As the 1 in 88 age out of the public school system in the US, autism service providers and organizations are questioning how to best meet the workplace needs of adults of all ages with autism spectrum disorders. As a journalist diagnosed on the autism spectrum myself, I have had my fair share of both failure and success in my jobs. One factor that made my jobs work better were when they involved my special interest. Do special interest-focused jobs motivate other adults on the spectrum, too?
With this question in mind, I interviewed 24 other adults with ASD from the US as well as Canada, the UK, Australia, and Europe. This article explores special interest-focused jobs for adults on the spectrum and their role in helping some individuals on the spectrum to find meaningful and enjoyable careers. I cover participants’ interests within and beyond technology fields, job creation from personal passions, and success in careers that value hyper-focus, “monologuing,” and specialized knowledge.
As an analytical, highly-knowledgeable person who is curious and self-motivated to explore topics of interest, Julia has qualities any employer would envy. Yet the United Kingdom 31-year-old struggles with finding and keeping work. One of 24 adults with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) from around the globe that were interviewed, Julia faces a conundrum all-too-common for employees on the spectrum.
Finding appropriate jobs for people with ASD is a pressing concern. “Entry level” jobs may prove difficult, discouraging us from working. Betina from Denmark told me one job “that did not fit my traits” was “being an assistant in institutions,” something the 59-year-old has tried several times. “I always end up being worn out and worse functioning, little by little, and getting sacked or having a nervous breakdown.”
79% of those I interviewed experienced undue difficulties in finding, handling, or keeping their jobs. These individuals were also smart, talented, and passionate. Diagnosed with ASD myself, I know how it feels to fail in the workplace. Yet with my passions at the heart of my job, I am motivated and successful. With a little creativity, any “special interest” (the intense passion for specific, often-unusual subjects associated with autism) can become a career and yield an energetic and happy workforce out of those currently struggling in interpersonal, skill-heavy and unfulfilling jobs.
Instead of giving up, Betina followed her special interests. “My true wish would be to have all the time in the world for music, arts, research, writing, and teaching,” she shared. Because of her intense focus in these areas, Betina both excelled at and enjoyed her job as a music and art adult educator. And the others at her workplace recognized her abilities. “I was totally absorbed day and night and was regarded as a good teacher,” she explained.
Not Just Technology
The latest workplace diversity model enlists employees with autism for computer programming, data entry, and other information technology tasks. Recruiters might fawn over 39-year-old Camille, a Canadian whose dream job is “data modeling or data analysis,” or Carsten, a 30-year-old from Denmark, who likes his current work maintaining agricultural databases and running computer coding classes for coworkers.
Companies must not generalize that everybody with autism is naturally adept at IT. For many with ASD, talents in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics come from intensive interests, not just intrinsic skills. Camille’s special interests include databases, languages, symbols, and electronics, so it makes sense that she would rock a data analysis-based position. Carsten’s special interests are information technology and games. No wonder he adores what he does.
Creating Jobs from Interests
The ocean of abilities and interests within the autism community reminds service providers to respect individuality during job coaching. What better way to personalize careers than fusing special interests and imagination?
“I know my stuff when it comes to kids programs and books. I am serious,” said Emma. The 28-year-old Canadian who “used to have a special thing for board books” wants to purchase and recommend children’s books.
Shay, a 22-year-old American, is devoted to plants and wants to be “creating or supporting something that others can enjoy.” Her ideal job involves “providing green spaces for people on and off the spectrum to enjoy.” She is currently considering careers in horticulture therapy and landscape architecture.
29-year-old David, also from the US, envisions combining his special interests – social justice, math, and education – to innovate resources, perhaps by “coming up with ways to streamline education further, like incorporating it into videogames” or “brainstorming with others on the creation of a new education curriculum.”
To best reach more adults in the autism community, organizations from all industries ought to reach out to and support employees with special interests that correspond to their lines of business.
Viewed as a Weaknesses
Unfortunately, not everybody sees our special interests as positive. “I am intensely interested in issues that concern individuals with autism spectrum diagnoses, particularly Asperger’s,” said Graham, a 29-year-old American who works as a therapist. “The problem with this, though, is that a lot of people see this as negative obsession. They say I’m a workaholic and that I need to have fun, and that I should broaden my horizons by learning about other disorders too.” He’s confused: “I enjoy what I learn about, so I don’t know why that’s such a big deal.”
It’s not that we lack the smarts or skills to work. But current office climates aren’t always friendly to our types of minds. In work cultures that value multitasking, our abilities to super-focus on topics of interest are viewed as a weakness. Personal and professional connections don’t always see our special interests as the strengths they are.
