Autism – Changing Your Career or Getting a Promotion

One of the hardest challenges when your autistic/Aspie is to make a large change in your life.  Small changes are tough enough, but to even think about a bigger change is often too terrifying

When looking at one of the most cited lists of the most stressful life events, called the Holmes and Rahe (1967) stress scale, we can see just how much stress large life events can cause us.  The top five, out of forty-three, are below:

Life eventScore
Death of a spouse100
Divorce73
Marital separation from mate65
Detention in jail or other institution63
Death of a close family member63

The full list can be found on this link from the University of Wisconsin.  

At number 18 (with a score of 36) is to ‘change to a different line of work’.  Which I am certain would be even more stressful for autistics/Aspies.

Why Change Careers?

I have witnessed first-hand someone close to me constantly change careers.   He lost a very long-term job as a bus driver and was devastated.  He quickly found another job but never settled again.  He would sometimes even change his job or employer on a monthly basis.  After a decade of him following this pattern, I thought why does he not settle.  Surely better promotions and higher pay would come his way, if he just stuck to doing the same job with the same employer.

So, I thought when I am settled in a job, I will stick it out.  But after being in the same job over a decade, and being incredibly good at my job, no real opportunities have come my way.  It’s like they’re within my reach but not really achievable, a bit like false hope.  But without this hope most of us would never stick to doing what we do.  With this false belief that maybe, one day, we will get our shot, keeps us just content enough in our lower role.  Much more people are needed at the bottom than higher up and if we excel in this area, we are more useful there.  There is an exception.  One or two people must make it in order to feed the false belief that we could all make it.  If we just try hard enough or just get the right qualifications. 

I realised all this early on in my career and whenever a friend (not that I had a great deal of friends) would ask for advice I would tell them.  You are too good at what you do there that they will never give you a promotion or much of a pay rise.  The only way you could possibly advance is to leave.  I offered this same advice over a few years to three of my friends.  They all listened, took the advice on board, and are now all extremely successful, probably more successful than they ever dreamed of being.  Just like many things in life it is easy to give good advice, but more difficult to follow it yourself.

Don’t get me wrong sometimes it’s good to stick at the same job if you’re content enough.  If you realise that work is just a small aspect of your life, your personality, and what defines you as a person.  If other things are more important such as being there for you wife/husband and children or even to protect your own mental health.  But if you are discontent (as many autistic people will be as they are extremely and unfairly underemployed, or not employed at all) then you need to mix it up a bit.  Give yourself the best shot of advancing.

How to Change Careers

With our autistic tendencies in mind, it’s probably too much of a leap to simply change careers at a whim.  We find change incredibly stressful, so have to carefully manage if for our own wellbeing, which is necessary but can really hold us back. I genuinely believe that we are exploited because of this, as we are not given a fair opportunity to advance in a way that is adapted to us.

Some life circumstances make a change in careers more difficult, such as having dependants.  Although nothing is impossible.  So rather than make a large drastic change we can try, for ourselves, to make some smaller changes. As lots of small changes can lead to one big change.  Even a gentle step in the right direction can build up, over time, and lead to bigger opportunities.

Moving to a Different Place of Work or Branch

If you work for a large employer, it might mean something as simple as changing sites/branch.  Maybe fully or just for one day a week for example.  By doing this you really put yourself out of your comfort zone.  You will get to know new people in order to function in your job.   Which will ultimately make you more confident if you have to do it again, which you probably will if you make more changes.  Because you get to know new people your chances of career advancement will often improve, as more often than not, opportunities come from who you know more than what you know.  

Because you will be working in two places of work at the same time (or have a new place of work, but know your old workplace really well), you will be much more confident at taking a different job at either place.  Almost doubling your chances of promotion.  It also signals to your managers that you are not afraid of making a change. In addition you’re more than capable of finding another job if you’re not happy, as you have already made a big change internally.  This in itself puts you ahead in career advancement as you are not afraid to cut your losses and leave.

Doing a New Qualification

Something that is all too common, and I am certainly guilty of, is to choose a college course and then a degree that you think you would enjoy learning about and be good at.  You do it because it is an area that you excel in at school, or you know you can get the highest grades in it.  Then you think later in life a job will surely fit into this qualification.  You will work out the job when you have mastered the course; it will come to you.  Then you finish and you realise that actually you don’t know how you could get a job using this qualification that you would enjoy.  Or worst still it is a very popular subject, but has extremely limited job opportunities in that field and too much competition.  Your only real choice is to try and make another career fit in with your qualification.  Almost like pushing a square peg into a round hole.  With enough force you can do it, but it is never the best fit.

It is never a bad thing to study a subject that you may not use fully.  It will always give you so much more than just a career.  Improved confidence and self-esteem for example.  As well as a vast number of transferable skills such as a much higher level of written and verbal communication. Plus, for many people they are the most enjoyable years of their life which should never be regrettable. 

So you’re in the job that doesn’t quite use all the qualifications you’ve mastered, or you didn’t do well in school or college in the first place (so you haven’t got that many qualifications).  It is never too late to study something new.  Something that relates to a job that you could do.  You would have been working for a while and realise what the world of work entails. You will understand much more about jobs and careers than when you were at school, college or university.  So you’re in a much better place now to study qualifications that are relevant to the work that you would like to do and know you will enjoy.  Simply doing a qualification and being able to still perform well in your current role will signal to your employer that you can handle more responsibilities.

