I’ve moved through so many emotions associated with my employment situation over the past two decades—feelings of inadequacy, motivation, ambition and excitement, depression, anxiety, hopelessness, guilt. I know each struggle is different, and I consider myself lucky in that I can function and mask pretty well in many kinds of work situations, even if I’m suffering inside.
I thought I’d talk a little bit about my experience before, as usual, asking what your experiences have been like.
I did not have what most people would call a “real” job in high school, although I put a good amount of energy into a gig. I was taking lots of dance classes, and when my teacher asked if I’d like to teach some classes once a week, I said, “yes.”
I was not particularly fond of small children, but I did have a helper come in most of the time to help me manage the kids, aged between 3 and 9. It was exhausting because being in a classroom with small children means constantly competing for attention. High energy and upbeatness was a must, and I needed to sustain that energy through 4 half-hour classes. In return, I got to dance for free at the studio. But I can’t say I really enjoyed teaching at that level. I would have anxiety each week beginning on Monday, and this would become a pattern that would reoccur for pretty much every job I got afterwards.
In college, I was going to classes full-time. I tried a part-time job at a retail store for a few weeks and hated it. I was asked to stand in front of a register and ask everyone if they had a credit card, then pitch our credit card to them. I already had to mask in front of coworkers, now I had to pretend I gave a shit about the store credit cards and try to sell people products I didn’t even use? I quickly understood that retail was not for me and quit as soon as possible.
After college and getting married, I worked for a little while at the now-defunct Blockbuster Video. Yes, it was another retail setting, but the pressure to sell wasn’t as high. I simply had to ring customers out with their rentals and be friendly. I could handle that, though I didn’t enjoy it at all.
My husband had been brought up in a household where hard work wasn’t about finding something you enjoyed doing—it was about putting in as many hours as possible to pay the bills and make a living. This was his outlook on it. He told me early on in our marriage that he couldn’t think of any work he would actually enjoy doing, and that this didn’t matter to him. What mattered was making money at a respectable level, which is full-time, 40 hours a week.
I’d felt a constant pressure ever since about my work situation. When I left Blockbuster for reasons I can’t remember, I found a gig ghostwriting, but that soon fell through as well. I was doing a little transcription for mom, who owned a medical transcription business, and then I found a job at a gift shop in one of the big local hospitals.
It was a simple job, not a whole lot of traffic each day. Sometimes I got to deliver balloons to patients, which was both enjoyable and nerve-wracking. I would worry about walking in at a bad time or getting into a situation I didn’t know how to handle appropriately. (I barely know how to chit-chat with people, let alone converse with someone who might be upset or depressed about a loved one’s health.)
After a few months, my husband and I decided to move back home, and again I quit a job I’d held for less than a year.
Once we moved back to Ohio, it was time for a string of coffee shop jobs that would stretch out for years. For the first year or so I worked part time and also did as much transcription as I could for mom. But I never came close to making the kind of money my husband was making as a salesperson for Verizon Wireless. Eventually, I did land a full-time coffee shop gig at another hospital. This one was open Monday through Friday, no weekends, and I could work 40 hours a week. I was happy. I knew how to go through the motions of working at a coffee shop. I didn’t have to worry too much about conversing with customers, as long as I was friendly. I did very well, and eventually I was working solo shifts and running the shop on my own for full 8-hour opening or closing shifts.
After a year or so, I started to feel restless and felt I needed to do something a little more substantial. I didn’t want to make people’s coffee for the rest of my life. I was feeling the pressure to accomplish something, even if my husband was content to work as long as he needed to as simply a source of income, and not fulfillment. We’d always differed in this respect.
So I looked for some openings that looked interesting, and I found a position with a school for autistic kids. I jumped on it. And this was before ever being diagnosed myself.
It was here where I would learn all I could about autism and Asperger’s, eventually leading to a personal diagnosis. But not before going through a trial by fire to figure out who I was.
