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Autism in the Workplace (March 2023): Lives of Individuals on the Spectrum

By Gundars Kaupins

Lives of Individuals on the Spectrum

Biographies and autobiographies share stories to which many on the spectrum can relate. Each story highlights the early challenges individuals faced, the struggles in their career, and, most important, their successes. They show individuals who have excelled in their fields or industries. Some read like stories and others have some story elements combined with discussion of some major topics around autism.

Temple Grandin became famous for her success in promoting and developing the humane treatment of cattle going to slaughter. Her ability to see patterns in their behavior—one feature of autism—has made stockyards more efficient. Her life story has been shown in documentaries and books such as Sy Montgomery’s Temple Grandin: How the Girl Who Loved Cows Embraced Autism and Changed the World. Though a children’s book, this biography helps readers understand how the autism-related behaviors that stifled Grandin in her early life now enhance her life as a professor at Colorado State University and an advocate for those on the spectrum.

Grandin has been the subject of many biographies and documentaries and she has written several books, among them Different… Not Less, which is about 14 successful individuals in their fifties and sixties. These individual’s life stories have been influenced by their nationality, sexual orientation, and the industries in which they found success. They were bullied and scoffed at as nerds when they were young, and early failures were common. According to Grandin, there is hope for young people who feel that their condition will block them from having good relationships and a successful career. A chapter about registered nurse Anita Lesko shares her pre-employment experiences of being called bad names, facing social exclusion, learning to be kind to others, and gaining basic skills, like cooking. Her school years featured sensory overload and overly easy classes, but in her adult life she became a successful nurse and got married.

Herman Jansen and Betty Rombout’s AutiPower! Successful Living and Working with an Autism Spectrum Disorder shares stories of individuals on the spectrum and employers and professionals who help people on the spectrum. Through interviews, the authors discuss how those on the spectrum failed to obtain or stay in jobs. Overemphasis on attention to detail and reduced communication skills contributed to their failures. The most important characteristic of the book is the hope it brings to individuals and professionals by showing how people have successfully incorporated their strengths into their jobs and how others can help them.

In An Asperger’s Guide to Entrepreneurship, Rosalind Bergemann argues that individuals high on the spectrum (i.e., with Asperger’s) can go against stereotypes and be successful entrepreneurs. This book will guide people with Asperger’s in starting their own companies, and it gives helpful advice about business strategy, marketing, finance, and networking. It also includes biographies of entrepreneurs on the spectrum who have succeeded.

Based on research and including examples of individual success, Sarah Hendrickx’s Asperger Syndrome and Employment is another book that provides suggestions for both employers and employees on the spectrum. The emphasis is on the suggestions rather than the stories of individuals. The variance in the symptoms people on the autism spectrum present results in a large range of strengths and weaknesses, some of which explain why there is high unemployment among those on the spectrum.

Many individuals on the spectrum have written autobiographically about autism. These works shed light on the authors’ experiences growing up and pursuing careers while on the spectrum and are useful to both other individuals on the spectrum and neurotypical people trying to learn more about the lives of autistic people. Some autobiographical works discuss how to react to a diagnosis of autism and proceed with careers as a result. For example, Philip Wylie’s Very Late Diagnosis of Asperger Syndrome tells his experience discovering his diagnosis later in life. The benefits of this revelation include gaining awareness of his strengths and weaknesses, obtaining support services, understanding legal rights, finding employment, and understanding why past issues occurred. At the same time, meltdowns, confusion, anger, and relief can result from new interpretations of life experiences.

Mentioned earlier, Grandin is likely the most famous person on the spectrum who has written an autobiography. Coauthored with Richard Panek, The Autistic Brain: Helping Different Kinds of Minds Succeed shows the challenges Grandin went through as a child and the success she had in the cattle industry thanks to her strong visual memory. Beyond her autobiography, she presents the results of the genetic research linking autism to anomalies in the brain, which might affect behavior. She even details the results of her brain scan.

Malcolm Johnson’s Managing with Asperger Syndrome focuses on his experiences as a manager and the challenges that managers with autism can overcome in the business setting. His easy-to-read book contradicts the stereotypical impression that individuals with autism are not capable of being managers. He shares his challenges but also shows how his honesty and attention to detail made him successful.

David William Plummer’s independently published Secrets of the Autistic Millionaire documents tools, techniques, and strategies for becoming successful. Plummer reveals that a child he was bullied, tended to be alone, and stimmed by snapping his fingers while awkwardly walking. When he went to high school, he was labeled gifted. Using his failures and successes, he found his niche as a computer programmer at Microsoft. He created the Windows Task Manager and ZIP file support for Windows. He even has a world-record score in a video game. He outlines the characteristics frequently found in individuals on the spectrum that have affected his jobs, such as a resistance to change. This is an excellent read, covering Plummer’s early life, work life, and personal life. The only caveat is that Plummer is gifted in computer programming, which does not apply to everyone on the spectrum hoping to become a millionaire.

Two autobiographies of note examine the experiences of autistic women struggling and learning to fit into their social environments. Michelle Vines’s Asperger’s on the Inside looks inside her autism-related brain. She shares her feelings and thoughts about her life on the spectrum. Her failure to understand unwritten communication rules led to broken friendships and unprovable discrimination in the workplace. Finding solace in fellow “aspies” has helped her understand more about her challenges and how to work with neurotypical individuals. There is hope. And in Autism in Heels: The Untold Story of a Female Life on the Spectrum, Jennifer Cook O’Toole shares her story of trying to fit into a nonautistic world. O’Toole highlights the frequently overlooked women’s experience of autism. The ratio of men to women on the autism spectrum is about four to one, and most research and practitioner-oriented materials concentrate on boys and men partially due to this prevalence.¹ There is growing research on women on the spectrum, and O’Toole’s book provides anecdotal examples from her life that could be a launchpad of ideas for researchers. The book is excellent for general readers.

1.  Simon Baron-Cohen’s “The Extreme Male-Brain Theory of Autism,” published in Neurodevelopmental Disorders, edited by Helen Tager-Flusberg (1999), suggests that men tend to have the autistic characteristics of systemizing—e.g., finding patterns or following rules—but are less empathic than women. Higher levels of testosterone in the womb might contribute to autistic characteristics.

Works Cited