Early diagnosis and services beginning in grade school mean that employment is a possibility for more and more people with autism. However, even those who earn college degrees or complete vocational training programs struggle to find jobs that are manageable. Some individuals are stunned to fail at entry-level jobs that should have been “easy” given their academic achievements. Others pursue education or receive training related to an interest, only to discover that they are not suited to jobs in the field. Still others do not receive effective accommodations for communication, visual strategies, or social interaction.
Finding the right job match requires patience and a pragmatic approach. Intellect alone is not a predictor of vocational success (or failure). Special interests do not always lead to gainful employment. Although generalizations can be made about the best and worst types of jobs and work environments, one must always consider the impact of autism on a specific individual.
Some of my coaching clients believe that they are unqualified for any job calling for good people skills and the ability to multitask; removing themselves from the labor pool. However, these general terms can mean very different things depending on an industry, job function, and company. More often, an understanding supervisor, job tasks that emphasize abilities, and workplace accommodations are the best indicators of vocational success.
After graduating from college with a major in English, Tina discovered a paucity of writing jobs in her area. Deciding to establish herself in the business world, she took a job as a customer service representative at a large insurance company. Although she was thorough and accurate, it took her longer than average to complete customer calls. One of the primary difficulties was her inability to simultaneously listen to customers and type their comments into the database. Customers who became angry or impatient made Tina so anxious that she would spend breaks crying in the ladies room.
After a few months, the stress became too much and Tina asked whether she could transfer to a different position. She turned down a secretarial job, realizing that it would be fast-paced, unpredictable, and that she would be expected to work independently. “I have to be told exactly what is expected,” she explained, “and I can’t keep track of too many projects.”
Tina’s other option was receptionist. She accepted the job, even though it involved dealing with the public. Her anxiety about interacting with strangers was offset by the routine and structure. For example, it was comforting for Tina that there was a specific process to follow when logging visitors.
Although she was successful, the job left Tina drained at end of each day. It took a lot of energy to remember to smile and offer a pleasant greeting. “People tell me sometimes that I sound angry, when I’m not,” she said. Co-workers would frequently stop by the reception desk and ask Tina to prepare visitor badges in advance. This was unnerving because Tina often forgot part of the person’s name, and confused dates and times.
Sometimes, Tina didn’t recognize staff members she knew well and asked them for ID. “They think that I am joking,” she explained, “but I worry that I may let visitors into the building that I shouldn’t.” On one particularly busy day, Tina issued a visitor badge to someone she thought she recognized, who had rushed passed her flashing an ID. Concerned about the possible security breach, Tina reported the incident to her supervisor who responded by giving Tina a written warning.
Fearful that she could lose her job, Tina disclosed her Asperger’s Syndrome to her human resources manager. The manager arranged a meeting for Tina and her supervisor to discuss accommodations. In the meantime, Tina and I met to strategize.
We made a list of each challenge she faced, how it impacted her performance, and what accommodation was needed. One of Tina’s challenges was being distracted by the television. “It’s noisy, and people tend to congregate around it and talk,” she said.
When I asked what would solve the problem, Tina said, “Getting rid of the T.V., but the company’s not going to do that.”
“What if the set was turned off during your shift?” I asked.
Tina agreed that this sounded like a reasonable request. We also discussed her trouble processing the verbal requests for visitor badges. She decided to ask that employees submit requests in writing, at least 24 hours in advance.
A concern was that Tina’s failure to recognize faces when she experienced significant stress could raise questions about her ability to perform the job. Since it happened infrequently, and with employees who belonged in the building anyway, Tina chose not to bring it up at the meeting.
So that the conversation with her supervisor and the HR manager would be less intimidating, Tina drafted a letter that outlined her accommodation requests. After reading her requests, Tina’s manager immediately agreed to implement them and volunteered an idea of her own. Signs would be posted in the lobby informing visitors that they had to present identification to the receptionist.
The changes made Tina more efficient at her job, and significantly reduced her stress. She was relieved that her manager understood that she had a disability. “Now, if I start to feel overwhelmed by tasks, I can talk to her about it and get some help,” she explained.
The accommodations worked for Tina because she was able to perform the core functions of her job. They worked for her employer because they did not disrupt business or cause any undue hardship.
Tina still yearns for a job where she can use her writing skills but is concerned about her ability to manage deadlines. For now, she is satisfied to be in a job that although challenging, is predictable and manageable.