Is Our Employment System Rigged Against People on the Autism Spectrum?

In a word, yes.

I will accept no neurotypical arguments to the contrary. Most of the time I’m happy to have a genuine debate and hear the ideas of others, but there can be no debate here. My conclusion is just the logical consequence of the things I’m about to explain. If you try to claim these things don’t exist then I’m sorry, but you need to step away from the computer. Consider reality for a few minutes and then come back.

“It’s not what you know, but who you know.” Many people will try to argue against this. They’ll try to say that it’s not really the case. Well, isn’t it? My first two points: ASD has two grand hallmarks, even for an Aspergian like myself. We’re exceptional in our areas of obsession, and we struggle with social skills. In fact, I suspect that part of our skill comes from the second, then feeds it in turn. Because we struggle to connect with the people around us, we return to our fixations. Even now, many of my most productive moments emerge from the strain of failed interactions. Over time we work the hooks of our passions deeper and deeper. More time spent on them means less spent with others, making our further attempts to mingle even less successful and hurling us even more forcefully back to seclusion. And so on, and so forth.

The second point? Eighty-percent of all jobs are obtained through networking. Is that statistic exactly right? Maybe not. But you know and I know that it’s close, and I shouldn’t have to tell you why that’s a death blow to ASD employment prospects. Yet, here goes: if hiring for specialist positions hinges on networking with people to vouch for you, talent inherently takes a backseat. I don’t mean that people will be hired for jobs they’re totally incapable of doing. Even Donald Trump is capable of being President if you take it in binary terms. But that’s not how the world works, isn’t it? Humans are not all or nothing creatures. We’re not playing a goddamn D&D campaign, and whether or not you “can do” something depends on how high the standard is. If your idea of driving a car is making it move forward for any length of time, toddlers and ambitious dogs can do that easily. If you’d rather they not mow down every living thing between them and the first immovable obstacle, then of course a toddler, dog or dog-toddler can’t drive.

The majority of people in this country can write, but precious few write as well as I. Just about anyone can swing a sword, but most of them wouldn’t be worth a trembling peasant in the 1400s. The jobs industry, however, is not setup to favor talent and its cultivation. It’s setup to (in theory) stop bad eggs from ruining our collective omelette. But let’s not kid ourselves: we can all think of plenty of times where someone in a highly-competitive field with ample vetting cocked up big time. The reason for that is patently obvious. There are only so many hours in a day, and we also need to sleep. A person with talent and the drive to develop it will put their time towards growing skilled. A person with less of both will put their time towards bombarding every two-bit agent, job fair and cocktail party with resumes and slimy networking spiels until they get a job. Even the “ordinary” gifted are under spine-rippling pressure to put aside the work they actually hope to be paid for and dive into making connections.

Autistic people are caught in a pincer attack of malicious serendipity. On one flank, we are instinctively compelled to follow our obsessions. It’s emotionally and psychologically ruinous for us to be torn from them. On the other hand, we not only struggle with social interaction, but hold ourselves to standards that others don’t. Because ASD people are so rule conscious, we often adhere to moral tenets even after we realize that most of those around us are total hypocrites in this regard. One I’ve heard universally from every Autistic person I’ve spoken to on this point: we hate networking. Not necessarily because we don’t like meeting people (although, again, for some of us that’s true), but because we can’t ignore that it’s ultimately about using people. No matter how many neurotypical people say “Oh, it’s fine, it’s not dishonest,” we’ve been conditioned from birth by parents, teachers, friends and media to believe this is wrong. You’re not supposed to meet people for the sole purpose of getting something you want and ditching them. Think about how many dramas revolve around that exact idea.

You may say, “Oh, but you’ll help them too!” There’s no guarantee of that, and no guarantee the connection we form will be lasting. ASD individuals are honest to a fault. Quite literally so, in fact. We’re not good at lying to ourselves about the meaning behind our actions. We also have a hard time applying principles unevenly. On the one hand, we’re praised for our truthfulness and for being “good people.” On the other, we’re told to completely ignore both these things if it means getting a job. Having already been primed since childhood to think that this is the coward’s way out (giving in to shady backroom deals instead of using earnest effort), and inclined to avoid unfamiliar social interactions anyway, there’s little chance for us to succeed by networking.

Even “resume builders” like volunteering and internships offer little help. Most ASD individuals are unwilling to pretend something’s relevant if it really isn’t. Even if we have those things, we likely won’t mention them. Our inclination will still be to hunker down and dump days and months and years into our craft. We can’t rely on our friends to promote us because, again, we won’t have as many of those. We also tend to have disproportionately negative views of our own ability, and we don’t want to risk alienating the handful of people close to us by pestering them for exposure. By our own nature, we can’t even rely on the word-of-mouth groundswell normally provided by friends and family.

Here’s the kicker: we shouldn’t have to. Our society is, and has been for thousands of years, comprised of specialists. To do a job is to specialize in a small number of actions, refining them (ideally) to peak efficiency and quality. Autistic people should be among the front-runners in this system. We’re honest, dedicated, demonstrate our aptitudes very early on, and we’re the least likely people on the planet to get distracted by coworkers, thoughts of home or hellfire descending upon the sinful Earth.

But we’re born into a system that doesn’t ultimately favor those things. It favors having people to talk about how you are all those things, no matter how untrue that is. That’s a contest we don’t have a prayer of winning. A handful of companies have begun specifically hiring ASD individuals for all the reasons I just mentioned, but that’s only a solution if it becomes the norm. For those who don’t have the ability to join those companies for whatever reason, and the multitude of us who excel in other fields, we’re as badly off as ever. A lot of people are keen on “Autism Awareness.” A few are preaching “Autism Acceptance.”

But what we need now is Autism Endorsement.

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