Nine years ago this Friday I got up early and dressed in a brand new Sportscraft white shirt and grey suit pants. I was nervous. Two weeks previously I had moved to a new city to start a new life. I was sharing a house with a woman who could most kindly be described as idiosyncratic. I was completely outside of my comfort zone but the nerves were tinged with excitement. I caught the bus down Northbourne Avenue with other similarly attired people. I hoped my little folded piece of paper containing a map would help me to find my destination. I got off the bus ands my new work building right there. I walked in, looking at the security guard. Tentatively I approached the guard desk and said ‘I’m a new graduate’ and told him my name and the name of my Director. I noticed that the foyer of the billing was filled with eager-looking young people also wearing new corporate clothes. Over the next half hour – which seemed like eternity – managers came and collected their respective graduates. Everyone but myself and two other young people had been taken to wherever they had to go. Maybe the department had made a mistake? Maybe I would not be starting in the Australian Public Service. Maybe they had changed their mind about my successful application? As these thoughts whizzed through my mind, a twenty-something woman with a kind face rather hurriedly introduced herself as Rachel. She was my new manager and I followed her to my new building, and with it my new world and my new me.
It is hard to imagine that day was nine years ago. I was so filled with doubt. Lots of people had told me that I would never be able to be a public servant. I was Autistic so apparently not suited to team work situations. I had a dubious past and no big employer would want to take on such risk. I had been impoverished and receiving welfare for over ten years. There was no way someone like me would be comfortable in a corporate setting or even be able to behave appropriately, or so I was told.
Evidently these doubts were wrong. I loved my job then and I have loved my job ever since. One of my fondest memories was of the first time I got paid. My income had essentially quadrupled when I joined the department. My first pay day dawned and I went to the Canberra Centre – a somewhat salubrious shopping precinct in the centre of town. I had spent over a decade too embarrassed to enter such a haven of consumerism. I thought the staff would be able to spot me, a poor person, daring to look at their ‘nice things.’ When I walked into the Canberra Centre on my first payday that attitude was washed away. I was an ordinary person, a taxpayer. I was contributing to the world and if I wanted ‘nice things’ I could buy them! That felt good.
Work has not always been easy though. People who know me well understand that I have a lot of self-doubt and insecurity. I often worry about what people think of me at work. I obsess over whether I have said the wrong thing to someone. I worry about the most preposterous and impossible events. I am terrified to inadvertently make a mistake. I can be a perfectionist. I am Autistic so there can be miscommunications or misinterpretations between me and my colleagues. I can be paranoid, which is not helped by my mental illness. Sometimes I hear people saying things about me which logic tells me they definitely wouldn’t say about me. A few years ago I was really unwell with my mental illness and had to take many months off work. I thought I might have to quit. This thought was devastating.
These days I am one of the two co-chairs of our department’s Ability Network, as well as my usual work. I think it is very important for people to be included and respected in all walks of life and particularly in the workplace. I love my department. Like many staff with health conditions and disability I am a very loyal and enthusiastic employee. I really do feel like I died and went to work heaven. When I walk into my building every morning I stop to remind myself that I really am the luckiest girl in the world hand have the best job ever. Not bad for someone who before I started at the public service had never worked full-time, had been on benefits of one sort or another continuously for fifteen years, who wasn’t confident using PC and Microsoft systems and who needed assistance to use the photocopier!
Some of you may have seen my employment book for teens on the Autism spectrum – The Wonderful World of Work. I didn’t do much scholarly research for the book. Most of it came from my lived experience. Here’s a link if you want to look at the book: http://www.jkp.com/uk/the-wonderful-world-of-work.html
Some people say I am an Autism and employment ‘expert’ but I think I am more an expert at being me. Anyway, here are some thoughts I have gathered around succeeding at work for Autistic people:
- Getting someone to be job ready is only half the equation. Employers need to be engaged in employing staff on the Autism spectrum too.
- Work – and looking for work, having job interviews and starting a new job – can be stressful. That is OK and just remember that the stress usually passes after a while. Even if something is challenging, focus on the end result (i.e. you having a job). However, if the anxiety is severe (causes serious mental or physical health symptoms and is present most or all of the time) and you simply can’t continue, it is OK to put your quest for employment on hold. You can build your confidence and maybe get some experience in less stressful settings, like volunteering or starting a small business (for example if you make art you cold sell your paintings). I used these techniques when I was too stressed to get a ‘regular’ job and they worked well for me.
- Don’t be down on yourself if you don’t work but want to find a job. Finding and keeping work can be a real challenge. Do what you can do when you can do it. There is not necessarily a timeline for getting a job.
- Autistic people often come with some pretty impressive ‘soft skills’ already. Soft skills are something employers tend to value highly. Soft skills we often have include attention to detail, loyalty, honesty, a good work ethic and enthusiasm.
- Don’t ever assume that your Autism will automatically preclude you from getting a job. While there are challenges around selection processes for jobs, it is possible to build your employability skills. You might like to use an employment service provider to help you find work. There are Autism-specific and disability-specific employment services which can help.
Jeanette at work