“My support worker told me I would never be able to work”. So wrote an Autistic person on a thread on my social media yesterday. Needless to say I was horrified but sadly not all that surprised. Autistic people are constantly told that we can’t do a range of activities which are important for independent living: things like education, employment, relationships, having children or owning property. Employment tends to be the element closest to my heart and it always saddens and angers me to see Autistic people effectively written out of the job market before they even start looking.
I was unable to work for many years for a number of reasons. In 2007 after building my capability and confidence around work I joined the public service as a graduate. Starting a new job in a new city was terrifying but wonderful. I soon realised that I loved my job and have done so ever since. Professional suity Jeanette is a given for people who know me now, but when I was long-term unemployed and living in supported housing the only image of success I had to guide me was my own aspirations. The manager at the Autism-specific employment service I used (which no longer exists) actually told me they thought work was stressful for Autistic people and his service did seem to do a ‘good’ job of ensuring their customers remained unemployed! As you might expect, I received very little assistance from this service in finding a job. When I applied for my public service role several friends – including some Autistic ones – told me I wouldn’t be able to do it. Even after I had been working for some years and found myself an inpatient in the psychiatric hospital, many nurses advised me to quit my job and go on the disability pension. My job pays many, many times more money than the pension and I have a mortgage which I wouldn’t be able to afford on the pension so this was very poor advice even on a purely practical level. The point at which I would give up work is the point where it really is totally impossible to work even an hour per week. Being given that ‘advice’ by people in a position of trust horrified me at the time and continues to do so. What if I had listened to them? In fact I ignored their advice and was well supported by my employer. I have been back on full-time hours for many years.
These issues run deep. Not only are Autistic adults discouraged from working, parents are told that their Autistic children will never work, never complete school, never have a partner or be a parent, never drive a car, never live independently…never, ever never. These nevers tend to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you are told you or your child will never do something it usually means you will be denied the opportunity to try or at least be discouraged from trying. This will result in you not doing the thing and therefore people who know you – and often you yourself – will believe it was impossible to do that thing. I mean, ‘you didn’t achieve it, so you must not have been able to’ can be a convincing, if incorrect, argument.
One of the difficulties around this sort of negative messaging is that it often comes from people in positions of trust – clinicians, support workers, teachers, etc. People place their trust in those occupying such roles and so what they advise is often taken very seriously. In fact if those in positions of trust talked about the skills and talents of Autistic people, and ability to fulfill our potential, it would make a huge positive difference. Autistic people have as much potential as anyone else does to lead a fulfilled life but the negative messaging we receive often from an early age can significantly damage our confidence and the confidence our families have in us. It is wrong to deny that possibility before it even occurs by only focusing on the negatives and challenges and assuming these will preclude Autistic people from doing the things which others do.
This is not to say that Autistic people do not experience challenges and difficulties in the workplace and when looking for work. Support is needed here particularly as some employers and workplaces are not well-informed about Autism, which impacts on our ability to get a job or stay in work. One Autistic advocate recently suggested that unemployed Autistic people should ‘get off their butt and find a job”. I do not share that view, particularly as I know just how hard it can be and what a journey finding meaningful work (or any work actually) can involve. There can be all sorts of barriers to getting and succeeding at a job which Autistic people can face. I do think our aspirations to employment should be supported by those who are meant to help us though. And just because there are barriers and challenges does not mean people will never work, just that they may require appropriate support and encouragement to overcome those barriers. If it were just a matter of ‘getting off our butt’ I think most of us would be employed, particularly as every thread I see on social media about employment has lots of Autistic people saying how hard it is to find and keep work.
When I was long-term unemployed I was fortunate to be driven by the fire of my passion around finding work, along with a good whack of self-confidence, a supportive family and a curious but helpful ability to find the value – however small – in substandard support services. My understanding is that those qualities are unusual and so others who aren’t me have a greater need for positive messaging and genuine support to achieve goals from people in their life who are meant to be helping them and whose opinions they value. Support and validation is always going to win out over dismissal and negativity. And I do not ever want to hear someone saying that an Autistic person – or any person for that matter – will ’never work’.
About the Author
Jeanette Purkis is an author, public speaker, and autism advocate who has a diagnosis of Asperger syndrome and atypical schizophrenia. She has worked full-time in the Australian Public Service since 2007 and has a master’s degree in fine arts. She is the author of three books on elements of autism and hosts an Internet radio show. She has been facilitating a support group for women on the autism spectrum since 2011. She was named the 2016 ACT Volunteer of the Year and was a finalist in the 2017 ACT Woman of the Year awards.