Autism and Careers
Forward: I am not an expert, this is just a perspective piece that I wrote to allow me to vent some frustrations I have with the current state of Corporate America. This is not meant to be taken in any way other than some blogger posting an opinion piece. If you disagree with what I say, fine, let me know! Give me your perspective and explain why. I may agree with you, my mind can be changed.
Autism character traits in adults
What does autism look like in adults? Well, it’s hard to explain, sure I can list out some of the average traits you might see like:
- Difficulty interpreting what others are feeling
- Difficulty understanding facial expressions
- Emotional regulation issues
- Conversation skills are lacking/trouble keeping up a conversation (one sided conversations)
- Preference to repetitive behavior
- Deep knowledge of one particular topic
- lack of eye contact (due to the painful reaction they get when making eye contact, or just a general discomfort when doing this)
And many others. However, autism is a spectrum. What might be more accurate to me, might not be the same for someone else on the spectrum.
There have been a few things I personally have noticed with others that are also on the spectrum that I work with. I have a number of co workers who can’t go against the rules, now these rules might be that of the institution or rules that they created early in their life that they can’t break away from. Whichever it is, they stay right in line with their opinion of “correct”.
I also notice a general ‘stiffness’ in their behavior. They walk around like they have a brace on their back keeping them upright and stiff. They are robotic in their speech, and very monotone.
On the bright side, they are all incredibly smart. I mean, nothing short of genius in their area/field. It’s something I admire about them that I wish I had. If i’m being honest, I am average at best, I was not blessed with the autism genius (at least not in an area that’s relevant to a career). Each one of us have some overlapping traits, and many others that do not match.
I see articles all over the internet recommending jobs for people on the Autism spectrum. Here is my take on that.
Jobs “They” recommend for autistic people
The jobs I see come up most often (there are some outliers that I will also address before giving my input) are:
1. Animal-Related careers
- pet groomer - $22,710
- dog trainer - $22,800
- veterinary technician - $29,000
- pet siter - $24,760
- Developer - $50,000-$100,000+ (This is highly dependent on your program language and role)
- Computer Technician - $23,200-$48,600
- Database Administrator - $81,710
- Network Security (wide range of jobs) - $30,700-$154,000+ (highly dependent on specialization and role)
- scientist - $45,400 - $92,800
- lab technician - $25,200 - $46,400
- researcher - $56,100 - $95,700
- research assistant - $18,200 - $37,000
There are a few others like manufacturing, assembly line jobs, and a lot of other jobs with very little or minimal interaction, or that’s what one would assume.
Why this is misleading?
When I saw these lists before I was actually working in these fields, I was excited that I could have a career dealing with computers and not actually have to do much peopling! I don’t think anything has disappointed me more in my life.
The reality - these jobs aren’t designed for autistic people. They are designed for their respective focuses. A developer position was created for someone who can code. A pet groomer is made for someone who wants to take care of and make animals look beautiful. So why are these jobs being recommended as the places to go? Stereotypes.
I don’t mean this in a bad or negative way. This is just how we as a society view these jobs, especially if we don’t work in them. It’s generalization, that might be a better word for this. If you work with computers, you get some 2019 image of the 1950’s typical nerd with the big glasses and the plaid shirts and the suspenders and pocket protectors. In reality, technology based jobs have a massive range of opportunities, and the overwhelming majority require a lot of social interaction. Let me give some examples from my own career path.
Jobs I’ve done
I started my technology journey working at a small tech shop hidden away in a shopping center in Columbus Ohio. It was one of those shops that got started back in the 1980s with the Amigas and the Apple II computers. They only needed to sell a few computers a week to pay rent and the 3 or 4 employees that worked there because of how expensive the computers were and how cheap it was to live back then by comparison today. I started working in the back fixing computers, calling customers, giving advice to people looking to buy computers, discussing warranty information, options regarding repairing the computer or buying a new one and letting us transfer their data to the new one. Wait, that’s a lot of time spent talking to customers. I thought technician jobs were just fixing computers all day? No, in roles like that you’re seen as the resident expert on computers. The sales guys knew a little bit, but if the customer’s questions were out of their scope of practice, they called us up front. Also if a sales guy called off, one of the techs would help run the front. So to be a computer technician in most places, you need a fair amount of people skills.
