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

This is part 3 in a 4-part series on self-employment for people on the autism spectrum

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In business school, one of the first management skills you learn is how to do a SWOT analysis. SWOT stands for Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats. The idea is that by identifying internal (S and W) and external (O and T) positives and negatives, you can then set realistic objectives for a project or business.

Management 101 - the SWOT analysis (Creative Commons license, created by Xhienne |Permission= {{cc-by-sa-2.5}})
Management 101 – the SWOT analysis (Creative Commons license, created by Xhienne |Permission= {{cc-by-sa-2.5}})

Predictably, I have an issue with the way a SWOT analysis frames the “harmful” aspects of the model. I’ve found that weaknesses (and sometimes threats) can be just as helpful in achieving an objective as strengths. If you see a weakness as an opportunity to adapt, compensate or innovate your way around a problem, then that weakness is going to be helpful in the long run.

For example, because of my weaknesses in executive function, I’ve created all sorts of organizational systems and fail safes that make me far more organized at work than the average person. Not because I love being organized but because if I wasn’t super organized I would spend my days going in circles, accomplishing little. Out of necessity, I’ve taken a weakness and turned it into a super-competency.

So ignore the word “Harmful” at the top of the righthand column in the SWOT graphic. Weaknesses are challenges to be conquered, not obstacles to shrink from in fear. 

Okay, back to the topic I’m supposed to be writing about. To keep things simple, I’m going to lump strengths and opportunities together and call them the Potential Upside. Same for weaknesses and threats, which we’ll call the Potential Downside.

Notice that I said Potential. Just because a strength or weakness exists doesn’t mean it will dictate the outcome. You can be smart, talented, and hardworking and still fail miserably in business. You can also be a lying, cheating lowlife and succeed spectacularly.

There are a lot of factors at play and what I’m going to outline below are just a few of them. I’ve chosen to focus on are elements of being autistic that have had the biggest impact on my own experience. Like everything else in life, your mileage may vary.

The Potential Upside

The upside of being self-employed can be huge for aspies. Here are 8 of the biggest positives I’ve found:

1. Make your own rules: I’m not very good at following the rules. Inevitably, I come up with a better way of doing things. Honestly, it’s probably only a better way of doing things for me, because my brain is wired funky. The beauty of not answering to a boss is that I get to put my better way into action and make that the rule for me. I work more efficiently–and I’m happier–when I’m doing things in a way that makes sense to me.

2. Work alone: I think this is probably the most attractive aspect of self-employment for a lot of autistic people. Navigating the social aspects of the workplace is challenging and demands a lot of energy, energy that many of us would rather expend on doing actual work. I found working in an office with other people distracting and anxiety-inducing, even when I was the boss and could close my door on the rest of the office. Working alone means I don’t get interrupted, I’m not distracted by office chatter/noises, and most importantly . . .

3. Control your work environment: When you work alone you can control your work environment. This is critical for individuals who have sensory sensitivities or an unconventional work style. With a little planning and the right kind of business, you can structure your workday to accommodate your autistic traits in ways that would be impossible in a conventional workplace. If you’re an insomniac, you can work when you wake up in the middle of the night and nap when you need a break during the day. If you have tactile sensitivities, you can work in your PJs. If you need total quiet to concentrate, you can go all day without taking off your headphones. If you need to work two hours and take a thirty minute break to recharge, no one is going to be side-eyeing while you obsessively refresh Tumblr.

4. Do what you love: The deep knowledge and passion that develop around a special interest are autistic superpowers. Not every special interest can be turned into a marketable skill, but many can, sometimes in very unconventional ways.

5. Leverage your strengths: While much of the advice about employment and Asperger’s focuses on weaknesses, I think aspies have at least as many unique strengths as weaknesses. These are mine: detail oriented, risk taker, persistent, perceptive, consistent, outside the box thinker, excellent pattern recognizer, diligent, optimistic, forthright, nonjudgmental. If you have difficulty seeing the positives in your autistic traits, take look at Tony Attwood’s article on Aspie Criteria (scroll down the page a bit for a positively framed list of traditional ASD traits).

6. Expand your competencies: Being self-employed will encourage (or perhaps force) you to expand your competencies. I hate talking on the phone, but there are times when completing an important business task requires making a phone call. Over the years, I’ve learned some tricks to make phone calls less stressful (planning ahead, coming up with a script, phrases to signal that I’m ready to end the call). I don’t think I’ll ever enjoy things like meeting with salespeople or speaking in front of a group, but I’ve learned that I can get through these tasks with a reasonable amount of competency.

7. Put your self-teaching skills to work: You can go to business school or take courses at a community college, but a surprising number of business owners have never seen the inside of a B-school. There are a lot of aspects of owning a business that you can teach yourself, and happily, many autistic individuals are natural self-teachers thanks to years spent pursuing special interests. Among the things I’ve taught myself: bookkeeping, tax preparation, page layout, database construction, HTML and CSS, basics of Photoshop, and press release writing.

