Employed but jobless: Oh what nonsense!

Feeling sick for the past few days. A tight knot in the stomach. How can someone be employed yet unemployed? Easy. If you hold 2 part-time hourly-paid job, which has for the past 6 months provided a steady income, not much for savings but enough to make a living and then you suddenly realise that there is little, almost no further incoming work from both employers resulting in a near zero income. Yes, I know such is the peril of hourly-paid positions, yet I didn’t see it coming because for the past 6 months, there were times where I was expected to perform something in short notice as if I’m a full-time staff or time-consuming tasks which take up almost all my time I thought I might as well have been employed full-time. In addition, my assistance is expected for an event in October which would take up a portion of my time. So really, where do I stand? I’m employed but without an income, I might as well be unemployed. That is the ridiculousness of blah blah land. Do my employers not realise that my living depends directly on them? Do they think I’m rich because I can afford to work 2 part-time? Is it so hard for employers to give a thought to their employees’ needs (regardless financial or personal, special/non-special, autistic/non-autistic etc)? You know that sick feeling when you realise that you are running short of money and might not be able to pay your rent etc? The hourly-paid arrangement feels like an injustice. I’m fuming, I’m worried, I want to yell at them but I know they are not bad persons, they are only human. And it’s time for me to communicate my needs.


Five scoops of ice-cream

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?

Work environment

  • How much privacy and personal space do I have?
  • Is it quiet and sensory friendly?

Social aspects

  • 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)



If beggers can be choosers

In interviews, employers assess the suitability of prospective candidates for the job. As a candidate, I would also like to assess my employer’s management capability, for instance, the organization or team structure, work culture and equal opportunities policy. I have worked in circumstances I find it hard to commit because of difficulties getting along and adhering to the social work norms of the rest of the team. If beggers can be choosers, my ideal employer is one who possess the following qualities:

Strong leadership skills and clear vision

This is especially important for a job that requires me to work in a team and where there is a hierarchy structure. I hate it when instructions are inconsistent and dealing with team members with different personalities. The hierarchy exists, not to create barriers between the top management from the lower level. It dampens my work morale if I think that my views are not going to be listened or the work division is blurred and poorly coordinated. There must be a clear objective for meetings, which is not just an occasion for aimless patronizing talk. A good leader must be aware of the pitfall of groupthink. A leader must have a clear vision, which is something concrete that can be broken down into specific objectives. It is not sufficient to have a grand ambitious vision that is abstract in terms and only in the mind of the beholder. Not every boss is a leader and similarly, having a nice personality doesn’t necessarily make someone a good leader. Personally, I prefer to work independently but I do have the ability to work in a team provided the above conditions are present. Having a clear vision is also a pre-requisite for the next quality.

Ability to give clear and concise instructions

This might be one of the most important requirements for employees on the spectrum. Unless you bestow me with discretionary power, be clear and concise about what it is you want me to do. While I do not have to be spoon-fed, there is a distinction between “I want you to draft a proposal” and “I want to you to draft a proposal that focuses on the topic XYZ with clear deliverables.” The best part I enjoy about doing research is collecting the data and information because this stage tends to be clear and straightforward. However, how the data is going to be presented or analysed is another matter.

Provides constructive feedback

If after spending tremendous amount of time and effort to complete a task, only to find that it has been put aside without an explanation, nor is there even an acknowledgement of the effort, it seriously dampens my work morale. This is basic reinforcement theory, a discouraged employee is an unmotivated employee. Furthermore, it reflects the lack of leaderships skills and clear vision, after all, how can an employer comment about something which he can’t articulate clearly in words or has no clear vision about?

Flexible and open-minded

What is the employer’s attitude towards email exchanges outside working hours or employees with special requests? Is the employer acquainted with the equal opportunities policy? Does the employer have a valid reason for refusing a request for reasonable accommodation? If the employer expects every employee to conform with expected social work norms regardless of the nature of work, background and circumstances, this is hardly a valid reason. Now I have never disclosed my autism to any employer at the interview stage. First, there is no need to. Second, I want to be treated equally as the other candidates. Third, there is still a risk that disclosure might prejudice the chances of my getting a job even if the employer claims to adhere to the equal opportunities policy. However, I am getting so tired of the “this is how we have always done it so this is how you have to do it too” attitude and the assumption that everyone should conform to social expectations, I have increasingly felt the urge to challenge the system and to test the extent to which employers are willing to provide reasonable accommodation by putting myself forward as a test case. While I can’t blame you for not being aware of my needs because I have an invisible disability, how differently would you have reacted if my disability is made known to you?

Avoid last minute changes or notification and allow time for adjustment

Does the job require working outside office hours or complete tasks under time pressure? These must be stipulated in advance, in the job description and at the interview; if they are not necessary, it should be avoided. I am averse to communication exchanges outside office hours, it doesn’t mean I don’t work outside office hours, I’m merely averse to communication exchange amongst people outside office hours. The feeling is similar to my desire to be at home at the end of a school day. Communication exchanges outside office hours are akin to detentions and extra-curricular activities which intrude my personal space and prevent me from enjoying solitude. I pride myself on my ability to write and eye for detail, not dealing with unpredictability and time pressures, especially tasks which require meticulous research and planning.