I struggled after moving up to a full teaching position in the middle school. The pressure to form some kind of working relationship with the other teachers weighed heavily on me, and it was a big struggle just to manage to greet people in the morning. I was stressed about performing well as a teacher, which I think I did well. But the pressure to fit in to the group as coworkers proved to be more than I could handle. Which is saying a lot, because I dealt with some pretty intense situations in my classroom.
I ended up putting in my two weeks’ notice shortly after Christmas…then quit a week early because I just couldn’t do it anymore. I believe in my email I cited “health reasons,” which was not a lie.
I promptly found a therapist and began going regularly to address my intense anxiety and growing depression. I tried an antidepressant and discovered something interesting about myself. Those blind spots I’d always experienced in social situations remained, even after the anxiety was curbed. I still felt lost around people, hated eye contact or being too close to people. I was bored most of the time and unable to figure out how to act casually when I was restless and always wanting to move. I’d picked up smoking and drinking just to have something to do with my restless body in these social situations where I felt people talked of nothing but irrelevant, boring things in their lives.
Eventually, the light bulb went off in my mind, and I asked for a referral to a psychologist who had experienced diagnosing autism in adults.
After the school for autistic kids, I began working as a maid as I attended therapy. This was actually one of the best work experiences I’ve ever had. I was there for longer than any other job I’d had to that point, around a year and a half. I drove to the office each morning, refilled my cleaning supplies and towels, grabbed my binder where the office manager had already placed my house assignments for the day as well as what house keys I would need, and I was off. Didn’t have to talk to anyone in the office, really. And most of the time I got to enter empty houses where I didn’t have to talk to clients, either. I would work for a few hours cleaning their homes, getting a good workout sometimes. Then when the work was done, I could return to the office, return the binder, then go home for the day.
I wasn’t making a lot of money, but my husband and I understood how important and valuable it was that I was working in an environment that wasn’t making me miserable or overcome with anxiety every day. It was a good environment to begin the therapy and soul-searching I needed for the remainder of that year.
After recovering from diagnosis and a deep depression cycle, I was ready to once again look forward to what I wanted to do to make money. I was already 30, and the idea of building a career and climbing ladders was no longer something that appealed to me. Fuck what everyone else thought.
I found a part-time gig proofreading at an office in town. I considered it a foot in the door for an editing job. After a few months, I quit, having cultivated strong anxiety surrounding my boss. During that time there, though, I’d opened a professional profile on a freelance website and began building a portfolio and experience editing. After six months, I talked with my husband about trying to edit freelance full time, and he agreed.
Today, I am still working as much as possible as a freelance editor and ghostwriter. And I love it. Though I pay a price for being cooped up inside for long periods of time, especially in the winter.
I’m still working on good strategies to deal with this, including a yearly trip to somewhere warm in the middle of February. Some Aspies thrive in isolation for long periods of time, but I feel like I’m in this unfortunate limbo of needing social contact to avoid depression, but also suffering to some extent in each social setting because of the incessant anxiety and boredom.
Oh well, I’m sure I will continue figuring things out about myself for years to come. Anyway, thanks for reading as always, and I’d love to hear about your experiences with employment, underemployment, or lack of employment and how you deal with it!
14 thoughts on “Working as an Adult with Asperger’s”
Oh man, I have so much I could say about this!
Ever since I was a little kid I dreamed of being an airline pilot (hah, what little boy doesn’t?). Alas, instead of a fleeting dream for me it was something that stuck with me forever and in a way it still does. Alas, when I went to start my flight training in my high school years (as does every civilian pilot almost) I ran into the awful snag – the FAA at the time automatically disqualified ASD from holding medical clearance to fly. Obviously this sent me into a deep depression.
I went to university for math ed, taught high school for a year. I absolutely hated it. Went to grad school with the intention of a PhD and a college teaching career. Within 2 years I was so burnt out I couldn’t continue and teaching college was nearly as painful for me. Left with a Master’s, went on to look for other employment.