The skeptics among you will question how good I am at any of those things, which is fair. I did for a long time, too. When I finally got around to going to college, I took a course in writing marketing copy to see how well my self-taught skills would hold up to being graded. When the class did a press release writing assignment, the professor read mine to the class as an example of what a professional press release should sound like. It was a nice bit of validation, but not nearly as nice as all those times a newspaper or magazine picked up my copy word for word and ran it.

And that little bit of bragging leads me to my final point . . . .

8. Wallow in the glory: Being self-employed can be very validating. You make something or do something and someone else values that thing enough to give you money for it. There is a very direct connection between your skill and the reward. When you repair someone’s bike, they really don’t care if you did it at 4:00 AM, barefoot and shirtless while contemplating the similarities between binary and roman numerals. All they see is someone who can work magic with a derailleur.

The Potential Downside

First let’s be clear about one thing: two-thirds of small businesses fail within the first four years. The odds aren’t favorable. Being autistic throws some additional things into the mix that may make it harder for you to succeed. It’s a good idea to take a hard look at the potential pitfalls before you decide to try your hand at being your own boss. The good news is that I was only able to come with three downsides to go with my eight upsides.

1. The buck stops here: If you go it entirely alone, you’re going to be responsible for literally every aspect of the business. This can be extremely stressful at times. Some questions to ask yourself: How good are you in a crisis? How do you handle failure? What is your risk tolerance? How are your problem solving skills? How good are you at knowing when you’re in over your head and need to ask for help?

2. Long hours, hard work, few rewards: I always laugh when people say something like, “I’d love to have my own business so I could just take time off whenever I wanted.” Unless you’re fantastically lucky, getting your business of the ground will mean working longer hours for less pay than the average fast food worker. There were a few years when I worked full-time hours and paid myself nothing because I needed every last dollar to keep the business afloat.

Eventually, if you decide (and can afford) to hire employees or have a partner, you’ll be able to work more reasonable hours and take time off. Still, I don’t think I’ve had a real vacation in 25 years because even when I go away, I need to check in on the business, solve problems and generally make sure nothing is self-destructing in my absence. However, the rewards–both  monetary and intangible–can eventually be much greater than working for someone else. Keep in mind that there’s a big difference between a start-up and a going concern.

3. Executive Function Required: Executive functions include cognitive processes like planning, working memory, attention, problem solving, inhibition, mental flexibility, task switching, and initiation and monitoring of actions. Unfortunately, these are both some of the most essential skills for running a business and some of the things that aspies struggle most with. It’s important to know in advance where you are going to face the biggest executive function challenges and to have a plan for supports in place. This is not something you can solve on the fly.

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Part 4: Starting a Business Aspie Style (or What They’ll Never Tell You in Business School)

30 thoughts on “Pros and Cons of Being Self-employed When You’re on the Spectrum”

  1. I am so pleased to have read this. You have said things just the way they are, and it is refreshing to read. I love the fact that you have noted about how to get around some of these problems….. believe me, we all could take a note or two from this, it makes great reading for anyone but a good read for others with Asperger’s who may like the idea of going it alone. Thank you

  2. Just a comment on “following” the rules in an organization if you are working for a corporation and not self-employed…. My bosses (the good ones) figures out very quickly that I am really good at organizing and creating rules to get things done more efficiently and usually asked me to put those talents to use in organizing/streamlining areas in the company that weren’t running well. This always worked well for me since I was creating the rules I would be following! 🙂

  3. Good article! I run two businesses at the moment, one with co directors and one alone. I find the worst bit is business meetings and the amount of stuff I miss or mis-interpret. My advice to Aspie’s who are self-employed is to get someone else to accompany you to important meetings, just to get some post-meeting NT feedback to check that you correctly interpreted what everyone was saying.
    Musings you have written some excellent posts recently – you’re on a roll! 🙂

    1. Thank you! I’m in the habit of asking people to provide me with key information in writing after a meeting – like asking for an email summarizing important points or a written proposal based on what was discussed. That way I get a second look, in writing, at what the other person thought was important. Obviously, this is a lot more likely to be feasible when the meeting is with a vendor than when it’s with someone I’m pitching an idea to.

      Bringing someone along who you can debrief afterwards is a great idea. I think this is actually good for any business person, because everyone will key in on different types of information in a meeting or conversation.

      Also! I’ve started working on compiling some of my blog posts into a book! Your nudge last week got me thinking about it seriously and I now have an outline (dozens of sticky notes on the wall behind my desk) and an introduction. So thank you for the little push in the right direction.

  4. That was a very interesting read. I too have been self employed since I was 22. Though for the last five years I’ve been animating short cartoons (also a self employment gig) I’ve been cleaning houses and windows since Reagan was president. The positives you point out are so true. Working alone and ‘making my own rules’ has been great. I hear my wife speak of things that must be “office politics” where she works, and I just don’t get it. I don’t think I’d be popular in such places because I don’t know how to ‘play those games’ and would be sure to put my foot in my mouth on a regular basis if I were a cog in a machine.