If beggars can be choosers.

Let me rest in peace

What are the words you like to hear? Here is a few of my personal likes and dislike.


I know the good intentions behind but these words give me the creeps. I need and enjoy my alone time, most of the time. I find it disturbing to hear that “I am not alone.” I much prefer something like “I can imagine how you feel” or “I can relate.”


Someone said this to me once to announce the end of our friendship. It was his attitude towards my autistic needs that hurt. Not these words, which were actually the best thing he could have said and which I took as a compliment. If we were still friends, I’d have replied, “Thank you, why not?”


Why do I have to wait till I’m dead to rest in peace? Please don’t wait till I’m dead to tell me that. I want peace right now. 


Is there a suitable career choice for someone with Asperger?

Sometimes, the risk of revealing you are autistic is that people make wrongful assumptions based on the characteristics they know of people with autism. In an employment context, your co-worker may even define or limit your abilities by these characteristics.

(1) People on the spectrum have difficulty making eye contact. 

If you can make eye contact, you are not autistic.

(2) Autism is marked by deficits in social communication and poor executive functions.  

You can’t teach because you have to communicate with students and deal with administrative matters.

(3) People on the spectrum get social anxieties.

You can’t be an actor because you have to perform in front of audience.

(4) People on the spectrum have poor motor and coordination skills.

People on the spectrum are poor in sports.

(5) People on the spectrum prefers routine and dislikes sudden changes.

If you can accept a last minute change in schedule, you are not autistic. 

Each of the above statements in black and bold describes the common characteristics of people with autism. Unfortunately, these characteristics often result in the impression or erroneous conclusion by others that we can’t do anything which requires social interaction/eye contact/flexibility/coordination etc. (pretty much everything in life!) This isn’t true of course. Like every other human beings, people on the spectrum learn (albeit perhaps at a slower rate)! But before everyone starts throwing stuff at me and expect me to learn everything, I really hope that people also acknowledge the efforts that people on the spectrum put into learning things that neurotypicals take it for granted. (I am amaze to read that social skills such as making friends, eye-reading etc. come intuitively to neurotypicals whereas for me it is something that I have to learn and process intellectually.) Yes, there are some things which makes it difficult for me to do because of my autism but I may have other strengths in an area that is sufficient enough to compensate for that deficit or my interest in an area is strong enough for me to be willing to compromise and challenge myself to work on my weakness. I read that people on the spectrum tend not to be competitive and I do hate to compete with others but that doesn’t make me any less determined or motivated. The way I see it, my biggest competitor is myself and I will challenge myself into doing things I think are worthwhile. Is there a suitable career choice for Asperger? I like to think the answer is no because everyone on the spectrum is different so there isn’t a one job that fits all autistics. Whatever career choices, there will be some aspects of a job that make it extra challenging and demanding for a person on the spectrum but at the end of the day, if it is something that you are interested or keen on doing, then nothing will stop you from advancing towards that goal.

I concede that people who draw wrongful assumptions about the abilities of someone on the spectrum may be simply due to not knowing how to react to people with autism and not knowing what kind of support they need, in which case, either I am careful who I reveal to or I am assertive to explain that “I’m telling you because I need your understanding and I hope you can support me (by doing this).” I think there would be more happy and confident individuals if instead of “no (you can’t do this or this can’t be done)”, there is more encouragement, support, understanding and accommodation from people around, at least, that would make me a more happy, confident and positive person.

The following statements describe the common characteristics of autism but in no way do they define the abilities of people on the spectrum.

(1) People on the spectrum have difficulty making eye contact. 

I find eye contact uncomfortable however, people with autism can and do make eye contact. As a matter of fact, I was legally trained to make eye contact.

(2) Autism is marked by deficits in social communication and poor executive functions.  

I accept that any job comes with the social aspects and handling of administrative tasks and I can live with that. There are professors in the academia and people in the caring profession such as psychologists with Asperger. People in these professions are valued for their knowledge, which people on the spectrum tends to take pride in. 

(3) People on the spectrum have anxiety issues in public.

There are autistic people in the acting and performance industry. These people may be good at imagination and having a script means that they know in advance what to say and expect, which is good. 

(4) People on the spectrum have poor motor and coordination skills.

My ball skills are weak but my motor clumsiness does not stop me from engaging in walking and there are people on the spectrum who excels in sports such as surfing. 

(5) People on the spectrum prefers routine and dislikes sudden changes.

I hate sudden changes but lets face it, change is part and parcel of life and when the power is not in me to reject, what can I do but to accept? Things and events like last minute change in appointment, delays etc. happen on such frequent basis, I’ve learn to live with it or if not, will remind myself not to fret over it. 

Featured image credit: http://blogs.cardiff.ac.uk/wiserd/2014/08/04/what-do-you-want-to-be-when-you-grow-up/