This post is part of a series for Autism Acceptance Month in which I will be exploring various ideas and subjects relating to autism and being autistic.
Throughout childhood and youth we are often asked “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Most children hear this question again and again often starting at ages far too young to have any sort of realistic idea about such matters. This question is so commonplace because, as a society, we often define people by the work they do. As adults, when meeting someone new, one of the first questions asked in the getting to know you process is “What do you do for work?” or some variation of this. We put so much emphasis on what a person does for their job and those who don’t work are typically viewed very negatively. Those that can’t work are viewed as leeches, lazy, schemers, and more. Yet, for many autistics, navigating the working world is very difficult or impossible.
For autistics who enter the workforce without official supports, there are many challenges that must be overcome in order to find work. One of the first challenges that we face is the interview process. Regardless of the type of job, almost all jobs require a face to face interview during which a person is essentially judged for their social skills. During an interview, a person is expected to make proper eye contact, seem relaxed and confident, answer verbal questions on the spot, navigate trick questions, answer questions the “right” way rather than the honest way, and basically seem “normal,” all of which can be difficult or impossible for autistic people.
As someone who is currently in the process of searching for a new job, I have recent experience with the challenges of interviews. My body language has been a huge barrier for me in finding a new job. Apparently even when calm, I come across as nervous which for some reason is viewed as a bad thing by interviewers (which I don’t understand. Seriously, aren’t most people nervous about interviews? It’s an opportunity for major life change, hopefully for the better, that is hanging on this one interaction. How are we not supposed to be nervous to an extent?). I also struggle to make appropriate eye contact. I typically avoid eye contact but I force myself to make it during interviews but I never know how long to hold eye contact for. Further, in an attempt not to stim, I try to sit very still which is apparently part of why I come across as nervous, but if I stim I’m also perceived as nervous so it’s a lose-lose situation. Basically, interviews are hell for autistic people.
For those of us who do manage to make it past the interview process to get a job, the challenges aren’t over yet. First, most entry level jobs involve a lot of customer interaction which can be very challenging. In some circumstances, customer service can be fairly easy for us as often interactions can be scripted and each interaction just requires repeating the same scripts. However, there are many situations where scripts don’t work and we must improvise which can be hard for many autistic people. Further, dealing with angry customers can be highly stressful which can contribute to overload and meltdowns/shutdowns.
When actually in the workplace, there are many elements that can be challenging, regardless of the type of job. One of the most notable challenges is sensory issues. Some workplaces are far too loud while others are too quiet so that every noise is sudden and startling. Many workplaces have harsh lighting that can set off light sensitivity. Coworkers typically wear a variety of scents which can contribute to overload for those with olfactory sensitivities. Depending on the work environment, there may be many more sensory issues that an autistic person must deal with. The stress of working combined with the sensory aspects can often lead to overload and meltdowns or shutdowns. I’ve gone through stretches at work when things were stressful that I would have a meltdown every day when I got home due to both the stress and the overwhelming sensory input.
On top of the challenges already outlined, there is also the aspect of interacting with coworkers. Whether or not we are out at work as autistic, we are often noticeably different from our coworkers which can lead to bullying and discrimination. Even for those who don’t face discrimination, we still must contend with our social challenges which can make it difficult to make friends in the workplace or to feel included in group settings. However, we are often mocked and otherwise bullied by coworkers who judge our social differences. We may be the butt of the joke for not understanding sarcasm or other jokes. We may be targeted with verbal abuse for simply being noticeably different. We may be othered and excluded from social circles in the workplace. Further, our social differences can be an impediment when looking for promotion. Much as in the interview process, we are often judged for our social skills rather than the quality of our work.
For many autistics, conditions are even worse. Those who are disabled enough to need assistance in the workplace are often sent to sheltered workshops which are legally allowed to pay sub-minimum wages. These wages can be as low as just a few dollars a day. I saw this firsthand when I worked at Goodwill. Groups of disabled individuals, many of whom were autistic, were bussed in each day to hang and tag clothes. They were payed based on how many pieces of clothing were properly hung and tagged and received pennies per item. At the time I worked there, I had been sold on ableist lies that justified paying these workers so little, though I now look back in horror that I participated in such a terrible system. These workers are taken advantage of and used as cheap labor under the protection of the law.
Working can come with a variety of challenges for autistic people. From getting the job to keeping a job to discrimination and abuse, there are so many roadblocks and pitfalls autistic people face in the working world. In recent times, there has been talk of employers who are seeking out autistic employees which is a step in the right direction. What we really need, however, is an overhaul of the system. The interview process is inherently ableist. Social skills should only be judged for jobs in which social skills matter rather than our current system of judging the social skills of every potential employee regardless of the job. Hopefully one day the working world will be easier for autistics to navigate. This is part of why we fight for autism acceptance.