Working While Autistic: How Internships Can Help
“How did you manage to get fired from an unpaid internship?” my daughter’s former boyfriend asked me, laughing. But for me, it was no laughing matter. I was trying to reenter the regular workforce after the magazine I’d edited for 16 years had gone out of business and it became clear that I would not be able to support myself as an author. I’d interned for a month with a brand-new literary agency — mostly handling social media — in the hope of one day becoming an agent myself. But even before the social media misstep that cost me the internship, I’d come to realize that neither the internship nor the career path was going to work out.
I admire and respect my agent, Ellen Geiger of the Frances Goldin Literary Agency, who has represented me since 2010, but I know now that I could never do what she does. Being an agent requires complex social skills, ranging from handling high-strung and demanding authors to forging genuine connections with editors in a variety of literary genres. I’m sure my encyclopedic mind would have helped me greatly in terms of matching the manuscripts I read with editors and publishers likely to appreciate them. But, as I’ve found with my own work, editors don’t read all submissions in the order in which they’re received. They give preference to authors and agents with whom they’ve worked before and feel comfortable working with again. Personal connections play a big role, and making those personal connections is one of the biggest challenges I face as a person on the autism spectrum. I would also worry about saying the wrong thing to an author and cause them to part ways with me. I have a tendency to be too abrupt and not to keep lines of communication open as much as I should.
In addition, this particular internship lacked structure, in large part because my mentor was feeling her way into a new field. I don’t do well without structure. For instance, if I didn’t have a commitment to publish 5-6 blog posts a month, I probably wouldn’t publish any. A general request to promote something on social media might get me to tweet one time, or post a discussion question on a Facebook page but without instructions to, say, “promote x contest on Twitter every two hours from 10 am to 10 pm for a full week before the contest closes,” I wouldn’t know what to do.
In her piece “Transition from School to Work,” Temple Grandin recommends a gradual transition to the work world via internships. And many high schools, 2- and 4-year colleges, and universities have responded to the challenge of autistic students entering the work world with carefully designed internships that lead to regular, full-time employment. After my introductory piece earlier this month, Pilar López at Bellevue College in Washington State sent me information about the Associates Degree in Occupational & Life Skills that her 2-year college offers to students with developmental and learning disabilities, including autism. The internship, comprising the students’ last semester, places them with companies, government agencies, or nonprofits in the Seattle area, chosen for their compatibility with the individual student’s interests and course of study. The process of arranging placements is hands-on and thorough, as López writes:
I set up the internships with the businesses once I know my student’s skillset and needs and accommodations. I don’t apply for corporate internships that are cookie cutter and inflexible to their needs. I research the businesses in the career path my student is interested in, I visit the environment, interview future coworkers and supervisors and then decide if the environment would work well for my student and if the learning that they need can happen there.
The OLS program staff and the work supervisor offer frequent and specific feedback, highlighting areas of strength and places where the intern needs to hone skills. In general, challenges for students have to do with executive functioning skills, self-awareness, and critical thinking. But the jobs in which students succeed do so because they provide a lot of structure and are tailored to the student’s strengths. The OLS placements include manufacturing, customer service, e-commerce, software testing, clerical work, and culinary arts. López writes that 45 percent of the interns continue as employees at the firms where they worked as interns, and, in all, 85 percent are employed full-time six months after graduation, at these or other businesses.
I asked López about follow-up, because autistic students who flourish in the structured academic environment environment of the university (as I did) can flounder as work and life in general become more complicated and demanding after graduation. She pointed out that most of her students have been in the system already, so that there’s a handoff of responsibilities from the OLS program to Vocational Rehabilitation services and the counselors there.
A principal way autistic adults end up falling out of the workforce permanently over time is that they lose a job that they’ve had for a while, either for economic reasons (a layoff or business closing) or a run-in with a supervisor that gets them fired. On top of not working, there are additional obstacles to finding work, such as loss of job search skills (something that affects most people who find themselves out of work after many years), networks that are underdeveloped or poorly maintained, and negative references from previous employers. I asked López if her program has addressed this issue, and she wrote, “Funny you ask! We are right now working on developing a Follow up program to refresh job searching and interviewing skills though our Continuing Education department.”
Continuing Education departments around the country can be good sources for autistic adults seeking to re-enter the work force after a job loss or time away to deal with health or family issues. I hope that more of those Continuing Ed departments will create specialized programs, with coaching and internships tailored to utilize the talents and meet the needs of the diverse future employees on the autism spectrum.