During my travels to many autism conferences I have observed many sad cases of people with autism who have successfully completed high school or college but have been unable to make the transition into the world of work. Some have become perpetual students because they thrive on the intellectual stimulation of college. For many able people with autism college years were their happiest (Szatmari et al., 1989).
I would like to stress the importance of a gradual transition from an educational setting into a career. I made the transition gradually. My present career of designing livestock facilities is based on an old childhood fixation. I used that fixation to motivate me to become an expert on cattle handling. Equipment I have designed is in all the major meat plants. I have also stimulated the meat industry to recognize the importance of humane treatment of livestock. While I was in college I started visiting local feedlots and meat packing plants. This enabled me to learn about the industry.
Many successful people with autism have turned an old fixation into the basis of a career. I was lucky to find Tom Rohrer, the manager of the local Swift Meat Packing plant, and Ted Gilbert, the Manager of the Red River Feedlot (John Wayne's feedlot). They allowed me to visit their operations every week. They recognized my talents and tolerated my eccentricities. These people served as important mentors. Educators who work with autistic students need to find these people in the business community. I finished up at Arizona State University with a Master's Thesis on cattle handling and chute design. At the same time I did some freelance writing for the Arizona Farmer Ranchman Magazine. This enabled me to further learn about the livestock industry and develop expertise.
My next step was to get hired for my first job at a large feedlot construction company. Emil Winnisky, the construction manager, recognized my talents in design. He also served as a third important mentor to force me to conform to a few social rules. He had his secretaries take me out to buy better clothes. At the time I really resented this, but today I realize that he did me a great favor. He also told me bluntly that I had to do certain grooming niceties such as wearing deodorant. I had to change. I was most interested to read this passage in one of Kanner's papers about people with autism that make a successful adaptation: "Unlike most other autistic children they become uneasily aware of their peculiarities and they begin to make a conscious effort to do something about them." (Kanner et al. 1972).
Emil was an eccentric guy himself and that may explain why he hired me. About six months after I was hired, Emil was fired. I continued to work for about a year, and I quit because I was asked to participate in some highly questionable business practices. While I was at the construction company I learned drafting from Davy, their wonderful draftsman. Davy and I got along, he was a shy loner who drew the most beautiful drawings. From contacts I made at the construction company I started doing freelance design work. I started my independent consulting and design business one job at a time. People respect talent, and I soon developed a reputation for being an expert. While I was slowly building up my business I had enough financial resources so I did not have to take a job at McDonald's to pay the bills.
The freelance route has enabled people with autism to be successful and exploit their talent area. Computer programming is often a good area. To get the business started people with autism need someone to help them get some of their initial jobs. A freelance business also helps avoid some of the social problems with a job in one place. I can go in, do the design job, and then get out before I get involved in a social situation where I could get into trouble. Other freelance businesses which can work well for people with autism are piano tuner, motor repair, and graphic arts. These jobs all make use of skills that many people with autism have, such as perfect pitch, mechanical ability and artistic talent.
Lack of Social Understanding
I soon developed a reputation in Arizona for being an expert in my field, but I got into trouble socially. I caused a big bunch of trouble for Tom Rohrer, Manager of the Swift plant. I did not understand that people have egos, and that protecting their egos was often more important than loyalty to the company. I naively believed that all Swift employees would always act in the best interests of their employer. I assumed that if I was loyal and always worked for the good of Swift's, I would be rewarded. The other engineers resented me. They sometimes installed equipment wrong, and they never consulted me. They did not like this "nerd" telling them how to do it. Technically, I was right but socially wrong.
I caused trouble for Tom Rohrer after I wrote a letter to the President of Swift about a bad equipment installation which caused cattle to suffer. The President was embarrassed that I had found a fault in his operation. I thought he would be pleased if I informed him of the mistake, instead he felt threatened and told Tom to get rid of me. Fortunately, Tom did not kick me out.
Over the years I have learned to be more tactful and diplomatic. I have learned to never go over the head of the person that hired me unless I have their permission. From past experiences, I have learned to avoid situations where I could be exploited or my employers might feel threatened. I learned diplomacy by reading about international negotiations and using them as models.