Instead of seeing people with ASD as preoccupied and narrow-minded, look at us as experts. “I am very focused on something if I am interested in it – obsessed,” explained Mallory, a 30-year-old from the US. “I absorb as much as I can like a sponge and take in more in one sitting than most neurotypical people would ever consider. I notice and remember details that others do not.”
45-year-old Zachary from Canada agrees. He has “a very broad knowledge base with a quick recall of relevant material. I have a prodigious memory, well-honed” in his special interest areas.
“My interest saved the day when someone misidentified the subject of a painting,” said Katherine, a 46-year-old American whose work relates to her special interests of Medieval European history, art, and costumes. “The painting was of Oliver Cromwell, but the person in the show was talking about Thomas Cromwell, who lived nearly 100 years earlier.”
And Graham? His interest “has dovetailed nicely into the work I do now,” he explained. “My focus on Aspie-related issues allows me to be very well-versed in my professional roles where I am working with an Aspie. I feel that being an in-depth expert in a single topic, while perhaps limiting my ability to work with other populations, strengthens my ability to work with Aspies.”
Job coaches discourage workers on the spectrum from making informal speeches about special interests, but some jobs demand it. Paired with her graphic design and swimming passions, Mallory’s penchant for information holds her in good stead. “I teach swimming lessons and it allows me to monologue,” she said. “I work at a screen-print shop and can rattle off a lot about how our ordering process works and the different types of information that I need to calculate a quote.” It’s rewarding to find jobs in which our hyper-focus is useful and valuable.
Intensity isn’t a detriment. During a crisis, I’d want a rescue worker like Matt around because he has his heart in the job. The 20-year-old Canadian counts “helping others” and emergency services among his special interests. “It is a great experience,” Matt said of his involvement in volunteer firefighting and the auxiliary police. “Along with helping others, you feel that you’re a part of something by being on scene.”
Easing Career Changes
Katherine used to love how her job fit into her special interests, “but after working at it for thirteen years, I’m over it.” Changes are tough for anyone, even without autism’s deep need for routine. Katherine is not having a crisis, however, about what to do next. She’s just turning to her other special interests: “I would like to be able to knit and make jewelry well enough to make a living doing only that.” Katherine used her special interests to her advantage to make a graceful transition between fields.
Currently a subject matter expert in First Nations treaty negotiations, Zachary also used this underplayed adaptive strategy. By working in the theater, the foreign service, and private practice for law and medicine, Zachary has explored law, medicine, politics, theater, and travel – all of his special interests.
Loving Our Life and Livelihood
Perhaps most importantly, an engaging career improves quality of life for adults on the autism spectrum. “I’d love to just raise ornamental and edible plants,” said Shay of career ideas beyond horticultural therapy and landscape architecture. “I think it would be dreamy to work at a botanical garden or in some sort of urban center.” Listen to the passion in her voice: her job would be “dreamy”; she’d “love” it.
24-year-old Niklaas, who hails from the Netherlands, likes his current work in bookkeeping and accounting. “My job has to do with numbers and with the economy, two things I am very interested in,” he said. “Because of this, my job keeps being interesting for me and enjoyable to do.”
Happily Ever After?
Julia’s special interests are human sciences and learning, so she was directing her passion toward finding work interpreting neuroimaging. Now, “I’ve realized that I have an interest in how people learn,” she told me. Julia shone at her volunteer job assisting individuals with mental illnesses and learning disabilities, and is currently exploring “whether I’d like to look at the neuropsychology side or do something more practical like teaching and creating learning materials.”
Like Julia, 58% of people I interviewed felt that their dream job related to their special interests. But why aren’t bookstores and libraries warring over who gets Emma for their children’s sections? Which botanical garden will support Shay with her social and sensory issues as she contributes vitally to the organization? Adults on the spectrum need programs supporting passion-based employment.
While it won’t revolutionize every worker’s experience, special interest integration can be the key to happy and successful employment for some people on the spectrum. Emma’s most positive work experiences came from “having others be accepting of my strengths and weaknesses and being able to do what I love.”
Our special interests come with positive qualities like intensity, motivation, and expert-level knowledge. Our energy and enthusiasm about them translates to job dedication. And as we bring value to the organizations for which we work, so too will we find happiness and fulfillment in our own lives.
Emily Brooks is a journalist on the autism spectrum. She advocates through her writing for broader acceptance of members of the disability, queer, and gender-nonconforming communities. Emily lives in Brooklyn, New York, where she works with children and teenagers with autism and other disabilities. For more information please visit www.emilybrooks.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org.