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How I Found Autism Acceptance in the Workplace

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About 80 percent of people on the autism spectrum are unemployed. Of the 20 percent of us who are employed, only 13.9 percent work full-time. I am one of the 13.9 percent.

How lucky do I consider myself? Extremely. I feel like I rolled a natural 20 in Dungeons and Dragons, found $20 on the ground and found the perfect parking spot, all rolled into one.

It wasn’t easy, to say the least. It was a combination of determination, a bit of luck and an amazing, supportive workplace.

I started my job at the local grocery store as a co-op student through my high school. A co-op student is someone who works for free for a few hours during the school week, and in exchange you get some school credits.

I did a mock interview, which I failed. I mean, really failed. I messed up every question; I stuttered and stammered, umm-ed and ahh-ed. It was an absolute disaster.

The first semester, I think the number of words I said could be counted on my fingers. I was terrified and so far out of my comfort zone. I went in, did my job and left.

The second semester, I spoke a bit more. I was getting more comfortable and it showed. My performance was good enough that they hired me. I was officially employed part-time.

Now hold on, I said above I was full-time. And I am now. But this is just the beginning.

For four years I worked part-time; I learned different positions and trained under the previous full-timer. I grew more comfortable, started speaking more; actually I rarely shut up now. (It’s an ongoing joke that my coworkers and bosses wish we could go back to when I was a co-op student and didn’t speak.)

Last year the full-timer retired, and as of December 2017, I have been full time. I have responsibilities and have to make decisions. I’m loving every minute of it. Every day I get to do what I do best, joke around with my coworkers, and just have a blast. (If my boss ever sees this, we don’t have fun at all. We just work really hard. And you should give me a raise wink wink, nudge nudge.)

I’m working full time when seven years ago, my family, doctors and I thought I would never have even a part-time job.

There’s no way I would be where I am today without the support of my bosses. When I had my first panic attack at work, I was terrified I was going to lose my job, which led to another panic attack. When I had my first sensory meltdown, autism meltdown, and autism shutdown, they were there to help me. I wasn’t treated like a burden by them like I was at school (but that’s another story). My one boss sat with me, helped me refocus and get out of my head, helped me find my words and calm down.

How many of you reading this have people at your work who know you better than you know yourself? Who can tell if you’re getting anxious or overwhelmed before you even realize it yourself? Who can pull you aside and calm you down before you reach your breaking point? I don’t know the actual number, but I will guess it’s exponentially small.

But despite all my quirks, my issues, et cetera; when I go into work, I’m not the autistic guy. I’m not the guy with anxiety issues. They see me as the hard worker I am. They see me as just Kaleb. And I can’t thank them enough for it.

Getty image by Jack F.

Originally published: April 2, 2018
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