An Autistic Adult’s Guide to Getting Hired: Should You Base Your Career Search on Your Special Interests?

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The popular press and several autism-parent groups often express enthusiasm for the hiring options of autistic adults.  When these aren’t about announcements from companies like Microsoft of plans to hire specifically autistic people, they’re often couched in terms of autistic “special interests” as a job strength.  “Encourage your kid’s special interests!” these enthusiasts say.  “They’ll lead to a job later on!”

As well-meaning as this approach sounds, it’s (a) simplistic, (b) oblivious to the realities of how hiring actually works, and (c) lacking in understanding of what special interests are and how they operate.  Here’s why limiting your job search to your special interests might be a bad idea:

1. Special interest burnout.  Some special interests last a lifetime.  Others don’t.  It’s often not possible to predict when or if any particular interest will “burn out.”  Do you really want to be stuck in a job whose topic now just mocks you every day with how luminous it used to be?

2. Not all special interests are job-transferable.  I, for example, can quote twenty seasons of The Simpsons from memory, thanks to my longstanding special interest in the series.  This is not a marketable job skill.

This illustrates a related point for parents: encouraging special interests on the grounds that they’ll “lead to a job later on” is counterproductive.  My twenty-year special interest in The Simpsons provided stability, predictability, a site of common interest with friends, and a great deal of joy during my upbringing – but had my parents tried to limit it on the grounds that it was “not marketable,” I would have lost all those things.  Had it been marketable, pressure from my parents to “get a job in it” would have probably caused burnout, once again depriving me off its benefits.

3. “Special interests” are not the same thing as “skills.”  Yes, you need deep content knowledge to do certain jobs – but overwhelmingly, employers are looking for skills, not subject matter expertise.  As a rule, the job market assumes that you can learn any content you need as long as you have the skills.  In fact, most employers prefer that you come in with a strong skill set, rather than deep content knowledge, because most employers want you to approach the content in the way they see it – which may not be the way you see it.

4. Not all autistic people have “special interests.”  So-called “special interests” are very common among autistic people – but not every autistic person has one.  Some autistic people never have a deep and abiding love for any particular content area or activity.  Some have a deep and abiding love for a content area or activity in childhood, but not in adulthood.  Some “flux” in and out of this state at various times in their lives, for various reasons, and under various conditions.  Special interests are neither stable nor universal.  Trying to build a career path on a thing you think you “should” have but don’t leads only to failure.

Fitting Special Interests Into the Job Search (or Proceeding Without Them)

Although finding the right job isn’t as simple as following your special interests, there’s definitely value in mining them for ideas to pursue in the job search.  Here’s what to ask:

1.  Which of my special interests are actually skills, or actually involve skills?

I’m hyperlexic and hypergraphic; in a sense, my longest and most enduring “special interest” is language.  Reading, researching, and writing are skill sets.  Sure, I’ve got an astonishing depth of content knowledge related to them, but usually, what I’m marketing to employers or clients is the ability to write their content into being, not the ability to write about writing.  They supply the content or concepts; I supply the text.

This is one place in which Temple Grandin’s example is also instructive.  As pretty much everyone who has read anything about autism knows, one of Dr. Grandin’s longstanding special interests is animal behavior and animal welfare.  (She’s even written a book on it.)  But her skill at engineering and design is what allowed her to direct that content knowledge into a viable career path.

When inventorying one’s special interests for potential career options, ask not only what the content of each interest is, but what skills are involved.  Skills are transferable in a way that content isn’t.  More importantly, skills are marketable in a way that content isn’t – even in the bona fide “professions.”  For instance, as any lawyer will tell you, law school teaches you the skills needed to be a lawyer; it does not teach you the content of the law.

2.  When I was a kid, what did I picture myself doing when I grew up?

I add this one not only because it’s great advice for just about anyone seeking a career path, but because for autistic people, it can provide an “out” from expectations that you would grow up either with a so-called “real job” (a 9 to 5 that had nothing to do with your actual interests or strengths) or with no job at all.

