Perkins School for the Blind Transition Center

Preparing for Work

Recently I received a phone call, and the caller asked me if a bright man with Asperger’s was capable of having a job. He was in his late teens and his father thought that he was fully capable of working but his mother felt that her son would not be able to live independently. This youth had already completed some college computer science classes and had received good grades. My response was that this youth probably would be fully capable of getting and keeping a job.

The first step is to determine his job skills. Some individuals will be capable of high level careers and others will have to do simple jobs. I have observed that sometimes teachers and parents of smart “Aspie” kids have expectations that are too low. A boy who has received good grades in a computer science class should not be bagging groceries for the rest of his life. However, one summer of bagging groceries would probably be good for learning job skills, such as being polite and being on time. One of my first jobs was hand sewing of hems on dresses. When I was 13, I did this job two afternoons a week for a seamstress who worked out of her home. I liked buying things with the money I earned. When I was 15, mother made arrangements for me to visit my aunt’s ranch. Like many people on the autism spectrum, I was afraid to go to the ranch. Fortunately, mother insisted that I go and I ended up loving it. Individuals on the spectrum need to be exposed to new things. My experiences at the ranch became the foundation of my career designing cattle facilities.

Slow Transition to the Work World

The transition from school to a career will be easier if the transition is made slowly. Learning work skills should start in middle school and continue throughout high school and college. Unfortunately, I have seen smart Asperger students who have graduated from college and they have never done a job for somebody else. They had never walked dogs, mowed lawns, worked at McDonalds or bagged groceries. My transition to work started when I was 13. When I was in college, I continued to visit my aunt’s ranch, but I also interned at a research lab and a summer program for children with autism. These were very valuable work experiences. I also did freelance sign painting and carpentry projects.

Never Too Late to Start

Parents have said to me, “My son is 35 and he has never worked – it’s probably too late to change his life.” It is never too late. A person on the spectrum always keeps developing and growing. I was 50 when I learned about how people have little social eye movement signals. Many people have told me that my lectures have improved between the ages of 50 and 60. I always keep learning and I did not even feel like I was an adult until I was in my 40’s.

Both Mother and Work Colleagues Pushed Me

I was often reluctant to try new things but mother made me go to the ranch. I had two choices; I could go for two weeks or all summer. It is important to urge people on the spectrum to try new things, but there must be NO surprises. Sudden surprises cause panic. Mother prepared me for the trip to the ranch months in advance. I was given pictures of the ranch and talked to Aunt Ann on the phone.

No Multitasking

There are two things at work that all individuals on the spectrum may have difficulty with. They are multitasking and remembering long strings of verbal instructions. I would have a difficult time being a waitress in a busy restaurant. Learning the social part would be easy, but trying to remember all the orders would be hard. Some entry level jobs would be more difficult for me to perform than my career designing cattle handling facilities. When I design cattle equipment there is no multitasking. A simple accommodation for remembering long strings of verbal instruction is to ask your boss to email them. Just tell your boss you love email and you will do your best work with written instructions.

Mentors Saved Me

I stopped fooling around in school and started studying when Mr. Carlock, my science teacher, got me interested in science. Now I had a goal of becoming a scientist so I started studying. Parents and teachers often ask me how to find mentors. A good mentor might be a retired engineer who gets a teenager or adult turned on to engineering. One mother taught her son the old fashioned FORTRAN computer language. That was the only language she knew. Teaching something old is perfectly fine because it gets the individual turned on. After this teenager had learned FORTRAN, he was now motivated to learn the more modern programming languages. Mentoring is required to get an interest started that can turn into a career. Learning a higher skill such as computer programming requires discipline and teaching. Very few teenagers will go out and obtain textbooks on high level subjects unless a good teacher turned them on. This teenager developed programming skills and is now employed.

Learning to Do an Assignment

The ability to draw or to write can only be turned into a career when the individual is willing to do an assignment for somebody else. When I painted a sign for a beauty shop, I had to make a sign they would like. Cattle pictures would not have been appropriate. A teenager may want to draw cars over and over. Parents and teachers should work to broaden his art skills by asking for a drawing of a place a car might go to. If the individual is good at writing, encourage him to start doing writing assignments such as writing a neighborhood newsletter. When I first started in the livestock industry, I wrote a single article each month for the Arizona Farmer Ranchman Magazine. My career started one small project at a time.

Sell Your Work

Since I was awkward socially, I sold my work instead of myself. I sold sign painting and cattle design projects by showing a portfolio of my work. Even though people thought I was really weird, they were impressed when they saw my drawings. When I wrote articles for the magazine, I quickly developed a reputation for accurate reporting. When I covered the Arizona Cattle Feeder’s meeting, they respected the fact that I never misquoted a speaker at a meeting.

About Dr. Temple Grandin

Temple Grandin, PhD, is inarguably the most accomplished and well-known adult with autism in the world. She has been featured on major television programs, such as “ABC’s Primetime Live”, the “Today Show”, “Larry King Live”, “48 Hours” and “20/20” and written up in national publications, such as Time magazine, People magazine, Forbes, U.S. News and World Report, and New York Times. Among numerous other recognitions by media, Bravo Cable did a half-hour show on her life, and she was one of the “challenged” people featured in the best-selling book, Anthropologist from Mars.

Dr. Grandin didn’t talk until she was three and a half years old, communicating her frustration instead by screaming, peeping and humming. In 1950, she was labeled “autistic,” and her parents were told she should be institutionalized. She tells her story of “groping her way from the far side of darkness” in her book Emergence: Labeled Autistic, a book which stunned the world because, until its publication, most professionals and parents assumed being diagnosed “autistic” was virtually a death sentence to achievement or productivity in life.

Dr. Grandin has become a prominent author and speaker on the subject of autism because “I have read enough to know that there are still many parents, and, yes, professionals, too, who believe that ‘once autistic, always autistic.’ This dictum has meant sad and sorry lives for many children diagnosed, as I was in early life, as autistic. To these people, it is incomprehensible that the characteristics of autism can be modified and controlled. However, I feel strongly that I am living proof that they can.” (Taken from Emergence: Labeled Autistic)

Even though she was considered “weird” in her young school years, she eventually found a mentor, who recognized her interests and abilities, which she later expanded into becoming a successful livestock handling equipment designer, one of very few in the world. She has designed the facilities in which half the cattle are handled in the United States, consulting for firms such as Burger King, McDonald’s, Swift and others.

She presently works as Professor at Colorado State University but also speaks around the world on both autism and cattle handling.

Dr. Grandin’s current autism best seller is The Way I See It. She also authored – Animals Make us Human, Animals in Translation, Unwritten Rules of Social Relationships, Thinking in Pictures and Other Reports From My Life With Autism, Emergence: Labeled Autistic and produced the video –Dr. Temple Grandin (DVD), which can be obtained from Future Horizons. At every Future Horizons conference on autism, the audience rates her presentation as 10++.

Have a Comment?