Communicating on the job – a lived perspective

October 18, 2018

As autism affects communication, social interaction and behaviour, it can make gaining employment and fitting into various work environments challenging. Tegan Andrews talks to Scott Carey, a 24-year-old who was diagnosed with Asperger’s at age 14, about his work, employment opportunities, how he got his job, and challenges he faced along the way.

Illustration by Scott Carey

What is your job and what do you do (tasks and duties)?

For the most part right now I’m just a retail assistant in charge of maintaining a store, cash handling and managing customer enquiries. In the past I’ve worked contracting for web firms designing websites, and I also freelance doing art and graphic work for my own clients wherever I’m able to find them.

How did you find your job?

The retail job was just on the Work and Income job board.

I’ve found the web work through my old college’s tutors.

Did you need any special skills or training to get this job?

The retail job, no. The web jobs have required extensive training and study.

What do you like about your work?

On some levels I enjoy the work because I find the socialisation factor challenging, so it keeps me tuned up so to speak.

I enjoy web work because it has a lot of logical problem-solving involved. I’ve found that when I’m not doing a job that involves interacting with the community I tend to become more and more reserved.

Out of all the jobs I get hired for, I most appreciate the jobs that require creativity – the days where I’m being paid to draw is a dream come true.

Do you prefer to be a contractor and what does this mean?

Absolutely, there’s joy to be had in breaking the monotony of the average work day and contracting is a great way to do that. I’ve worked with people all over the world and it’s a great feeling having people specifically hunt you down for your skillset.

In regards to what it means, it’s a lot like freelancing except you’re working with the same company and people each time. These people will handle other issues of the business that you would normally have to deal with yourself in freelancing such as accounting, marketing, networking and interacting with the client.

What challenges have you faced in your job?

I have struggled a lot with communication obviously; it’s why I prefer contracting to freelancing, because it just makes things so much easier when it’s someone else’s job to interact with clients and figure out what they actually want and what the issues with their vision are.

Retail takes a hit too. I never quite know how to handle a lot of the social situations thrown at me and I often respond with very formulated responses. Interpreting speech takes a lot of effort for me and sometimes when important details are relayed to me it can be difficult to take it all in due to intense social anxiety; this can easily cause problems down the line, when it starts to seem like I’m ignoring orders or guidelines.

I’ve been told that I put on accents when I’m socially nervous which is very embarrassing. Whether this could be chalked up to Asperger’s, social anxiety or just me as a person is a mystery to me. So far I’ve gotten American, Canadian, English and even Scottish!

I have always struggled with the 40-hour work week and I think I always will – it is very rare that I will spend that much time working. This is not because I am lazy, I could easily do 40 hours a week of work at home contracting, but whenever I’ve done jobs such as retail, I feel like my Asperger’s definitely does start to get in the way. I start to show tell-tale signs of stress, such as having involuntary jittery wrist, head and eyelid movements; I also begin to zone out a lot more and start to feel emotions very akin to how one would describe depression.

How have you overcome some of these challenges?

Some have been overcome and some have not. Before I mentioned that it can be hard for me to gauge what people actually want from me, so when I’m contracting or freelancing

I started writing down everything the person said and then relayed it back to them, rewording it to make sure we’re on the same page. It sounds pedantic, but I find that my thought process differs from other people’s quite significantly. If I feel the person I’m speaking with would be comfortable with it, I’ll also record conversations on my phone to think back on later.

I find myself faking personalities, depending on who I’m with, to try and seem less disinterested – which could explain the aforementioned spontaneous accents, however, it’s hard to gauge whether or not this is just normal human behaviour.

How did you find studying to be a web developer and graphic designer?

I loved it! Some of my fondest memories are from my time spent at Vision College. My time spent studying felt a whole lot more natural; other people there seemed a little different as well, so maybe that helped. I’d chalk up my ability to code proficiently and my creative thinking to Asperger’s.

Do you have any advice for other young people on the autism spectrum entering the workforce?

Be true to yourself. I think I tried to be someone I wasn’t for way too long, I subdued myself or faked quite a lot. As with most personality traits, I find if you take pride in them and rock them, they can come across in a positive quirky light. It’s very true that I’ve alienated a lot of people with the things I say and the way I act, but in doing that I’ve also made good friends and entertained a lot of customers and clients.

Illustration by Scott Carey

Anything else you would like to add?

I want to mention the struggle of not really knowing where to draw the line between Asperger’s and who I am as a person. All my life I’ve been told I’ve had Asperger’s, but it can be very hard to gauge what actually is a result of this neurodevelopmental condition and what is just me as a person gained through my experiences. These sorts of thoughts can lead me to wonder whether or not I enjoy having the syndrome or not. I think about how I might change if I did not have the syndrome and I’m still not really sure what I’d be like.

Up until I was around 21 perhaps, I didn’t even really acknowledge that I had it, nor did I tell people that I had it (especially employers!). Now that I’m a bit more mature and I’ve had a bit more insight into the differences that people experience growing up, I can start to see oddities in my time growing up. Throughout my teen years I never really left the house or lived life. I was content to just sit in my room and do tedious hobbies such as gaming and drawing. I don’t mean to sound pessimistic about those – I love them very much – but I do wish I could have had a more standardised teenage life.

Other oddities that stick out to me are situations like trying to get out of major life events such as my sister’s wedding or not mourning the loss of my mother, who was a really terrific person to me. Being so detached, fake and flat, it became very easy to dismiss myself as a sociopath. I’ve had very little faith and trust in myself at times. To tie this back to employment, I feel like these traits and fears have held me back tremendously. I’m not quite sure how I’ve managed to land jobs in retail and sales.

This article first appeared in Altogether Autism Journal, Issue 2, 2016.



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