After I graduated from technician I got a few jobs in a call center helping fix computers over the phone, that is obviously a lot of talking so i won’t go into the details there.
Then I finally landed, what I consider to be, my first real job. I worked in a Security Operations Center. Our main function was the first line of defense against hackers. Hacking HAS to be a job that requires little to no peopling right? Nope. Sadly I was disappointed again in the amount of meetings I had to go to do to lessons learned for new emerging threats and indicators of compromise, meetings where I had to give presentations, and a lot of collaboration with different people in my department based on their area of focus. Also, because I was so distraught at the lack of ‘me’ time at work and the fact that I was honestly under-qualified, I did very poorly at that job. There were other issues like, the team was so new they didn’t have a proper on boarding program and training regimen so I didn’t get much help coming from a service desk. Nonetheless, I still failed.
They eventually moved me to the basement (YES) working on a new, emerging capability called Vulnerability Management. This was a job where the bread and butter was ‘Scan the network for vulnerabilities’ and report them to a database for our other teams to patch. Sounds like a dream autism job. Nope, like everything else there were lots of meetings, discussions, and when I became the resident SME, i was pulled in multiple directions to give advice and handle complaints about the tool not doing a good enough job.
There have been a few jobs after that, but I won’t go into every little detail. The point is, all of those seemingly nerd-friendly, anti-social, basement dweller jobs were anything but. I didn’t even mention the number of “Team engagement meetings” and “team outings” and other “rally the troops” type stuff that corporate America loves to do. Every day, i go into work and have to socialize for anywhere from 15-50% of my day. And that doesn’t include talking to the people I actually enjoy talking to because we’re all overloaded and each person is working for 2 now because companies want to have everyone do more with less, but i won’t get into that any further.
So the point of that whole story is this: Working in America seems to require a large amount of social skills. At least on some level. But, do jobs exist that are truly autism friendly? I honestly don’t know. Sure there may be some options that seem like good ideas like those ‘work from home data entry jobs’. I just have no exposure in that field so i can’t really comment on it.
The other main thing i have failed to mention here is, I am somewhere in the middle on the spectrum. What about those of us who are non-verbal, or can’t express themselves in a way that allows them to do those kinds of jobs outside of the house without the need for an aide? There isn’t much; I know there are a few programs that allow people in that group to work short hours on very specific jobs within a company, and while those are great, I don’t know enough to report on any of that. Sorry. I don’t like commenting on things I don’t have a good handle on in a medium like a blog. I never want to be responsible for steering a struggling family in the wrong direction on something as important as this. If i come across some resources during my research in the future, i’ll add them to this post or link to a future post that goes into more detail.
What can corporate America do to help and why they should
One of the most common traits i’ve seen with autistic people in the workforce, and one that I experience almost daily, is a lack of a desire to socialize when it’s superficial at best in the corporate environment. I don’t want to go to “All associates meetings” with such passion that it can ruin me for the next few days if I have to go listen to someone dribble on about ‘Agile workspaces’, ‘Innovation and Automation’, ‘team engagement scores’ and other things like that. I can say that’s one of the few things in life that I actually hate. I have to go sit in a conference room, or a giant auditorium for one to three hours surrounded by people, and that makes me feel so uncomfortable. On my less stable days, it’s physically painful. It literally hurts me physically to sit there. Some of my leaders have been understanding, but i’ve noticed the older my boss is, the less they care about me. Maybe that’s agist, but it’s my observation, blunt as that may be.
Here are some things companies can do that cost little to no money or effort that can help autism people. Note: This is not a complete list, if you have additional ideas PLEASE post them in the comments, i would love to hear some different perspectives on this.
- Make “all associates” meetings optional, or provide virtual options.
I do like to hear about some topics at those meetings, I really do, but to wade through the stuff I can’t care about, in a place that is giving me bad anxiety takes away from the potential impact of those topics. If I could virtually attend, I would, every time. I would also not have to deal with the 3 day recovery from those meetings.
