Woman sweeping stable.

How Childhood Jobs Prepared Me for Success as an Autistic Adult

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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 a very similar youth that played a big factor in our adult life. We both started having jobs at a very early age. Temple often talks about her early days, when her job was to greet guests at the door for her mom’s dinner party, and take their coats to hang up. 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 of our teenage years spent shoveling out one stall after another. 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 regular part of our life. So when the day came to embark into our careers, we really didn’t have to transition into anything. We were already there.

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

Statistics 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. One of those factors can be changed by parents. Getting 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; it’s all working. Once they become a teenager, jobs that have more responsibility are in order. Cutting lawns in the neighborhood, helping elderly neighbors, or working at a fast-food restaurant can build the foundation for a 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 stand by me as I followed the recipe and mixed 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, mom would put it into the oven, she’d 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 to her during that whole time, as she was my best friend.

I fell in love with horses around the age of 4. 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 12, 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 16, 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 did other tasks like painting fences, picking rocks out of pastures, emptying trash bins, etc. 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 myself. Little did I know that all of those things were preparing me for my “real” job.

Besides the stable job, once in college I held a variety of other great jobs. I worked as a graphic arts designer at my undergraduate college for the four years I was there. I also worked as a skate guard at a public ice skating arena. I was into ice dancing for a number of years, and because I worked at the arena, it allowed me to get free ice time for practicing. That job also entailed selling tickets at the window for the public skating sessions, 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 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, as I call it, I’m floating in an ocean of neurotypicals! I would have sunk long ago without 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, particularly for an autistic person.

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, just what an autistic person loves.

When I see articles about transitioning from school to work, I wonder why the transition is always such a big deal. I believe work experience should start early and be part of education. Working at a job and all that comes with it should be second nature by the time students graduate. If it isn’t, life will be very stressful, and possibly even unsuccessful. Those 85% of us who are unemployed or underemployed might have had a different story if they were prepared to enter the job market. If you have never worked any kind of job as a kid and teenager, nothing can substitute for that lack of life skills.

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 “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 if I hadn’t had all my previous jobs.

I hope every parent will recognize the importance of teaching their child the skills to succeed at work. Keeping them sheltered is not helpful, and can set them up for failure. The only way to get skilled at socializing, learning responsibility, and learning to work is by getting out there and working. 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 school, 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 experience, you will be able to use all your energy to focus on the job. If you are also having to learn how to interact with people, how to follow orders, and how to get along in the workplace, it may seem insurmountable.

I believe it is a parent’s duty to help prepare their autistic child for the future by giving them chores, then in their teen years getting them out there doing some type of job. 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 them to have a job and be able to support themselves for the rest of their life.

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To the Parent Whose Child Was Diagnosed With Autism Today

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Due to my work as a writer and public speaker about my experiences navigating the world on the autism spectrum, over the years I’ve been contacted by thousands of parents asking for advice about their child’s autism diagnosis. During those times there have been many different emotions I’ve seen from parents, ranging from sadness and uncertainty, happiness about finally knowing the diagnosis, and often a neutral look where I cannot see any expression.

I was thinking about this recently when a mom reached out to me online, telling me that her child was just diagnosed with autism. I asked her some preliminary questions such as “When were they diagnosed?” and the follow up hit me when she said “My 2-year-old was diagnosed with autism today.”

This was one of the first times I ever talked to a parent on the actual day of their child’s diagnosis. She told me it was one of the most emotional days of her life. She told me about her heart breaking for her child. How she had suspected for some time, and now it had finally been confirmed.

Then she said I had inspired her and given her hope for her child. For her to contact me on this day to reach out left me at a loss for words. I took a few minutes to compose myself before following up. For those other parents out there whose child is diagnosed, I hope this message I’m about to share will be helpful for you as well. Here’s what I told the mom.

Thank you for your kind words. Remember that you are never alone in this community, and there are so many people you can rely on. Many of them will have already walked similar roads to yours. Lean on these people. Listen to their stories and most importantly, cherish each and every single day that you have with your child.

We are learning more about autism every day to provide them with supports to see them progress.