For the next four years I went through so many low-level jobs I lost count. I never lasted more than a month before something went horribly wrong and I either was forced to resign or got fired. This cycle drove me into a very deep depression which culminated in a near suicide in July 2015. A month later I started work as a lift engineer for a crane company, a career I’ve been in for 3 years now. Though I’ve changed companies once in that time, it’s the longest I’ve stuck with anything.
Though gainfully employed now, I still hate my job. I still dream of being an airline pilot. The FAA has eased their requirements and now evaluate ASDs on a case-by-case basis, but unfortunately I am too old to begin an airline career at this point. I’ve accepted that I will never be satisfied with any job at this point, but it’s better than the alternative.
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I’m sorry. Do you at least have hobbies or things you like to do?
Oh yeah; I have my hobbies that I do enjoy outside of work. It’s just that most of us spend most of our lives at work. Luckily I work from home on a most-time basis now so that has helped tremendously.
Maybe I’ll do private recreational flying someday. I’d also like to turn my love of cigars and fine drinks into a business – something I’ve thought about. I’d call it “Leaf & Barrel” as a play on my initials if it were to come to fruition, but the FDA’s new regulations on tobacco make it a difficult market to get into.
Thought sounds awesome. Anything can happen. 🙂
I’m really struggling with this. I’ve never worked full-time and have had long periods of unemployment due to depression. I’ve had three part-time jobs in the last twelve months. One was a short-term contract in an open-plan office that I couldn’t cope with because of the noise, although I somehow made it to the end of the contract. One was as a librarian in a further education college. I struggled with that because of interactions with students and a difficult boss. When my contract came up for renewal, the terms of my contract were changed. I didn’t think I could cope with the new terms, which would have involved a lot more personal interactions and self-driven work, plus my boss made it quite clear that she didn’t think I could do it either, so I left.
The current job is in another academic library, but in a non-client-facing role, which is better. I’m a qualified librarian, but I’m probably over-qualified for this role which basically involves carefully moving rare books around a university library; it doesn’t really need a library degree to do it. Still, I feel comfortable in my job most days (although I had a terrible day yesterday, hard to tell if it was depression or autism that was really affecting me though) and it’s only two days a week, which is both good and bad. My boss is understanding of autism and mental health stuff too. The contract ends at the end of the month, though, and it doesn’t look like the money is there to extend it.
I would like to work more in the writing/editing/proof-reading sector, but I don’t really know how to go about doing it and I’m nervous of taking the plunge and becoming self-employed as well as having to network and make contacts. Writing is pretty much the only thing I enjoy, though and the only thing I could really see myself doing as a full-time career these days, although that might just be because I feel I’ve failed at everything else I’ve tried.
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I appreciate your response. I would encourage dipping your toes in freelance work, and I can tell you I’ve managed to make pretty steady income without having network and sell myself further than a strong profile with some past work to showcase. I’ve been using Upwork. If you want to try it, you can just set up a profile and take on as little or as much work as you want. Jyst thought I would share since I don’t think I mentioned the site in this post.
Thanks, that’s helpful.
Great and relatable post. I commend you for trying so many jobs where you had to work directly with customers. My first job was in a grocery store deli. They tried me on the cash register and it was awful. I couldn’t comprehend what the trainer was telling me and they kept saying “you’ll be fine” and “practice makes perfect”. I was mortified when customers were telling me “that can’t possibly be right” and I couldn’t remember how to get the drawer to open or if the item was taxable or not (this was before scanners). That was the last time I worked a job where I had to deal with customers.
I had a job cleaning hotel rooms and I loved it except when guests were in their rooms and we discovered our manager was stripping rooms and taking our tips before we got to them.
I ended up working in IT as a programmer. I had minimal internal contact within the company and zero with the customers. Yet, I was dealing with high stress and a work environment full of distractions when I needed full concentration. After 20 years of that, they finally let me work from home. It has been an absolute dream to work from home with complete silence and no distractions. I’m now in my 25th year with the company. I feel so lucky to be where I’m at with my career now. Aspies have such a challenge when it comes to employment and finding balance. I’m glad you have found some balance!!