Getting in trouble over the social aspects of work is a problem area for many people with autism. Learning the work part of the job is easy. Many people with autism expect all people to be good. It is a rude awakening to learn that some people are bad, and they may try to exploit them. This is a lesson that an independent person with autism must learn. For people with autism who take lower level manufacturing jobs, the other employees should be involved and trained to help the person. The co-workers need to be trained to understand autism. A higher functioning person with autism can avoid trouble by keeping his mind on his work. One man worked for five years in a lab, and his employer was happy with his work. One day he got into trouble when he went drinking with the guys and got fired. He would have been better off if he had declined. To avoid problems, I keep my contacts with clients in the technical department. Attempting to date or flirt with people in my client's work places would cause many problems, so I just don't do it.
Autism Follow-Up Studies
There have been two major studies on the follow up of adults with autism who have made a satisfactory adjustment. Szatmari et al. (1989) described six high functioning adults who graduated from college and were able to live independently. One of those people became a perpetual student, and the other five have jobs. There is a tendency for people with autism to become perpetual students because they like the stimulating but structured college setting.
Two of the people in Szatmari's study became salesmen and two worked in a library. The fifth person became a physics tutor. Physics tutor would be a good job to do on a freelance basis. People with autism are often good at teaching others in their areas of special skills. Jason Utley from Kentucky mastered the skills to become an Eagle Scout, and the other scouts liked him because he teaches them to tie knots. Teaching and being a salesman involve social interaction but it is often one-way interaction where the person with autism gets to talk about his area of interest. It does not require a complex understanding of social relations.
Kanner et al. (1972) followed up nine high functioning cases where a good adjustment had been made. Five of these people had jobs. The jobs were bank teller, lab chemist, blue collar Agricultural Experiment Station worker, accountant, and library page. One of these people bounced from job to job due to social problems. The job placements that were successful did not involve complex social interactions. A bank teller's interactions can be routine and stereotyped.
The person who became the lab chemist originally had a nursing job. This job was a disaster because she did not know how to be flexible. She learned from the nursing text book that mothers should nurse their babies for only 20 minutes. When she abruptly took the babies away from the mothers in the obstetrics ward they became angry. She could not understand why. When she switched to the chemistry lab, she was appreciated for her knowledge of chemistry. The person who is now an accountant got dismissed from a previous job after he was promoted to a supervisory position. I heard about another sad case where a man with autism had been a successful draftsman for many years in an architectural firm. When he was promoted and had to be involved with clients he was fired. He should have been left working on his drawing board.
In summary, a person with autism can make a successful transition into a job or career.
- Gradual Transitions - Work should be started for short periods while the person is still in school.
- Supportive Employers - Parents and educators need to find employers who will be willing to work with people with autism.
- Mentors - People with autism, especially the higher functioning, need mentors who can be both a special friend and help them learn social skills. The most successful mentors have common interests with the person with autism.
- Educate Employers and Employees - Both employers and employees need to be educated about autism so they support the person with autism and help him. They also need to understand an autistic person's limitations with complex social interactions to help him avoid situations which could cause him to lose his job.
- Freelance Work - Freelance work is often a good option for very high functioning people who have a special skill in computers, music, or art. The person with autism will need someone to help him get the business started and possibly educate clients about autism. Successful freelance businesses have been started in computer programming, piano tuning and graphic arts.
- Make a Portfolio - People with autism have to sell their skills instead of their personality. They should make a portfolio of their work. Artists can make color photocopies of their work, and computer programmers can make a demonstration disc. The portfolio of the person's work should be shown to the people in the art or computing department. In all of my jobs, I had to get in the "back door." Since people with autism do not interview well, the personnel department should be avoided. Technical people respect talent, and a person with autism has to sell his talent to an employer.
Kanner, L., Rodriguez, A., and Ashenden, B. (1972). How far can autistic children go in matters of social adaptation? Journal of Autism and Childhood Schizophrenia (Now titled: Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders), 2: 9-33.
Szatmari, P., Bartolucci, G., Bond, S., and Rich, S. (1989). A follow-up study of high functioning autistic children. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 19: 213-225.
Revised February, 1996. An earlier version of this article appeared in The Advocate, Summer, 1992.