Getting a job is hard. Getting a job when you’re autistic is really hard. Keeping a job as an autistic…even harder. I have managed to be employed for the past five years since I finished graduate school. Honestly, I am not sure how I have done it successfully. I know it has taken a lot of hard work, help, understanding from other people, and luck.
I recently completed the job interview process and ultimately ended up starting a new job in July of 2019. It is my second real job. As I embark on this new journey, I am using my previous job experience to inform how I approach this job. I know what works and what does not, and I somewhat understand the things I will need help or extra time with.
An interesting note is that I did not have to disclose my autism diagnosis at this job. The person who recommended me for the position took care of that. When she recommended me for the job, she told the person who would become my boss that I was autistic, and she took time to educate him on what that meant for me. At some point, I would like to tell my coworkers. I have not decided the best route to take in that regard.
Since this is a relatively new position for me, I do not yet have an established relationship with my supervisor. I have been in touch with human resources regarding accommodations but nothing has been made official. In my previous job, I did have official accommodations, such as putting my schedule online for everyone to know when I would be in or out of the office, using written communication over verbal communication whenever possible, and the use of a job coach.
I love my new job. I like the people I work with and they treat me well. They respect me and my differences. I know that I am fortunate. That being said, they have yet to see me really struggle, and I know the day will come. There are already challenges I face on a daily basis. Some are new to this job. Some I have struggled with in previous employment stops as well.
Working Appropriately, Professionally, and Socially
The biggest challenge I face as an autistic individual is working appropriately, professionally, and socially with my coworkers. There are five people on the team I work with on a daily basis. That means that every workday, I have to be “on.” I put on my “mask” and get on with it. I work really hard to limit my rocking and stimming. I try to look at the top of my coworkers’ heads in an attempt to make eye contact. I focus very hard in engaging in back-and-forth conversation, beyond my typical question-and-answer style. I spend more energy and effort on acting not autistic than I do on completing my actual job.
Dealing with Sensory Input
Another huge challenge is the additional sensory input that comes with working in a shared office environment. The worst part is that much of it is uncontrollable. In a shared environment, it is not possible to control the thermostat, the lighting, the noise, or smells. About the only sense I have some sort of control over on a daily basis at work is who touches me, because I shy away from pretty much all physical contact.
My coworkers do a great job of including me. They invite me to lunch every day; they ask me questions when I am quiet; they check in to see how I am doing. But sometimes, it is too much and I need to get away. I go to my car in the parking garage as quickly as I can and I let myself rock.
Time distribution, task completion, and organization are also challenges that I face as an employed autistic person. It is hard to organize my time when I have more than one thing going on at work, especially when I really enjoy one of the things I am working on more than the other. It is so easy for me, as it is for many autistic people, to get sucked in to something, to become hyper-focused and lose track of everything else. I can spend the whole day working on a project or working on perfecting a small part of a project, when it is not where my time should have been focused.
I am not very good at knowing when something does not have to be perfect to be finished. I have some obsessive tendencies and want everything to be exactly right before I turn it in. I am learning that there are some times when it is okay to turn in an “iteration” of a project to get feedback, rather than try to turn in something perfect on the first try.
I have to work very hard at staying organized, especially now that it seems almost everything is digital. When I was growing up, it was easier because someone could tell me where to put my physical items and I could follow directions. Now that everything is stored on a computer, a hard drive, or in the cloud, it is imperative that I clearly label what I am working on and not just leave it on my desktop. It needs to go in a labeled folder, not only so that I can find it at a later date but also so that my coworkers can get to it if necessary.
Employment is Worth the Challenges
Being employed as an autistic individual is obviously not without its challenges; however, it is also worth it. If a person with autism can find work that provides the mental stimulation the individual prefers along with a job that is enjoyable, then they should not pass up that opportunity. I am thankful every day for my job and what it contributes to my life. It gives me a sense of purpose and a sense of direction. It allows me to push myself and continue to grow rather than staying in my comfort zone. I would not be the person I am today had I not started this employment journey.
Erin McKinney is an autistic individual who uses her own experiences to educate others about autism and the challenges that come with it, especially once autistics reach adulthood. She currently works for the Memphis Grizzlies of the National Basketball Association. Some of her interests include basketball, LEGOs, puzzles, and board games.