Autism and Employment

20 Jul

Finding a job for a person with autism can be a real challenge. One thing I have found is that my imagination towards what I would like to do doesn’t cover the big picture. What I mean is that I believe my autism makes it difficult for me to understand all of the things that would make a job challenging for me, such as sensory issues, and strong fears.

Another challenge that my autism has created in finding work is that I am often unable to come up with ideas on my own. I may know that I need to work, and I know that I need the income, but trying to figure out where to go from there is very overwhelming.

This feeling of being overwhelmed is often interpreted by others as being negative, or not wanting to work at all. This is not true for me. I simply cannot come up with ideas on what I would be good at, and the fear and anxiety brings me to a point where I want to shut down and hide.

I do believe that due to my autism and severe anxiety issues, it would be best for me to be able to find online work that I can do from home. If I can control the environment, take breaks when I need, and have very minimal contact with others, I believe that would take away a lot of my job related issues.

Writing resumes, and especially making contacts, and going for interviews, can be especially difficult for people with autism. For me, I am a very quiet person. Having lived for nearly 40 years without a diagnosis has also had a strong impact on my confidence levels. I have spent a lifetime being told in which areas I fail to reach people’s standards, but have had very little feedback about what I might do well.

With this background, to walk into an interview, and try and tell someone why I would be the best person for that job is nearly impossible. Luckily, I have had some opportunities which were presented to me in ways that I was able to be successful, and find some work.

I have had 5 different jobs in my life. Every one of those jobs I was able to get due to prior education. Having that education to back me up meant I had some tool to share in an interview that might allow the employer or client to see my potential, without having to share a lot about myself.

The jobs that I was able to get hired for were:

  • Family Childcare Provider
  • Foster Parent/Adoptive Parent
  • Construction – renovating a community pool
  • Construction – factory work building roof trusses
  • Hospitality – Front Desk Agent/Housekeeping at a motel

While I was able to get hired for all of these positions, and pass the home inspections for both childcare and foster care, that does not mean all of these jobs were a good fit for me.

I took Early Childhood Education through my local college. From there I was able to open a family daycare, and after a few years of experience, was able to pass a home study to adopt 3 children from the foster care system. I had a young child that I wanted to homeschool during those years. For that reason, my number one fixation was child development and education.

I was really good at scheduling, planning and implementing activities, maintaining a routine, and physically caring for the children in both work types. My autism, however, made it difficult to be flexible. I struggled with unpredictability, as well as some of the sensory issues such as loud noises. This brought others to see me as rigid, controlling, and with values too high to provide the older children especially with freedom to grow.

I could work with the children, but working with the parents and social workers when they wanted me to change my routine was nearly impossible. In the end, the characteristics of my autism were too much for the social workers, and the children I was trying to adopt were moved.

Most of the parents and children that came to my daycare were pleased with the service I provided. However, after losing the children I was trying to adopt, it was too heartbreaking for me to work with other people’s children.

I got my job at the motel because I had taken online high school level computer courses that were covered by the government. They were having trouble finding workers who were able to use the computer well. I did have an interview for that job, but mostly he was asking what I was willing to do, and then said he would give me a chance before he made a decision.

Some of my autistic traits made me a good fit for this job. I am a very reliable worker. I am always early for my shifts, and was too anxious most of the time to call in sick or ask for time off. I am very good with repetition, so once I was taught what to do, I would do it the same way, in the same order, every time. That meant that very little was missed in my work. I am highly aware of time, and so was really good at keeping up with the laundry, and getting the rooms cleaned within the allotted time. My handwriting is neat, and I am compulsive in getting my paperwork done correctly.

I liked a lot of my work, but the things that I struggled with increased my anxiety so badly that I could not continue in this job. I had a lot of trouble if people interrupted my script for checking them in or out. I could not be flexible if guests asked for things outside of what we offered, such as coming early for breakfast, or staying in the pool after hours. I could not handle criticism/complaints or loud or aggressive guests. I could not handle the shiftwork.

From the day before my shift until the last 10 minutes of my final shift (as long as I had at least two days off together) my anxiety went into extreme, and I had multiple daily panic attacks. I could not think. I could not relax. I could not focus on anything. The entire time I was working in that job I was burnt out and could not ‘live’ outside of the work – even if I was only working 3 shifts a week.

My construction jobs I did in between my two periods of time at the motel. I needed to get out of the motel job before I had a major meltdown which ended in failure. The government was funding for women to be trained in trades programs. I took Gateway to the Building Trades followed by Residential Construction (where our big project was building a house.)

I was really good at the theory part of construction. I could memorize facts and solve problems without issue. Half the class failed the theory in that course, but I got over 94%. The practical part, however, was a bad fit from the beginning. Construction is loud, heavy, and very dirty. There is always a lot going on around, and workers are expected to jump in to learn each activity (which is very much against my personality.)

I am also very much a visual autistic. I see a constant stream of pictures in my mind, and that is how I think. That was not appreciated, however, when I was always afraid of accidents for myself and my classmates, as I was constantly seeing them in my mind though little of it ever came through. I was afraid of heights, and many of the tools, and especially using those tools in such a large and hectic environment.

The sensory issues in my actual construction jobs were much worse. There was a lot of heavy lifting, jack hammers constantly going, loud music and flashing laser lights in the factory. We had to be constantly moving for 8-10 hours every day. I was burnt out in 2 days on each job, and was literally praying for an accident (to break my leg or wrist or something) throughout my entire time at both jobs. The first one lasted 8 days, and the second lasted for 3 weeks, though I did try to quit after the first week.

After that I went back to the motel. It was something I knew how to do, but very quickly all of my old challenges came back.

I would not exactly say that I am a success story for people with autism finding meaningful work. In fact, until I knew I had autism (about a month ago) I viewed my life as a series of failures, and could not understand why I could not function properly in the workplace.

I have not had more than one successful year at a time for school or work since I started 9th grade. I was 24 before I had my first job, and I had to create that one for myself. The world is a difficult place for a person with autism, and I am still struggling to find my place to belong.

In conclusion, I do believe there are many strengths that people with autism have for the workplace. The challenge is finding an environment where we are able to function at our best (for me this is likely at home) and being given the training and opportunities to prove ourselves rather than depending on the interview. Along the way, we all will need a lot of support and understanding in order to find our place of success.


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