Accommodating Autistic people in careers – alternatives to a 9 – 5 job

Morgan Giosa

For those on the autism spectrum a 9 to 5 job doesn’t always work

By Morgan Giosa

One of my biggest struggles in life has been adhering to a structured work environment. In school, my teachers and I were always at odds. I was a bit of an eccentric troublemaker and experienced a lot of anger, sadness and pain trying to do what was expected of me. While it’s not a conscious decision on my part, I have always rebelled against structure and lived outside the lines of “normal” (whatever that may be). I’ve found a lot of my struggles in school have carried over into trying to find a job or build a career in a world which often favors extroverts over introverts, confidence over vulnerability, brashness over sensitivity, and neurotypicals over those of us who are on the spectrum or those who struggle with mental illness.

Going forward, I envision a world where people don’t judge a book by its cover. I envision a world where someone on the autism spectrum isn’t incorrectly viewed by employers as intellectually disabled or incapable of feeling and comprehending things. I envision a world where someone who has bipolar disorder or schizophrenia isn’t automatically viewed by potential employers as a liability or a violent person and automatically set aside without being given a chance. I envision a world where all people are given the support they need to grow and thrive, and all people – including but not limited to corporate employers – are less quick to blame and judge others because they don’t understand what someone is going through, and where people are less apt to take advantage of the sensitivity and vulnerability of anyone who already struggles. I really hope the world of the 9-5 job catches up and continues to learn how to embrace and accommodate those who have struggled rather than expecting neurotypical traits to be a given in their employees.

At the time being, here are my thoughts on two very good alternative career paths for introverts, including any of us on the Spectrum, those of us with mental illness, those of us with anxiety, or any of us who struggle with interpersonal interaction in general:

  • The Arts –  Speaking personally, the arts have provided me with personal catharsis and have helped me grow. Not everyone has a natural inclination toward the arts, but I believe anyone can, if they set their mind and heart to it. The difficulty of these fields in my experience comes from the business and marketing side of it, and sometimes it can be hard to build the confidence to present a personal reflection of yourself though an original song or painting or sculpture (or any medium). But with the right passion and conviction and talent and the right support systems in place to help with the interpersonal communications and marketing, these can be good outlets for people who struggle to adhere to the conventional rules within society. One can build their own schedule, make their own connections, and follow their own heart and their own rules within the Arts. This is also a very broad field that is much bigger than it looks as one bullet point on a list. It can include music, painting, sculpture, photography, graphic design, creative writing, or anything your imagination leads you to do. I have a good friend who doesn’t identify as autistic, but had a difficulty adhering to building a career on anyone else’s terms, and found a passion for luthiery and now has a business building custom guitars for people. The arts can be anything creative, and there will always be a need in the world for art.
  • Computer programming and web development – Computer programming and web development are fields that can be beneficial to individuals on the spectrum for a number of reasons. The first of which is that they are fields where shyness and social quirks are generally accepted. The second is that there are many remote, telecommute jobs that exist, and self-employment is a common practice. It’s also a misconception in my experience that modern computer programming is always mathematical and geared toward those who think like engineers. It can be that way, but it is also very creative and abstract, and requires a combination of strengths in mathematics and logic and emotional expression. The job of a computer programmer is to turn real-world problems into technological solutions. Web development specifically combines elements of visual design with computer programming. Building a career in technology requires some development of social skills – being able to interview, network, and interact with clients in non-technical terms – but it’s fairly introverted work overall.

Ultimately, the most important thing is for families to not give up on their loved ones on the spectrum or those who are suffering from depression or any mental illness. It requires a lot of time, money, and emotional investment to help those who are wired differently to succeed in a world that isn’t naturally prone to acceptance of those who are different.

At age 25, I’m still not at the place I want to be in my career or even in living independently and I don’t claim to be the ultimate authority on career building. I’ve personally focused on continued creative growth in multiple fields (blues guitar, abstract painting, photography, web development) at this point in my life at the expense of building one single path. Even so, I think there are creative, alternative careers out there in these fields and others, for those who have a good network of supportive people – friends and family. I have personally grown closer and closer to success and confidence with each passing day. Sometimes, it’s a struggle, and it does take time, but please, never give up on your loved ones if it does take them more time. People who are different still need to feel loved and supported and connected to the world, and every step helps toward their growth as individual and their career path.

