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Life on the Autism Spectrum

Autism & getting a job

The autism spectrum incorporates a broad range of ability and many people on the spectrum are very successful at work. Other people may have difficulties at work and some people may remain unemployed. 
 
“I think we have a superior ability to concentrate on things”
Some people had successful careers. Various factors had contributed to this success, including advanced abilities in subjects such as science or art, having the right kind of support such as parents nearby, or a boss who understood their needs. A focus and attention to detail had helped some in their working lives.
 

Peter, a retired scientist, talks about how he expected 100% work from his staff.

Peter, a retired scientist, talks about how he expected 100% work from his staff.

Age at interview: 83
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 80
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But the whole thing was that I was very fortunate, basically from the age of about 26, 27, I was more or less my own boss. I had my own department and I selected my staff and so on. In London I had a secretary who stayed with me for nineteen years. Well obviously I didn’t exactly mistreat her or anything like that. I expected a hundred per cent work. I didn’t like coming in late. I always made a point of being there before anybody got in. What used to infuriate me was if I wanted to talk to somebody, if they were having a private phone call. And if this went on after I counted one, two, three I would put my hand on the receiver and you know stop their conversation. But people understood that is what I …. On the other hand I was always very loyal to my staff. And also always I had always bosses who understood me and I never had any real compromise. Well I mean at my interviews to my directors always understood me. I never had any quarrels with them.
 

Richard highlights how 'an obsessive interest in detail' can be put to good use in the workplace.

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Richard highlights how 'an obsessive interest in detail' can be put to good use in the workplace.

Age at interview: 58
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 51
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Richard: I think that we tend to have the superior ability in concentrating on a subject, on a problem and sticking with it. And I think there is a number of employers could very well make use of that if they wanted to. Also what is sometimes seen as a disability in our deficiency in social interaction tends to mean that we don’t spend any time in office gossip which could seen as an advantage. The obsessive interest in detail could also very well be put to use. There are a number of jobs where it could be very valuable and even the lack of social interaction, there are quite a lot of jobs that are one person jobs.
 
I remember one of the aspie men on the forum, he works, he works for an electricity distribution company, not in this country and he sits in a control room with screens all around him and if anything goes wrong he tracks it down and then phones an engineer and says there is a problem at such and such a place. So that is all the interaction he has. Nearly all the time he is interacting with his computer screens and he complains that every year they come back and say that he is not a very team player. He says, “No that is why I chose that job.” Because he doesn’t need to be. So I think that with the right sort of environment we could be very effective.

 

I think those are the main ones really, that you can be very focused and you can cut off outside stimuli to enable you to be focused which obviously in some jobs that is quite a useful thing to be able to do. So it is matter of trying to find the positive side to the traits in that respect. You know I mean in a family that is a not very good trait that you can sit at a computer for six hours of an evening and not know who is in the house and who isn’t, is the other side of the coin.

 

Stephen, an artist, talks about his work.

Stephen, an artist, talks about his work.

Age at interview: 33
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 5
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Can you remember when you were at school?


When I was at the age of about, I came to the school about five. I used to draw animals like giraffes and elephants and tigers and I used to do some people, men and women and London double decker buses and cars, lorries, trains and aeroplanes and houses, high rise tower blocks and churches. And then do some London landmarks including Big Ben, Houses of Parliament, St Paul’s Cathedral, Tower of London and Tower Bridge, Post OfficeTower, Nelson’s Column, Trafalgar Square and Buckingham Palace and the City of London skyline and Canary Wharf and the London’s docklands. And also American cars like seventies and eighties. And some other – even a few years later Beverley Hills 90210, Jason Priestly Shannon Doherty, Jenny Garth and Nick Perry and the rest of the cast.

One man worked with “good people and there is no pressure” which suited him very well. One woman worked part time at a dog rescue kennels which she enjoyed because she loved dogs. Another woman with a successful working life said that her employers sometimes forgot that she had problems; “I don’t think it’s done on purpose but because there is no physical reminder like a wheelchair or sticks, they forget”.

 

Harriet enjoys her work as a classroom assistant and the children accept her for who she is.

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Harriet enjoys her work as a classroom assistant and the children accept her for who she is.