- Get rid of the stigma of needing a quiet place to work. I have had many leaders who touted the “importance” of butts-in-seats, eyes-on-glass, during the work day. There should be no reason someone (even someone not on the spectrum) can’t go grab a conference room for an hour or two and get some serious work done. The number of times my CISO, or VP has walked into a conference room after walking by and noticing just me in there, checking my calendar and seeing that I was the only one booked for the room and questioned my intentions is insane. I am getting work done, my track record has proven that. Sometimes people just need a distraction free work place. This is especially important with those ‘Agile’ ‘open floor’ work spaces.
- Working from home should be allowed more often
The company I work for is trying to get fewer people to work from home. Luckily my current boss is understanding, but there are others who need the time to be alone and get work done. (there seems to be a trend here). It’s 2019, virtual meetings, chat systems, and phones exist. Let’s use them.
- Let nerds be nerds. This one is really more than just for those on the spectrum, but it still applies. You as a manager hired someone to be an expert in an area. Let them do that function. I get the importance of some meetings, and I will always go to meetings I’m invited to, but let’s let the nerds be nerds. Example: Say you hired someone to work as a security practitioner (or whatever your company may call it), their core function is to find better ways to protect your network and utilize the tools and resources available to them to do that. Don’t also make them go out and attend conferences every quarter to ‘learn new ways to do the job’, the internet exists, their own brain works, let them focus on doing the job they were hired to do. Don’t make them “break out of their comfort zone” to appease your methods of how “things should work” in the corporate world. There are reporting tools and metrics trackers that are completely digital, Tableau, Power BI, Splunk could even do that stuff! Someone could even make their own! They were hired to be the experts in that area, let them do that.
- Don’t make “engagement” a year end requirement for raises If you were to ask an autistic person what they care about least when it comes to their job, engagement would almost always be at or near the top. Exceptions exist for every rule but they are just that, exceptions. If the role requires a high level of engagement to actually be successful, then fine, that makes sense. A developer who gets his orders from a project manager does not need a high amount of engagement. They get their job, understand the requirements, and code it out. Remove the need for engagement to get raises or even keep their job.
There are probably a thousand other things that could be done as well, the things I’ve listed above are mainly what I’ve noticed and what has impacted me and those around me all across the neurotypical to atypical spectrum. Feel free to post your ideas as well and I will add some of them in and give you credit to your idea!
What Job do I do today?
I currently work as an Information Risk Manager with a focus on the third-party space, mainly doing with with big data analytics, automation, and risk reduction efforts. I spend a lot of time in meetings coordination multiple people from dozens of departments across the company trying to improve our risk posture and have been very successful in doing so.
But wait, that’s a lot of social interaction, how do you do it? Very carefully. I have a mentor who was originally diagnosed with Aspergers, and he is a very successful manager and leader. He has learned to use his condition, if you will, to do things a neurotypical manager cannot do as effectively. He taught me a number of skills that I have been developing to set proper expectations of my teams, approach meetings in a way that will reduce my stress levels, and help me be very successful in my role. It’s still draining, if I didn’t have kids I would go home from work every day and take a nap. I do have the benefit of enjoying what I do. I typically work with very analytical people, and very very nerdy people who also don’t like meetings. A lot of our correspondences is through email or our internal chat system.
Why am I telling you this? If you’re reading this and you’re on the spectrum, I want you to know that you can also do a job like this. In a future post I will try to go into great detail on how I have been able to perform at this job and be regarded as an expert and someone everyone can rely on. It’s not a trade secret or anything, and I want everyone to have the chance to be successful! We, those of us on the spectrum, just get the opportunity to approach careers differently. I say it’s an opportunity because it is a chance for us to prove to ourselves that we’re not limited just because we can’t understand what your furrowed brow means in context. We can use other indicators to identify our current state, see our goals, and achieve them.
If you have some ideas or thoughts about anything I wrote, please let me know. My scope is still limited due to my own resources not being infinite. Let’s start a dialogue and see what we can come up with!