Tuesday, December 29, 2009

"What jobs can't I do if I have Asperger's syndrome?"

That was a question posted on CNN.com's "Expert Q & A" today.

Luckily, the psychiatrist who answered it did not actually provide a list of jobs he thinks people with Asperger's (or any other form of autism, or any other kind of neurological difference) can't do as well as neurotypical people!

Instead, he told the person asking the question to follow her own heart:
You can do any type of job in the world that you are good at and that you enjoy. You shouldn't let a diagnosis of Asperger's syndrome hold you back from any type of employment you want to pursue. On the other hand, you shouldn't feel like you have to work in one type of job or another to meet other people's expectations.
I still thought it strange, and unfortunate, that someone would ask this question at all, and would presumably accept a list of proscribed professions, should one be put forth.

Then again, I can see how someone might come to think having Asperger's would bar them from whole categories of work, given how autism and Asperger's are usually talked about.

First, there's the negative aspect of it: the endless lists of things people with autism will never be able to do. The content of these lists will vary depending on your age of diagnosis, verbal ability and apparent intelligence, but we all hear them, from a wide variety of sources. Popular descriptions of autism --- particularly Asperger's --- also make it sound as if there's just no way in the world such a person could ever be, say, a marriage counselor, actor, nurse, schoolteacher, coach or any other job requiring "people skills".

You also hear this even in the positive treatments of Asperger's syndrome! So much of the "bright side of autism/Asperger's" literature out there focuses on stereotypical Aspie strengths, like "little-professor" pedantic immersion in particular subjects, logical thinking, precise language, spatial and mathematical virtuosity, and, probably the most commonly-cited one of all, computer proficiency.

These are all fine things, assuming one has them, but if you're an autistic person who can barely read a map, or who is regularly driven to tears trying to get your computer, or phone, or TV or whatever, to do what you want it to do, or who finds hirself quickly lost in overly technical discussions, you're probably not going to be terribly reassured by talk of how autistic people are just naturally whizzes at engineering or IT.

Quite probably, hearing that will just depress you even more.

So, with that hypothetical person (as well as the real person who posted the question on CNN.com) in mind, I am posting a list of non-stereotypical jobs held by at least one autistic person:
Massage therapist (an Aspie male of my acquaintance does this)
  • Sailor (Clay Adams, at one point; as well as a different Aspie male of my acquaintance, before I met him)
  • Screenwriter/Playwright (yet another Aspie male of my acquaintance; Tyler Norman, who wrote and directed a movie called "Spud" just this year; David Mamet)
  • Fashion model (Heather Kuzmich)
  • Actor (Daryl Hannah; Dan Aykroyd; John Turturro)
  • Musician (Ladyhawke; Craig Nicholls of The Vines; Travis Meeks of Days of the New; Gary Numan; Hikari Oe; Heidi Mortensen)
  • Athlete (surfer Clay Marzo; marathoners Anthony Crudale, Andrew Bryant, Alex Bain and Jonathan Brunot)
  • Fiction writer (Caiseal Mor)

  • This Wikipedia page, and this somewhat recent post at Turner & Kowalski, gave me most of the people on my list, and also have a lot more I didn't include.


    Stephanie said...

    I think you can add "artist" to the list of professions that people with ASDs CAN do; it's another popular one, along with music.

    A job people with ASDs shouldn't do is retail/sales. This is to be avoided at all costs. Anything with multi-tasking and involving too many people should be avoided. Not that people with ASDs can't do these jobs, but why would you want to?

    Veracity said...

    A good friend of mine is aspie and is a successful graphic designer.

    Unknown said...

    I was friends with Clay Marzo when I was a child, he and I went to the same elementary school, and our mothers are friends. Small world...
    Poet would be another one, it's certainly my dream job. Or sculptor, cheesecake chef, airline pilot, news caster... All jobs I desired when I was young. And I am sure I would be good at any of them, AS or neurotypical.

    Anemone said...

    I've done retail, more than once. I wouldn't want to do it long term, but as a job for a few months or whatever, it can be manageable. The thing is you have to like and know lots about what you're selling. If you knew a lot about cameras or music or electronics or books, or fashion even, you could be good at selling those particular things. It would be your special interest.

    But yes, it can be tiring in the long run. A small specialty store is easier to work in than a large busy one.

    Rachel said...

    Fascinating Post- I'm the mum of a 6 year old autistic girl and I worry a lot about her future, particularly as most of the literature on autism is extremely doom-laden. I had no idea that those people were autistic and it goes to show what you rightly say, that people with ASDs can do anything they want and should resist being pigeon-holed.

    I've just started blogging about autism myself and may provide a link to this post in my next post if that's OK?

    Best Wishes

    Larry Arnold PhD FRSA said...

    Well I don't really think I am going to become a circus acrobat any time soon.

