Studies suggest that people with autism have a lower employment rate. For example, the National Autistic Society estimates that only 15% of adults with autism in the UK are in full-time paid employment.* While the exact rate is unknown, I can empathise with that as I too am struggling to stay employed. This is partly due to the nature of a research assistant post which is typically project based and subject to the availability of funds. My longest employment so far is 13 months. Another reason that contributes to my struggle is my low tolerance level for tasks (and people) that I dislike. On the one hand, it is nerve wrecking to stay in a job that demands my constant attention attending to other people (be it my boss, co-workers or subject targets) and which generates a high level of anxiety. On the other hand, I feel bad about being a quitter. With hindsight, I believe my challenges in staying employed and career progression stems in part from my autism. I’m not pushing all the blame on autism but if it is true that people on the spectrum face challenges getting employed, then it is reasonable to think that my autism contributes at some level. Often, what triggers the thought of resignation is the level of anxiety the job is causing which prevents me from enjoying a peace of mind. It feels like an intrusion of my private space and it is frustrating to find myself subject to the whims of others. Unpredictability stresses the hell out of me such as organizing and coordinating a big event, work that requires me to be on call anytime or last minute meetings. The more things are beyond my control, the more my anxiety level increases. Commuting at peak hours and travelling to crowded areas is another major source of stress and turns out to be the most priority concern and major cause of anxiety. I have come to this realisation in the past 2 years, as I face the imminent prospect of commuting in crowded transport to work and then it hit me that out of my 10 years in Hong Kong, 8 years was spent studying or working at the nearby campus, which is just a short distance walk from home.
I’m not sure if the same considerations apply to others on the spectrum but these are the following factors that contribute to my anxiety and stress levels at work (and possible mitigating factors) and a table to illustrate the measurement of stress.
Commuting to work
- Does the job require commuting to crowded areas or peak rush hours?
Teamwork & Leadership
- Who am I working with? Am I required to work in a team?
- How is the team structured? Is the division of work clearly demarcated? How coordinated is the team? How much discretionary power do I have?
- Am I getting clear and specific instructions?
Job description & nature
- What is the job nature? Is it administrative, business or research based?
- What is the purpose of employment? Am I doing something I’m interested in or solely for the income?
- Do I have to work under time pressure or multi-task? (This depends also on the nature of task)
- Who will I be dealing with essentially? Do I have to deal with clients? Do I have to make phone calls? Do I need an extensive social network and interpersonal skills?
- Does it involve independent or team work?
- Is there a clear demarcation between office and out-of-office hours? Am I expect to be on call anytime?
- How many days of leave am I entitled to?
- How much privacy and personal space do I have?
- Is it quiet and sensory friendly?
- Am I expect to engage in social activities?
- Am I expect to attend meetings? (I really don’t appreciate the art of small talk during work meetings.
- Does it cover my basic expenditure? Can it cover my holiday expenses?
What happens if stress level is at or beyond 5?
I had once organised a three day programme for the entire Year 3 students in the faculty and co-organised a three day conference for more than 50 local and international participants. By the end of both events, I was drained and traumatised with the social demands that was placed upon me. As with recovering from a social burnout, I retreated into my personal space and switched off my mobile device for the next few days after the event. The latter event was also a precursor to getting a tattoo.
The symptoms could be physical. During my 5 months traineeship as a solicitor, I developed a bad cough for nearly a month and lose 2-3kg in the span of a weekend. Now I can’t say for sure if that is a reflection of my stress level but on hindsight, a part of me probably didn’t want to recover.
I hate being a quitter but how do I know when enough is enough? At the end of the day, I am more and more convinced that there is a need for more awareness, acceptance and support for people with special needs but unfortunately, there is still a stigma attached to autism and the fear that people will not understand. A job I dislike makes me look forward to Friday and dread as Monday approaches. I hope one day to find a career that makes me look forward to every day.
*The National Autistic Society, Autism facts and history http://www.autism.org.uk/about/what-is/myths-facts-stats.aspx
*Ronald Alsop, “Are autistic individuals the best workers around?” (7 January 2016)