Autism and Employment

Since I graduated in 2004 with my Ph.D., I have been unable to hold down a job. I have gone from adjunct position to adjunct position — and I even had a stint as a hotel clerk, returning to the work I did while working on my Master’s degree — until I was finally able to get a Lecturer of English position. I lasted a year. The reason my Lecturer position was not renewed? The list of reasons was of specific examples of the same problem: I have Asperger’s.

I only officially learned I had Asperger’s several months ago, but I came to realize I was on the spectrum several years ago as I was researching my son’s autism. As I shared what I learned, my wife and brother both kept asking me if I was perhaps autistic. Since autism is associated with language delay, and I certainly had not had a language delay — rather, language acceleration — I was certain I wasn’t autistic. But what I was learning about autism certainly described me and my childhood. I didn’t line things up, but I did make lists upon lists upon lists. It turns out that list-making is a form of “lining things up.” Further, my thinking is bottom-up, I have an excellent long-term memory, but horrible short term memory, I am a pattern thinker, I am very analytical, but not very strategic, I have social anxiety, I misread social cues all the time, and my eyes wander when I speak to people (though that had been pointed out in the past enough that I had tried to fix it). I could go on and on, but the sum of the list of stereotypical traits all pointed to my being on the autism spectrum.

I have learned that many people with Asperger’s have a difficult time holding down a job. Some estimates are that 33% of people with Asperger’s are unemployed. They do not do well in social situations, they make poor social judgments, they do not seek help but rather try to figure things out on their own, and they are at work to work and not to socialize. In other words, people with Asperger’s — or autism in general — generally make great workers, but bad employees.

The general attitude seems to be that this is a neurotypical world, and autistic people just need to try to fit into it the best they can. And trust me, that is exactly what we are all trying to do. But sometimes making such a demand is like telling a dolphin to walk over here. As much as he may want to do so, he is limited in what he can in fact do. Yet, by refusing to understand the environment needed by autistics and the social issues surrounding autistics, all of society is losing out. There are a lot of people out there who are strongly analytical, pattern thinkers — quite often with advanced degrees and high I.Q.’s — who cannot keep a job and therefore cannot contribute to society. And all because the social demands are — to the mind of someone on the spectrum — completely overwhelming and often entirely beside the point.

Someone with autism is often wondering if you want to get the job done or if you want to primarily waste time socializing. Socializing and networking are natural for neurotypicals, but are foreign to those on the spectrum. This hardly means we aren’t friendly — or even social, under the right conditions — but we do better one-on-one. And we do much better talking about what interests us (primarily work) than engaging in small talk or gossip. And we do not do well with bureaucracy. But where we fall short in the social department, we more than make up in doing a thorough job. We want to work, and we will work long and hard. We just want to be left alone to do our work. And thus we mistakenly believe that the primary reason we are at a job is to do the work. We are also loyal to a fault — but then, loyalty is not much valued nowadays, either.

Now, imagine what would happen if you had a situation where there was a group of employees who spent equal time working and socializing feeding data to someone with autism, who is working only. The neurotypical employees probably wouldn’t much like the antisocial autistic employee; worse, the autistic employee is working circles around them, making them all look bad. Before long, the autistic employee will find himself “let go” for such vague reasons as his “attitude” and “inability to get along with fellow employees,” neither of which will make the least bit of sense to him. And even if this person figures out what has been going on (after the third or fourth job, and having it pointed out to him by a friend), the best he can do is pretend to be social, all the while continuing to feel the same social anxiety that makes him want to avoid social situations. All that will change is that he will now come up with excuses for why he doesn’t want to be social rather than just blowing things off. This may buy him some time, but how much?

This, indeed, is the situation I have found myself in once again. Each time I get a new job, I say that I’m going to be more social and ask for help more, etc. But that still does not affect my inability to make the same kinds of social judgments as do neurotypicals. If someone tells me they are doing their job, I assume they are in fact doing what they say they are doing and that they are taking care of the situation. By the time I realize they are doing nothing of the sort, I find myself in trouble for not coming forward earlier. I realize I need help well past the time most neurotypicals judge reasonable.

The biggest problem is that both autistics and neurotypicals are treating each other as though each has the same mind as the other — but that’s simply not the case. Yes, there is spectrum of thinking, with severe bottom-up autistic thinking at one end and severe top-down neurotypical thinking at the other and most people somewhere in between, but the problems still do occur. And that’s where the problems lie. Neurotypicals, being more typically strategic thinkers, are inevitably going to find themselves in positions of leadership and thus able to make hiring and firing decisions. They are then judging those on the autism spectrum as thinking like they do; however, there is nothing further from the truth. More, autistics make judgments in error because we expect neurotypicals to say what they mean and to mean what they say, to be dedicated to their work above all things, and to be loyal. As a result, we miss many of the signs that there may be something amiss. And then we are surprised when a problem arises, or when we are suddenly and inexplicably fired.

So what can be done? I think neurotypicals need to be made more aware of the needs of those, like me, on the autism spectrum. I feel like I can write this because I am in the unique position of only recently having learned I have Asperger’s, meaning I have seen the world first without and then with this level of self-awareness. Forty-two years not really understanding myself, but trying to figure out what I was doing wrong. Worse, I spent much of my time getting degrees — a B.A. in recombinant gene technology, then two years of Master’s work in biology, then a M.A. in English, then finally a Ph.D. in the humanities. Why worse? Well, graduate school is almost the perfect environment for autistics to succeed in. But those were years in which I was also isolated from the environment in which I would have to make a living, and that environment — yes, even on the other side of the desk in Universities — is completely different, and almost utterly hostile to those with autism.

That hostility to those on the spectrum is not necessarily on purpose. No one is going to guess right away that I am on the spectrum. I certainly did not guess it myself for decades. Yet, that hostility is there. If you have someone who doesn’t like to socialize, who seems to be an arrogant know-it-all, who gets frustrated in social situations and tends to avoid them, you probably have an autistic employee. Worse, they may not even know they are on the spectrum themselves. And even worse yet, you are probably tempted to fire them. Yet, if you do, you will likely be firing the best worker you have. You will be firing the person who is able — given the time — to fully analyze a situation and come up with the right solution. You will be firing the person who can see the bigger patterns, who can bring everything together in a way nobody else can, to see things nobody else can see.

In other words, there is a population of people out there who could and should be making major contributions to society, whose work could make many people’s lives much better. But they are not being allowed to do so because they are socially awkward and do not understand the neurotypical way of thinking and acting — any more than the neurotypicals understand our way of thinking and acting. Yet, it is the autistics who have to try to understand and fit in. Shouldn’t neurotypicals try to meet us halfway? If you understand the incredible strengths we bring to any endeavor, you will be willing to put up with our “quirks.”

The key, though, is transparency. Those on the spectrum need to make other people aware they are on the spectrum. More, if we understand that what we are dealing with are really two different styles of thinking — though styles founded on differing brain structures — we won’t find each other quite so troublesome. And neuroptyicals need to learn more about autism, so you can recognize it and understand it. With greater understanding on both sides, perhaps we can tap into each other’s strengths and benefit each other. Wouldn’t that be better than firing your best worker just because he’s not your best employee?

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