The work-life balance is an ambition and dream for most people. The good side is that you work lower hours in a low pressure job so you can spend your precious free time with your family and children. But the bad side is you are earning a very low salary and perhaps not reaching your maximum career potential. For people with high functioning autism, like me, this dream is often the maximum we can achieve.
Over the past few years I have learnt alot about high functioning autism (Asperger’s Syndrome) and one of the most resonating and interesting things was from the Asperger and Autism Network (2014). Which was that a person with high functioning autism can either do really well in the workplace: such as having a highly paid successful career (that they can stick to) or do really well at home life: such as having a long lasting relationship, be married with children or being able to live independently. But it is uncommon to be able to do both.
The main reason for this may be due to the difficulties of someone with high functioning autism being able to find suitable full time employment. Research from the National Autistic Society (shown in the guardian (2013)) shows that only 15% of adults with autism have full time jobs, 9% have part time jobs and 26% of graduates with autism are unemployed. So even if you are highly qualified, with a degree, there is still a 26% chance you will be out of work. This is totally unacceptable in a society that is supposed to be unprejudiced and fair to people who are disabled. Especially when people with autism have got so many qualities and skills that will benefit an employer.
How this applies to me
For me I have got high qualifications, including a first class honours degree, a PGCE for teaching in colleges and a master’s degree but I have never had a good career. Although I did not know it at the time it was probably due to having high functioning autism.
Even though I was, and still am to a great degree, socially anxious I decided I wanted a career in teaching. This was probably the biggest mistake of my life (although it improved my communication, which was my biggest difficulty in life). I wanted this career as I believed:
- It would be easy to get a full time job
- I would be sharing my passion for my special interest which is computing (how hard can it be to talk about the subject you love all day)
- I tend to get on better with children and young adults than my peers (which is still true today and is probably an aspie thing)
- It was incredibly good pay with pay rises yearly and it had many other benefits such as a good pension and opportunities for career progression.
- To me it literally sounded like heaven.
In reality I completed my degree and teaching course, which included teaching at a college, and I could not get the job I wanted. I applied for a job where I trained but after an interview did not get the job. Probably due to my high functioning autism as it was difficult to form relationships with my colleagues and I did not do brilliantly in my interview (even though I spent days preparing for it by reading a number of interview books and thinking of all the possible questions and answers). I went for other full time jobs for colleges miles around but was not successful. I looked amazing on paper and nearly always got an interview but failed at the interview stage.
I finally managed to get a job as a supply teacher for a year and I really tried to stick at it (even though it made me incredibly anxious, nervous and I had to face my fears every single relentless day). In the end I had no choice but to quit because it got too much. Mainly due to:
- High changes, as I worked in 15 schools
- Teaching many different subjects
- I had some good children but some really bad
- It being a very social job and I wasn’t naturally social. So I had to put on a performance every hour I worked.
I went on to teach part time in a college for two years which was very hard work and very low pay and again an incredibly difficult job for someone with autism. I also had to travel 60 miles a day to get to work and back. On top of this my son was very young and difficult, such as crying through the night so I couldn’t get much sleep. In the end I had to give this job up as well. I knew that even if I got the full time job I had previously wanted, I would not have been able to manage it. No matter how hard I tried I was not suited to teaching full time.
I then did my masters degree which I did really well at in the hope to go on and study a PhD to get a better career but it never happened. I applied for three PhD studentships and got two interviews. I failed both of these. The second one was at my own university where I had studied for six years (and I thought I had a really good chance of getting it which would mean I could study close to home). The defeat was so crippling that I decided to give up on the dream and have not tried since. I realised that even if I achieved a PhD, getting a job that used the qualification (and that I could manage) would have been difficult if not impossible so I gave up.
After my master’s I had a difficult year where I had two jobs and was out of work for a while in-between. One was a postman which was not a job I enjoyed at all (even though I thought I would before doing it) and the other was teaching in a college again part time (which was still too difficult for me to manage).
I have been a Learning Support Assistant since (for four years). Although the job is part time and very low pay I get a lot out of it such as helping people with disabilities and learning difficulties. In the past, I have had the pleasure and good fortune to work with people that have much more severe disabilities than my high functioning autism but are still incredibly happy, have a positive outlook on life (despite their disabilities and not being able to do the things we take for granted such as hearing, seeing or being able to walk), will not give up on their dreams and work incredibly hard to achieve their goals. They have been a true inspiration to me and quite often have helped me much more than I have helped them to which I am especially thankful and grateful.
I made the decision a long time ago that I would put my family and children before a career and I am fortunate enough to have a job where I can do this. I can look after my children when my wife works so we never have to put the children in child care (which is something I never want to do) and I can manage the difficulties of home-life and work-life. This aside I have always wanted a good career and to earn a good wage, if not for myself then for my wife and children. Now I know the reason why I have not achieved this so far (my autism) I can hopefully start to change things. Once my youngest child is in full time school and my eldest child will be in secondary school I hope to achieve the impossible and work full time, in a fairly good job, whilst being a good dad and husband.
What guidance can I give
One of the best pieces of advice I have read is from Penelope Trunk (2013) which is: an adult with Asperger’s at any age needs two things the most. One is a life partner and the other is a job. I fully agree with this and also agree with the fact that there is a high rate of depression for people with high functioning autism and that this could be reduced or prevented if the person was in work and/or had a partner.
For me I am very lucky (and always appreciate how lucky I am). I have got a loving wife that I have had the fortune to be with for over a decade, two beautiful children, we are all in good health and I have got a part time job that I can manage whilst my wife also works part time so that we can share child care. It means I am around for my family and two children a lot and am a big part of their lives whilst they are young. I can also help them to learn. Even before I knew I had high functioning autism I knew that the one aspect in my life that was never going to be perfect and that was my career. I have tried and tried to get this right but in the end I realise no matter what path I chose I probably would not have succeeded, due to having autism, and I am grateful for what I have got. My autism is a part of me and I one day, I am sure, will be the key thing that enables me to accomplish everything I want to achieve.
Asperger and Autism Network (2014) http://www.aane.org/about_asperger_syndrome/living_asperger_syndrome_adults.html
Guardian (2013) http://www.theguardian.com/society/2013/mar/08/autism-career-ladder-workplace
Penelope Trunk (2013) http://blog.penelopetrunk.com/2013/10/12/3-things-you-need-to-know-about-people-with-aspergers/