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From College to the Work Force

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I have the good fortune to be a friend of Dr. Temple Grandin. We have a lot in common. We are both autistic, and we share similar experiences in youth, which played a big factor in our adult life. We both started having jobs at a very early age. I’m quite sure everyone has heard Temple talk about her early days when her job was to greet guests at the door for her mom’s dinner party with her responsibilities to hang up their coats. Yes, it was a job. She was given a responsibility to carry out.

Among her numerous other childhood jobs was the one I, too, did for many years: mucking out horse stalls. In conversations with Temple on the phone, we’ve talked about those days spent shoveling out one stall after another in our teenage years. We both love horses and being around them. It was peaceful, and it was also a form of therapy. In essence, it was our occupational therapy.

All of the childhood jobs we did prepared us for the day when we’d start our careers. We were used to working, showing up on time, following orders from a boss, figuring out how to get a job done. It was just a normal part of our life. So, when the day came to embark into our careers, we really didn’t have to transition much into anything. We were pretty well already there.

Temple is world-famous for her life and career. She’s beyond amazing! She inspires everyone, autistic or not. Likewise, I hope to inspire people with my story. I’ve a lot to offer.

The statistics from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (2014) show that 85% of people on the autism spectrum are unemployed or underemployed. That’s a staggering number. I see this to be a very complex situation with multiple factors at hand. One of those factors can be changed by parents. Gets your kid working! Every little chore you have them do around the house is a job. Having them help you set the table, do laundry, tidy up: that’s all work. Once they are teenagers, jobs that have more responsibility are in order. Cutting lawns in the neighborhood, helping elderly neighbors, working at a fast-food restaurant—anything—will build the foundation for your child’s future in the workforce.

I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t working! As a young kid, my mom would have me helping her in the kitchen. She’d teach me the art of cooking and baking, and, under her close supervision she would give me little jobs to carry out. I would be “assigned” to gather all the ingredients for baking a cake. After I’d assemble everything on the counter, she would then stand by me as I would follow the recipe and mix up the batter. Of course, safety was always her first concern, so she would use the mixer until I was old enough to be able to safely handle it. Then I’d get to pour the batter into the pan, while mom would put it in the oven. She’s also take it out, and, once cool, I’d put the icing on the cake. I would feel very proud of my accomplishment! I’d be chattering away that whole time to her, as she was my best friend!

I fell in love with horses around the age of four. It became one of my “special interests,” one that has sustained my entire life. I desperately wanted to learn to ride. Unfortunately, my parents were unable to afford riding lessons for me. When I was twelve, I became a “working student” at a nearby stable. In return for work, you could earn riding lessons. I became quite proficient at mucking out stalls. The more I shoveled, the more riding time I got. I dreamed of jumping horses over big fences in competition. My dream eventually came true, because, by the time I was sixteen, I was jumping horses over six-foot-high fences in some pretty big shows. It was my hard work and perseverance that got me there.

During all those summers and weekends spent at the stable, I not only mucked out stalls and other things like painting fences, picking rocks out of pastures, emptying trash bins, etc. As a result, I was interacting with people, learning to follow orders, knowing the importance of showing up on time, getting a job done, and feeling pride in my accomplishments. Little did I know that all of those things were preparing me for my “real” job.

Once in college, I held a variety of other great jobs! I worked as a graphic arts designer at my undergraduate college, which I did for the four years I was there. I also worked as a skate guard at a public ice skating arena. I loved dancing on the ice , so for a number of years, I worked at the arena because it allowed me to get free ice time for practicing. That job also entailed selling tickets at the window for the public skating sessions as well as making popcorn and hot dogs in the snack shop, and other sundry tasks! Again, these jobs were preparing me for my future.

In 1988, I graduated from Columbia University in New York City with my Master of Science in Nurse Anesthesia. I then took my board exam and embarked on my now 26-year career as a Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist. I’ve been working full time ever since, in a job that’s not for the faint-of-heart.

The Operating Room is a very fast-paced, ever-changing, high stress environment, loaded with massive sensory violations! Most significantly, I’m floating in an ocean of neurotypicals, as I call them! I would have sunk long ago if I had not had all the life experiences of those jobs I’d done in my younger days. I would not have been prepared to interact with people, situations, and the job itself. To date I’ve done over 50,000 anesthetics, and, as I’ve carefully calculated, I’ve  interacted with over one million people. That’s a lot, but, in particular, for an autistic person, that’s a miracle!

My specialty area in anesthesia is neuroanesthesia, which is anesthesia for neurosurgery cases, like aneurysm clippings, brain tumors, spinal fusions, and more. It’s highly detailed and complex, which, actually, is just what an autistic person loves!

When I see articles about transitioning from college to work, I think there shouldn’t be a transition, which there really wouldn’t be if that work experience was already in place. Working at a job and all that comes with it needs to be second nature by the time you’re actually looking for a real job. If it isn’t, life will be very stressful and possibly even unsuccessful.

Those 85% of us on the autism spectrum who are unemployed or underemployed might have had a different story if they were prepared to enter the job market by having “jobs” in their homes, school, and community before they graduate from high school. If you have never worked any kind of job as a kid and teenager, it’s going to be hard to figure out a substitution for that lack of life skills when you’re, basically, expected to be independent.

Being autistic and working at a career-type job is like going to a foreign country, not speaking their language, and trying to survive. To this day, all these years later, I still feel like a foreigner in a strange land. Yet, I’ve built enough experience and have “learned the language” enough to stay employed and have a successful career. I know without a doubt in my mind that I would never have made it as an anesthetist had I not had all my previous jobs.

This is a fact that I want every parent to listen to. Please take away from this article that you must get your autistic kid working! Keeping them sheltered would be the worst thing you could possibly do. It prepares them for failure. There is only one way to become skilled at socializing, learning responsibility, and learning to work, which is to get out there and work. The more an autistic individual interacts with others, the better they get at it. Therapists, counselors and the like all have their places in helping those on the autism spectrum, but nothing can substitute for real life experiences. Nothing.

Upon completion of college, going out and seeking a job shouldn’t be a first-time experience. Having to learn a new job is stressful enough. If you are prepared ahead of time with years of life experiences, you will be able to use all your energy to focus on the job. If you are now just having to learn how to interact with people, how to follow orders, how to get along in the workplace, it will seem insurmountable.

It is a parent’s duty to help prepare your autistic child for their future by giving them jobs around the house as a kid and, then in their teen years, getting them out there doing something, anything. Real life experience can only be learned by first-hand experience. Sure, your kid will make blunders. I’ve made plenty and still do! But I keep going. And they will too. It will be the best “therapy” you can ever give your child. Help him to have a job so he will be able to support himself for the rest of his life.


Anita is a Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist, specializing in anesthesia for neurosurgery. She is also an internationally published military aviation photojournalist.


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