    Since I never had employees, I’ve never had the headache of having to deal with any, and if anything ever went wrong, I had to face the music alone. I am a very good, loyal, prompt and reliable worker. My problem is that I am a lousy businessman and I too freely have worked for below market wages. Some people I’ve worked for have given me raises every year without me mentioning it. Others, would only give me a raise if I asked after 5 plus years (even in boom times). f

    In my current work (animation) I find that I can get overwhelmed by having so many decisions to make. I find that I’m much better when the task is clearly established. In animation, the tasks change with each project… which can be weekly. Often I can’t ‘find the handle’ of a new project for many days, even when the basics are right there for me to assemble… yet, once I get on a role, I really get into it and hate to be dragged away from it (even to answer the phone or worse, the door). 🙂

    1. These are great points about difficult areas. I’ve found that asking for a raise, or doing so indirectly by raising prices, can be really tough. It’s also one of those things that if you do it wrong (i.e. socially ineptly) it can make customers go elsewhere. :-/

      The getting started thing! I find that I need to ease into new projects and I’ve learned to not push to hard. I’ve even devised ways to “trick myself” into getting started on things. Like you, once I get rolling, I can work nonstop for as long as it takes and often finish much more quickly than would be expected. Which is good because it makes up for being a slow starter.

      1. This reminds me of a trick I heard for getting started. Task yourself to do that thing for just 5 minutes. 5 minutes seems manageable and undaunting. You have permission to give just 5 minutes and stop. Sometimes I even imagine whatever preferable thing I’m going to after 5 minutes. Then, once I’ve gotten started, darned if I don’t do the whole thing and maybe even enjoy it. I definitely enjoy crossing it off my To Do list. But I’m not going to pretend it’s easy to get myself to give the mere 5 minutes. Lol.

        1. I do something similar. Like I’ll open up a document that needs major edits and tell myself that I’m just going to read through looking for typos but of course once I get started I dive into the serious editing too. Or I’ll open a work file, intending to do some minor task on it and once I’ve done that my brain is “online” enough to tackle the next most difficult task and so on.

          I may try the five minute rule for a new project I’m having trouble getting started on each day, but I think I’ll set a limit of 30 minutes because that feels doable and like I could accomplish something even if I really only did 30 minutes at a time.

  5. I’m not sure I am an aspie, but have some tendencies. I am 56 and my husband and I have our own cleaning business. I really enjoy working alone (which we do most of the time). I like your blog and will be back 🙂

    1. And I look forward to reading more comments on this one as well:-) I strongly suspect more people will share their experiences with self-employment

      … – Survey idea! I don’t know if you are thinking to do any more surveys, but if you’d like to then I’d love to see a survey about self-employment with aspergers, asking previously or currently self-employed aspies about their insights & experiences. Like: When did they start as self-employed? Why? What type of work? How did they start (like, what did they do the first few weeks to get it up running)? Which marketing did they do? How did the first year go? Is the business still alive today? If so, has it grown? Do they have employees or are they solo / freelancing? How do they organise their business, what systems do they use and what are the pros and cons? Which 3 skills do they consider most important in their industry? Which are the 3 biggest challenges they encounter? In hindsight, is there anything they would have done differently?

      … and things like that.

      1. Oh, this is a great idea! I think it would definitely have to have an anonymous answering option because people might be reluctant to divulge too much information about a going concern so I could set it up like the other surveys. I think this is something I could do in the week after the final post in this series. Thank you for the suggestion.

  6. Thank you to Mados for sharing this. I appreciate that you’ve taken into consideration how weaknesses can work on our behalf if appropriating them wisely. I’m not an Aspie; however, I’m surprised at how many of these apply to me. Information like this is extremely valuable when it comes to encouraging and understanding students with Aspberger’s. Great article series.

  7. Thank you for writing this. As a very introverted person with lupus & a few other autoimmune related disabilities, I was able to relate to this piece in a way that I didn’t expect. Well done!

  8. BEcause I have done almost everything by myself, rather than hire a service, I haev nearly no idea of what other folks need or desire to have done for them. I don’t see “opportunities” and when I have an idea of a business I don’t find a follow through to marketing (how others would find the business useful) or to how I should make any money with the effort.

  9. Hello, I’m really enjoying your posts about self-employment, and I wonder if you’ve done one about the specific types of organisational systems you use for your work, or if you’d be willing to share any?

    I’m an Aspie and have pursued various self-employed side-projects to supplement my income, but I’d like to make my system more professional and efficient. I have the ability to make items people want and will pay high prices for, but I have a hard time organising information and tasks to the point where I can keep the sales rolling in regularly. My mind is easily drawn away from the more “businessy” aspects of business.

    Thank you very much for making these posts. I’m getting lots of ideas from them.

    1. I haven’t written anything specific but I do have a draft post about organization techniques. I’ll dig it out and finish it because I think others might find it interesting as well. Thank you for the encouragement!

  10. I’m an aspiring Aspie entrepreneur (no pun intended) and I plan on following the school of thought outlined in the book “The Four Hour Work Week”. A good portion of the book is basically a case study of how the author built his business by working 80 hour weeks for about 2-3 years to get it going and then outsourced and automated everything once he established his successful processes. His work hours dropped to about 3-4 hours a week and he ended up traveling the world as a vagabond and funding it with his business.

    I guess this model only works with online businesses rather than traditional ones but as an Aspie, I feel much more confident pursuing the former.

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