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As a web developer by profession, Morgan has worked with with the content management framework Drupal for over 7 years to successfully deliver websites to local businesses, individuals and nonprofit organizations. His personal art and music website is www.morgangiosa.com.

 

6 Comments

  • I’ve worked in both fields for many years: art and graphic design as well as (web-)programming, both from home and in a small company and I can say that I found both fields very difficult for myself and my condition. Problems with working from home: I have to deal with clients, some easy to deal with, others manipulative or exploitative, which leads me to work more than I get paid for. Apart from that there is a lot of work overhead with writing invoices and checking that they get paid, talking to clients both directly and on the phone. Working in a small company takes away a lot of the overhead but I get subject to mobbing, which is typical for people on the spectrum in tight social environments. I’ve done this for 10 years, so I know what I’m talking about. Seeing other people advance on the social ladder while you seem glued in place. Having new ones command you around and appear to be more successful. As for the art scene, it seems that you have to be very lucky to not be crushed by people who are mediocre, albeit much louder than you. The art scene is full of peacocks who think it’s a big catwalk for them to walk on and push others away. I, for the least, did not feel it to be a healthy environment for me. So, in a nutshell, these jobs seem tempting from the side that creativity is often a means of communication for people on the spectrum, but alas, the most annoying things from the outer world are also very present in those fields. Maybe that will all get better now that more awareness is raised for us weird and quiet ones. I hope and firmly believe it will.

    • mathead, thank you for sharing your story and your experience. I completely hear you and know what you mean and feel your pain. I have studied web development and computer science off and on for over half a decade, have worked as a freelance and contract developer, and worked for a small web development firm for a year, and the interpersonal and financial aspect of it is draining and has been hard on me at times as well. I believe that’s the case with any career path for people like us, so I’m not trying to steer people down what I consider to be the wrong path by any means. I’ve also had some other demons I’ve battled which can sometimes make it harder. I’ve suffered from bipolar disorder and anxiety disorders and am starting to cope with a traumatic past. I’m personally learning to accept and begin to let go and realize I’m not alone in this world rather than trying to rewrite the story of my childhood anymore all while trying to get by and build a career as well. On one hand, I find that the neurotypical world often likes to take advantage of the social vulnerabilities people on the spectrum have experienced and there isn’t a lot of room to grow in a demanding career and grow as a person if up against these odds. On another hand, the right support goes a long way as well. I’ve been incredibly blessed to have pretty great personal and creative support systems in place in the now, but I don’t have career supports at this particular moment. I get jaded and pessimistic at times, but I find that at least trying to be optimistic and focus on the good while also acknowledging the bad helps me, too. I included that paragraph about the neurotypical world needing to be more sensitive and understanding to autistic people and to mentally ill people with this in mind – not to blame the neurotypicals, but because I ultimately recommend these careers with the prerequisite in mind that the employment scenario is healthy and compassionate and understanding and comfortable for the non-neurotypical person. As for the arts, I agree that the modern art world at least in part has become a bit too competitive at the expense of emotional commitment to art for my tastes. Speaking personally, I’m an old soul who longs for the days of Jimi Hendrix and Albert King and Richard Diebenkorn and other artists with human flaws and real personalities and raw talent being able to thrive and succeed and find their way into cliques through honest expression and creative experimentation. I think there are still a lot of great artists out there, but I also think much of the art scene has become too cliquey and looking for someone who just fits into the inner circle, for a lack of better terms. I believe this is a flaw with the way the modern world works, and not a fault of any one person or any one scene or career path. I feel strongly that competition and cliques need to be replaced by compassion and inclusion, in order for autistic and mentally ill people to find success in any kind of paying job setting or even continue to get by and receive the love and support we need. I don’t think there are any perfect answers right now. I’ve often had to remind myself a lot that it’s not my wrongdoing, but also not blame the world around me for too much of it, and it’s a balancing act. I’ve personally dabbled in a number of creative projects rather than even focusing on a career. I’m cutting an original jazz/blues album, I made a documentary, I’ve begun to paint and take photos, and I’m trying to continue developing and designing and maintaining websites for clients. I often feel that my tendency to dabble instead of focusing on a single career path hasn’t helped my career, rather than feeling that these career paths aren’t possible for me. I honestly like to think anything is possible for any of us if we have the right support and set our minds to it. I just haven’t always set my mind to it the way I am planning to start doing. I hope and feel it will continue to get better for all of us, too. I mentioned these careers because of my own experience finding at least limited inclusion in them and the facts that they’re creative and at least somewhat introverted and don’t always require a conventional college degree, but I absolutely feel and understand where you’re coming from as well and have known the same challenges with these options. I wish you the best of luck in finding the success you need, too. I believe I will find the success I need and I believe you will, too. Thank you for the additional perspective. I might have glossed over it a bit too much in my article, but what you shared needs to be heard, too.

