Embracing the Not So Normal

“Autistic children grow up to be autistic adults. Our society doesn’t give them the support they need.”

So says Sarah Carr in her article about employment on the autism spectrum. Carr’s words carry a worrying truth. For many “on the spectrum,” employment is a tactical minefield.

Work is especially a challenge for the “high-functioning” autistic adult because, as they so often hear, “you seem so normal” (four words that imbue us with a sense of despair … we work hard to try and fit in with a world that can seem so alien to us, but it often backfires because we simply are not “normal”). As Carr points out, autistic adults “may very well be the most disadvantaged disability group in the American workplace.”

Part of the problem is because the disability is so hard for others to see. On the inverse, another problem is that when the disability does manifest in the workplace, it’s so startling and disconcerting for the neurotypical mind that the reaction can be one of ostracism, disdain, suspicion, hostility — or worse. This type of reaction often leads to hurt, frustration, and (ironically) a greater manifestation of autistic behaviors.

Given this, it’s no wonder that according to Carr’s research only 14 percent of autistic adults hold paid employment. Even worse, a “pathetic 2 percent of all autism research funding goes to understanding adulthood and aging” in autism, and even less of that is devoted to offering education and support to autistic workers, their colleagues, and their employers.

Autistic adults, particularly those over 30 who are high functioning, are increasingly known as the “lost generation.” Not only was there no support in childhood or adolescence as there is now, there’s nearly zero support in the adult years. Suicide rates of autistic adults are alarmingly high. Sarah Cassidy, researcher with Coventry University’s Center for Research in Psychology, Behavior, and Achievement, led a 2014 study that showed “66 percent of 365 adults newly diagnosed with [a high functioning form of autism] Asperger syndrome … reported having contemplated suicide” and nearly one-third suffered from depression.

High-functioning autistic adults have the potential to be incredible employees, putting to work — in Carr’s words — “a unique and elegant mind.” Their strengths can include keen, lengthy focus, attention to detail, seeing new and novel solutions to problems, and, in Occam’s razor style, cutting to the core of an issue.

The social side of work, however, is a distinct disadvantage. The tendency for autistic adults to speak directly and bluntly can be disastrous in the realm of softer social expectations. An energetic, enthusiastic co-worker who wants to promote “fun” in the workplace and foster socially-based people interactions — something that many neurotypical workers find refreshing — is a terrifying anathema to the autistic mind and spirit. Like water and oil, the two simply don’t mix.

It’s fair to argue that the more disabled deserve greater support. That doesn’t mean there’s no need to assist those with less severe disabilites. One of the greatest ironies for the high-functioning autistic adult is that making a difference may not take much at all. The willingness for others to listen, to understand, to embrace the “not-so-normal,” and make some relatively minor accommodations in and around the workplace may be what it takes.

At Still Point Medical, we understand the needs of autistic adults who are seeking family medical care. We know about and have made accommodations to recognize and embrace the “not-so-normal.” It’s an environment that non-autistic people can enjoy and share, too. And, maybe that’s one of the best parts about it: making small changes that positively affect everyone.

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Photo credit: Štefan Štefančík

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