Friday, 1 March 2013

My Life With Autism - Employment

As part of our ongoing My Life With Autism series, one of our co-ordinators, who wasn't diagnosed with an ASD until he was 30, wrote this piece about some of his experiences in education, of adult life and employment. He wishes to remain anonymous

My years at school were not pleasant. I had always had difficulty interacting with my peers at school. I was well behaved on the whole but just didn’t seem to be the kind if guy people hung out with. Then just prior to starting secondary school the bullying started and it carried on and on and on and on.
I spent my most of my time in secondary school trying not to socialise in the hope that I would not attract too much attention and get living daylight kicked out of me. I did develop one or two safe friendships or at least to me they were but they turned out to be somewhat problematic. People change their minds very quickly they feared being made an outcast.

Why am I saying all this?

Well this view of relationships formed the basis for how I interacted at work later on and the problems I then had to overcome. What happens at this point in a child’s life affects how they will respond to situations that arise in the workplace. Anxiety is the autistic persons worst enemy, it will try and dominate their lives to the point of paralysis. More importantly the fear it produces will prevent them from achieving their potential in life and that is really is the point, isn’t it?

Between finishing school and starting college I took a summer job (my first full-time job). It was somewhat nerve racking as I had little or no idea what to expect. I discovered very quickly that relationships in the workplace were often quite complicated. Just because someone was being nice and polite, didn’t necessarily mean they liked you and more importantly I very little idea how to read people/situations and respond appropriately.

I struggled in college too, I was studying engineering and my maths wasn’t great. I had an interest in electronics, computers and I pursued it with vigour but all I really wanted to do was explore and experiment. As I’ve come to understand structured learning is a discipline and at that stage in my life I really hadn’t got it. When you can develop the discipline of structured learning it ceases to be an obstacle to your vision, your project, it becomes a tool to help you make things better. It can be a source of inspiration for ideas and the process of learning can become a pleasure rather than a pain. I look back on those years now, realise that it was one of the first pivotal point in terms of the journey I was on. The course tutor developed something of a dislike for me (he taught maths) and with my maths marks being low I was encourage to drop out after the first year. On reflection had I been persistent and perhaps re-sat the first year I might have had a much smoother ride but as it was I just rolled with it. And left feeling somewhat of a failure.

Many autistic people I have met over the years have told me similar stories. Autistic people usually think a little differently to most people, they focus only on what has value to them in terms of knowledge. It’s the project that’s important not simply knowledge for the sake of it. Many graduates come out of University with no idea what the really want to do. They have gone through the motions and met the requirements but where is the vision, the reason. Autistic people have vision they just don’t know how to get there, or they don’t believe they can. They are afraid to try.

I subsequently had a couple of different jobs. The second of these was as a Lab Tech. in a school which was really just code for a gimp (a sort of slave with no particular job description). As it turned out this particular school had an early RM network and very few members of staff who had any idea how it worked. I helped looking after it. I very quickly found myself being given all manner of technical equipment to figure out by staff who were not sure or didn’t have time. There was just one problem. I’d not been sanctioned to do it. This resulted due to my weak communication and conflict resolution skills, in me being bullied by an over zealous head teacher. I used the term bullied because it’s one thing to be told your in the wrong in some way and given chance to explain yourself. It’s another to be deliberately intimidated and unable to explain your actions. I don’t think I really understood what was going on at the time. I left with yet another failure under my belt. I had however managed to persuade my employer to give me day release to go back to college and try and converted my previous successful study to a different qualification. So I didn’t come away entirely empty handed.

Understanding the expectations of an employer is key to functioning well in a work place. Whether you choose to accept this or not, there is assumed knowledge and behaviour. Employers therefore don’t alway feel that need to explain how things should work, the chain of command, define responsibilities. To an autistic person this is a must. They need to know what is expected of them, the appropriate response when faced with uncertainty about what to do.
If there was one reason more than any other that autistic people find it difficult to hold down jobs it would be “lack of assumed knowledge”. If both the employer and employee have good clear method of communication (that works for both of them) and clearly defined and fully understood expectations from the outset there is no reason why an autistic person can not be valuable resource to their employer.

I shall resist giving a full CV here but I spent the subsequent 6 years working as an IT Technician moving between jobs building knowledge and learning, I had received no formal training thus far but by the time I left my final IT Technician role at Birmingham LEA’s Education IT in November of 1997 they had just recruited a team of IT Technicians for their Technician Service. When I arrived in December 1994 there was no LEA Technician Service. I was the first Technician and although I hadn’t realised the significance of it at the time. It was this innovative nature that would define my career.

This was the second key pivotal point in my career. By this time had begun studying with the Open University and I knew that I wanted to do something more than simply tech. support. I moved way from Birmingham to Northumberland, looking for some direction. Applied for Jobs but got no where. I was however spending most of my time exploring many internet related technologies which would form the basis of what I was to do later on.

It was at this point I made a decision. I wanted to be computer programmer. I had been programming as a hobby since I was 10 years old, I was 25 at this point. A chance online encounter with another OU student would give me that first step. He offered my the chance to code on a small project for a company he was contracting with in Birmingham. It was in a language I’d never worked with before but I didn’t care. Within a couple of months I was  back in Birmingham working with them full-time. I really did enjoy it but it was to be short lived, they had financial problems and had not been paying my tax forward. I now knew what I needed to do, it was time to move on.

I managed to get a place on clearing in the August and by September I was at University on a 2 year full-time HND. In the 13 years since then I have worked as a Web Developer for a variety of different businesses been involved in some great projects and some great moments of innovation (firsts).

I say all this because many autistic people believe that the obstacles to their successes cannot be overcome. That they can not develop sufficient social skills to cope in the workplace even though that may have the intelligence and in some cases nothing short of a gift in their particular area. I did have a lot of difficultly and I have made it sound a lot easier than it actually was to cope with at the time but I firmly believe that many of these difficulties could have been eased simply by having the right support.

I wasn’t diagnosed with an ASD until after my first post-graduate job (I was 30).
I’ve hinted at many of the reasons of autistic people being unemployed or seen as unemployable already but many of the arguments are I have heard even from autism specialist organisations all seem to miss one key point which is this:

It’s about the person not the job or the education system. You can have the best education system in the world but if the person doesn’t believe in themselves and the system doesn’t come along side support them with encouragement then it brings them no hope. If an employer doesn’t believe in the capability of a person they are employing and the employee doesn’t believe in themselves either how can it ever be a truly productive relationship.
Success is relative. 

As Einstein said, “Everyone is a genius. But if you judge a fish on it's ability to climb a tree, it will live it's life believing that it is stupid.” 

It’s more important to help an autistic person find the right path for them and encourage them in it than to push them down a path they can never reach their potential on. It’s a waste of their time and doesn’t benefit society or the economy in anyway.

There are many things the Government can do to support an Autistic young person through education and work placement but in the end the greatest reform needs to happen in business. Business sees employing people with difficulties more as a risk management exercise than an opportunity and improve their company. You don’t get gains in business without risks. There are many examples of autistic people who brought about massive leaps in innovation and discovery, yet if no one had listened we would never have known.

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