    The problem for the most part is however societal, it ain't what you can do, it is what anyone is prepared to let you do, and more than that what they will pay you to do.

    I can lecture at Uni, problem is, there is a surplus of qualified and experienced Higher and Further Education teachers made redundant because of the impact of the current economic situation.

    Likewise I can take photographs, have done so professionally, but again it's economics and marketing.

    What I am not good at is marketing myself better than the next guy who does not have AS or any other impairment or social disadvantage that puts one lower down the list of desirables.

    That ain't pessimism, it is experience and realism.

    So what is the answer? Well not to take it lying down and to actively campaign within and against the infrastructure of the society that has created the prejudice in the first place.

    Larry Arnold PhD FRSA said...

    Lydia, there are poets and people who write poetry, the realists write poetry, it still holds up that no-one makes a living out of writing poetry, they all have day jobs.

    Cereus Sphinx said...

    Another profession you could add is teaching assistant (Teacher's Aide/ One-on-one Aide). I was one and enjoyed it/was good at it. :)

    Clay said...
    This comment has been removed by the author.
    Clay said...

    Thanks for the mention. Nice to be included in that list! I've done many, many different jobs, the longest was 16 consecutive years as a Home Health Aide, which I retired from. I was also a professional house painter on and off throughout my life. (It appealed to my perfectionism.)

    I think that "car salesman" would be the most unfortunate career choice for any Aspie. You'd need charm and people skills most of us just don't have, (plus a great ability to lie).

    Um, we've met? Were you at Autreat this past year?

    Neurodivergent K said...

    I'm an autistic gymnastics coach (and apparently pretty decent, based on all the ways those things are measured). How's that for out-of-the-stereotypebn ?

    Meowser said...

    Believe it or not, I actually got hired twice to sell cars -- including one stint at a Saturn dealership. But I never did very well at it because they wanted us to do lots of prospecting, which I was terrible at. I was fine with the customers who actually came in, though. I actually liked doing that display they had then, where we jumped up and down on one of the door panels laid out on the floor, to show how strong it was.

    Similarly, I'm sure I could handle writing for a living, if I was able to better handle the social aspects of nailing down reluctant people for interviews (if nonfiction) and selling myself to people as an unknown. Once I actually had some success under my belt, it would probably be easier, since I'd have at least one calling card I could hold up, but it's getting there that's the problem. Convincing recalcitrant people that they should give me a chance, when millions of people are trying to break in at the same time as me...I never could pull that one off.

    Ali said...

    I've had two long term jobs, one very stereotypically autistic-friendly (it was even a contact for an Australian adults with autism group which was formed to help secure good job placements for those on the spectrum) and the other not so much. I've been equally good at both. The stereotypically good fit was working for a media monitoring/clipping service; the unexpected one has been as a direct care staff for kids in an acute psych hospital.

    Sarah said...

    Wonderful post.

    "These are all fine things, assuming one has them, but if you're an autistic person who can barely read a map, or who is regularly driven to tears trying to get your computer, or phone, or TV or whatever, to do what you want it to do, or who finds hirself quickly lost in overly technical discussions, you're probably not going to be terribly reassured by talk of how autistic people are just naturally whizzes at engineering or IT."

    Yes! This is such a good way to put it.

    Anonymous said...

    It is similar to "what jobs can't I do" for anybody else. Strengths and weaknesses vary by individual. Asperger's will play into that, but Asperger's doesn't mean the person isn't individual anymore, so only having the information of Asperger's won't determine what jobs they can/'t do.

    There's also the factor of figuring out your weakness and then working very hard to improve on it. Sometimes that's possible.

    Amanda Forest Vivian said...

    I read this list by Temple Grandin saying what jobs ASD people are or are not good at. It is one of the many reasons I find Temple Grandin to be incredibly annoying. Especially because she listed "cashier" as a job that people with ASD are not good at and I'm pretty much a cashiering savant. Not because I'm good at math--the machine does the math for you--but because you can use the same script over and over and that makes me so relieved that I'm the most friendly and helpful cashier ever, and have suddenly boundless energy compared to the way I usually am.

    I hope I get another job being a cashier soon because it's an ego boost.

    I also really like working in group homes for DD people, which is not something that these lists include a lot. But the thing is, just because ASD people aren't good with regular people doesn't mean we're not good with other DD people.

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    amandaautismx2 said...

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    Linda Radfem said...

    I know I'm late commenting but thanks for bringing this up, Lindsay. You could add professor of history to the list as that's the title my twenty year old Aspie daughter is currently working towards.

    I rarely ever disclose my neurotype to colleagues - it's just too much trouble. If they've never worked with me before it makes them nervous and if they've worked with me for a while and so know that I'm good at my job they suspect that I'm lying. I get the "Oh I would never have guessed because you never do [insert behavioural expectation based on a stereotype]..."