Volunteering

One way to find new opportunities and get unique experience is to volunteer.  This can be done outside of the work hours such as the evenings or weekends.  Or, if your work place allows it, to reduce your working week by a day and then volunteer in this time.

Again, you will meet new people, come out of your comfort zone (in a good way), and new opportunities may come your way.  As well as gaining another reference for a new job and possibly improving your promotion prospects with your current employer.

Making a Small Step up in the Workplace

Sometimes small opportunities may arise at work where you can step up in your current role, but only slightly.  You may often, as I have, feel they are not worth taking as they are so similar to your current role but have much more stress and not much extra pay.  But I have seen so many people move their way up doing this.  Don’t get me wrong, I have also seen more people stay in that role for many years too.  But the people that tend to make that higher step tend to be the ones in that slightly higher role.  As they have got that slightly more relevant experience.

A Leap of Faith

As I’ve written about before pain is one of the biggest motivators for change.  So if your work is too difficult and you simply can’t stick it out due to issues such as bullying.  Then it is worth making a jump and trying something completely new.  

If you go for a job and don’t get it, never ever let this put you off for trying for another.  So many times I’ve gone for jobs in the past when someone was already lined up for it.  So many times I’ve also seen first-hand in the workplace where that job was certain to go to a family member applying, and it does.  They are even given the interview questions before the actual interview.  The best candidate on planet earth could have turned up for that interview and would have never succeeded because it was rigged from the outset.

So keep trying.

My Story

I’ve got a degree, masters, and postgraduate teaching qualification.  Like most autistic/Aspies because of my difference I am limited in the roles I could manage.  I know my strengths and weaknesses well enough to know there are certain jobs I could never do.  Plus, I have got a wife and two children which from the birth of my eldest son decided that family must come before my career.  My dad always worked long hours and I could go weeks without seeing him.  I vowed never to be the same.  In addition, my children need more support than most.

I didn’t know what job I wanted to do with my Computer Studies degree.  Maybe there would have been a good fit, but I could never figure it out.  Although I excelled at university and got the highest grades I did such a general course that I never specialised in one area, which probably would have helped more.  So I didn’t really have the qualification to do certain computing jobs.  For example programming, networking or databases as I’d only done one or two modules in each.  There were careers that wanted general computing skills, but often involved sales which I couldn’t do (for reasons in relation to being autistic). So I tried teaching as I loved education, especially further education as it had helped me a great deal.  I could just about manage it and I was quite good at it.  But some aspects of it were really tough and others really enjoyable.  I tended to excel in the areas that other teachers hated, but was not so good in the areas where other teachers thrived.  Typical for autistic people like us.  In addition my son was young and quite difficult to look after.  And I had to travel many miles to get to work and back, so I knew I couldn’t do it much longer than the three years I’d achieved.

I tried doing a master’s degree to get out of the situation I was in.  But just ended up going to the same university and although it was a bit more specialised it was still too general, as it covered two subjects poorly (that didn’t really go together) rather than one subject well.  My aim at the time was to try and get funding for a PhD but I realised that even with a PhD I wouldn’t really know what career I wanted to do.  I would have probably enjoyed being a research assistant, but those jobs are extremely limited.  So after a couple of unsuccessful attempts at trying to get a scholarship to do a PhD, I was at a bit of a loss on what to do.

So then I ended up having a year where I did a mixture of jobs until I was a teaching assistant which I have done for the past eleven years.

I’ve made effort to change; such as volunteering and doing a day course at the same time (which I passed) and I was almost certain to leave my current college.  But then the best thing at that time of my life happened, which was the birth of my second son, so I put everything on hold.

I’m grateful I’ve been a teaching assistant.  That I’ve managed to hold down a job.  That I’ve helped so many people in a similar situation to us pass their qualifications and get onto the path of success.  But it’s always been an especially low paid job that hardly uses any of my qualifications.  So I’ve always felt like I’ve needed to achieve more and earn a fairer wage.

The easiest way to advance would be to do qualifications related to the job I’m doing now, and use this to move up the ranks.  But I am autistic so never choose the obvious way. I’ve recently realised, by supporting students in my work, just how much I enjoy maths.  So I’ve spent countless hours studying this subject again and have just retaken my GCSE and hoping to get a very good grade. I am also going onto an A Level in a couple of months time.  

It is not the best way forward. I’ve seen so many people with maths degrees unhappy with their career prospects.  But I find studying maths really enjoyable (much more than I ever did studying computing) and it has given me so much joy and confidence when studying this subject I love. So I am going to try my best to get it right this time and I’ll hopefully make it.  There are certainly more opportunities with maths than my computing degree, so I will see how it goes and keep you updated in the comments.

Final Thoughts

It is often a scary thing to change jobs. Or leave work behind and go to university etc.  It can be such a tough decision.  But ask yourself: “What have I got to lose by moving forward?”.  Often it is much less than you think.  You can always go back if it doesn’t work out, so where is the harm in trying.  I’m not saying it’s risk free because everything has a risk. But more often than not, it’s worth trying.  

It is easy to believe that being autistic/Aspie means that you can only do lower paid roles, but this is definitely not the case.  There are many examples of people who are extremely successful and on the autistic spectrum.  It is just a matter of finding that perfect career that fits in with your strengths rather than weaknesses.  Some weaknesses can definitely be worked on too, so that they can be more or less overcome.  But this takes a massive amount of time, energy, determination and usually discomfort.  I myself have done this over many years, and can do many things that I thought were impossible years ago, but it is very tough and I will always recommend trying to play to your strengths rather than weaknesses, which I am focussing on more in the future.

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