I know today may have left you with so many different emotions. My parents had those same feelings when I was diagnosed with autism when I was 4. But my parents were able to get through that day and so will you. You will become a champion for your child and their greatest advocate. I wish you nothing but the best for you and your child in the future.

Your friend,

Kerry

P.S: When you feel up to it, please look through this Tool Kit from Autism Speaks called the 100 Day Kit for Newly Diagnosed Families of Young Children. This guide was created specifically for families of children ages 4 and under to make the best possible use of the 100 days following a child’s diagnosis of autism.

She followed up hours later with gratitude and saying that she would look into the Tool Kit. To this day I’ve been thankful to this mom for sharing her story with me. Stories like hers are why I’m an advocate today. If I can ever be a resource for you like I was for her, you can message me on my Facebook page.

My hope by sharing my successes and challenges on the spectrum is that I can help provide our community with resources they can use to help their children. We can do great things when we support another.

A version of this article originally appeared on Kerrymagro.com.

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The World I See as a Person With Autism Spectrum Disorder

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A lot of people ask me what the world is like through the eyes of someone with autism spectrum disorder (ASD)

First, it’s different for every individual, but we have some things in common. From a young age, I knew I had an amazing imagination. Who didn’t point at the clouds and describe things that they saw like maybe a giraffe, an elephant or sheep? But I saw animals and objects in the clouds that even adults couldn’t see.

I look at the ground and see patterns formed by rocks with all different shapes and sizes, or I’ll see a pattern on a wall in my mind. I’ll start by doing a dot-to-dot drawing, and I’ll see an image in my brain that most people couldn’t see.

When I meet someone, the first thing I look at are their feet. I know it sounds weird, but here’s why: I love shoes. I find they can tell you a lot about someone’s personality. Next I look for tattoos, which can tell you about a person’s interests, life events or childhood. Then I’ll look at their clothing, since I love fashion. Again, clothes can tell you a lot. I’ll do this in a matter of seconds before I even say hello to a person.

When I was doing pet photography, one of my clients was running with her dog for some photos. When I looked at them, I could tell she was into sports by her running style. I asked her if she liked sports, and she looked surprised. She told me she loves sports — mostly soccer and anything with running. Then I showed her the photos and told her I could just tell she liked sports just by the way she ran.

Then there are sounds. Imagine hearing every clock tick, every fan blade swooshing above you, the kettle as it’s boiling or someone tapping on something or clicking a pen.

For some people with ASD, these noises can sound louder than they should be, and you hear them all at once. I went to an ASD workshop last year, and I had to leave early because a kettle kept heating up every five minutes or so. After two hours, I couldn’t stand being there anymore. Imagine a normal pitch that you might hear every day. To me, that can sound like the highest pitch in the world.

Think about what your brain would be like if you had five coffees one after another or three energy drinks. From the minute I wake up to the second I fall asleep, my brain is going 100 miles an hour non-stop. I have medication for it now, and I’m not afraid to say it took me 10 years to find the dosage that worked for me. 10 years!

I think of my eyes like a DSLR camera. They capture everything I see in full detail. While you might see a park full of trees, I see small trees, big trees, trees with missing bark and trees with birds or ants on them. I see leaves of all different shapes and colors, rocks and twigs all in a few blinks.

I see things others miss.

Lead photo source: Thinkstock Images

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Why Don't They See What I See?

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I watched you tonight during your dance class, sweet girl. Don’t take that the wrong way — I’m always paying attention while you dance. Tonight, though, as I sat on my side of that mirrored window, I watched you and got a glimpse into your little world. What I saw as I was watching evoked a myriad of emotions I’m still trying to sort through, hours later.

Emotions in and of themselves are complex things. Trying to understand the reasons behind them is like peeling back layers from a ball of rubber bands. The outside layers are obvious enough to separate from one another. But as you get closer to the core, the process becomes far more daunting. The bands down there are so tightly intertwined, they almost seem to want to stay tucked away there in the middle, protected underneath the more superficial layers. The more I think about my own emotions, the more confused I become. How is it that in 45 minutes, I can look at you and feel so many different things?

