This is part 2 in a 4-part series on self-employment for people on the autism spectrum.
Aspies are faced with some challenges that can make being self-employed very difficult. The two biggest potential roadblocks are issues with executive function and uneven social skills.
Executive function affects things like planning, initiation of actions, problem solving and attention switching. If you have poor executive function, the lack of accountability inherent in self-employment can be a recipe for disaster. I’ve developed a lot of systems to keep me on track and impose order on my work day–things like keeping lists, using a dayplanner, creating artificial deadlines, setting alarms, making notes to myself, and rewarding myself for meeting goals.
No matter what type of business you have (or what type of job you do), executive function is fundamental to staying on track on a day-to-day basis. If you can’t master the basics of managing a daily schedule and completing tasks on time, then being your own boss will probably make you more miserable than happy.
The other big challenge is social skills. While it’s possible to structure a business or freelance position so that you have very little contact with others, that isn’t always the case. Some common freelance/self-employed positions lend themselves to solitary work and others require a lot of contact with people.
For example, a website like Elance makes it possible for freelancers and small businesses to bid on and complete jobs entirely online. I’ve hired freelancers and gotten excellent work done without ever speaking with anyone over the phone or in person. If you’re skilled in a field that primarily requires creating deliverables (websites, graphics, text, analysis, code, etc.), you may be able to transact most of your business without a lot of face-to-face interaction (if you prefer).
On the other hand, turning your skill into a career may require you to interact with lot of people on a daily basis. If you’re an expert bicycle repair person, you’ll have to talk to people about their bikes to find out what work needs to be performed. But–oh–wait! I bet an someone with a special interest in bicycle repair would love nothing more than talking to people about repairing bicycles!
That’s another benefit to turning a special interest into a career. I find business-related interaction to be less stressful than general social interaction. If I’m talking to someone about a project then I’m in my element and can navigate the conversation fairly confidently. I’ve even been interviewed by writers for articles and books in my industry as an “expert” and actually enjoyed those opportunities. It was fun to talk about a subject I know well (even if the interviewers had to keep reminding me to slow down so they could understand me).
One solution to a weakness in executive function and/or social skills is finding a partner, mentor or adviser who can support you where needed. I’ve had the good fortune of partnering with my husband at times. We have polar opposite strengths so together we make a strong team.
If you decide to seek out a partner to work with, I think one of the keys is to emphasize what you can bring to the partnership over what supports you need. It’s important to find a partner who can offer needed support, but it’s equally important to feel like you’re a valued member of a team and not the weak link in need of babysitting.
Keep in mind that your strengths are just that–strengths. If you find a partner who has strong skills in sales and marketing, there’s a good chance he’s going to know far less than you do about database development or dog training or whatever your area of specialization is. Or you may find a partner who loves schmoozing clients but is allergic to recordkeeping, which you find rather relaxing. That partner will be just as happy to have found you as you are to have found her. She doesn’t want to wrestle with Quickbooks any more than you want to sit through a two-hour business lunch.
No one is good at everything. Play to your strengths and look for people who can support you where you need it.