On Being Unemployed and Autistic

This article originally appeared on the author’s site: http://autistic.ly/2017/11/17/on-being-unemployed-and-autistic/

Some would say I’m a fool. I’ve been successfully employed before. Heck, I held one job for twelve years! I also lost one job before the month was out. But I was a software engineer for twenty years, and good at it. Come on now: an Aspie software engineer? Of course you could find work! Yeah, I could go back to the IT world, but I’d be miserable. And if I were miserable at a job, it certainly wouldn’t last. So, does that make my being unemployed a choice? Unfortunately, it’s not that easy.

Jeans pocket with wrench and "job search" note
Jeans pocket with wrench and “job search” note

Most of my working life has been in publishing, even before I became a software engineer. And that was largely by design. The Dissemination of Information! You see, I need to be involved with that, with something that does something worthwhile. I could never work for an arms manufacturer, heck even the financial world is not for me. I’ve always sought to do meaningful work that would contribute something to society, bettering the lives of other people.

Changing Careers

Discovering that I was an Aspie changed everything

Discovering, a couple of years ago, that I was an Aspie changed everything. My education about autism, catching up on who I had always been, seeing not just my past differently but taking in the whole world from a new, much clearer viewpoint — that put everything into perspective. The “meaningful work” and “contribute to society” now had a new direction and a new impetus. I am now committed to finding work that has a direct, positive impact on the autistic community. I’m also now part of the estimated 80% of autistic people who are unemployed.

Job Search Keyboard
Job Search Keyboard

Fool. You could be making six figures as a software engineer but choose not to? That’s certainly one way to look at it, but you’d be missing the bigger picture. Two things: mental exhaustion and a feeling of fulfillment from having contributed to society, having made a difference. I think we can all agree that it’s best to avoid the former and strive for the latter. And software engineering left me mentally exhausted almost every day. Not the “engineering” itself — the design of algorithms and similar, really geeky stuff — it was all the stuff surrounding the interesting bits: the purportedly extreme importance of using this framework or that; intense power struggles over choices that, given the nature of technology, will be obsolete by the time lunch is over. I can’t do that any more. I was “successful” in the sense of writing solid, robust code, but it was draining me. The “meaningful work” that was supposed to underlie it all had lost its potency.

Job search word chart
Job search word chart

Yes, I’ll have to deal with office politics and other such meta-work at any job, but that’s where the second of the aforementioned two things comes into play: a feeling of fulfillment. I know this will come only from an even deeper involvement in the autistic community. And that’s where I’ve been looking for work. Unfortunately, doing work that actually helps people doesn’t pay as much as work that boosts the profits of a corporation. As well, there’s not a great deal of work in the autistic community — unless you’re a psychiatrist, psychologist, licensed social worker or (perhaps the subject of a future article) a certified applied behavior analyst. Self-advocating Aspies need not apply, they don’t have the right experience. (Now let that irony sink in).

Staying the Course

Focus and tenacity are pretty common traits for those of us on the spectrum

But I will not be deterred. I’ve been out of work for almost a year now, but I am resolute. That kind of focus and tenacity are pretty common traits for those of us on the spectrum. So, however, are anxiety, social issues, and less than ideal executive functioning. Oh, believe me, I am no stranger to anxiety. I get anxious if I think too much about how my meager retirement savings are dwindling. I get anxious about how long I’ve been out of work. I lose sleep sometimes, because of anxiety. But I won’t let it stop me. The odd thing is that I’m actually fairly busy, although not with anything that generates an income … yet. I’ve met so many wonderful people during this past year; some have become good friends, many are really good connections. But that hasn’t turned into a job … yet. I speak at conferences, write articles, am invited to sit in on panels, and am very involved in the autistic community here in Atlanta. But that hasn’t turned into a job … yet. Sometimes I don’t know if I’m approaching people frequently enough or from the right angle because of social anxiety. Sometimes, dealing with executive functioning, I can get stuck in a loop as I try to figure out where I should best spend my energy in a way that will lead to some sort of income.

No money in my pockets
No money in my pockets

But I will not be deterred. There are times when I have to remind myself that I will not be deterred, and so far my head is still above water. I do recognize the possibility that perhaps I might need a “day job” that would pay enough to allow me to continue to write articles and speak at conferences, but that’s not the ideal. Compromise can wait (but not too long, please). I have lived my whole life on principle, with integrity, so it’s unlikely I’ll change now. There is so much need for work to be done in the autistic community, so many people that need help, so many aspects of society that need to change to recognize us and accept us. But the money isn’t there. I’ve spoken to a number of people working diligently to educate companies about the benefits of hiring people on the spectrum, but they’re running on shoestring budgets. There are too many similar stories.

But I will not be deterred.

But I will not be deterred. Something is out there, waiting for me. Yes, you can call me a fool if you want to. I prefer to think that I am finally aware of my true calling. But I guess change takes time. Nonetheless, one of my future articles will be about my new job. When it comes. Stay tuned.


An autistic self-advocate and Neurodiversity Ambassador, Robert Watkins is reinventing the workplace with and for autistic people. His writings on http://autistic.ly focus on increasing awareness, understanding and accommodations for people on the spectrum so that they can contribute their best and lead fulfilling working lives. Robert, on the board of the Atlanta Autism Consortium, lives in Atlanta with his Aspie wife, two Aspie and two neurotypical teenagers, and their cat.

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