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John Elder Robison

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Finding Challenging Work

Posted: 04/ 2/2012 7:50 am

How does an autistic person establish himself or herself in a satisfying career? That's the challenge we all face, and the degree to which we succeed varies quite widely. A lot depends on our social skills, or lack thereof. In my book Be Different (Broadway), I talk about several concepts whose mastery will help you get and keep almost any kind of job.

The first concept is that of chooseability. What I mean by that is simply making yourself someone another person would choose, rather than pass over or out and out reject. How do you do that? By acquiring a modicum of manners, so that our politeness excuses our occasional strange behavior. We make ourselves chooseable by acting the way other people expect us to act, which leads to the second point:

Watch. Wait. Imitate. That's what my grandfather told me, years ago, and it's still true today. When you want to join a group of people, pay attention to how they are dressed, how they are talking, and what they are doing. Take simple steps to blend in. If everyone there wears slacks and button-up shirts, don't walk in with shorts and a tee.

Some ask, "How can I do those things, and still be true to myself?" In some cases, you can't. In my opinion, those are places you (or I) probably don't belong. If you have to go way outside your comfort zone to look and act like the others in a group, that is probably not the scene for you.

I never advise people to be fake. What I do suggest is learning when to speak up and when to be quiet. Keeping your mouth shut is not "faking." It's fine to speak your mind if it's a compliment. However, in the workplace, well-meaning criticisms like "You sound like a dummy," or "You look fat in that shirt" will almost certainly get you in trouble. Better to say nothing in those cases.

Those are the two key skills you need to make it past the all-important interview. From there, we move on to the next issue, abilities. For many of us, that leads to our special abilities and interests. Most people have some kind of special interest. You can probably think of examples right where you live, like the neighbor who collects beer mugs or a friend who's fascinated by sports scores. Both know a great deal about their special interests, but they probably make a living doing something else.

For most people, a job and a special interest are two different things. The fellow who knows the batting averages of all the major league players actually works in a bank. The neighbor who collects beer mugs is an engineer. There's little or no relationship between the things they love (their hobbies or interests) and the things they do to earn a living.

If you ask them why, they might well look at you with surprise. Should there be a connection? "I work to get the money to do what I want," is a common refrain. That's true for all people -- not just autistics -- but it's particular applicable to us. All too often, one of us who's an absolute genius with math is flipping burgers or doing basic manual labor.

That sort of gross mismatch of skills and work is all too common for folks on the spectrum. What can we do about it? We can find employers or clients who appreciate what we are really good at. That's how I became successful, and it's what keeps me going now.

While some people I knew took those dead-end jobs, I found commercial applications for the things I loved and did better than anyone else. As a teenager, three of my enduring special interests were music, electronics, and cars. I was able to turn all three into paying work through my adult lifespan.

It was harder to do that, but it paid off. One thing that helped was going out on my own. I never fit the corporate mold very well anyway, and freed of that I was able to create things my clients wanted. That's how my car business got to where it is today, and it's key to my writing and photography success, too.

Often, folks on the spectrum have trouble with the traditional job application process because we do not have the expected credentials. We may have the skill, but lack the degree or certification. What then?

Obviously, the first solution is to get the credentials, but for many of us that presents an almost-insurmountable barrier. Failing that, we can try and attract the attention of employers by working gratis in the field. For example, making a name for oneself in the open source software community has led to solid employment for several people I know.

Then there is the path I took -- self-employment. It's not for everyone, but if it works, you can be very successful indeed. Indeed, most millionaires in this country are self-employed people. You could not be a research chemist without the resources of a big lab, but you could certainly set up shop as a tax preparer, or cabinetmaker, or any of a thousand other trades. Many of those businesses have the potential to grow into bigger businesses whose potential is limited only by our own vision and capacity.

You could even be a professional inventor, like my geek friend Bob Jeffway. After starting out as an engineer at Milton Bradley, Bob went out on his own, and he's done really well for himself.

I find self-employment to be more secure than having a job. In a job, I am always at risk for the whims of management. No matter how good a job I do, they could decide to lay us off and move engineering to India, or make other drastic changes, and there'd be nothing I could do. As a self-employed person, I answer to my clients, and I have a lot of them, so my income derives from a much bigger base.

I know it's not easy, but for many of us, self-sufficiency and independence are attainable goals, and I've described a number of paths for getting there.

When our interests align with our autistic abilities, our potential is vastly greater than if we try to do something that isn't a good match. For me, that difference makes the difference between being extraordinarily good at something and being mediocre at best. My uneven autistic intelligence keeps me from being a high level generalist in the workforce, but the peaks of my intelligence keep me on top, as long as I find places to use them. I hope the same will prove true for you.

John Robison is the author of Look Me in the Eye and Be Different, just out in paperback.

For more by John Elder Robison, click here.

For more on autism, click here.