The Challenges of Being a Self-Employed Aspie

This is part 2 in a 4-part series on self-employment for people on the autism spectrum

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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). 

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Seeking Supports

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.

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Part 3: Pros and Cons of Being Self-employed When You’re on the Spectrum

25 thoughts on “The Challenges of Being a Self-Employed Aspie”

  1. I really love how this series is shaping up! It’s helping me to think more about what I am actually good at and what people would be willing to pay me for. The only thing that still scares me is standard of living, though. If I become self-employed, I don’t have a partner to pick up the financial slack if I can’t meet my targets.

    1. It’s a scary leap to make financially. I think most people who don’t have outside funding start off a small business while working another job, which is something I did for years (starting one business while running the other one full time). It can be grueling, especially in the beginning when things are slow and it’s easy to get discouraged.

  2. I’m not sure if I’ll ever want to be self-employed, but this is a lot of useful advice for those of us working a 9-5 job. I especially love the part about turning a special interest into a career. I’d always felt like I was missing something at my previous job, and it wasn’t until I tried to incorporate a little more of my special interest: drawing and music by decorating my cubicle or listening to music that I felt better. I’d love to turn it into a full-blown career (although it does require moving-where I live, there isn’t a really big music or arts scene business-wise)!

    1. I hope you can indulge in your special interest despite there not being much business in your area! Maybe you’re meant to be a ground breaker in that respect. 🙂 Drawing and music sounds lovely.

    2. I’m glad to hear there’s some useful stuff for those who aren’t self-employed too. This feels like a really narrow topic, which is why I held off for months on posting it.

      Bringing your special interest into your job in some way is a terrific idea for making work more pleasant, even when your job isn’t necessarily in an area of strong interest. I wonder also if there are times when a special interest is meant to stay just that? Like, I think if I turned fiction writing or even writing about autism into a business, I might lose some of the enjoyment in it. That kind of happened to another interest I had, although there were other factors that contributed to making it less enjoyable as well.

      1. @autisticook, Thanks! I’m looking into whatever arts organizations we have in the area and maybe I’ll start small and volunteer there first to see what the market needs 😉

        @Musings: Right! I know my limits with drawing and music-I’m pretty sure I can’t churn out enough songs and art without ruining the special interest for me. There was a composer named Charles Ives who found the right balance for himself: he worked at an insurance job in Prudential, but found spare time outside of work to make music. But I would love to work in a company in the entertainment industry. That would make me very happy.

  3. Oh, what the special interest thing has taught me as well, is to be FAR more tolerant of people who say they don’t really have strong feelings about the work they do. I always thought that they only said that because they hadn’t found a job in which they could be really happy. But since discovering the difference between how I enjoy my favourite subjects and how that baffles neurotypical people, I’ve realised that not everyone sees work the same way I do (hello, theory of mind!). So I’ve become far less pushy and insistent with others about how they should find a job they love. It just might not be that important to them.

    1. That’s a good point. I’ve always felt lucky to be able to make a living doing what I love, but my work is also a huge part of my life, much more so than I think is typical. I think there are also a lot of people who work mainly to earn a living and find their fulfillment in other areas of their life.

    1. Very good article! Thank you!

      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.

      It is obvious why executive function is fundamental when thinking about it for a few sec… Any company needs a secretary to manage the logistics of the company: organisation, scheduling, external practical communication, scheduling, make sure there are not conflicting commitments… and in a small company or freelancing with just one person, that person needs to be the secretary as provide whatever the professional services of that company is.

      That is why I am probably not really suited for self-employment… I can manage a schedule and complete tasks on time (mostly. If I manages to stay focused and there isn’t too much to keep an eye on) in my very independent, employed work. It is much harder to set up systems that work with more ad hoc and unpredictable type of projects. I’m an incredible poor starter when I don’t know how to start and some of the steps to take ahead are unclear. And I have a bad tendency to avoid work if it isn’t planned out step by step and I am sure about what to do in every step. That doesn’t go well with self-employment although some other things do.

      The social aspects that cause difficulty are sales and networking, mostly due to the noise levels and related challenges of traditional meeting places. That’s mostly an upstart thing I guess… When you’re newbie and have not proven yourself, you don’t have much power to choose and frame the situations you operate in – just have to take the opportunities that come up. Another one that was a huge hurdle when I tried to start up a small business with a partner a few year ago, was phone conversations. “Telephobia” and poor phone skills just don’t work with business, and being ready for calls at any time and always professional on the phone is essential. That problem is solved now (95%), except I sometimes struggle to hear what people say on the phone. My professional written correspondence is excellent.

      I like your focus on turning a special interest into a career (and also that probably some special interests aren’t meant to be careers). Can I ask if you have done that yourself?

      And I like your points about teaming up with someone with complementary strengths and weaknesses where you’re strong. That was my key survival strategy for team projects in uni. Unfortunately, people who are most complementary are also the hardest to understand and most incompatible in social needs, so it can be hard and frustrating, but definitely worth it both because their strengths are valuable, one’s own strengths are valued highest that way, and in the long run it is hard but good training in understanding the perspectives and needs of people who think very differently from oneself. (useful later in a lot of surprising ways)

      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 agree… It gives a focus and a clear role with a lot of scripts, which makes it very different from random casual communication.

      I really love that you have taken up this topic! and I look forward to continue reading this series.

