The statistics are, it seems, pretty grim. I haven’t verified the numbers, neither can I give you any details about how many of those considered are formally diagnosed or anything, but I continually see figures indicating that only around 16% of autistic adults are in full-time employment and 32% in any form of employment at all. Even if we allow for quite a lot of error in those figures and consider that there might be people who are unfindable by official statistics compilers, it would still turn out that the proportion of autistic adults sustaining employment is pretty low, and that many of those who do have jobs are working well below their capabilities skillswise owing to the social, sensory, and organisational demands of most jobs.
I have been sliding down the career snake all my life. Despite my issues at primary school and continual bullying through secondary school, I did manage to get quite a good bunch of qualifications, as I mentioned in Expectations Gone. Admittedly, I dropped out of my first degree course, having entirely failed to do what was expected of me or to settle into any sort of proper work routine, but I did manage to succeed second time round and graduated with a good degree. Had you known me in my late teens and early 20s and looked at my qualifications you’d have predicted a bright future for me as far as employment was concerned. The Strong Woman mask also projected an air of confidence that would have added to this impression and it looked, back then, as though I was headed for great things – all I needed to do was put in the work and everything would be fabulous!
However, it was not to be. I did put in the work, lots and lots and lots of it. I based my ambitions on trying to find a career I loved that was compatible with the qualifications I had, and I worked and worked and worked at it. When obstacles were put in my way (I didn’t receive funding to do my master’s degree) I did everything I could to overcome them (got a job to fund myself through and took out a loan to pay the fees). I went without food and heating to save money in order to carry on studying to become an academic because that was the career I really wanted, and I worked until I could work no more.
I had fallen into the trap of believing the idea, still perpetuated today by some of these awful “life improvement” memes, that if you wanted something badly enough and you worked hard enough for it, you would get it.
That is, of course, a fallacy. You are unlikely to achieve your goals if you DON’T work for them, true, but you can’t reverse that statement and say that working for them means you WILL achieve them. It’s simply wrong.
But back then I believed that working hard was the solution. So I did. And by the time my ill-fated DPhil degree studies started to fail I was almost at snapping point with anxiety, financially in trouble, drinking heavily, and dissociating regularly. I didn’t know then that what I was experiencing was dissociation, but I do now. It was with considerable sadness and regret that I abandoned my studies, and with them my dreams, and decided that I simply couldn’t manage to achieve what I’d so badly wanted.
At that point I had no idea that I was even mentally ill, although I evidently was, very. I had no way of asking for help because I didn’t know what sort of help I might need. I had no concept that I had impaired executive functioning and organizing my life and trying to take care of myself while studying almost unsupported and while chronically short of money was simply beyond my abilities. I had the exam results and I believed, therefore, that the only reason I was failing was that I wasn’t putting in the work. It was the only reason I could think of.
A year later, armed with my original degree, I enrolled on a PGCE course. If I wasn’t going to be able to do research and teach undergraduates then I would modify the plan and teach schoolchildren instead. I turned out to be a pretty good teacher. I did well on the PGCE course and got my first job easily (my qualifications were somewhat over the minimum requirements, and my ability to teach “shortage” subjects proved useful). I started my new career, confident that this time all would be well.
Less than three months into the job, all was not well. There was definitely something very wrong with me. I was struggling. I went to my head of department and told him that things weren’t right. He told me that people as clever as me didn’t have problems and I’d be fine. I upped my work level to try to compensate for the things that were going wrong. It didn’t help. I went back to school after the Christmas holiday period and by February I went in search of a doctor because I felt so ill. I got to the surgery and collapsed onto the floor, hardly able to speak. The doctor picked me up and let me recover and I was then signed off work with “debility”. Nobody could really work out what was wrong with me, but I was clearly very unwell. The “debility” label was changed to “anxiety and depression” shortly afterwards and I entered the world of the mentally ill.
I decided that maybe that school had been too unsupportive for me and got another job in a very different school. I did slightly better for a while, but while there my mood started to become chaotic and elevated, and I went into a hypomanic phase (again, not known at the time, but obvious with hindsight). I was also still unable to survive financially – my starting salary was insufficient to cover the rent on my London flat and to service the massive debts I’d incurred while studying. So I applied for a promotion to Head of Department in another school, and got it!
