Photo by Sid Balachandran on unsplash.comThe world of work is not what it was, and maybe with the advances in Artificial Intelligence, humans will soon wonder what to do with themselves!

However, pandemics, Brexit and AI aside, there are a still a few jobs out there, and as most of us do want and need to go to work, what we do and where we do it matters.

While traditional ‘office jobs’ are now anything but, and people are working anywhere, anytime with a myriad of portfolio careers, the status that is tied up with the world of work is alive and well.

For autistic people, the choices can be even more limited and the path even harder to navigate, with many working in areas unrelated to their background or education. While this may be enlightening or fulfilling for some, in others it can bring frustration, underearning and confusion.

Society is riddled with stereotypes about work and many still judge others, and base their identity and self-worth, on what they do to earn money or occupy themselves with

As a society, the hypocrisy surrounding certain jobs leaves many underpaid and/or undervalued. A nurse is not a better human than a banker. A doctor is not more intelligent than a locksmith. While this is not an autistic issue, people on the spectrum struggle in a different way in both the recruitment process and office work environment, and often end up in social care roles - often quite successfully, yet these roles are undervalued and can leave those working in them feeling less worthy.

I made it a policy never to ask anyone ‘what do you do’ as I know how tedious it was to be asked. Yet I now realise that was not only to avoid the mundane and open the conversation into deeper topics, but also because of the problems I had with my own job status.

We are not our labels, but in a society obsessed with them it makes you appear odd or rude to skirt such an obvious one as your job.

Job labels like most labels can be restrictive. People should be able to pursue what they choose without discrimination or feeling ‘left out’

Despite a textbook ‘normal’ education and career trajectory for the first part of my life, at some point I went off-piste. My status was tied up in my job, and my self-esteem took a nosedive. The work I undertook since leaving ‘white collar’ jobs was fun and helpful to others but it is others’ perceptions of what I ‘should’ be doing that affected me.

Why don’t you work in a ‘proper job’ people would ask when I told them I was a personal assistant to the elderly or vulnerable. If proper meant well paid then that is a fair question.

Yet I have learnt more about politics, people and social justice by working in social care and dealing with frontline services than I ever did working in parliament or in large companies, and I have been offered valuable training courses that I would never have received working in office jobs. 

While my pay has decreased, my wellbeing and character has improved

I am lucky to have maintained office work from afar as proofreading, copywriting and research can be flexible. Yet for many autistic people I meet drawn into social care work, their full potential is left untapped.

The financial punishment for not being able to work in higher paid work takes its toll and while this article is not a critique on pay disparity in the UK, it does mean that many autistics are left reliant on the welfare system or on the poverty line in a way that should be avoidable if they are willing and able to work

Of course, being labelled office worker also has its drawbacks. Once when unemployed for a short while I naively asked the job centre if I could become an electrician as I thought this was a perfect opportunity to retrain. They laughed and said a degree in history, economics and politics was not a requirement for apprenticeships. While this was pre-Asperger’s diagnosis, the writing was on the wall! Equality is about providing the same opportunities for all. No one should feel excluded from anything.

In social care, my wage was often low with no perks, I avoided even mentioning my jobs to others and was not intellectually stimulated, yet somehow my wellbeing improved in many ways. Work of some kind is often better than no work, and the sad fact is that many on the spectrum do not work at all. I fell into social care and had no experience of the work other than the theoretical conversations in political circles. Yet social care ticks a lot of boxes for those on the spectrum that may not exist in office work.

I often feel a sense of fulfilment after completing tasks, cheering people up, inspiring them, getting instant feedback from them or their family compared to twiddling my thumbs with admin doing tasks that seem to make no sense, or wasting the whole day sitting in front of a computer with no real structure or plan.

Many autistic people would balk at the idea of going to peoples’ homes or meeting different people every day doing all kinds of surprise activities!

It is precisely this type of work which has made me more part of my local community than I ever could have done working from home or commuting to an office job

While office colleagues may not be on the same page regarding my lifestyle opinions, yoga practice or meditation methods, for many vulnerable people they provide a valuable bonus to their life. Essentially I get to be me, rather than playing the version I think I should be

I may not be trained in this line of work but as an Apsie I bring instinct and my own knowledge of useful tools. Yet I should not have had to leave jobs or end up in roles unsuited to me because of spectrum related issues. Even now in our inclusive world, people do feel excluded, and we need to know how to address that.

My negative experience of being interviewed for office jobs has led me to pursuing roles in social care. By ensuring office type work does not seem off-putting to those on the spectrum, more may apply and employers would enjoy the fruits of neurodiverse talent. We could conclude more positively, that many people on the spectrum use their sensitive empathic nature for advantage by working in the ‘caring’ sectors.

Maybe their skillsets are not best utilised in many office jobs where sensitivity can be a negative!

Stereotypical assumptions by neurotypicals who believe that empathy is the issue with those on the spectrum is a misunderstanding unhelpfully perpetuated by the media.

Maybe it is not the point to get more people into ‘office work’ - maybe it is more important to have more caring/interpersonal professions and to give these the status and value they deserve.

As is the case with many autistic spectrum adjustments, what is good for those on the spectrum benefits everyone, so as a society we should care less about labels and apply an equality ethos across the employment spectrum. While this might unfortunately never be reflected by pay, respect is free and we all have a place in society and a purpose to fulfil.  

Charlotte Sabel

December 2021