      • Hey Morgan. Thanks a lot for the nice, detailed reply. Yeah, I too have to battle a traumatic past. Adopted child, violent rejective father, mother on little helpers, boarding schools, 20 years of schooling for nothing… had to pick myself up. Also, in my generation, AS or ASD did not get diagnosed for most of us and for those who did get diagnosed somehow, it was often to face a hell of psychiatric institutions and special education homes. At least I dodged that one. In any case, just like you I dabble here and there. Bit of photography, bit of writing here and there; play my electric guitars, old school, surf and garage… Still take care of some of my old client’s websites, a poster here, a logo there. Often don’t even bother writing an invoice because dealing with income tax makes me mad. Care for my old mom. She and our common possessions are under administration because people in charge wouldn’t even bother to check my ability as an administrator. But it’s true I’m unable to do paperwork. You can be 50+ and still get treated like a child when you’re on the spectrum, even though you’re a grown individual who has possibly had 3x more experience and struggle in life than many of those people who feel so adult towards you. Got used to it. There has never been a time in my life where things have been different and I’m good now because I know at last that I couldn’t have been any better, despite all the criticism I got; all the “you’re so intelligent but also so recalcitrant”. “Why do you always have to act differently?”. “You probably think you’re very special”, etc. etc. No. I’m disabled and tired, so tired. Now, I’m just pausing for a while, watching the world going by. It’s good. Maybe some day, I’ll jump on that crazy train again. Maybe I’ll just keep on watching the roundabout turn and turn. The best thing in life is when you have choices 🙂

