Working as an Adult with Asperger’s

Placeholder ImageI’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.

nathan-dumlao-463043-unsplashOnce 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.

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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!