Autistic People and Employment

Not knowing about my autistic traits made work confusing and challenging.  Life was really fairly generally tricky and wobbly.

Now I know so much more, and all is easier for I have a framework to understand myself and others, and bring the two outliers together.

This has made my current life better, and my future work also.  I have the will, so I will find the way.


I Didn’t Know Why it was so Hard

When I started to explore autism and employment, the more I read the more I wanted to know and understand. It was a revelation that I was like the majority of autistic people who have had great difficulty with employment and finances.

Work has been one of my greatest challenges, and I didn’t know why until my family’s autistic traits were discovered through our son’s diagnosis in 2013.

As of December 2017, I am a stay at home Mum with 2 autistic kids, a 6 year old lass and a 7 year old lad.

When my daughter was born in 2011, I knew I could no longer manage to work.  The stress at navigating the social dynamics at my job, was too great along with managing 2 babies under 2.  I didn’t know I was autistic, but I knew it was just too hard.  I grieved my work identity for years, as I hated giving up the community nursing role that has taken me years to get to.

After my son’s diagnosis in 2014, I also gave up a Masters of Counselling that I had just started, and all future plans of a career.  I knew he was my most important person to support, and I was overwhelmed by how many appointments we needed to start his early intervention.


Me At Work

When I researched autistic people’s experience of employment, I was shocked to find that the unemployment rates were 35% to 85%.  That we worked consistently less hours and had lower earnings than the overall population. Terrible for all, and another new revelation about what life is like for many autistic people, including myself.

Many autistic people have difficulty not only finding a job, but also keeping it. As with me, it’s not the job tasks that were problematic, it was my impaired social capacity. I often got jobs as I managed the structured interactions of the interview well.  But then when socialising became more informal and complex, I struggled with social confidence and competence. I always used to wonder why with great intentions, things didn’t work out for me.  I didn’t look ‘impaired,’ but I often felt clueless and confused and I didn’t know why.

Before I understood my seemingly odd cluster of traits, I just knew that I had to arrange my life to manage my sensory and social overwhelm. However I couldn’t do that at work, as you can’t pick the people you work with or the unspoken culture you enter.


Doing my Best

When I was looking at job adverts, I wouldn’t apply for the ones that asked for ‘a flexible team player who could multi task, while thriving under pressure.’ I knew I wouldn’t want to be there and that employers would see my style and approach as undesirable. No-one was right or wrong, it just wasn’t a good match.

From my first job I was diligently keen, and I worked hard at tasks not socialising. I thought you went to work to achieve things, but then I realised that Friday night drinks and lunchroom banter was also important for productivity, belonging and advancement.

Being socially motivated I wanted to connect, and generally gave it a go.  My chatting attempts generally felt child like, and were sometimes okay.   I either didn’t know what was expected of me; or if I did, I didn’t feel normal, witty, interested, clever, ‘cool’ or cynical enough. I looked for one or two people to talk to about deeper things, and left networking to those who enjoyed it.


My Tricky Autistic Traits

I now have great compassion for my efforts; and know that like others, I really did try hard to manage my overwhelm, stress, anxiety and interactions. That I was fighting hard to manage my wobbly organisational skills, auditory processing delays and however else my brain is not ‘typical.’   I was trying to read people and groups, while attempting to negotiate all of this with my employers and peers. I had no instructions about them or me.

I tried to choose roles where there was flexibility about how a task was done, so I could achieve expectations with my own processes. At the time, I didn’t drive which reduced my options, and I also only worked part time to ensure I had enough time to be replenish for work and myself. Open plan offices left me feeling over stimulated and exposed, so I aimed to work in environments where I could have quiet so I could function and perform. All this felt nit picky but crucial, as I had to put limits around myself to simply manage let alone thrive.

I have a disposition for anxiety and depression, and I’m not sure if it’s due to a neurological vulnerability, or a lifetime of social stuff ups. Probably both. My confidence was never high, and my recurrent job wobbles left me feeling worse and even more confused about myself.


Autistic Strengths at Work

In the articles I looked at ASD strengths at work, and the ones that I resonated with the most was my determination and persistence. I do work hard at what I put my mind to.

Other positive traits I related to were being loyal, good at sticking to a shared goal and strategy, and when a special interest kicks in I have great enthusiasm! Also I am good at routine and ‘boring.’ Give me a predictable 9am to 4pm role, where order and certainty are ever present and I will be there. I used to be reliable and have a good memory before I had kids, now we’ll see.

Yet, we are all more than our cluster of spectrum traits, and I hope that my own bundle of unique skills and a well-intended soul will mean something to an employer and organisation. That a reflective and mindful attitude, will be able to create positive bridges of communication and understanding.


A Dream of a Peer Support

in 2015, when I started exploring employment support programs I read that personal discrimination negatively impacts self-esteem, yet being in a group that is discriminated against, increases it. So providing an often isolated community with a place to be apart of a group, may not only assist their employment opportunities, but also their connectedness and whole well being.

I thought about how great would it be to learn with other autistic people, about how to navigate the social stuff I am seemingly blind too, and feel camaraderie in our shared experiences.

That I would love to sit with people and openly explore how they, and I actually do come across and how people react to us. To discuss effective ways of managing stress, bullying or conflict, and how to let things go after work. That it would be so helpful to be apart of a self-managed peer lead group for support, information and problem solving.

Now in 2017, I have been so pleased to see several employment programs established in Australia and across the world.  A few friends have gained employment this way, and they are loving it.

It has been recognised that autistic people can contribute to group wisdoms about how to manage challenges and build on strengths. They have used their self-determination and advocacy to persuasively creating personal change and societal understanding.

Theory of mind has been asked from autistic people about ‘normal’ thinking, however non-autistic people could also get into our thoughts and experiences.  Wonderfully his is happening and this dialogue has  create a common understanding of needs and strengths, to co-create general and specific employer accommodation guidelines.  Yay!


Innovative Solutions

I was then so inspired when I read about not for profit organisations creating sustainable employment, by using autistic innate talents. Then I found amazing parents of autistic adults have created businesses for their kids and others. They are doing wonderful things to provide meaningful opportunities for their kids and community.

So an employer may or may not be able to accommodate me, so I am aiming to be apart of my own solution.  I have seen autistic adults create fantastic enterprises for the autistic and general community.  They have offered services that come with unique and insightful perspectives, that could only have been founded by their unique lived experiences.

Mindfulness has become my thing, as it has changed my daily lived experience.  I hope to offer resources that can enable autistic people and those who love them, the opportunity to create a life that is wonderful for them.

There is a will, and I will find a way. It will probably be meandering and peculiar as usual, but forward is the direction of skill building and gaols. It is the journey not the destination I am focusing on, and I hope it will all be surprising and wonderful.

Inspired and able, as are you.

Gabrielle. xo.

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