Only a few weeks into the new job I had the breakdown that is now known as “the big one”. It is now evident that I was also in a period of huge autistic burnout. I made my first serious suicide attempts that autumn. My health was destroyed. I never fully recovered from that time, and the slide down the career snake accelerated massively. My days as a high flyer were over and it became a matter of “damage limitation”.
After I’d recovered sufficiently to rejoin the world, helped by my newly acquired husband, I did a bit of supply teaching, and got a part-time job for a while, but I wasn’t really up to it any more. I then had a succession of office jobs – administrator, data entry clerk, personal assistant, and eventually part-time administrative assistant in a small office. All of these jobs I found hugely exhausting and very very difficult. I would be struggling to drive home after a few hours at a part-time job, my eyes almost closing at the wheel. It didn’t matter how early I went to bed or how much exercise I took or how well I ate. I was just knackered. All the time. I finally went off sick from the last job, having, by this time, received a diagnosis of bipolar II disorder, and at the last meeting I had with my boss, the person from occupational health, and the personnel officer for the job, I was almost completely unable to speak. I had come to the end of my office work abilities.
Having failed as an academic, a schoolteacher, and an administrator, I had one last attempt at earning money for myself before succumbing to another cycle of hypomania and depression and breakdown. I answered an advertisement in the local newsagent from a woman who needed a cleaner one day a week. In some ways it was quite a good job. Although the pay was poor and I worked 5 hours without a break, I was often on my own, and I was quite good at it. It was hard physical work as I was expected to do the whole house, change beds, completely clean several bathrooms, and leave everything pretty much immaculate, often after the family had evidently spent a weekend partying. Eventually, however, 5 stone overweight from the quetiapine I was taking, my back and hip gave out under the pressure, sacroiliac pain radiating throughout my body, leaving me unable to walk, let alone clean an entire house in 5 hours. The woman also gave up work temporarily to have another child and I found myself having to cope with people around me and the new baby while I was working and it really wasn’t worth the pain and the triggering effect of the children in order to earn somewhere around what was minimum wage at the time.
By then I had a psychiatrist and a community psychiatric nurse. Both helped me back to some semblance of a life, and I gave up the idea of working completely because it was obvious by then that I wasn’t well enough. I recovered enough to do a part-time language teaching course, but the experience of the course left me needing months to recover. I started studying mathematics with the Open University in order to try to do something with my brain and, rather ambitiously, against all medical advice, did some supply maths teaching in a local secondary school. On the morning of my third day in the job I sat in the school car park in tears of utter exhaustion, knowing that it wasn’t going to work. I loved the job, I wanted to do it. I wanted to be out in the world, teaching, being part of something. But I just couldn’t. Every time I tried I just fell apart and felt so horribly horribly ill the whole time.
I have not worked since I left that job 6 years ago. For nearly a quarter of a century, while many of my peers were climbing some pretty impressive career ladders and becoming academics, businesspeople, scientists, professional musicians, headteachers, top administrators, and so on, I was sliding down my career snake. And no matter how hard I tried to climb back up the snake, the gravity was too strong. And every time I grabbed at a rung of an adjacent ladder, the rung broke and I slid yet further down the snake, before eventually falling off the bottom of its tail, onto the floor.
And it didn’t ever quite make sense why this kept happening, why I couldn’t keep the jobs. It didn’t add up that someone with my qualifications and evident abilities and absolute fierce ambition and desire to work and preparedness to graft and to put the effort in, couldn’t keep even the simplest of jobs. There seemed to be no reason why things just kept going wrong, time after time after time.
Even bipolar disorder didn’t explain it. My bipolar disorder is cyclic. I have hypomanic episodes every few years which lead to crashes into depression. Between those times I am usually stable, moodwise. I have also taken effective medication and developed strategies to help with managing my mood. The treatments and therapies I received for bipolar disorder did, in general, work for bipolar disorder.
But even in the stable times I was still getting sick, and sick in a different way, not a mood way, but an utter exhaustion and unable to cope and having to go off and be silent on my own sort of a way. In a way that has been a mystery for years.
Until I discovered I was autistic. And suddenly those things make sense. And all the failed careers and the lost jobs and eventual unemployment have an obvious cause. Throwing myself constantly into such busy overstimulating environments for years and years has, quite literally, broken me, over and over again. I never had a hope of doing most of those jobs – not because I’m lacking qualifications or not making the effort, but because I am simply unable to cope for extended periods of time in environments that are so hostile to me.