Autism, Work & Me – Part One: I Just Don’t Get It

The Accidental Achiever - Blocky coloured pattern along both sides of the image, similar to stain glass windows. The bottom of the image has a silhouette of a person on top of a mountain holding aloft a flag

‘Life is soup, I am a fork.’ The origin of this quotation is unknown to me, but it seems appropriate for someone with autism. 

But first, some context. 

I was diagnosed as being autistic late in life, thirty-seven years after starting my first job. I began my first job in 1977, and apart from four years in Higher Education, and a couple of short periods on the dole, I’m still working today, but I know not how, given how mismatched I feel to the idea of the world of work and my complete ignorance of what is called the psychological contract, the unspoken, unstated and unfathomable agreement between an employee and the boss that describes the informal expectations, commitments and understandings that form their relationship. 

These informalities exist beyond the stated duties of a job role as usually listed in a job description, so the psychological contract is an ineffable and protuberant blob getting in the way of any practical and literal description of what an employer expects me to do. It’s somewhat ironic that for the last twenty-four years or more I have worked as an employment specialist entrusted to assist people with a variety of different disabilities into work, isn’t it? I should know better.

It was in those mid to late 70s days, when school life meant running down the time before you could formally leave and well-meaning but jaded teachers prepared us for the battery of final exams, that my thoughts turned to work.

What did work mean to me? People went to work, presumably like people go to the shops. It wasn’t something I could grasp. Dad did it; mum had done it, and a couple of slightly older friends had just started doing it too, I could tell because they could now buy their own cigarettes and no longer needed to cadge them or share one between the three of us behind the bus shelter.

At school, once a week in the final year, we had work preparation classes all afternoon. But despite the teacher’s best efforts, I just didn’t get it.

The fifteen minutes with the careers advisor were fifteen minutes I’ve never got back; I dread to think just how many fifteen minutes he never got back. 

I vaguely remember that we fenced around the issue in what was an ill-tempered and uncomfortable interview. I offered an unformed idea of what I might like to do. He parried with some gruff suggestions. I don’t recall any idea of an actual conclusion, no sense of a plan, no gentle and reasonable talk of what I could consider doing, just confusion and an unrelenting sense of being lost. 

No, I just didn’t get it. It was like staring into the mist with a bag over my head, it was playing blindman’s bluff, but with no one else in the room. It was soup, and I was a fork.

Part One Commentary:

Although work is an important and integral part of society, just what is it? 

I would suggest that even for neurotypicals it is, initially, a mystery. Work is a highly codified activity requiring several natural skills and taught skills. It is a world separate from the one in which we dwell outside of work. Like education too, it has its own set of operating instructions. 

If the everyday world is confusing to an autistic individual and they require guidance and support with which to navigate it, then it follows that both education and, in this case work, also require education, instruction and support.

What then would a lesson on the world of work look like? What needs to be explained and how? What needs to happen to assist the transition from the world of not-working to that of employment?

Next time, in Part Two of The Accidental Achiever: The Search for Something to Do

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