        • I really feel what you’re saying, because I have battled a lot of the same issues with my family and with taking a longer time than expected by society with education because of the kind of schooling opportunities that are available for people that are sensitive to things and vulnerable like I can be. People used to think I was just angry and combative when I was hurting, because I would lash out all the time before I found creative outlets, which is why embracing creativity is so deeply important to me in building my eventual career. Even if I don’t wind up choosing a full-time creative career like the ones I put in the article, I will probably always have the need to be creative in some way. I finished high school with barely an idea of what I wanted to do and no direction, and already feeling too tired from struggle for college. I got quite lucky to find a one-on-one mentor in computer science and an amazing jazz/blues guitar teacher and an amazing art teacher, who have all been sensitive and patient with me and are helping me grow. I still have weaknesses, and I’m learning to grow through them and also accept them. For example – drawing isn’t a talent I currently have. I can draw out a design for an abstract painting and layer it up with painting techniques to sometimes create something good when my mood is right, but I’ve struggled creating art in conventional styles rather than in my own style. I’m just learning that it’s okay to be sensitive and vulnerable and that there’s no shame in struggling with things or in general. I used to think I had to know everything and do everything because there are many other people in my family who are highly intelligent and more successful in their careers, but I am learning not to compare myself against anyone and to just do what I do well. I’m also learning that sensitivity is okay, but that it’s not okay to let anyone take advantage of it or for me to feel insecure and worthless when people dislike me or I’m an outsider, because I’ve had a lot of people who care about me and support me as well. I’m 25 and I’m just now getting to the place where I’m trying – at times desperately – to let go of blaming myself and feeling like I’m just a bad person or like it’s my fault. I recently had a psychotic panic attack or nervous breakdown of some sort – nothing angry or harmful to anyone, but just somewhat of a short-circuiting of my mind where I went pale, freaked out, and nearly collapsed – in a department store because I hadn’t slept in days and started getting into a rough place, and I’ve cried a lot of late because I realized I’ve been so alone and have wanted to feel love and support from people who can’t show it. It’s all a mess at times, but it’s a mess I’m working through, because it’s not been good to feel rejected and hurt. I’m learning to accept that it is not my fault or anyone’s fault, though, and more of a general difficulty with the way the world is currently set up for people in our shoes. I know exactly what you mean about the condescending attitude people seem to have toward people like us. It doesn’t help, but you’re right that it’s good to just brush it off. I probably have much less of an excuse to feel this way at my age, but I really relate to what you said about feeling tired. I’ve written a few blogs and am trying to tell my story because I want the best for myself and for others on the spectrum or who have depression and mental illness, because of my own experiences (which have included psychiatric hospitalizations and serious anxiety and depression) and because a lot of my friends have their own battles with similar things, but I feel what you’re going through and I know there’s no magic wand. You seem incredibly talented and incredibly resilient in my book, and with what you describe of your experience studying and working and fighting so incredibly hard, you’ve earned the right to be tired as far as I’m concerned. I don’t think anyone else in either of our shoes would be anything but tired, and I personally feel where you’re coming from. I struggle with paperwork and managing my career, too. My brother is wildly talented and has worked incredibly hard and is making his way into the music business, and he has been incredibly supportive of me. Anyway, he once said something that stuck with me. He thinks I’m talented in music, art, and web development (I’m no longer judging myself based on what other people think as I’ve done in the past, but I think his opinion is significant, because he doesn’t sugarcoat and is a genius in my opinion), but that I need the equivalent of a publicist and/or manager – someone to bring the projects to me and handle the business side and free up my burden while I just create. Unfortunately, I don’t currently have the money or resources or social skills to find/pay that person, but I remain cautiously optimistic. I think you will find what you’re looking for, too, though it’s really good that you’re taking the time you need for your health and well being. I really think society will grow to be more accepting of people with our skills who lack neurotypical business skills or management skills. I think we need genuine acceptance, not forgiveness or pity or condescension. Speaking personally, I do struggle with self-acceptance and self-worth at times, and I’ve been thinking a lot of late to process through things because I think a sense of self-worth is the first thing needed for anyone else to realize anyone’s worth. I envision a world that is more sensitive, though, where a lack of self-confidence doesn’t lead to people taking advantage. I feel capable of a lot more than I used to be, but we all have our limits and we all have strengths and weaknesses. I’ve learned that there’s no shame in admitting to myself that I am mentally ill, and that it doesn’t mean that I’m violent or stupid, regardless of what the world might think if hearing that label. It just means I’ve struggled and found myself in dark places and I’ve learned that’s totally okay as long as I bounce back. Anyway, I wish you the best of luck going forward. It’s perfectly acceptable to take a break and recharge the batteries as we’re doing now and I have a belief that things will work out for anyone when they’re meant to. I’ve learned it’s okay to be tired and even jaded or bitter, too, as long as it doesn’t consume me. I’ve felt that way plenty of times. I often feel I’m old before my time, as if I’m 25 going on 80-something. I hope you have a relaxing day. That’s the most any of us can hope for in these times, I think. I agree with your words at the end, too. Having choices is the best. I’ve felt trapped at times, like there aren’t any choices. Some of it is valid worry for my future, but some of it is psychological. I’m working on changing my perspective and allowing myself to feel and observe as much as I can rather than disappearing into worried thoughts. It’s been a challenging process to move forward, but I think it’ll work out when I let it and when it’s my time. In the meantime, I’ve been relaxing and occasionally playing and singing at local blues jams and doing some recording projects and one-off websites as a freelancer to build my portfolio. I plan on continuing my studies of back-end programming when I’m ready, too. I’ve focused mainly on front-end web design and system administration so far, and on Drupal and WordPress site-building, but not so much on actual programming in the past as I’d like to. I have been looking at PHP and Node.js recently to enough of an extent that I’m planning to start studying with my mentor again when I have the money, just to fill in more gaps and to figure out if I’m on the right track. I have to rebuild my personal portfolio website when I’m ready, too, because I’ve working off and on with a couple of new clients. Right now, I’m just relaxing and recuperating. I don’t think I’m at a physical age where I’ve earned that right just yet, but spiritually, I’ve grown a bit exhausted, so there’s no shame in it. Keep on observing and watching the world on pause until you feel whole again. I think it’s perfectly healthy to do that. I’m starting to feel better today already than I was yesterday, which is all I can hope for. I think I simply let myself lose too much sleep in recent weeks and that I just need to recuperate.

    • Nicole, thank you very much for the kind words. I’m still on my journey and trying to grow and find my niche and place in the world, but I find catharsis in art because art brings me closer and closer to my feelings and to accepting myself. As I mentioned in another comment, I sometimes struggle to feel I belong in the art world, but I’ve also known it to be a very kind and loving world at other times. Art itself is great healing even when I do feel like an outsider. I’m definitely trying to work on continuing to connect and heal through art.

      I hope you have a wonderful day and I wish you good luck and continued success.

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