How to succeed at work with autism is one of the most ignored topics in autism, and one of the most needed. After all, it is impossible to live independently if you can’t generate an income.
For those of us with autism, this challenge is real, and we must face it.
Currently, adults with autism are all to often settling for one of the following:
- Living at home with their parents supporting them.
- Living in substandard conditions on disability/governmental or some other form of support.
- Choosing underemployment (a job below their abilities, reduced work hours, etc.).
A note: Folks in the third group often tell me they are more content than when they tried to run the 9 to 5 rat race. Good for them!
But what do you do if you find yourself in this group of struggling people? What if you want to break out of the stereotypes and move forward in a career? How do you do it?
Treat Everything Else
Many autistics weren’t diagnosed with other disorders because they weren’t tested for them. Because they weren’t diagnosed with other disorders, they aren’t treated for them. Yet, statistics tell us that lots of people with autism also have a “comorbid” disorder. A comorbid disorder is a disorder that comes with and is secondary to autism. You can read more about comorbid disorders in my post, “Comorbidity: Life With Autism and It’s Closest ‘Friends.'” (As if that weren’t enough, right?)
This week, I communicated with several autistics who are dying in the workplace. By dying, I mean that they are living in one of the three categories listed above. They aren’t able to reach their potential, and they know it.
And that hurts.
One of the key reasons they give for their struggles is anxiety. Have they been diagnosed with anxiety? Nope. Are they being treated for it? Of course not, they haven’t been diagnosed with it.
But there are more comorbid disorders than just anxiety. ADD, ADHD, food allergies, depression, bipolar disorder, autoimmune issues, to name a few. These comorbid issues also trip you up in the workplace.
More importantly, we better understand these other disorders/conditions. Many of them are TREATABLE!!! And as you treat/manage them, symptoms go away, and life, and thus work, get easier. YES!
If you have read my post, “My Strategy for the ‘Treatment’ of Autism,” you know that I “treat everything else.” If you haven’t read this post, I recommend you take a minute to do so now. It is relevant to what I am suggesting here.
If you are struggling at work seek help in determining whether there may be other issues tripping you up. If there are, put a plan in place to treat/manage them!
Treatment for other disorders may make your “AUTISM” “autism.” While “AUTISM” at work may be too much, “autism” may not be!
Get a Mentor or a Coach
I know, I know, the last thing you may want is more people time. Consider, though, that people time that helps you cope with people time may be valuable.
I get it, there is a sort of stigma about mentoring programs. People often view them as being for “bad” employees or poor performers. And yet, companies often place top performers in mentoring and coaching programs. I used to work with top employees of an oil and gas company and guess what these top performers had? Mentors and coaches. In fact, they didn’t wait for someone to tell them then needed a mentor or coach, they sought out mentors and coaches!
There is no shame in using resources that help you be successful!! If you don’t believe me, check out my post, “Dear Autistics: Society’s Message is Wrong and What You Can Do About It.”)
A mentor doesn’t have to be someone that works at your company. In fact, you may feel more comfortable using someone you don’t work with and that’s fine! Also, it doesn’t have to be a formal arrangement, it can be informal. Usually, mentoring is free and coaching is a paid service. Depending on your finances or your situation, you may want to start with a mentor.
I tend to avoid using friends and family as a mentor. I feel it has the potential to change the relationship. Others I know have done so with success. It is a matter of personal preference, so you chose who you want to use!
Go To Counseling
Counseling may be something that comes into play in the first strategy I gave. It may also be useful even if you don’t have other disorders. You may just need a place to vent or get some perspective as it relates to your autism, or frankly, you may just need to vent in a private setting.
Counseling may be something that takes a little pressure off and gives you some room to breathe. Knowing you have a counseling appointment coming up can make all the difference.
There have been times I was suuuuuper stressed, and I would go to counseling just to relieve it for a bit. Puking my issues on a counselor for an hour allowed me to get through some tough times. No, it’s not the healthiest long-term strategy, but in the short term, it got me through.
There are lots of reasons to seek counseling, and lots of ways to use them in a strategy for success. Be creative! If you are not sure how they might fit, go to one and ask! Often companies have Employee Assistance Programs and the first hour or two are free! You can check your employee benefits.
If you’ve never been to counseling, and the thought of going causes you anxiety, let me assure you, it’s no big deal.
Want to know what the other clients/patients at a counselor’s office look like?
They look like you and me.
Want to know what their problems are like?
They are like yours and mine. And sometimes much worse!
I think if you try counseling, you’ll see that it is not big deal. If I am wrong, shoot me a note and let me have it!
Outsource (Hire Help!)
One of the factors sometimes listed as making it tough to hold a job with autism is the lack of time to recover from work. Coming home from work and jumping into time with kids and chores may be what is sinking your ship.
There’s a solution for that!
Outsourcing work can be a great way for you to get a few things off your plate. The relief of knowing that a few jobs are getting done can make all the difference! Sometimes the problem is not the job, it is everything else!
More than once I have found myself in a spot where I couldn’t handle everything that was being thrown at me. What saved me during some of those times was hiring help! A babysitter, a lawnmower, a handyman, you name it, those wonderful souls can change the game for you. They have for me.
