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Work Challenges for Autistics

Autistics have some real advantages over the rest of the population when it comes to things like pattern recognition, and problem-solving.  However, we have real difficulty entering the job market, sustaining our employment, or creating our own work as entrepreneurs.

Last week, a fellow from a local technical-business incubator spoke about entrepreneurship for autistics.  Unfortunately, his talk was a review of the advantages and disadvantages of being an entrepreneur from the view of the general population, and didn’t reach into the specific challenges (or solutions) for autistics.

As a result, I’m hunting for answers, but would like to frame the questions clearly.  I’d love your help.  If you have anything to add to this list of specific challenges for autistics, or any reframing to suggest, I’d very much like to hear from you.  Either leave your comments below, or leave a message on my Facebook page.

1) Prioritization and Sequencing:

Autistics are skilled at both seeing the big picture, and at seeing how all the tiny details fit into that picture, all at once. Which venue we’ve developed this skill in depends on our specific “special interest”s. However, all things can seem equally important from this holistic viewpoint. Choosing which ones to put in place, and in which order, is very difficult for us. Are there Apps, questionnaires, or other tools to help us do this, regardless of our interest area?

2) Isolation and Communication:

Many of us autistics are much more isolated than the rest of the population. Part of this is the fear, avoidance, and misunderstandings which arise from our symptoms and behaviours, and part of this is our difficulty in understanding the subtext in conversations. When something isn’t clearly spelled out in terms of expectations, special concerns, etc., we can miss or mix messages. This is of particular concern when communicating about the value of our work, whether for fundraising, or for marketing. Most advertising is based on principles of manipulation we have little hope of understanding (fortunately, this type of advertising is becoming less successful overall, as misleading statements are wearing out their welcome). Specific training in communicating value, and getting details ironed out before starting a task or contract, would be extremely helpful.

3) Stress and Anxiety:

If there’s an Achilles’ heel, this is it. Most of us are dealing with significantly greater stressors (environmental, physical, health, social) than the rest of the population. The ways that we manage and cope with that stress are shamed and criticized as “stimming”, so those of us who have the capacity to do so hide these activities while we’re in public, adding significantly more stress through the increased effort of not supporting our nervous systems. In addition, many of us believe that we’re bad, wrong, and not good enough in such a deep way that, even when we try to combat it cognitively, it shows up.

4) Structure:

Few of us have concepts of time that are easily related to our actual experiences of time. We cope in two ways: we either become extremely regimented and upset when we’re off-schedule, or we are constantly struggling with when things start or stop, and how to initiate or wrap things up. While this, like prioritizing and sequencing, is an executive brain function, it’s one that is particular poignant. When we stop things, it can take us a long time to sink back into where we were when we interrupted the task. As a result, given our druthers, we’ll do that single task until it’s finished, often skipping meals and breaks. Creating some kind of planning mechanisms to take this into account, set out snacks that won’t interrupt… there has to be a way to adapt for our MO.

5) Boundaries:

When any or all of your senses are taking in much more information than the rest of the population is, things like chatting in the next booth, ticking clocks, etc. can be very distracting. But the sense that is most often ignored by our culture is the one that recognizes emotions. We autistics have difficulty understanding where we begin, and others end. When there is a prevailing negative emotional climate, we struggle not to express that emotional climate through our actions, or struggle to shut that climate out by focusing on a single thing to the exclusion of everything else. Since social health and hygiene is not taught, it would support us a great deal to have a training package for people who want to access our gifts, but need to understand different cultural rules for relating, including emotional climate moderation.

6) Sick Buildings & Sensory Issues:

Particularly in North America, we have gotten caught up in the idea that “Cheap is Best” for construction, for personal care products, and for many other things. What this means is that highly toxic, neuro-disruptive, or hormone-disruptive chemicals are creating indoor air pollution which is orders of magnitude more harmful than the outdoor pollution we receive smog alerts about. This indoor air pollution is partly architectural/ interior design, partly office/ work supplies, but is mostly related to the laundry and other personal grooming habits of the people around us. For a single example, the fragrance from easily-available, anti-static, dryer sheets is profoundly neurotoxic (Environmental Working Group, Skin Deep Database, ewg.org). Toxins use up potassium, and the lack of potassium aggravates sensory sensitivities, making them stronger. In common english, we call this a “hangover”, usually related to overindulgence in alcohol, but easily relatable to all toxins.