    I find it better to just say to colleagues that I sometimes have processing issues or that sometimes I need things spelled out for me.

    I manage to fly under the radar most of the time because in social work settings we're more focused on client issues and/or behaviour, than we are on workers.

    Just to challenge the stereotype a bit more- people enter social work for reasons that are often more to do with principles of social justice/ social change than with "people skills".

    This is why I'm good at social work - because of my tenacity around issues of human rights, and because of the tendency toward open honesty and critical analysis skills. It enables me to be an excellent advocate for my clients.

    Anonymous said...

    How about a speech-language pathologist?!Haven't been diagnosed as yet, but have been acknowledged to have definitely sth within A.spectrum. Eventhough I'm rather familiar with Alexithymia.. for me personally it means: not being able to read my own emotions;

    My friends tell me how I feel before I notice. Well, I dó have another way of knowing how I feel: I have an inner jukebox which will play how I feel/what I'm going thru. Usually music I haven't heard in yéars!

    I read my children & their parents perfectly well. I address what I notice and with that respect their emotions, eventhough I cannot always go along with them. This clarity works very well for all the kids I see with sensory imput problems!

    Parents of SI-kids overall see what I'm doing and highly appreciate I value their kid (instead of what I notice in schools that the kid is too much of a hassle in a class of 28kids+)
    I see it as a strength..
    Though oversight isn't my thing, I make schedules to regain that..

    I knew as a teenager I wanted to work with kids, language and teach, bút not in front of a whole class ;)

    Anonymous said...

    Awesome, that’s exactly what I was scanning for! You just spared me alot of searching around

    Unknown said...

    I do some retail sales right now, and I usually do pretty well. They are once in a while sales, which I present at fairs and boutiques, rather than permanently established small businesses. If I had to keep this job for long term, I would certainly want to have a helper do the sales for me, then we would split the earnings. On my own, I am not exactly a saleswoman. I just let my merchandise sell itself, and chat with visitors about my work.

    I sell mostly tie-dyes, batiks, and artwork. So I could always pass as one of those "capitalist hippies."

    thatonewolf said...

    This is going to start off sounding like nonsense. But It's 3am here, and I am googling how to be successful as an aspie in the job market.

    I am a graphic designer, I know 15 programs, and I have an associates degree. I graduated in 2008 and have been job searching on every website known to man for 5 years all together.

    in those 5 years I've gotten 1 interview, which turned out not to be an interview. It was a test, for a big salary job to test personality and other things. I failed. No job.

    So here I am at 3am up thinking about the fact that I have a girl I'd love to marry, and have a future with, and I'm stuck at home, with a degree, and no career.

    My point being that the reason people may be asking the original question is because they have failed for so long at getting callbacks as I have.

    Anonymous said...

    I would recmmend a Mapp career assessment. They are very good at identifying someone's strengths.

    Anonymous said...

    As a male aspie, who is a massage therapist, I would advise against it. The verbal inability to shut up, compounded with the horrors of inadvertently insulting people makes it difficult. I am a great therapist, but am leaving the field because I am always looking for work. If you are non-verbal then it is fine. Not being able to read people has made it tough. Anyways my 2 cents.

    Anonymous said...

    Hi. I'm a nurse with Aspberger's and ADD. I compartmentalize my personal life and my professional life. It is very hard to hold in my emotions but I've learned to hide in the linen closet if neccessary.

    Anonymous said...


    As has been mentioned, a lot of it has to do more with your individual strengths and weaknesses than with your diagnosis. I can see ASDers with good analytical skills and emotional strength being able to do "people skills" jobs.

    I've done a variety of things in my life so far:
    - admin assistant (this was fairly easy once I got the routine of each different position; the only problem was that I have difficulty prioritizing, and that mattered only for some of the positions)
    - security officer at a girls' school (it was great when I was on overnights; not so great when they switched me to afternoons because of sensory stuff and my - unrelated to ASD, I think - allergy to heat)
    - call centre employee (this was a serious challenge because of the environment and sensory stuff; I finally had to quit - but if you're good with scripts and your audial processing is good [mine is not, I do better visually], and you work in a small office-type environment, this could be a good fit)
    - intern for a cross-disability organization (this is what I'm doing now, and it's great)
    - science-fiction / fantasy writer (this is my dream job; I've got a novel in re-write and one in editing at the moment, hoping to start submitting them soon)

    I can't sell myself, but I've built up a skill-set that is tranferrable, which helps a lot. I've also been told that I'd be good at helping people with disabilities - I've worked with a friend and an acquaintance who both have Retinitis Pigmentosa, and helped them out. *shrugs*

    I have an absolute horror of retail. Part of my current job involves work placements; one of them is at a hotel. I couldn't even manage more than an hour at the front desk without risking a meltdown, and that was when it wasn't busy. But for some people, it might be the right fit.

    Just some additional thoughts.

    :) tagAught