Autism and Employment: Why Difficulty in School May Not Indicate Difficulty at Work

Autism and Employment

Many autistic people with whom I speak express concern about working or about their loved one with autism working. All too frequently, they cite the difficulty of themselves or their autist in school.

Just like college was easier for me than high school, some of my jobs proved easier than school. Though I liked school better, the jobs were easier.

Even before I knew my diagnosis, it never occurred to me that you couldn’t have autism and be employed. I also didn’t realize people equated a lack of success in school to a potential, or even probable, lack of success in employment.

Contrasting School and Work

School and work environments are so different that there is really little comparison (hhhmmm…unless you work at a school!) They differ in some of the following areas:

Type of Tasks

  • Schedule
  • Social Interaction
  • Level of Intensity
  • Leadership Style
  • Control over Environment (Maybe most important of all!! You can quit a job or change jobs where you may not have had that option in regard to school!)

Picture a day you spent in school and now picture a day you spent at work (assuming you have worked). Totally different, right?

So I suggest that we don’t try to predict performance at a future job with current performance in school – that we come to understand that they are two very different environments/contexts and success or failure in one does not indicate a probability of success or failure in the other.

While we should strive to always do our best, we should not let a struggle in one context discourage us from trying another context where we may be successful.

Great performance does not always translate into a stellar career any more than poor performance dooms you to a dreadful one. This statement is true of anyone, not just autists.

Success Factors for Autism and Employment

Little research has been done in the area of autism and employment, so there is not much for me to point to, but I would suggest that there are factors more important in indicating success for the autist at work than performance in school.

School may be a great indicator of academic success, but if you are considering employment or hoping to assist a loved one with autism to find a job the following may prove to be better indictors than school:

Emotional IntelligenceCurrent schools of thought rank this indicator so high, I feel I have to mention it here.

While to those on the outside looking in, an autist may seem to lack emotional intelligence, a lifetime of struggle, hurt and redemption may give an autist more emotional intelligence than that with which they are credited. The issue, I suggest, is not that they are not emotionally intelligent, rather that they need to communicate it, thus making this really a two-prong point: the first – having emotional intelligence; the second – letting others know it.

In taking this position, I admit I depart from traditional stereotypes about autistic folks; however, I also admit that I think I am right!

Performance in areas that inspire passion – This can absolutely take place outside of the school environment. Some of the best careers often grow from hobbies.

Willingness to contribute to a body of knowledge or public dialogue – This could be an online forum or I have seen young kids with intense special interests even go so far as to dialogue with the faculty of universities!

Some folks come alive here. Engagement absolutely indicates a potential for success in the workforce.

Capacity to maintain work/life balance – This one is a struggle for me so I fully understand its importance. ALL people have to work to achieve this balance. To those autists who can do it hats off! (A note to potential future employers, I tend to let things go at home before work!) To succeed here I have to live my life in “categories.” (Read my post, “The Strangest Thing about My Autism” to see what I mean.)

Creativity/Innovation – ask most employers, and they will tell you they struggle to find folks who think outside of the box. “What box?” you say. Perfect!

Time management skills – Some autists are better at managing their time than neurotypical folks. All jobs require time management skills. Some are based on them.

Willingness to take responsibility or be held accountable – I have worked with lots of people who lack this one and know employers appreciate the value it brings to the workplace. Just having one or two people in a work environment demonstrate this trait can change the culture of an organization so be one of those!

Ability to care for self/home – The ability to take care of self and home, something that many people lack, does indicate a level of skill that could translate in to a marketable skill or the ability to manage a job.

Motivation (I would lump Takes Initiative here as well.) – It may be a desire to be independent or fascination with the job. Most people are willing to work hard to have their own home and life – autists are no exception.

I will say here that I hear people complain that they do not understand what motivates an autist, and I would note that that does not indicate a lack of motivation.

In fact, at my last place of employment my boss told me that while I worked hard all the time, no one knew what motivated me. Your motivation may not be easily visible to those around you and that’s okay. Find what motivates you and earn money doing it!

Inclination to look for a right job with the right company – A good fit can make all the difference and may have been missing in a school environment.

Coping mechanisms for anxiety and depression – The ability to get through tough situations and keep moving forward is essential. Autists tend to struggle with anxiety, thus good coping skills deserved a mention.

You do not have to have all of these to be successful. All of them help, but right combinations of them as relevant for any given job will get you there. Don’t forget that this list is not absolute by any means. It is just my best effort to open a dialogue around questions people have asked me.

Right Job, Right Company, Right People

Maybe more than ever before, there exist so many different forms, types, styles of employment and corresponding work environments. For many high functioning autists, the difficulty with a job is not the work itself, but the social interaction and the communication required to be truly effective in a role. That does not mean they can’t be successful, it means that finding a right job with a right company with right people is crucial. (And no, autists are not all out looking for repetitive routine tasks!)

A computer whiz might find a niche involving little human interaction in which she can make a great living.

An otherwise quiet autist discovers that when following her passion, she blossoms, leaving her former quiet self behind.

You get it.

Opportunities for Employment are Many – Yes, Even for Autists

I hope this list helps.

To those autists already working, please let me know in the comments if I have missed anything and with your permission (please indicate in the comments) I will include it in the list here.

The words autism and employment are not mutually exclusive. People have both autism and employment all the time. I know that’s a funny way to say it, but it drives the point home that separating them is unnecessary!

A final thought:

Next time you are out and about, look around you.

At each and every detail.

Every. One.

Each brick on a home, each blade of grass, every person working behind a computer, on a road crew, your doctor, the plane that just flew over your head.

For everything you can think of, there exist many associated service jobs. For every product you purchase, there are designing, manufacturing, marketing, sales jobs, etc.

The world is full of opportunity so be creative and find a niche that works for you!

Working can be rewarding with Her Autism!!!

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Autism and Employment

If you do struggle at school, check out my Post-Test Study Strategy for Academic Success in the FREE Resource Library!!