7) Risk:

When a Canadian autistic has difficulty getting work (trouble with interviews, etc.), the standard response is to register for ODSP, a monthly disability allowance. This takes a while to come into effect (months, usually). If a temporary or contract job is acquired, taking income over a certain, very-low threshold, the ODSP is discontinued and must be reapplied for. This puts independent autistics at considerable risk of losing any assurance of continuity in food and lodging, if they take any work. As a result, the risks are much, much higher for autistics who wish to try out an employment or entrepreneurial opportunity. We are much more likely to be let go at the end of the trial period or have difficulty with sales of our offerings, and with the jobs accessible to us being mostly low-tier, may not have savings to tide us through while ODSP is re-instated – IF it’s reinstated.

Have I missed anything?  Can I be more clear, in what I’ve attempted to cover?  Your thoughts are most welcome…

Thanks, Jackie


  1. Hi Jackie

    I suggest you have a look at my newly release book ‘An Asperger’s guide to Entrepreneurship’ available through Jessica Kingsley Publishers. All thes points are covered and more.


  2. Pat O'Connor says:

    Hi Jackie,

    Great Article!
    I was wondering if I could post your article on my website page and use it in my Transition to Life course for young adults with AS?

    • Jackie McMillan says:

      Hi Pat,
      I’d be happy for you to use my article for your training, especially if you’d be willing to ask your young AS adults their opinions on whether I’d covered everything they feel is important to their own capacity to do projects or work in their own special interest areas! I’d love to hear from them…
      Thanks, Jackie

  3. patricia elaine chandler says:


    First, Thank You! For putting this comprehensive list together about the employment environment and being autistic, from Your perspective.

    You need to stop categorizing and thus future stereotyping “AUTISTIC behaviors” as you are, because it leads to cementing and solidifying those stereotypes, which ultimately leads to stigma, bullying, abuse and out and out right refusal to let Us “sit at the table”.

    As an entrepreneur, you do not have to follow any of the already standard, normative rules and regulations because the very nature of entrepreneurship is to build and steer your Own Ship!

    I know, because, I was part of Global Corporate America for 23 years; 20 of those in Clinical Trials R&D working the specialty area of Clinical Data Management from entry level to interim Director, Without a college degree.

    Now, I am steadily working on completing my degrees in psychology, sociology and psychology to build my Own Foundation and International University, in order to support Neurodiversity, because That is Who we really are.

    And lastly, to show my authentic commitment, beyond these mere electronic words, I would be willing to work with you for Free, to help you “Get Beyond The Label”, in your employment, training and entrepreneurial pursuits, as my first Client 🙂

    My greatest and outstanding achievements in the employment and office environment was in Managing Others. Today, many of the Life Science companies are Still using my methods, and all, except Me, are profitting from my invention from 1991. That is also why I will never work for anyone every again. Why should I???!!!??!

    Brooklyn NY
    (347) 856-8478
    Student at CUNY John Jay College of Criminal Justice | Pre-Law

  4. Autism@Work is one of my specialties. You have highlighted many good points. I assist employers, fellow employees, and persons diagnose with autism in recognizing talents and incorporating strategies that work for all.

  5. Great article and your list of issues is spot on. I think issue number one, prioritization, can really hang up a lot of people who are entrepreneurs. I found this tool online and it may be helpful. It was developed by a person who appears to have a great deal of marketing skills. Helpmeprioritize.com

    But entrepreneurship can really be a wonderful option for people who have difficulty with social communication, stress and anxiety, and sensory issues. You work with whomever you want to work with, you control the hours that you work, and you control the environmental factors as well.

  6. Mansura Yusuf says:

    Hello Jackie,
    It is always inspiring to read your evaluations. It has the ‘personal touch’ in them.
    The points have been laid out beautifully.
    The aspect of inclusion in reality should be a key factor.
    The option of open mindedness and taking each person as an individual.
    This goes for neuro-typical or facing any challenge.
    If we can turn the wheel to progress of seeing the sincerity in responses as opposed to ‘selling oneself’ to the organization. One who is good with words and thoroughness in reviewing the organization will fly away.
    The one who is willing to take that extra mile will usually not include that in typical responses, for it is second nature to them!.
    I hope this helps.


  7. Bice says:

    Thank you for your clear explanations of the challenges.

  8. Rachal Bales says:

    Hi, I recommend the series of video blogs by Brian King which can be found at http://www.succeedwithadhdanyway.com. He tackles a lot of issues for kids and adults on the spectrum, both at home and work/school. Also, the Autism Discussion Page on Facebook posts strategies and interventions that are positively brilliant. He recently published two books that summarize all of his posts.

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