I am often asked how I could find competitive work and remain employed despite being autistic. I believe it is because I do not use autism as an excuse for performing more poorly than others at work. I have always striven to do my best, to keep improving myself, and to find niches to put my multiple talents to good use. Over time, this effort developed into a work ethic that I call professionalism.
My striving for professionalism won me various awards while studying at the Polytechnic, serving in military service and entering the workforce. It has also generated positive word-of-mouth referrals that helped me obtain new business and work opportunities.
Professionalism is about developing and expressing the qualities of reliability, competency, trustworthiness, selflessness and self-awareness.
Reliability is being available to work where and when we are needed, regardless of our personal situation or challenges. People can trust our promises, such as turning up on time for work.
Competency is to be able to achieve the desired results efficiently without unwanted costs and complications. People can trust us to complete tasks and deliver results according to their expectations.
Trustworthiness is about having the ethical and moral qualities that allow people to trust us with their reputation and secrets with confidence. People can count on us to protect their interests even if we are tempted to betray them.
Selflessness is our determination to put the desires and choices of our employer first. We fulfil the requirements of our employer, regardless of our personal beliefs or emotions.
Self-awareness is the ability to observe ourselves and discern if we are being professional or unprofessional in our conduct, then take steps to correct those issues.
Side-note: Non-autistic people usually include cultural norms such as social etiquette and fashion sense as part of being professional. Instead of struggling to attain a high standard in this area, I suggest that autistic people choose occupations that are not socially demanding.
While we are free to choose which employers to accept, once we have committed to completing work, we should do so professionally, even if we are leaving for another employer shortly after.
Excellence is the fulfilment of all the qualities of professionalism. Excellence cannot be developed overnight but is a natural result of many years of effort to unlearn unprofessional habits and discipline ourselves to create new professional habits. People who have developed excellence are attractive to employers.
If we wish to find competitive employment and receive equal treatment, we cannot rely on excuses to exempt ourselves from being professional.
Professionalism applies to all people, regardless of any disabilities or disadvantages they may have. Disabled people may obtain accommodations for their disabilities or find occupations that use their strengths, but basic professionalism remains a universal prerequisite for employers.
Examples of Reliability:
- Turning up slightly earlier and at the right place for work
- Keeping promises such as delivering work before deadlines
- Continuing to turn up for work regardless of personal situation such as feeling emotionally unwell
- Continuing to work hard even on our last day at work
Examples of Competency:
- Ensuring that we know how to do our job well such as getting suitable training
- Investing in and preparing the tools required to do our job well
- Not accepting jobs that we know we cannot do well unless that job was meant to train us
- Learn new skills that can allow us to contribute more to our employers
Examples of Trustworthiness:
- Not doing shoddy work even if the risk of getting caught is low
- Refusing to do anything illegal or obviously unethical even if the risk of getting caught is low
- Not gossiping and sharing with others confidential information
- Following the employer’s rules and procedures even if they seem stupid or unnecessary
Examples of Selflessness:
- Setting aside our criticism/feedback after our employer has decided on how to proceed
- Studying examples of what the employer deems as excellent work to understand the requirements better
- No complaining about our personal views of our employer (e.g. stupid, stubborn, close-minded)
Examples of Self-Awareness:
- Keep improving on existing work processes (subject to employer’s approval)
- Compare ourselves to other people to see how well we are doing
- Taking the initiative to enhance our professionalism using high performers as our benchmark
Many well-meaning people are trying many ways to improve employment for autistic adults, from persistent nagging to setting up autism-friendly businesses to interview rehearsals to job coaching.
However, they often fail to ask why autistic people are not interested in improving themselves and making themselves more competitive. One reason is that autistics often fail to realise how they sabotage themselves with their behaviours and decisions. Another reason is that autistics do not see why they should participate in meaningless and tiring activities to earn money or gain social status.
Unless these reasons are explored and addressed, such efforts will only lead to autistics developing a dependency on non-autistic support. Professionalism can provide some guiding principles, but it is up to each person (autistic or otherwise) to save themselves from unemployment and underemployment.