firing me and waiting as I packed up my desk, surrounded by colleagues who intentionally avoided meeting my gaze, and walking me to the elevator.
And then I would end up flat on my back on the Plains of Work, staring up into the void where I thought my future should have been.
However fanciful my account of working life has been, the glass maze is not a fantasy for me or any of my autistic peers. Young adults on the autism spectrum are less likely to be employed compared to their disabled peers — when they are, it’s often low wage, part-time work — and 85% of autistic college graduates are unemployed after they leave school. Many don’t have a social network to turn to for support: in one 2016 study, one in four of the autistic young adults surveyed reported being completely isolated, “meaning [they] had not seen or spoken with friends in the past year”. And once they enter the workforce, they have to find their way across minefields of the unspoken rules, expectations, and politicking that define adult working life.
In almost every way, I know I’m one of the lucky ones. My skin is so white it borders on translucent. My higher education, at a prestigious music conservatory and a Seven Sisters college, was not an undue financial hardship for my family. My standard of living is possible because my white, highly educated parents could ascend from working-middle class childhoods to the upper middle class within their own lifetimes.
My invisible disability has never biased a hiring manager against me before we even met, or barred my physical access to the places where I worked. My expression of autism is “high-functioning” to the point where I can pass for quirky. My family and my few close friends are, to my continued surprise, accepting and supportive of me as I am. My current internship empowers me to be openly autistic at work, and my managers have assured me that my research into digital accessibility is as important as my advocacy for the autistic community in my workplace.
But I still bump into the walls of the glass maze every so often, and it hurts just as much now as it did when I sold notebooks at Fulton Center. This is the first time in my working life that I’ve disclosed my disability status before accepting a job—and I still wonder on a daily basis when the other shoe is going to drop.
I’m sick to death of flinching my way through the working, waking hours of my life.
Whatever form my career takes in the future, I know now that I have a mission to carry out. I will walk into every work environment with a paintbrush in hand; every time I hit a glass wall, I mark it for the next person to see. This way, I can hope that the next time an autistic kid wanders out into the Plains of Work, and completes a Job Hunt, and gets their glass key, they will step into the glass maze and walk safely through—perhaps into the future they deserve.