Autism, Work & Me Part Three: The Search Really Begins

It is a truth, universally unacknowledged, that a young man of school leaving ageis in need of something to do.

June 1977 and school is behind me; to what was I saying goodbye? For all the elements of school that trigger the worst in autism: bullying, confrontation, socialising, sports and peer pressure for example, at least there was a structure, a timetable, laid out for every day of the week for months in advance and this gave a level of stability.

Although I look back on school as being carefree in comparison to the adult world in 1977, it was a net of confusion wrapped around a short plank along which some of us, me, were being led. If there had been a wholesale effort to prepare us for the rites of passage ahead, then I missed it. It certainly doesn’t feel from my current vantage point that there had been anything.

When I completed my final exam, I had met my contractual obligation and was issued with my final School Report and Leaving Certificate. I don’t remember reading the content at the time but, a few years later in another, now rapidly occurring, episode of anxiety and desperation, I was looking through old school reports for clues as to how I could escape the morass I was in. The job I had held for a few years had lost a sense of fulfilment and I wondered whether my abilities were better suited elsewhere. I was doing well in the job but felt under-used mentally. I had no idea how or where I may go, but I thought that skimming through the old reports may give me a sense of what my innate talents might be. Somewhere, perhaps I had missed the point of education or what it had given me and now older and wiser, I would see some form of way forward. Little did I know at the time, but this was to be a recurring, looping pattern: small peaks of elation, when I felt I had found a path, followed by deep troughs of depression when I couldn’t follow through. This became so regular that I began to ignore the elation and would jump straight to depression – it cut out the middleman.

Anyway, what I read in my Final/Leaving Report slayed me: my Form Tutor, whom I had known for several years at least, took his deep and profound knowledge of who I was and wrote, in summary, that I had probably ‘fulfilled my potential’: at 16 I am being set in the lower order and destined to rise no further. That was my interpretation, and today I can’t say to what extent it affected everything that came afterwards, except it did. Ultimately, a warm understanding, nurturing arm around the shoulder was what was lacking. Quiet conversations that enquired about me and who I was would have been ideal. However, I think I would have struggled to take part in such exchange. After-all, my autism was undiagnosed, let alone recognised; judgements were made on superficial outcomes like exams and not a question of character and consistently observed behaviour: a car can only travel so far with a fault before it breaks down.  

After school’s care, I was now in the stern hands of the Department for Health and Social Security, the DHSS, and claiming six pounds a week in Supplementary Benefit. Far from a ticket to the high life, it was what got me a regular appointment to visit Employment Advisor Frank, at the local job centre.‘Come in and sit down,’ he said, and I did as I was told.What can a pale, skinny yet handsome young man offer the world of work? Was just one of the things Frank never asked. But he did probe. He asked me about my dad and what he did for a living.

Dad was an accountant. 

So, an office job? 

Could dad, this man I admired and wished to emulate, be the model answer to my dilemma?

Frank conjured up an interview for a job as a Junior Stock Clerk at local hosiery giants, Pretty Polly.

Dad gave me a lift and wished me luck as I passed through the factory gates and headed for Reception. Like a bird out of water and without a fish in the hand, I stuttered and stumbled over my reason for being there and was told to sit and wait.In a relatively parrot-free interview, dressed in a haze of confusion and a new shirt and tie, with something akin to bravado, I answered the interviewer’s question and did just enough to get turned down. It wouldn’t be the last time either. Frank would see to that. 

Part Three Commentary:

Transitions are common throughout life. Some appear to be spontaneous, others, like school into work, are well-known and inevitable. So, what do we do to assist the scheduled transition? Can a holistic and sensitive programme of support be established? What is the minimum that could be offered?Career choices too, how can we assist, inform and educate the individual with autism as to what is available, what their talents, interests and current abilities may suit? And how much preparation is required to overcome the hurdles before them? 

Next time, in part four of The Accidental Achiever: Next!

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