Since April is Austim Awareness Month, I wanted to share this post from exactly a year ago.
As I’ve looked back over my work history, there has been one overwhelming feeling that comes up over and over again: shame.
Since I entered the workforce in my 20s, my job history has been one of seemingly disappointing people. I never met people’s expectations of me. It wasn’t for lack of trying. If someone said I did something that was not up to par, I would try to be better. But the damage was done and I was looked at as incompetent.
When I got my diagnosis of Aspergers in 2008, I was hopeful that now I could find jobs where I would excel. But in the eight years since knowing I was autistic, I’ve learned that while I changed, employers didn’t. I learned that sharing my diagnosis didn’t help me at all. Many folks didn’t understand the diagnosis and still saw some of my quirks as not caring or incompetent or what have you.
Even in the years following my diagnosis, I’ve tried to correct some of autism related problems to better fit in. Not that it helped. I think I was still viewed as a disappointment, a failure.
At the same time, I knew I had skills. I was a good communicator. I was okay with a camera. I was getting better creating websites. I was surprised I could make graphic designs. I’ve been leading a church as pastor for almost three years. I had some of the skills needed to be a good employee to someone, but the package wasn’t attractive to employers.
Recently, I was reading fellow Michigander, Ron Fournier, a writer for the Atlantic and National Journal. He has a new book out about his learning to accept and appreciate his son who is autistic. He shared a quote from Thorkil Sonne, a Danish entrepeneur who wanted to provide a positive work environment for people with autism, people like his son. Sonne used an interesting analogy to describe people who are autistic and their gifts to society:
To most people, the dandelion is nothing more than an annoying weed – something to be rooted out of our lawns and flowerbeds. But what a lot of people don’t know is that, when cultivated, the dandelion is one of the most valuable and useful plants in nature. In many parts of the world, the dandelion is known for its nutritional, healing and medicinal properties. The value of a dandelion is very much dependent on our knowledge and perception of its value.
Most of us don’t want dandelions in our lawns – they don’t fit there. But if you place a dandelion plant in your kitchen garden, and cultivate it, it can turn out to be one of your most valuable plants. Dandelions are used to make beer, wine, salads, and natural medicines. Quite simply, if you choose to cultivate dandelions, you will reap their rewards. So, is a dandelion a weed or an herb? You decide. The same can be said for individuals with autism. The value of what you see depends on your level of understanding and accommodation.
Hearing this made a lightbulb come on. I’m a dandelion.
Part of this sounds like that whole “I’m-a-special-snowflake” crap that has been pushed around these days. But this is exactly how someone with Aspergers or autism can feel. On the downside, they might feel like a weed, a nuisance to the rest of the neurotypical world. It’s how I’ve felt at times. But the thing is, dandelions have benefits as well. What might not fit well on a lawn, might make a good wine or a balm.
But I think most employers, even in the nonprofits, tend to go for flowers, people that are “beautiful,” put-together, who know how to make small talk and aren’t moody or plain weird.
Maybe this is why the unemployment rate among those with autism is something like 85 percent. (No, that isn’t made up.) Our work culture is one that is geared towards efficiency. We want workers we don’t have to really train, let alone accomodate. So what happens when you get someone who is autistic and needs to be cultivated and isn’t geared towards being efficient? They don’t last long in their jobs.
I don’t think the job market was always like this. I think there was a time when companies and groups were interested in investing in the worker. Of course those with autism were locked up in institutions, so the old days weren’t so good. But I think we need to bring back the notion or nurturing workers instead of making them fit some template.
What needs to be done is a radical overhaul of how we see those with autism. In the profile of Somme, it is noted that employers need to gear themselves to be places that can accomodate autisic workers:
One significant challenge in utilizing individuals with autism is that many employers don’t always see the upside in hiring individuals who can be considered rigid and moody or a have poor communication skills. Because of this, Specialisterne focuses on developing new approaches that allow businesses to tap into the potential of this unique demographic. Sonne believes that innovative employment programs, that focus on individuals with special needs, can turn out some of the most diligent, dependable and productive employees.
Sonne’s company Specialisterne, has a unique approach in how they hire and work alongside persons with autism:
Work Design: Traditional approach: Work design derives business needs from stable strategies and plans. Jobs are designed by determining the tasks a given job requires, translating these tasks into job descriptions and then placing individuals into stable organizational roles.
New Approach: Design jobs to maximize potential for particular individuals to create value. Project roles are customized so they “work” for short-term needs but can evolve as needs change.
But while I’m glad for Sonne and Specialisterne, I have to deal with this world, the world where autism is still a puzzle or frustration.
So, at the risk of offending potential and future employers, I will say this: I’m a dandelion. I am rough around the edges. I am not pretty, I am not great at small talk and I will not be easy to get to know. But if you work with me, you will see a creative side that can produce things you never even thought of. If you can see me as more than just a weed to be removed I can help your concern take it to the next level.
But you are going to have to work with me because I am not going to fit into your template. I’ve tried and I can’t. If you what you want is someone you don’t need to train, to just “set it and forget it,” then you are wasting your time with me. But if you want help mold someone to bring out the best in them, well give me a look.
I’m done trying to please people who won’t understand. I’m a dandelion, a person with autism. Either accept this and work with me or don’t. Either way, I’m done playing games.