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In one moment, my heart is swelling with so much pride, I truly feel it might burst. There you are, standing in a circle with 12 other little girls in your class, blending in seamlessly. You’re smiling, laughing, and going through the motions, right along with them. Things shift then, and moments later, I’m so anxious that I have to remind myself to breathe. Your class is lined up against the back wall as each of you wait for your turn to try a new dance move with the instructor. You follow directions and take your place in line, but then, like every week, you find yourself in the mirror. The dance class has now become background noise to you. You’re busy dancing your heart out to your own music. I am not anxious for you. You are happy, and that’s all I want when I bring you here. I’m anxious for me, I suppose. I hold my breath because I wait for a question or comment about you from another parent watching the class. We’ve been coming to class for four weeks now, and I’m pretty sure the other parents have figured out, or at least suspect you are on the autism spectrum. Each week, the likelihood of anyone commenting on your actions probably decreases, yet I hold my breath and brace myself, anyway. Your turn in line comes. You try harder this week than ever before to mimic the instructors steps, and pride once again prevails over anxiety. It’s amazing to see these transitions get easier for you each time you come.

Class ends, and you come out and hug me. As you remove the ballet slippers and replace them with your new “rainbow shoes,” a hint of sadness creeps in. It’s just you and me, now. The other parents are chatting about getting ready for kindergarten as they pack up with their daughters to go home. I’m not involved in the conversation, and honestly, that’s OK. I’m not here to connect with them; I’m here for you.

I’m sorry no one in class has reached out to you. They’ve watched you, but they haven’t seen you, and that makes me sad. I wish they understood as you sit with me tonight, changing your shoes for the third time in 45 minutes, that you wore the same pair of bright pink Nikes with every outfit for nearly a year. Only in the past two weeks have you worked through the panic the idea of new shoes has always brought you. I wish someone else here was cheering for you.

I understand that other parents might not know what to say — to me, especially, and so they don’t initiate conversation. They problem is, their daughters are watching and learning from how their parents regard you. Many of them will model these very behaviors. Of any potential obstacle you could face, this is the most heart-wrenching. Nothing consumes me more than the idea that because you are different, you might be lonely.

The pride I felt earlier as I watched you blend in wasn’t because I wish for you to be like the other girls. You are beyond incredible exactly as you are. My pride was a result of watching you be yourself, while also watching you truly be a part of something with other children your age. There are many more months of dance class. Hopefully, in time, everyone will begin to really see you. Hopefully they will reach out. After all, a few of their daughters have begun to join you as you dance in the mirror. As it turns out, all 4-year-old girls love to watch themselves dance.

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My Autistic Son Doesn’t Flap

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My autistic son doesn’t flap. He doesn’t line things up or hum or shriek. I have another child who occasionally does these things but not my son.

When I tell people two of my children are on the spectrum, I often see pity in their lowering gaze, or worse, hear a guttural sound indicating misplaced empathy. Often they make efforts to identify with our family by telling stories of children they know who are on the spectrum or talking about articles they’ve read. I appreciate the effort but not the undertones.

My autistic son isn’t interested in specific subjects, doesn’t avoid eye contact and isn’t a loner. He doesn’t run off or strip his clothes off unexpectedly, and he isn’t affected by loud environments. My son’s autism is none of these things.

I tell my son that autism is many things and no one person is the same. You can no more generalize about a neurotypical child than you can an autistic one.

Autism for my son is his ability to absorb and assimilate vast amounts of information about every subject. He has no limits.

Autism for my son is his ability to tune in to the most subtle of reactions. He empathizes with people even if he sometimes needs confirmation of their intentions.

Autism for my son is his sensitivity to space, movement, taste and texture. He seeks out a high-level input for his senses.

Autism for my son is his sensitivity to his emotions.

Autism for my son is his skill of interpreting abstract information and his creativity with language. He can create images using words alone.

Autism for my son means he likes to be leader, helper, teacher or coach.

Autism for my son has taught him to accept everybody as they are.

Autism for my son is brutal honesty.

My autistic son is 6 years old. He likes Minecraft, theme parks, McDonald’s, swimming, making dens, climbing trees and trampolining. He wants more ice cream than he can eat and stays up later than he should.

My autistic son doesn’t flap, nor is he likely to start. If you want to know about him, ask. If you want to know about his autistic influences, ask. If you want to understand his challenges, ask.