      1. Very true. In a one or two person company, you have to be willing to do everything from cleaning the bathrooms to filling out the tax forms. There is definitely an element of self-starting necessary at the beginning and that can be rough. I tend to end up scaring myself into doing tasks by thinking about all the stuff that will go wrong if I don’t get them done, which can lead to an unhealthy sort of hypervigilance. Things become more routine once the business gets off its feet. I found that I gradually developed systems and routines for just about everything, which made life easier.

        I have to smile when I see people keep bringing up networking and socializing because I did/do so little of that for my businesses. I think it really depends on the field and the nature of the business. Also, there’s the possibility that my business might be more successful if I networked more, but I’ve found that for my mental health I need to strike a balance between what I can practically do and a reasonable level of success rather than going all out to be as successful as possible.

        For the social aspects that are undeniably part of the business, I’ve always relied on scripts. Most sales situations follow a pretty narrow course of interaction so a script works 90% of the time and gives me boundaries within which to navigate the encounters. Even very experienced sales people have scripts to keep themselves on message and be sure they’re moving toward closing the sale. The phone is still one of the areas of my work that I like least but I’ve managed to limit its use to a pretty good degree. If I were in a different field, that might not be possible, of course.

        I’ve twice turned special interests into careers. I didn’t know that’s what I was doing at the time but it was natural for me to gravitate toward areas where I had deep interests and knowledge.

        What you mention about teaming up with project partners with complementary skills at uni was something that got me through all the classes where presentations were required. I was always relieved to find someone who liked to “do the talking” and would happily volunteer to do as much research, etc. as needed. But it was often an odd team because we had such different personalities.

        1. It sounds like you have some very healthy business policies. With scripts, I used to be so panicked on the phone that I did really poor even with scripts. I’m fairly good at it now. And face to face too I think (my job has helped on that…)

          I can hear we’ve employed somewhat similar strategies to get through uni:-)

    2. @ Bev Leroux, I totally agree with that… It is a buyer’s market and not fun for the outsourcers, except maybe in some tiny niches and when you’re totally the best in your field and can churn out up-to-standard work really fast. It can be a good opportunity if you live in a third world country and have projects in rich countries, due to the difference in remuneration standards there VS living cost where you live. If you live in the developed world and has normal expenses like rent or mortgage, high food prices et.c… good luck.

    3. Yep, whether you can make money as a supplier on elance depends a lot on what field you’re in, where you’re located and what kind of standard of living you need to maintain. At first glance, some of the bids look really lowball, but that doesn’t mean they’ll be chosen. Many buyers are looking for something other than the lowest price and it is possible to get work if you’re higher priced but offer a corresponding level of skill/service.

      Just as an example, I looked at the writing category and 3 of the top 4 freelancers are US-based with rates between $44 and $75 an hour. So it’s possible to make money there, but it’s also highly competitive.

  4. Self employment is not for everyone, whether Autistic or NT. But for some of us who have difficulty fitting into a regular employment situation, it is a necessary option. The important thing, as you pointed out, is to partner with others who can help with the things you can’t do. Whether a spouse or friends, allies are important for Autistic people. They can especially be the social link for us.

    Thanks for the great post.

  5. I had never heard of Elance… took a quick look and saw a few things that look interesting… and the pay seemed fine.

    I like the term ‘telephobia’ I have that one big time. I HATE THE PHONE! 😀

    1. I think Elance is useful for freelancers in certain fields. For others, it’s super competitive.

      Telephobia is a great word. The phone is a necessary evil for me but I’ve learned to minimize how much I use it.

      1. Might sound like a great word, but literally it means “fear of things that are far away” (since telephone means “sound from far away”, telescope means “seeing far away”, and television means “images from far away”). So I would cry a little every time someone used telephobia just for fear of telephones. 😉

          1. Lol no, you can use whatever word feels like a good fit! I’m just being pedantic. Did you ever see that marvellous clip by Stephen Fry about being creative with language and stop being an utter bore about the “proper” use of words? It’s really lovely and I’m still stuck in the utter bore stage. 🙂

          2. To clarify: I come from a family where my parents came down on us like a ton of bricks for saying something like “Now I have to re-do that again”. We were supposed to say “re-do that”, or “do that again”. Tautologies not allowed! *giggles*

  6. I am formally undiagnosed but I know I’m on the spectrum and I’m a home improvement specialist (kitchen fitter, bathrooms, decorating, flooring etc) my big issue is planning and time management. Unless I’ve done the job loads of times – painting and decorating for example, I just struggle so much with estimating. Usually I err on the side of the client. or actually, I get it wrong and they benefit.

    I like the formal relationship between supplier and client – it has rules!
    Job? Cost! Money! Deal!

    And clumsy!
    Today, I’m in an empty room 16ft x 16ft. my tool tub is in the middle of the floor, clearly visible and easily avoided, I tripped over it. Screws and tools everywhere but I found something I thought I’d lost.

    My other difficulty is anxiety and isolation. I love to chat but I like to be on my own, I work mostly in empty houses and I hate being on my own, what you may call dynamic tension.

    In terms of socialising with the clients I have no problem with this but it is learned behaviour and I have a playbook I work from. If I have a client who has the ‘chatty’ button permanently pressed down I’m glad for a bit of peace.

    I’m good on detail, this is good in my job.

    I love working for myself and running a business suits my ASD skills, I don’t want to take any employees on and the thought of growing the business scares me.

    I love my little business. I provide great service and my customers become my friends.

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