Some would say I’m a fool. I’ve been successfully employed before. Heck, I held one job for twelve years! I also lost one job before the month was out. But I was a software engineer for twenty years, and good at it. Come on now: an Aspie software engineer? Of course you could find work. Yeah, I could go back to the IT world, but I’d be miserable. But does that make my being autistic and unemployed a choice? Unfortunately, it’s not that easy.
Most of my working life has been in publishing, even before I became a software engineer. And that was largely by design. Dissemination of information. You see, I like being involved with something that does good. I could never work for an arms manufacturer, heck even the financial world is not for me. I’ve always sought to do meaningful work that would contribute something to society.
Discovering, a couple of years ago, that I was an Aspie changed everything. My education about autism, catching up on who I had always been, seeing not just my past differently but taking in the whole world from a new, much clearer viewpoint — it put everything into perspective. The “meaningful work” and “contribute to society” now had a new direction and a new impetus.
I’m now committed to finding work that has a direct, positive effect on the autistic community. I’m also now part of the majority of the autistic and unemployed.
Mental exhaustion and a feeling of fulfillment
Fool! You could be making six figures as a software engineer but choose not to? That’s certainly one way to look at it, but you’d be missing the bigger picture. Two things:
- Mental exhaustion
- A feeling of fulfillment from having contributed to society, having made a difference
I think we can all agree that it’s best to avoid the former and strive for the latter.
Software engineering left me mentally exhausted almost every day. Not the “engineering” itself — the design of algorithms and similar, really geeky stuff — it was all the stuff surrounding the extreme importance of using this framework or that and the power struggles over choices that, given the nature of technology, will be obsolete by the time lunch is over. I can’t do office politics anymore. I was “successful” in the sense of writing solid, robust code, but it was draining me. The “meaningful work” that was supposed to underlie it all had lost its potency.
Yes, I’ll have to deal with office politics and other such annoyances at any job, but that’s where “a feeling of fulfillment” comes into play. I know this will come from an even deeper involvement in the autistic community. Unfortunately, doing work that actually helps people doesn’t pay as much as work that boosts the profits of a corporation. There’s also not a great deal of work in the autistic community — unless you’re a psychiatrist, psychologist, licensed social worker or (perhaps the subject of a future article) a certified applied behavior analyst.
Self-advocate Aspies need not apply, they don’t have the right experience. (I’ll let that irony sink in).
Focus and tenacity, the common traits for those on the spectrum
But I will not be deterred. I’ve been out of work for more than nine months now, but I am resolute. That kind of focus and tenacity are pretty common traits for those of us on the spectrum. So, however, are anxiety, social issues, and less than ideal executive functioning.
Oh, believe me, I am no stranger to anxiety. I get anxious if I think too much about how my meager retirement savings are dwindling. I get anxious about how long I’ve been out of work. I lose sleep sometimes, because of anxiety. But I won’t let it stop me. The odd thing is that I’m actually fairly busy, although not with anything that generates an income…yet.
I’ve met so many wonderful people during this past year; some have become good friends, many are really good connections. But that hasn’t turned into a job. I speak at conferences, write articles and am very involved in the autistic community in Atlanta. But that hasn’t turned into a job. Sometimes I don’t know if I’m approaching people frequently enough or from the right angle because of social anxiety. Sometimes, dealing with executive functioning, I can get stuck in a loop as I try to figure out where I should best spend my energy in a way that will lead to some sort of income.
But I will not be deterred
There are times when I have to remind myself that I will not be deterred, and so far my head is still above water. I do recognize the possibility that perhaps I need a “day job” that would pay enough to allow me to continue to write articles and speak at conferences, but that’s not the ideal. Compromise can wait (but not too long, please).
I have lived my whole life on principle, so it’s unlikely I’ll change now. There is so much need for work to be done in the autistic community, so many people that need help, so many aspects of society that need to change. But the money isn’t there. I’ve spoken to a number of people working to educate companies about the benefits of hiring people on the spectrum, but they’re running on shoestring budgets. There are lots of similar stories.
Something is out there, waiting for me. Yes, you can call me a fool if you want to. I prefer to think that I am finally onto my true calling. But I guess change takes time. One of my future articles? It will be about my new job. When it comes. Stay tuned.
*On Autistic.ly, Robert is reinventing the workplace with and for autistic people.
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