i autistic » Adult Life » Staying Employed

Many autistics have a hard time with employment because the NeuroTypical ways do not fit with their working style and attitude.

Rather than rely on anti-discrimination laws, a better strategy is to find your strengths and weaknesses, then ask someone who works in a company that needs your strengths but can tolerate the weaknesses to recommend you.

Daniel, a fellow autistic, used the strategy of registering with temping agencies. They sent him for various short-term assignments until an employer decided to hire him permanently. As both already knew each other, there were no surprises and Daniel kept his job.

Hiding the diagnosis of autism might get you into a job, but the autistic traits may soon get you fired. I believe that we should focus on how to stay in the job, not getting in through the interview. I will present a general overview of how to stay employed below. It is oversimplified and has a materialistic bias. However, this was what I wished someone would tell me years ago.


What it means to work

Work is not a simple process of going to the office, typing on the computer and then collecting a paycheck at the end of the month. Don’t think because you are smart in computers or good with technical skills, then people must hire you. The key to being hired is:

  • Do the unpleasant things that your boss does not want to do by himself/herself
  • Let your boss feel that you are giving back more than what the company pays you
  • Never challenge or threaten your boss’ interests or authority
  • Impress your boss’ superiors by showing that he does the above 3 things

You are hired only because you can help your boss with work that he does not want to spend effort on or that he cannot do. Your boss may want a website he cannot make or buy food that he will rather not spend time queuing. So, you do it and do it the way that he likes. This is what your boss wants, and this may be the only point that he tells you explicitly.

You stay hired if your boss feels that you are giving him enough value for money. Otherwise, he will find someone “cheaper”. It is not just how much salary you make, but also how much “trouble” you give in return for doing work. If your boss has to pester you every hour because you cannot be bothered to do his pet project or if you pester him with a truckload of questions every time he asks you to do something, expect to be fired.

Demonstrate your value, effort and commitment: Find opportunities to subtly remind your boss of how much contributions you make. (e.g. If you stayed back to work, send your boss an email as late as possible so that he knows that you left work late.) If you do not do these, no one will ever know your sacrifices, let alone value you. However, avoid proclaiming your hard work explicitly, lest other people think that you are complaining about your working conditions.

Certainly, you will not hear about all these 4 things during job interviews. Instead, your potential boss or his representatives will be looking for qualities that show that you can do these 4 things.


Help your boss make an impression

Every boss has his nemesis: his superior. This may be his supervisor, a board of directors, or the customers he serves. You should present yourself as useful, hardworking and intelligent only to the extent that you do not make him look worse than you. If you are so much better than your boss, he may start wondering if the company will fire him and hire you instead. Some kind bosses are generous enough to encourage competition, but most tend to feel that you are arrogant and conceited. Even if they are ethical enough not to sabotage you, they may try their best to make your work life difficult so that you will quit.

For instance, don’t bother pulling an all-nighter researching detailed numbers for a business report, if the report is really about your boss telling his bosses that he is a good subordinate. Help him make that impression instead.

Demonstrating good work ethic will put you in good standing with your boss:

  • Be obedient: Give your boss what he wants or better
  • Be reliable: Check your work carefully and finish it well
  • Be conscientious: Finish what you started and do it on time
  • Be proactive: Don’t bother your boss if you can solve the problem yourself
  • Be diplomatic: Maintain good relations with yourself and your boss


Stay in your job

An autistic should not follow the strategies of NeuroTypicals and play office politics unless he knows what he is doing. As autistics are unlikely to be charming, I advise them to present their usefulness instead. In other words, make yourself indispensable, hardworking and nice person that everyone comes to ask for help. Do that as soon as you get into the office or it may be too late to be accepted later. So this may be how to get started, autistic style:

First and foremost, find the type of job you are most interested in. Take a look at all of your options and figure out where your skills best fit. Make your decision based on what kind of education and training is required, career specialisations, career and salary outlook and where your personality best fits in.

Choose “pleasant jobs”, meaning jobs that make you well-liked and pleasant in the eyes of others. For instance, in an office of computer novices, the job of a computer technician is highly “pleasant”. Avoid “unpleasant” jobs where you give work or make demands for people (e.g. a supervisor). The overwhelming flood of work is probably more manageable than social rejection and job sabotage.

Get someone you know to put you through the back-door of the job, based on your talents and abilities. If you do not have any talent, find one now. You may have difficulty passing a formal interview because you look, speak or behave too oddly.

Once you get the job, centre your strategy on being useful all the time. Avoid creating any trouble or inconvenience for others. Don’t worry too much about your interests and rights initially. Once you have a good reputation, you can bank on it and get privileges occasionally.

On your first day, keep a lookout for friendly and nice colleagues among your immediate workplace, especially those with a higher rank. Choose one of them as your closest ally and a few to be your allies. Avoid choosing those of a different branch or department until you have stable “local support”. Remember their names and faces – you will be focusing almost all your limited social energies and effort on them. In time to come, they will help guide you around any office politics you encounter.

Pay attention and observe what irritates and disturbs your allies most. Don’t wait for them to ask: Go and offer to help them solve their problems (but don’t overdo it)! You have a few days to demonstrate that you are essential to office operations. Do help other people who need help, but spend most of your effort on your allies. Remember that every time you help someone, no matter how insignificant, you are making a gift to that person.

If you survived for a few weeks without trouble, then it is time to spread your influence by being useful. Observe who has the greatest influence over your destiny and start from the lower ranks (like maybe the accounts clerk who approves your payroll and the HR assistant who types your leave as he knows the mood and intentions of the approving supervisor).

Over the months, work your way slowly up to the supervisors and their bosses. Learn about their pet projects and see what you can offer to make their desires happen. Most importantly, make sure that they hear about your contributions and how much effort you put into helping them. At this moment, you may ask your allies for advice if you feel that you have earned their trust.

No matter what happens, you must never threaten anyone in the organisation. This means that you should not put people out of their job or make them look like they are less intelligent than yourself. Accept praise with openness yet also reserve credit for your allies. Speak about the contributions of those who may feel threatened by your talent or skills. You must also respect procedures that everyone follows to be fair to your colleagues. To avoid giving trouble, you must also follow the unspoken customs, not the standard official policy. Always observe others to follow what norms and customs they are following.

If you are given a promotion, consider if the responsibilities will be in harmony with your strategy of “being useful and pleasant”. If so, accept it graciously. If not, perhaps you can counter-propose a more suitable job saying that “you feel that you can contribute more in this way”. If you are not prepared for your upcoming promotion, ask for some time to think about it. After an hour or so, quietly consult with your allies about what the new responsibilities will entail and how to proceed. They may have much insider knowledge concerning your new job.

No matter how highly you are promoted, you can never take your position for granted. Always work on your allies, remaining pleasant and useful to everyone else. If you ever lose the support of your subordinates, they may sabotage you and get you fired or demoted.


Note: It is generally unwise to tell your colleagues about this plan until they clearly like and trust you. They may think that you are manipulating them and cause the plan to backfire. Keep this to yourself.

Part of the challenge of living on Planet Earth is to come to terms with its limitations. Sometimes, we have to compromise to do what we dislike to ease our path. May the force be with us.