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That sounds amazing. Well done! 🙂
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This is so similar to my experience, although I didn’t try nearly so many jobs before I accepted that it wasn’t for me and I needed to freelance. I grew up in a culture where work was a necessary thing you did for money and it didn’t matter if you were unhappy as long as you could pay the bills.
I can also relate to the struggle for balance between socializing and isolation. Although I do consider myself to be someone who thrives in isolation for relatively long periods of time, I also love people. I can’t seem to find the right balance and tend to spend months at a time in relative isolation followed by months of being a social butterfly (well, an autistic social butterfly!). I have made some progress but I think it will be a life long struggle.
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The part of your story that really resonates for me is needing to have balance with all those isolated, sedentary hours of freelancing. Currently I am putting in so many sedentary hours (70-80/week) it’s starting to impact my health. How I cope with this is volunteering in ways that allow me to work outside. I’m fine with working in small groups, as long as my task is clear, and I am doing something earth-focused. Natural world is my strongest relationship since I’ve given up on close human relationships, and when I go too long without connection, I literally can feel my mind and body falling apart.
My favorite job in life was 2 years in my college post office, delivering mail to entire campus, sorting mail, and giving people their mail. This was the perfect balance of physical activity, independence, predictable routine, and only interacting with people in ways that they usually were grateful to receive something I was giving them.
After dropping out of grad school 24 years ago for Special Ed and being on unemployment for a few months, I answered a hospital ad for people who have minimum “two years” experience. I talked them into allowing me to test for medical transcription, even though I had “two weeks” experience transcribing anything, let alone medical content. I tested so well, they hired me, trained me, and I thought, “Great, I’ll do this for a year and then move on with my life.” That first job had us sit right in front of the airlift helipad, so we felt very connected to those stat reports we’d churn out that patients would literally be waiting for to take off. In other words, we were integral part of the system. There’s none of that now. I have been transcribing for nearly half my life, 20 years for hospitals in house until all hospitals outsourced and now what’s left of the career is voice recognition editing. The last 6 years I’ve freelanced both media and medical content for two transcription companies. In a way, it is the ideal AS career. But doing it before Google was even a thing, I’ve seen so many changes and my pay has quite literally remained the same all these years later. I’m barely hanging on financially after 18 years single parenting, but I have somehow always seemed to have work when others I know gave transcription up long ago due to the changes.
I would love to drop the WiFi and screen, and be paid to do something outdoors, but that has eluded me so far. Leading groups is not my strong point. I never give up though volunteering in ways that fulfill and nurture me.
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Oh my gosh. My mom worked for decades building her own medical transcription company, then suddenly the software or something changed and people decided to let machines do the work instead. She was so sad, she was so successful for a long time.
What did your mom do next? Yes, it’s tough. Glad I now 100% freelance media production transcripts like background for journalists, interviews, documentaries, etc. instead of being an employee. Federal mandate for EHR (electronic health record) caused a lot of MT jobs to go, but decades before that, as medicine shifted from caring for sick people first to a corporate business model first, a lot of facilities were cutting budgets by laying off any employees to hire contractors outside the US for half the pay… which some came to regret due to quality issues for hiring folks whose first language is not English. When you have a workforce that’s 99% women and basically hidden without representation working from homes, it’s hard to advocate for ourselves as “knowledge workers” akin to any other field. I worked longer hours than my computer programming brother, for example, but $15 an hour which is now minimum wage in my state was considered really good, and no college degree required, though most of the good MTs I met had college degrees and had high understanding of medical context and current practice. Lots of mistreatment I witnessed built into the system, where very few are brave enough to complain about conditions.
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Absolutely right. She and my dad bought some space downtown and opened a consignment shop for people who make homemade crafts like quilts and pottery and stuff. 🙂