Please don’t make assumptions about his intelligence, his friendships or any other aspect of him. My son is as individual like you or me — autism or no autism.

Lead photo source: Thinkstock Images

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7 Ways We Try to Make Parties Less Overwhelming for Our Son With Autism

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My son Vedant’s first birthday was a grand affair for us — magicians, balloon makers, face painting, clowns, mascots, the whole nine yards. We celebrated each of his birthdays with just as much enthusiasm, expecting that soon our son would be dictating how he wanted his birthday to be celebrated. But over time, he didn’t seem interested in having birthday parties. He never asked for gifts or showed interest in the gifts he received. That’s when we realized we don’t have to follow the crowd and do what is expected on birthdays. We instead decided to do what we knew our son would enjoy any day of the week and just give him an overdose of that experience on his special day. Now we book a night at an indoor water park and let him have a field day. He loves it.

Though this took care of the anxiety of his birthday, there were still other social gatherings, like BBQ parties, birthdays of other kids, Christmas, Halloween parties and more. At times, Vedant would cry, try to escape the gathering, or try to take us back to the car. At first, we stopped going to these gatherings. But I realized this wasn’t a solution; we wanted Vedant to learn how to cope at these gatherings, and we wanted to help him with that.

Over time, my husband and I came up with a few ways to help our son with social gatherings:

1. Change expectations: This was the biggest change we made. We could not go into a party expecting that our son would sit down with other kids and play a board game or run around playing tag. We had to accept that it’s going to be tough on him being around so many people and so much noise, and that it’s going to be some work for us to help keep him calm. When this expectation changed, we were more prepared.

2. Define a baseline: This was the second most important thing we needed to agree upon. We needed to figure out how much is too much for him. Some parties can get really noisy, and some can be relatively laid-back. We had to know when it was time for us to thank the host and leave. We needed to ensure that the experience was at least tolerable, if not enjoyable, for our son so he would not be anxious the next time he was in a social situation.

3. “First in, last out” is not important: I told the host every time that we would come in late and leave early. That minimized the stress for us because the duration was short and sweet, and it gave our son the opportunity to be at a fun event but not get overwhelmed by it. We try to leave before it gets too much for him. As he gets used to being in situations like these, we can slowly start to stay longer and enjoy more.

4. Take turns: To avoid the sensory overload, Vedant had tried to escape some parties. So my husband and I decided to split time. While I spent the first 15 minutes keeping an eye on our son, my husband could hang out with his friends, and then we switched roles. This strategy has worked really well for us. This way, we are able to catch up with our friends and also not let our son feel insecure or unattended. One of us is always with him or watching over him.

5. Participating is not mandatory: My son never showed interest in his own birthday, so he may not be excited about someone else’s. I stopped dragging him around the birthday cake, forcing him to sing, clap, and pose for pictures. Previously, I would try to push him to do that because I thought that’s what kids do. We both ended up being upset. Now that I’ve stopped, I notice he gets excited watching other kids and sometimes claps on his own. He is more invested when it’s not imposed on him. Same for party games. I know he doesn’t like getting his face painted or being inside a bouncy castle so I don’t push him anymore. I encourage him, I want him to experience and try something new, but not by making him uncomfortable. I would rather have him leave the place feeling happy and relaxed than upset and stressed.

6. Try sensory activities: A sensory toy can keep my son calm for a while, so I carry one with me. This keeps Vedant engaged and more in control. Whatever sensory diet I can think of, I offer him that every now and then — a tight hug, a swirl or two, tickles, some calming music — while he tries to cope in a challenging environment.

7. Talk about it: When we go to a social gathering, I make sure I talk to Vedant about it on our way to the venue. I tell him where we are going, the people we’ll meet, what the party’s about, and what to expect there. I don’t know if he understands everything, though I hope he does or one day will, but I don’t want him to be taken by surprise when we arrive at the party. I also make it a point to excitedly talk about what all we did at the party once we are back home, too.

The strategies we use seem to be working well, but then there are always days when, like any other kid, he throws us a surprise. But we will continue to work through any challenges and keep trying.

Follow this journey on Tulika’s blog.

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