Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Help for Job Seeker with Autism

I was born with autism but I was one of the lucky few to become very highly functional through family support, education, and some coaching. Later I also had to contend with my own inherited depression and having to deal with a family where both parents and my sister were suicidal, and where both my mother and my sister had taken their own lives eventually.

Because of the autism and this environment, I have not developed very well in the social arena. Mostly I made up for that by becoming extremely good at what I do, which mostly involves writing code but sometimes means applying engineering skills.

Essentially I would find a job and stay for anywhere between 2 to 4 years, usually being recruited by a supervisor who could clearly see what I could offer and being able to accommodate me with a quieter environment working directly with him or herself.

When that manager moved on I would usually find myself driven out of my job either by the next manager refusing to provide me with work, or by co-workers who would start hazing me or harassing me to the point of distraction. This would cause a gap of several months.

About 3 years ago the company I worked for shed several layers of management and senior engineers, and so I took a buyout rather than wait for the inevitable, then swapped roles with my wife so she could develop her teaching career.

I have been unable to find work in or out of my field no matter how hard I tried to find work during that three-year span. The usual reason given is something like: "We believe your skills are outstanding but we have the gut feel you would not fit in with our team." While caring for my daughter and waiting for her to start kindergarten, I created a company to hold inventions I was investigating at home that she could perhaps inherit.

Now that she is going to school, I decided to try one last time to work through a contracting firm, found myself wrongfully dismissed by thier client after working only four days on the job, losing several thousands of dollars in relocation expenses and crushing my hopes of being able to work ever again. I therefore gave up the thought of working and applied for SSDI (Social Security Disability Insurance). I am now on SSDI while attempting to take part-time coursework at a nearby university toward an eventual doctorat, which might take 10 years to attain at part time, but it gives me something to at least think about.

Truth be told, I am bored to distraction and extremely depressed at this state of affairs, and I find it hard to concentrate on my coursework. I am very concerned that no matter how much skill I can accumulate through coursework, the fact that I am not good at interpersonal skills such as interviewing or networking because of my disabilities, is going to continue finding me being discriminated against on the grounds of "team fit" or "soft skills," and now, age discrimination.

If today's managers were willing to see that all I needed was a mission and a laboratory to pursue it, they would see that it is my "hard skills" which if given a chance I have changed every company's fortunes for the better that I have worked for in the past. I've even been put into roles that would taken a small team of more conventionally trained people to accomplish and I have still succeeded, because instead of being unable to learn how to be a "team player" I have learned how I can substitute for an entire team. My productivity, focus, creativity, energy, and other assets that I can bring to bear for an important cause are actually that good.

I have literally lived to work, it was the means by which I had been able to survive as in independent human being in spite of my problems. It wasn't the money I made as an engineer that attracted me to the profession, but the sense of purpose and total immersion that could distract me from my problems for at least the balance of the work day.

But as it is, I feel like I am being treated like human garbage by every potential employer, and I have reached and passed the point where I would have fallen on my own sword out of feeling completely useless and ignored by the wider world. It is only the thought that I would be passing on my family's legacy to my wife and daughter which prevents me from doing this, but that does not stop me from suffering greatly nonetheless.

Is there any special place I could go to, some type of sheltered environment, which my disabilities could qualify for, and which could use my abilities and drive for the greater good?

by Cynthia Goldberg, M.Ed

First let me offer an explanation of my perspective. I've worked for many years in Michigan and California with adults who face various challenges to success in the work place. Sometimes these have been folks with developmental disabilities, sometimes workers injured on the job, other times people with chronic health issues that have limited options. I've also worked with people who are in high school and college as they try to figure out what sorts of career options they want to pursue. In all of these situations, there is no one right answer. Each person needs to figure out what they want, where their talents and weakness are, as well as what their own personal universe needs from them...and of course what the labor market has available.

You have a pretty good sense of your skills (code writing and other computer related knowledge) and how it can fit into a workplace. You are also painfully aware of some of your interpersonal weaknesses that have contributed to job loss. I am hoping that your past supervisors have been honest with you during evaluations and given you objective feedback on how to improve...but often times employers don't do this and take the easy way out with surface reasons that don't help you at all. You seem to be aware of the 'system' of supports available to workers with disabilities as you have applied for and obtains SSDI benefits.