Autistic adults are woefully un- and under-employed.  As a demographic, we are un- or under-employed out of proportion to the number of us who can actually handle a full-time workload.  There are a lot of reasons for this, but one of the big ones is that, while we can often handle a full-time workload, we often cannot handle it in the traditional 9-to-5 format.  Being able to work full-time isn’t the problem; being able to do it in the way our brains and bodies manage it best is.

Around age nine, I decided that my ideal living situation would be to move to a cabin in the north woods of Michigan and work as a writer and editor, communicating with the world via fax machines and the U.S. Postal Service.  (ISPs had only just come on the scene, and email was not in regular use.)  This image stuck with me for decades, despite the adults in my life disabusing me of the notion that it was a “real job” fairly quickly.

Around age 27, suffering from autistic burnout and confined to bed with a severe fatigue disorder, I started a freelance writing business from my laptop.  It wasn’t until a few years later, writing from that same laptop at a campsite in Tahquamenon Falls State Park, that I realized I had started the business I’d begun dreaming of when I was nine.  I could have done it ten years earlier if I’d only listened to myself instead of believing that a “real job” was only one in which I sat in the office of some employer for a specified number of hours per day.

Many autistic people spend a good deal of their lives hearing that their intuitions are incorrect, impossible, or nonsensical.  Over time, that voice becomes internalized.  Dumping it takes work – but sometimes, that work is the only way to get ourselves onto a career path we can handle.

3.  Network autistically.

Unfortunately, networking matters.  You can land a job “cold,” with no contacts prior to a general job posting (I’ve done it twice), but it’s very difficult and it is not how the vast majority of human beings land jobs.

The trick to networking while autistic is to network autistically.  For most of us, that means beginning via social media.  The good news is that most industries have finally caught on to the idea that one can find talented people via social media.  Since most autistic people find writing, social media, and the Internet to be much closer to our “native language” than in-person communication, the fact that social media hiring is Officially a Trend now puts us at a huge advantage…if, like anyone else, we know how to leverage it.  (Added bonus: this is where your special interests can hella pay off.)  I’ll cover this in detail in my next hiring-related post.

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3 thoughts on “An Autistic Adult’s Guide to Getting Hired: Should You Base Your Career Search on Your Special Interests?

  1. This is really fantastic and I’m only a little upset that I didn’t read it 10 years ago. 🙂 I made the mistake of putting all of my work experience and education into my special interest for the first few years of my adult life. Burnout happened around the time I graduated university and it took me a long time extrapolate my skills without feeling like I was still tied to my SI.

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  2. Ugh, thank you–I just groan when I read advice to parents that goes “nurture your child’s special interest–it’ll lead to a job!”

    All autistic obsessions (I detest the term ‘special interest,’ sorry) are not created equal…some are very transitory, some are made up of very specific and narrow fixations, and some are wonderful for reasons that are private or particular in ways that don’t translate into something marketable.

    A deep and abiding obsession certainly *can* turn into a job, even in a narrow subject area. (I nearly always felt an undeniable pull towards performance, that, while it wasn’t expressed as an obsession in typical ways, did eventually lead me to a career in theater.) But this pressure to turn an obsession into your career…it follows straight from the same drive from many parents and professionals to turn *everything* into an autistic child’s life into therapy, and it’s not fair, and so very draining to have everything you love or enjoy be under that kind of scrutiny. We deserve joy and relaxation, mental privacy, and to love things just for their own sake as much as anyone else.

    I think the better advice is probably to pay attention to where someone’s natural talents lie, and where those overlap with interests, AND leave room for someone to grow… but ultimately, it’s alchemy that there’s not really an equation for when it comes to what you should be doing.

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  3. Thanks for writing this. I’ve heard the advice about getting a job related to your special interest and it made me feel inadequate because my special interests aren’t things that give me any useful work skills.
    I’m starting to dislike the term ‘special interest’ as well but I don’t know what to say instead.

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