Whilst I was at University, I encountered the oh-so-delightful statistic that only 16% of Autistic adults find themselves in stable full-time work.
That was terrifying.
There I was, second year of University being told constantly by so many of my lecturers that I was going to be so employable once I had my degree (and the old phrase “so many doors will open for you!” Got thrown around a lot too). Yet I had a statistic staring me right in the face and I was losing the staring contest (granted: as an Aspie; eye contact isn’t exactly my forté in the first place but you get my point!).
Only 16% what if I’m not in that 16%? This is literally telling me I likely won’t get work! In a panic, I ran to my mentor, my guide in life, my social guru and neurotypical translator…my mum. Spouting the statistics and my worries in a frantic babble of words empowered by a hyper processing brain and mouth: I looked to her for some kind of answer. “Paige you have to remember, the 16% will be people who will have high functioning Autism and Asperger’s, like you.” Her reassuring tone was present (at least I think it was…tones of voices is also not my forté), but I wasn’t convinced. Surely there was more people than 16% considered high functioning? And besides that surely lots more people on the spectrum must have skills, qualifications and qualities that could make them ideal employees somewhere? No matter the supposed functioning level? Then I thought to myself so what if it’s a low statistic. My Ehlers-Danlos made it so that it was a low statistical chance for me to ever walk unaided and now I do. It was a low statistical chance I would go to university and now I do. It was a low statistical chance that i qould be Autistic and have Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome and I do. I laugh in the face of low statistical chances!
Determined to make it another statistics to literally defy the odds of, I pushed it aside, pulled my University textbooks back towards me and set myself back to work. Year 2 went by, as did year 3 (in a haze of anxiety, Pepsi Max and countless study playlists of music and dealing with being socially demanded upon by people I wrongly thought were friends…a story for another time maybe). I sensibly walked up to retrieve my degree in sandals and watched my true friends nervously make their own walk in precarious high heels. My parents smiled, photos were taken and the air was vibrating with excitement for what comes next!
For me…work wise, the answer was not a lot. Initially I took a break as I had faced burn-out: my focus was gone and I was exhausted mentally from the strain of work and everything else. After about 3 months or so I began to look for work and had a partner by my side supporting me in this though it was hard especially as he wished for me to move in with him and I wished to have a stable job first in order to equally contribute to that.
I’ve lost count of my applications. My partner had helped me adjust my CV and even spent whole evenings with me hunting down job ads I could apply for. They all ended the same.
Ignored. Rejected. Apparantly “ghosting” isn’t just a new phenomena in dating but also in job seeking, and I was facing it more times than I cared to count. Sometimes receiving a rejection was nice just to hear back from someone and know where I stood! Once or twice I got to an interview only to still be ignored.
I don’t need to be neurotypical to know that’s just rude.
Then on the cycle went. Ignored. Ignored. Ignored. Rejected. Ignored. On and on. Breakdown after pep talk after breakdown. Then I got another beacon of hope when I applied for a teaching agency and they called me. I got an interview and then: I got the job! Result! I moved in with my partner at the reassurance of a stable workload and an eagerness to stop being held back.
Then when the enrolment process started going awry I started to worry. The process took months delayed by unreasonable document rejections and last minute requests (I got told “this is the last thing we need from you and then we can get you some work!” About 5 or 6 times). Finally I get to actually work only for more mess ups and stress and in the end despite technically working for them for about 3 months or so (should have been 5 but again the enrolment process took so long), I only actually had work for 3 of those days. Only one of which was paid. I didn’t even make enough money to make up for the amount I paid for my DBS check, it’s update list, or even my fuel costs. Enough was enough and I quit.
Months went by with more application failures, and less hope. I swayed between desperately thinking “I’ll find something tomorrow” and just wanting to cry. Or actually crying. I spent days hunched over my partners computer desk, multiple web pages opened for different job seeking sites and my emails flooding with their emails. I had two different job coaches to ask for help and I was mentally bracing myself to visit people for when the inevitable question of “have you found a job Yet?”. That changed a little when I started helping my mum by looking after my little brother whom was put on restricted timetable by a school that had promised they would be able to manage and cater support to him and his additional needs (my brother is also autistic), and then couldn’t. Then I simply looked for jobs through a laptop in between anything he needed from me.
Then one day I received a university job email. They was running a paid internship scheme for 6 weeks. With the memory of being rejected for 5 other job roles the university in the space of 2 minutes; I was skeptical it would amount to anything but still hopeful enough to try. Trying my best to use my job coaches suggestions and agonising over the application I sent it off, not even knowing what I truly applied for as it was the Universities choice whom I might work with. If I would work with any of them, that is. I got a call I wasn’t expecting, and a cheery voice answered saying they were part of the employability team in charge of the internship scheme. I had been matched with a company. In a daze I fought to keep answering in my polite phone voice, listening about the small company called Pop Press that was in Nottingham that was interested in working with me and about what they did and that they were really eager to try to help and work with with people on the spectrum (at which point the lady brought up how I had mentioned in my application looking after my little brother whom was on the spectrum). I felt a flash of panic wondering whether the people at Pop Press knew I was autistic and if it would bother them and then thought surely not if they want to help people on the spectrum? They’ll just have to help people on the spectrum with a person the spectrum. I agreed to take the job. I was nervous if I could actually do it though, after all I hadn’t had any kind of work in so long would I actually be able to do the job? But that was put to rest by friends,family, my partner and Steve and Ming; my bosses.
We met for the first time in a small cafe and I was instantly reassured. They already knew I was on the spectrum and in fact it was on of the reasons they wanted to work with me and was willing to support me. They checked to see if the environment was ok for me and not causing any kind of sensory overload? They asked how else my Autism affected me, the asked about me and wanted to know more about me and what I’ve done, what I enjoy, what I knew of their company…they saw me. Autism and all, and they wanted everything I had to offer. In turn they told me about their son, a fellow Aspie, and how he helped them see into a world they otherwise may not have, and the struggles we face, especially with trying to get a job and especially in the creative industries which they themselves work in. Pop Press specialises in letter printing, offering unique pieces and originally designed items; but Steve and Ming had bigger plans too not just for their shop but also the creative industry.
That’s where I came in.
They wanted to see why people on the spectrum get overlooked by the creative industries despite so many of us being creatively inclined. They wanted to see why our positive traits are so often overlooked and how we could get people to see that Autistic people shouldn’t be overlooked; but rather embraced, supported and encouraged in creative industries as well as others. So they asked me to produce a report on the problem along with possible solutions and resources that could help people as well as guidelines for how to help support Autistic people in the workplace.
At once, the gears in my head began turning, my brain mindmapping potential research routes, articles I had already read and/ or seen recently in social media, people to look at as examples…after so long of nothingness, I had an idea to latch onto and run with, one very close to home for me too. The more we spoke, the more ideas I got and the urge to start immediately became stronger and stronger.
I was tired of trying to fit in the 16%: tired of playing that game. So I was going to change the rules. I was going to work with Steve and Ming to change the statistic for everyone…and I had 6 weeks to do it.