As autistic kids graduate from high school and enter adulthood, parents ask, “What’s next?” Some will go to college, others won’t, but many will want to enter the work force.
But what kind of work is the individual suited for? Everyone on the spectrum is different. Deciding on a career path involves learning about yourself: What are your interests? Talents? Skills? Consider temperament, personality, and values. Understanding one’s skills and abilities, along with some research of various career possibilities before starting a new job can go a long way towards making it a better experience.
Next, recognize your challenge areas. What do the areas where you are challenged say about you? No two people experience autism in the same way. Accept what can’t be changed, and acquire the tools to change what you can. There are strategies, modifications, accommodations and sometimes, medications that can help your strengths to shine above your weaknesses. You may need to try several strategies until you find the ones that work best for you. It’s a lifelong process that requires patience and hard work, but does get easier with time. The more you learn about yourself, the easier it becomes.
You will also need to research various jobs. Read and talk with people who work in fields that interest you. Arrange information interviews and job shadowing. Your goal is to get to know the occupation.
Then, you must match these vocations with the skills you have identified in the first step. It may be helpful to make a list of your strengths and various areas you find challenging, such as verbal ability, numerical aptitude, spatial skills, motor coordination, speed, multitasking, organizational ability, social savvy – and rate the requirements of each occupation according to this list. This will enable you to see how your particular abilities/disabilities match those required in the particular job. For example, though I can drive, I would not want a job as a driver. It is too much of a challenge for my spatial skills and would be too stressful. Though I love to cook at home, I don’t feel I would be able to perform well on the job, where speed is essential.
Career planning is difficult because it requires dealing with many inferences and unknowns. Even when we find an occupation we think might be suitable, we must consider how our disability will impact it. Books like What Color is Your Parachute assume that their audience can do the planning tasks the book recommends. But many individuals on the spectrum have trouble with executive function – the skills needed to organize one’s thoughts, tasks, things, and time. These are the abilities that allow you to plan, prioritize, and organize, or to grasp a problem area and come up with feasible solutions. Coming up with goals is very hard for folks with an executive function deficit.
Another issue is the autistic individual’s trouble with seeing the big picture. Often, we see the trees but not the forest. We can’t see how the various steps add up to the end result. Due to our lack of flexibility and tendency to perseverate, those on the spectrum can easily get stuck on one track and have problems seeing other possibilities.
These questions can help you with the decisions of the career planning process:
- What is the problem? (Answer: To find a suitable career).
- What is my goal…what do I need to accomplish?
- How easy or difficult will it be to accomplish the goal?
- What plan is needed to accomplish the goal? (What materials do I need, who will do what?)
- What steps do I need to take?
- In what order do I need to do these things?
- How long will it take?
- If a problem arises, what new ways should I think to solve the problem?
- Should I ask for assistance? Who can assist me?
- When I’m finished, let’s review my goal, plan, and accomplishments.
Remember that the goal of all this is to find a suitable work environment. Finding that good fit for people on the spectrum can be very difficult. We may be qualified, but that doesn’t mean it will be a good fit. We need to maximize the probability of workplace success and minimize the possibility of failure.
Because autism is neurological, rather than physical or even psychological, it’s not a cookie cutter diagnosis. It affects everyone differently, in different areas and to different degrees. Self-assessment means finding a balance between knowing about your limitations, learning what to do about them, and not letting them run you into the ground. Aptitude tests can help you recognize your strengths and your areas of weakness as well as the degree of impairments in those areas. It’s imperative that the individual finds a vocation that suits his or her interests and personality style. It is best to avoid jobs that emphasize your weaknesses and find jobs that focus on your strengths.
In order to achieve success in employment, it’s crucial to have a good grasp of individual strengths and weaknesses. This knowledge is vital to choosing an appropriate career direction, and is the first step in developing strategies for success in the workplace and knowing what accommodations will facilitate success. A thorough psycho-vocational assessment is an important step towards self-awareness.
The autistic stereotype describes common characteristics, but not all autistic adults exhibit the same attributes. Not all have problems with social interaction to the same extent. Not all have the same degree of executive function impairment. Not all have the same degree of clumsiness. Therefore, it’s important to know yourself. One tool can be a personal profile, where you list strengths and weaknesses in four areas: cognitive, physical, emotional and social.
Most of us have some idea of what we’re good at and not so good at. There are some things that we just can never do, no matter how hard we work at them. I’ll probably never be a ballerina or a professional athlete. I’m too uncoordinated and slow. But that’s OK. The important thing to remember is that we are all individuals with a unique set of interests, skills, talents, abilities, and challenges. So, the most important thing you can do is to dig deep for information about yourself before going out into the world of work.
ASDs make some things very hard or even impossible. For example, I would never consider becoming a neurosurgeon, a professional ball player, or even a hairdresser (just ask the remains of my Barbie dolls). If a goal is important enough, with time, patience, compensations, and remedial help, it can be achieved. We can learn things that are difficult for us, although they often take us much longer – sometimes ten times as long. So, we must save that energy for things that really matter and forget about the rest. The effort may not be worth the output. It can be a tough decision, because it feels like you’re giving up.
The problem faced by many on the spectrum is that our weaknesses are more pervasive than our strengths. Writing is my strength. But not every job allows me to use this skill. The fact that I have social problems on the job, however, crosses all career fields. I can try to find jobs where I’m more likely to work independently. Yet within every company there are organizational politics to navigate. The same is true when I think and work slower than others. I can avoid jobs where my motor slowness and clumsiness will be an issue, like factory labor. But every job requires one to handle some objects, such as file folders, making copies, and sending faxes. It all requires handling papers, picking them up, laying them down… And those lost seconds add up to minutes and sometimes hours, until I find I simply can’t do the expected amount of work in the allotted time.
Remember, we’re not all alike. We all have personalities, interests, and abilities in addition to our disability. It’s really important to look at all of those things in choosing a job.
Yvona is the author of “Employment for Individuals with Asperger Syndrome or Non-Verbal Learning Disability: Stories and Strategies,” published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2004. She has spoken to autism and disability groups around North America about these issues.