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We want to share Robert’s story with you to raise awareness of the unique challenges that autistic people face in the workplace and to reassure other professionals on the autism spectrum that they are not alone.

Robert’s story

Photo courtesy of Robert Rosen

I have read many articles and reports that say the unemployment/underemployment rate of people on the autism spectrum is through the roof. This is the source The unemployment rate alone is said to be between 76% and 90% (although this may not distinguish between “high functioning”—absolutely capable of living independently without assistance—and “low functioning” people).

I estimate that if I spent some 20 years of being unemployed or underemployed (earning less than a living wage for most of that time), that would be a million dollars in lost income compared to what it would have been if I had been fully employed. At the level of my academic and professional peers.

My situation can best be described as how a therapist from my high school years described it: “A in intellectual, F in social.” One of the reasons I associate with the dogs that appear on my Facebook profile is that I never have to worry about them starting or maintaining a conversation or getting mad at me if I say or do the wrong thing.

When I first heard that getting a job was “all about networking,” I thought that was a lame thing to hear about running. To say that my social network is small would be an understatement. This has been the case for most of my life. And I see more evidence of that on Facebook. Virtually all my relatives, former high school classmates, and friends I have with Facebook accounts currently have—and many have—hundreds of Facebook friends who are active on it. My sister has over a thousand. I have about 40. And even that doesn’t tell the whole story, because probably at least 80% of the time I have to do a friend request; I can’t even remember the last time I received one, unless you count the one or two people I don’t know who didn’t make such a request for some legitimate purpose.

I basically grew up before there was awareness of autism, and even though it was very obvious in my childhood days, my parents only found a regular psychiatrist to take me to, who eventually told them he didn’t know about it. That he can’t help me. So I wasn’t diagnosed with it until I was 40. (This was determined to be “typical,” meaning I didn’t show any behavior typical of autistics, just social awkwardness.) There was some compensation. Family trust and inheritance money combined with a relatively frugal lifestyle and low expenses made the lack of income more bearable. (Although I went back to college later in life to change careers, tuition was paid with family trust money.)

One thing that the interviewer at the autism center said about me has long puzzled me is that my communication style is almost entirely verbal. I think I use gestures, but now I don’t think that’s what she’s referring to, but I don’t pick up on non-verbal signals sent by others, I can trust. My mother sometimes commented on how I had trouble looking people in the eye (often a symptom of autism). Much later, I read in an interview that if you have trouble looking the interviewer in the eye, they’ll think you’re lying—certainly not true in my case. So reading that sent me a “don’t trust non-verbal communication” signal.

My work life was reasonably stable for my first decade in the professional workforce until I was laid off from my job as a software engineer at Boeing in the summer of 1993. Then it completely fell apart. Following advice from the book What Color Is Your Parachute, I focused my search on smaller companies, mostly working from a book listing high-tech companies in the area. I got a few interviews, but the offers were few and far between. And so began a pattern that would repeat itself many times over the following years: When I got a job, I would lose it within a few weeks or even a few days. It was more than two years before I got any job with any measure of stability, and starting another paradigm left me poorly paid compared to other jobs of that type (programming) and for some time in terrible working conditions to boot. After about three years there, I was laid off and a long streak of unemployment and job losses began anew. A year later after the last job in the field I was laid off and faced with a hiring slowdown in the tech field, I decided to go back to college and change careers. It would take me nine years to finish it (with lots of low-paying programming jobs in between, including one project I never got paid for).

I completed a double degree (in 2010) in accounting and environmental science, and despite a GPA that earned me admission to the National Business Honor Society, I graduated back into unemployment. Around that time, a friend told me about the state Department of Vocational Rehabilitation (DVR). However, things seemed to hit rock bottom at one point when a DVR guy told me the only thing he could help me with was an unpaid internship or a warehouse job.

If there’s any job-finding resource that gives me the willies, it’s a free-form networking event. In such situations, where people tend to divide themselves into groups, I often end up in what I jokingly call a “group of one,” and as a result, I leave more than one of these early. But one was rewarded. I met the Boeing accounting director there, and eventually, my DVR counselor was able to set up a meeting between the three of us (and some other Boeing personnel). And although their answer to the question of whether I had the background to hire me was “no”, after a while I got a call from the director about a temporary job there. And that will eventually lead to four more temporary jobs at Boeing. But there are no permanent ones. And the employment timeline after graduation was fifteen months of unemployment, then four months of employment, then another eight months of unemployment (other than part-time work in one of the most poorly paid jobs), followed by ten months of employment, followed by another four months of unemployment until work became somewhat stable. But the temporary jobs came with very few benefits—for example, I didn’t get a single day of paid vacation for all the hours—and they didn’t offer me any career advancement.

Finally, after another job that paid virtually nothing, I landed a job with the federal government that promised to pay off my troubles as an auditor. By then it had been nearly a quarter of a century since that layoff from Boeing. And for the first two years, that promise seemed a reality. The high-water mark came when I was temporarily transferred from the office that audited Boeing to the office that audited several companies in the area because of a conflict-of-interest issue related to the pension. The supervisor at the second office was skeptical of me because the Boeing office was growing more slowly than the new hires. But I won him over, so he suggested putting me on a permanent transfer. But I didn’t end up doing it at first because my supervisor at the Boeing office said the chances of getting approved were not good due to low seniority and the second supervisor was soon to be transferred to work at headquarters.

But as inevitably happened, I and job security soon fell apart again. After several months the conflict of interest was resolved and I was sent back to the Boeing office. A few months later, my supervisor there retired, and for the first time in 20 years, I was in a supervisor with a mild temper. But worse was to come. After a few months, I noticed a newly transferred supervisor with an even worse temper and someone who would lose her temper for whatever reason. Twice now I have found myself under such a supervisor, and both have ended badly for me. Even more depressing after reading An essay Federal jobs are as secure as they come, with only 4,000 out of 1.6 million losing their jobs over the course of several years. (My work group seemed to be an exception because another person under the same supervisor was fired a few months later. But she managed to get another federal job before the termination date while I was unemployed.)

My newest unemployment cycle is 3 ½ months and counting. So far, every interview I’ve had has resulted in failure—the first interview, but not the second. If only one interview is required, no offer.

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