So now I have some questions for you about possible next steps. Maybe you have already done these steps, but from your post I can't know. Have you opened a 'case' with your state's Department of Rehabilitation/Vocational Rehabilitation Services office near to your home? The reason I would recommend doing this is that all VR programs in all 50 states have as their mission to help workers with disabilities get to work. They can help with assessments, training, job development, job place and supported employment options. You are probably not a likely person for traditional 'sheltered employment', but with a good advocate (sometimes called a job developer or job coach) working with you someone can help 'carve' out a job within a workplace that fits your skills. This same person can provide mediation (aka job coaching) between you and your boss as needed. These services are often subcontracted out from Department of Rehabilitation offices to local non-profit organizations. If they are doing a good job, they will fade away when things are going well and be able to come back into the picture if you or your boss feels the need for further 'mediation'.

You may be eligible for special hiring procedures with state or federal employment (in California this is call the LEAP program) or you may receive help in creating a 'ticket to work' that is a program for folks getting Social Security benefits to help them return to work. You may be asked to connect with your state's Department of Developmental Services (which are Regional Centers) as they are the folks who fund services when a disability is diagnosed prior to age 18. If you were involved with special education services as a kid, you recall the IEP (Individual Education Plans) that everyone sat in a room and agreed upon? As an adult you will have an IPE (Individual Plan for Employment).

Now, of course, this is all an idealized description of what options are out there. If you live in a big city you will have more options than if you are in a rural area for services. Some staff members and some organizations are better at thinking creatively. You are a consumer and the attitude is supposed to be 'consumer centered'. So politely advocate for what you want. If you don't like options presented to you, say so, in a nice way. If you and a staff member don't 'click', say you are wondering if there is someone else who might be more suited to work with your unique situation. Stay nice and people will respond better. Keep copies of documents and correspondence. Ask about volunteering to get started back to work (sometimes called a situational assessment) so a new vocational rehabilitation counselor can see you shine in a work setting. Ask about 'social skills development' groups. These often are a great method for folks on the autism spectrum to practice the interpersonal scripts that are so difficult.

Find out what resources exist in your community and on line. By "googling" the key words autism and employment I found my way to "neurodiversity.com" which looks like a very useful website for 'aspies' and other folks with autism and related conditions. Many communities have volunteer action centers or programs like Hands On Sacramento that coordinate volunteer options locally for teens and adults. If you want to begin to do some volunteer work to stay busy, feel useful, keep a skill sharp or learn a new skills, these folks may be able to help. I have often found reference librarians in the local library to be a terrific source of information in learning what is around in a community.

If you don't know where to begin, go to the Career One Stop Center closest to your home. These offices have co-located unemployment services, welfare benefits, social security information and vocational rehabilitation services. Always ask, is there anything else I can do or should know about. Take notes, keep your options open.

One last comment: You are in school now, not working, and describe yourself as bored and depressed. Something in this pattern is not working for you. If it's about depression and mood, something you may have a biological tendency towards given what you've said about family, I would strongly urge you to talk to a therapist about this, with an eye towards looking at anti-depressants. I am not suggesting that a magic pill will make your world rosy, rather I'm suggesting that if you have chronic depression, you may need some chemical help getting in balance and being able to use the skills and energy you have more productively. If you are bored in a PhD program I would suggest you examine, with your academic advisor, what is going on there. Folks in doctoral programs might be overworked, might be frustrated, but they should be excited by their research and study....otherwise why do it? You mention a wife and child....I would also look at family and other support systems and use them wisely to stay focused on your goals, to stay emotionally healthy, positive and future oriented. Having a child in kindergarten is an exciting time. You want to help her and be a great dad (and husband). So ask around for therapists who know something of autism spectrum disorders. You can do phone screening or in-person first interviews and ask them what do they know of this condition..if the answer is not much, ask if they are willing to learn..and make them commit to doing some self-directed education before you commit to being their client. (My two cents here is that I know of one fabulous client-counselor relationship that has a client with a special situation and the counselor willing to learn what she needs to know to be a better therapist for the client...it can work if everyone agrees on that plan.)

I hope this is helpful. It will require work on your part, but you sound like a person with energy and drive. There are options out there. There are employers who will hire you. There are support services that can mediate with an employer to help you retain a job or find a job that fits your situation. There are other folks struggling with the same issues and connecting with them may also be helpful. Autism spectrum disorders are so highly varied, there is no one right path to employment. But there are options. Best wishes for a successful journey.

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