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School were very supportive through this and they try to work round what I find hard - I work very well with children who find school hard both socially and academically and the children work well with me - they accept me for me and even reception do too - there was music time where they do head shoulders knees and toes and I cannot listen, process and then action quick enough and then I get very confused and it all falls apart - anyway one 4 year old girl took it on herself to stand next to me to help me every lesson and she was really pleased if I could get past two instructions but she knew I was not pretending I could not do it and did not think less of me because of it. I think the children and I work as a partnership - I know some things and they help me with the other things.
 

Catherine describes her route through college to employment.

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Catherine describes her route through college to employment.

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I went to [name] Sixth Form College and did GNVQ advanced science and then I went on to [name] College to study animal care. But the first few I did an HND but because I was living there at the same time, although I came home at weekends, dropped out after the first year and I restarted on a National Certificate for two years which meant I could travel from home every day which is easier. Then I’ve, after, from the first year of the HND I started work experience in a local rescue kennels and having done work experience at the same place for my certificate and helping out voluntary in the holidays and all that. I managed to get a job that only lasted two weeks at a boarding kennels which I hated so I quit. But then luckily, some paid hours came up back at the rescue kennels and I have been there ever since.
 

Jamie worked for two years in a warehouse but is now looking for work.

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Jamie worked for two years in a warehouse but is now looking for work.

Age at interview: 22
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 9
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And what have you done since you finished your course?
 
I studied another course at home, which was essential PC installation and Maintenance which working on computer hardware and everything like that and passed that. And, but after that I was looking for work in that area for a while, but didn’t have much luck so I just moved on to another, looked into another area of work and eventually went into this job I applied for, which was as a warehouse assistant working for a clothing wear company, picking and packing and I did that for two years and then I was made redundant, and now I am at this stage looking for work again.
 
Some people had begun courses related to their special interests and hoped to get a job in a related area (see ‘Further education’).


Several people discussed their desire to get some form of paid employment working in various areas that were often related to their special interests. These included working with animals, computers, transport, working in the open air and in academia.  One man was hoping to set up an online business selling his photographs and was also considering a hairdressing apprenticeship. Another man wanted to get a job on the railways because he was so keen on trains.
 

John talks about how he has never been able to envisage the future and fifty years on, he feels...

John talks about how he has never been able to envisage the future and fifty years on, he feels...

Age at interview: 65
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 62
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I remember when I won the school prize for French. I wasn’t the brainiest boy, very typical of me, school, typical of me now. Go through school, not outstanding, not brilliant, hated sport, didn’t like the contact, didn’t like cricket, didn’t like football. It is all this contact business. Fighting. I don’t like it. But we had a very good Latin teacher, Mr Perry, very nice man Mr Perry. And he got me a job in the school library which got me out of games. And I was in my element in the school library. I was just happy to have access to the books really. You know, it suited me fine there rather than play football. But in the fifth form when everyone gets a prize, I got the school prize for French because I was simply the best. I was the best in the class and probably best in the school, at French and I won the school prize for Endeavour. I am good at trying. Well that is what I have been doing all my life. You know, I am still the same person, who was good at French and good at trying.
 
And it has got me, where has it got me? You know, what am I? You know I am still wondering what to do. When you said to me how do you envisage the future, I mean I am still the same as I was when fifteen. I can’t imagine the future. I wouldn’t say I was stupid but there we are. Fifty years on [laughs]. Does any of that makes sense?
One woman wanted to open her own rescue kennels and live by herself. Another said:
“I would like to see myself with a full time job. And not being, not being actually patronised or criticised or anything else for what I do. That is my idea but whether it will work is another matter because it would work if we actually got employers on my side, but it doesn’t always work like that.”
 
“If I didn’t have voluntary work I would just get bored”
Several people had difficulties with working and no longer had a paid job.  Some did voluntary work; one woman, for example, worked as a volunteer gardener and enjoyed it because she loved gardening and did not have to talk to people.
 

Daniel does voluntary work for a charity one day a week and enjoys it.

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Daniel does voluntary work for a charity one day a week and enjoys it.

Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 11
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I work in [company] which is in [town], but it is actually like a national charity as well. And it’s a case of we do like an ebay charity shop. And I am working for somebody who is actually more disorganized than I am which is really bad because it is like I go in one week and I never know what I am going to do or whatever and it is like, it is like we have got these mountains of stuff. And I put… I am not very fast at doing it, so one of the, I am not very good with the quality of work, well it is quality and quantity of work isn’t very good. I go in for three or four hours and I might put three things on if I am lucky whereas most people would put like 20 or 30 things on. I mean I am only writing like a sentence, and most, and then a little paragraph underneath, which is copied and pasted. And I only do it and get three things done. But I do spend a lot of time talking because it is so interesting.
A few people had begun to give talks to autism related support groups or do disability related voluntary work. As Mary said, “Voluntary work, I think, is really helpful because it’s just good.  It kind of stops you feeling lonely and if I didn’t have voluntary work, I would just get bored and fed up”.
 

Simon gives talks to parents about 'how autism affects him'.

Simon gives talks to parents about 'how autism affects him'.

Age at interview: 22
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 5
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Well so far, this is like a little job, I’m doing right now. I actually started doing my… these talks and stuff about autism for parents and stuff. It started off as like a little something, I don’t know, someone said, “Oh why don’t you talk it and stuff?” And I said, “Alright then. I’ll give it a go.” And it started off as say a little group, like four parents and stuff. And then that slowly developed into like a big group of 27 parents and stuff, all just me talking and giving them advice about autism and stuff and how, you know, how it affects me and stuff and how they can help people with it and stuff like that. That, sort of is my job at the moment. That’s what I’ve been doing. Just out, you know, doing all sorts of talks and stuff and giving parents advice and stuff like that. So I just, so far it’s been going really well. I’ve got to just keep, keep myself in the open really and show them I’m there if they need it and stuff like that. You know, keep yourself going really. Yes.

 

Paul began his career as an autism consultant working at an autism organisation for five years.

Paul began his career as an autism consultant working at an autism organisation for five years.

Age at interview: 29
Sex: Male
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Yeah, that's it. I, I went onto an autism organisation where I worked for five years. And yeah, that's really where my career started. I didn't know it was going to be a career at the start. I had no idea, of that. It was just one of those things that, where I went in blind. Or in some ways I just thought it was a little hobby, initially, just doing a little speech about my life, and then go back to, you know, the volunteering work which I - don't get me wrong, I learned a lot from that base. And then what slowly happened is that each year it, I was going to different conferences, you know, National Autistic Society‚Ķ What I done in the meantime was, okay, so I've got this autism diagnosis, what does it mean? How, and this is where I'm going to get to the fruit salad theme. So, got the diagnosis. And, you know, they've got the triad of impairments, and I thought well I want to know a bit more. You know, that's great for a diagnosis, but it's tapping the service. 

And I connected with Donna Williams on Facebook about a year later, from her speech, so it was about 2010. And I started looking at some of the videos about processing, language, etc. And then I saw this image of the fruit salad, where she puts different things into different domains. So information processing, personality, mental health, learning and environment. And then it started got me thinking, autism isn't one thing, is it? And she said "No. It's a clustering of different things." So then I started building up my own fruit salad, so I could contextualise each piece when I speak. And that's what I've done.
Some people were unable to undertake paid employment because of severe learning or social difficulties. They attended day centres for a few days a week. Those people who were not in paid employment received benefits including Income Support, Incapacity Benefit and Disability Living Allowance*.
 

Alex now attends a day service that meets her needs after six years of trying different provision.

Alex now attends a day service that meets her needs after six years of trying different provision.

Age at interview: 28
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 3
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Over the course of six years my old social worker sent me to five different like day centres for people with disabilities. Again, none of them really worked out. In one I was the only verbal person which as you can imagine was very boring. Another one was too far away and I didn’t cope very well with the travelling and the transition. One said that they actually couldn’t meet my needs, which again was really shocking because I’m obviously at the higher end of the spectrum, but they thought that my needs were actually too severe for them to meet. And now I’ve ended up at an independent day service, not like council run, which I attend four days a week, and do social activities with them as well. And, you know, I’ve been going there for nearly a year now, and they can meet my needs since. The first place I’ve found that has actually met my needs.

Being on benefits or allowances could cause problems if people wanted to work part-time or take on a temporary position. Reapplying for benefits or going to tribunal to gain benefits could be stressful. 

*Income Support is being phased out and will be replaced by Universal Credit, Incapacity Benefit has now been abolished and has been replaced by Employment and Support Allowance and Disability Living Allowance is being phased out for those over 16 and is being replaced by Personal Independence Payments see GOV.UK for more details.
 

Last reviewed February 2020.
Last updated July 2016.

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