What Should I Outsource?
Areas to target may include:
- Tasks you can’t stand to do or that cause tons of stress.
- Tasks that need to be done while you are at work.
- Tasks that are affordable to outsource.
- Tasks that take a tremendous amount of time.
- Tasks you don’t know how to do and learning to do them doesn’t make sense.
“I can’t afford to hire others,” you may be thinking. But can you afford to lose your job?
What if paying someone $50/week helped you keep a job that paid $500/week? That would leave you $450. That may be preferable to working fewer hours and making $300/week, right?
The more you earn, the more sense this strategy makes.
How Can I Make It Affordable?
But if you don’t feel you can afford it, check out these ways to keep the cost down:
- Outsource the most affordable things that take the most time (yard care – yes, I mentioned that one above)
- Outsource on an “as needed” basis rather than on a regular basis. For example, only have the yard mowed when it’s really shaggy rather than weekly. This strategy can cut the costs in half over the course of the summer.
- Or you can do it yourself most times, but hire someone when you feel like you have allen behind. Ha! All the sudden you are caught up! And that feels GREAT!
- Outsource those things that will free you up to earn more money!! If you gave up doing a few extra things could you be more successful at work in a way that helps you earn more??
- Add paid jobs you like so you can pay someone else to do work you don’t like! Sometimes you can even trade with someone else!
- Check the budget and see if there is something you could cut that would free up some money for outsourcing. If you are stress shopping, would you give that up for a babysitter to allow some downtime? Do you grab a coffee on the way to work? Buy your lunch everyday? Find yourself buying things you don’t need? Would you rather spend some of your spending money getting things done? Your call!
- Consider this: If you need some extra money to get started outsourcing, ask for help. Put together a strategy where you try to use outsourcing in a way that moves you forward. Maybe you need help getting started. That’s okay. In the long term, outsourcing some work could get you to a place where you CAN afford it!
There are times when I had very little money, but I managed to outsource tasks and save my sanity. This is another place to be creative. It can be done!
Outsourcing comes with the side benefit of making you feel a little spoiled and pampered. This benefit can also serve to bring anxiety levels down. More than once, I found myself smiling as I watched someone else do work I wanted/needed to avoid! At first I thought this was horrible, then I let myself enjoy it! After all, we all deserve a little luxury from time to time!
Consider How You Use Your Vacation
Lots of employees like to use their vacation time to, well, go on vacation! They take their time off in week long increments. Historically, most people used this strategy.
Now, many employers will let you take your vacation time in increments of not just days, but in hours. If you think a half day off every couple weeks would help you, and your employer is good with that, do it!
If a day off every so often would allow you to work through your errands, awesome! You might forego a week long vacation, but this change may enable you to survive at work! Also, money saved by not traveling could help you pay to have some chores outsourced. BAM!
Ask Yourself If There Are Accommodations That Might Make Your Job More Doable
I try to avoid this strategy where possible, but it is a good one where needed. When I do use this strategy, I first like to try to find things that would make EVERYONE’s life better. That way, I don’t have to single myself out! (If you haven’t yet told your employer about your autism, I caution you to think about whether you want to in my post, “Your Autism Diagnosis: Privacy Versus Secrecy and Why It Matters.”)
If you need specific accommodations, check with a professional to see how to move forward. As I mention in the article I linked to above, once you’ve told an employer about your autism, you can’t “untell” him/her.
Let your employer know that you want to be able to do your best job, and you think a change or two will help you get there.
Ask Yourself Whether a Different Job/Company Would Be A Better Fit
Changing jobs is the pits, but let’s face it, sometimes it’s necessary and, in the long run, can have great results. Oftentimes, the short-term work and discomfort of changing jobs is well worth it. If you are not sure this is a good strategy for you, check in with a mentor, coach, or counselor!
Start Your Own Business/Work Outside the Traditional 9-5 Job
There is the option of working for yourself or finding a non-traditional job. Working for yourself does have startup costs and it takes tons of time. It is not for the faint of heart, but many autistics are doing it successfully.
Is there something at which you excel that you could turn into a business? Awesome! Do you have some way you could earn money that does not involve the traditional 9 to 5 job?
I tell myself that to live independently, we have to generate revenue, not have a “job.” This way of thinking has the way I think about employment (definitely a post for another day!).
Living independently is crazy important for those who can and want to do so. Generating an income is necessary to meet that goal. Before you quit your job, before you chose underemployment maybe try these tips to get you back on track.
You don’t have to try them all at once, in fact, I would caution against that as it would be overwhelming. If you need help deciding which one(s) to try, start with the mentor/coach/counseling option to help you.
We don’t have to be underemployed (unless we choose to do so). We don’t have to be passed over for promotions. We shouldn’t have to live with our parents.
Becoming successful may take a few more steps, but taking them is so worth it! Remember, you are enough. Just you. Take some time to decide what you want your life to look like and use those resources that will get you there!
I am going to be writing much more on this topic and each of the given points, but for now, I wanted to give you a starting place. Whatever you decide to pursue, however you decide to live, no judgment here! It is your life! Go get it!
I look forward to hearing your success stories!
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