This is the first in a 4-part series on self-employment for people on the autism spectrum.
Part 1: The Self-Employed Aspie
The majority of people with Asperger’s are either unemployed or underemployed. For an adult aspie, this is a scary statistic. It’s easy to hear it and feel like the deck is stacked against you.
In some ways it is. A job interview is heavily weighted in favor of social skills. Employees are generally expected to be team players. Often, getting ahead in the workplace is as much a matter of who you know as what you know. All jobs have rules, both written and unwritten, and employees are expected to follow them.
So much of what happens in a workplace is second nature to neurotypicals and a complete mystery to the average aspie.
Or at least I assume it is. My last workplace was a McDonald’s. I was eighteen.The expectations were low. As long as you didn’t steal from your register or hold the place up at gunpoint they didn’t fire you. I’m not exaggerating. Those were the only two things people were fired for in the year that I worked there.
So if you’re looking for advice about getting or keeping a traditional job–with or without Asperger’s–I can’t help you.
But if you’re curious about being self-employed, I have a lot of experience. I’ve been the owner or co-owner of a business since I was 19. I lucked into the first business–it was something my husband started around the time we got married. It made sense for me to help him out rather than going out and getting a job.
I had few marketable skills. Bagging groceries and manning a drive thru do little to prepare you for the working world, and a high school diploma isn’t exactly a door opener. Especially when you have a newborn baby to care for and can’t afford daycare.
Fortunately, what I did have was a decent amount of common sense, a lot of energy and a knack for teaching myself new things. I checked out some “how-to” business books from the library and learned how to do the things that I felt I could do reasonably well: keeping the books, filing the tax paperwork, setting up a computer database, making newspaper ads, tracking receivables, coming up with promotional ideas.
There was a fair amount of trial and error, but there always is in running a business. Contrary to what business schools would have you believe, very little about running a business is set in stone.
The Perfect Job for an Aspie?
I’ve noticed that whenever I mention being self-employed in the ASD community, other aspies have questions. How did I manage to start my own business? Do I like it? Do I recommend it?
Well . . . mostly by accident, yes, and maybe.
Like I said before, I married into the first business. The second one, the one that I started about four years later and still run today, was initially a hobby that grew into a way of making a living over the course of a few years. Both businesses involved long-time special interests.
I love having my own business. I’m also ill-suited for employment.
I like to do things my own way. I like working alone. I don’t take direction well. I have no idea how to dress for working in an office. I don’t understand office politics or schmoozing the boss. I think a lot of social conventions are superfluous and refuse to play along. I can’t stand explaining myself and have no patience for supervising others.
I thrive under pressure and have a high tolerance for risk. I’m intrinsically motivated. I have a lot of self-discipline. I love the freedom of hatching an idea and implementing it without needing to get anyone else’s approval first. In most workplaces, I would make a bad employee and an even worse boss.
But I make a great business owner.
Being self-employed is my ideal work situation but that doesn’t mean it’s an ideal situation for aspies in general. At first glance, it would seem to be. All the things I like about being my own boss are closely related to my autistic nature. Very few people enjoy spending eight or ten hours a day working alone. Few people enjoy eating, sleeping and breathing their work–which is a necessity if you have your own business, and a treat if you happen to be an aspie who has turned a special interest into a job.
Because I think most self-employed aspies will naturally gravitate toward starting a business or freelancing in a niche that involves a special interest, I’m going to approach the rest of this series from that premise. A special interest is perhaps the aspie’s biggest secret weapon when it comes to being self-employed.
Think about which of these business owners is more likely to be successful: the person who loves woodworking and learns how to run a business to sell her custom-made benches or the person who wants to start a business and decides to learn how to make benches?