Neurodiversity and the Dignity of Work
American society has a strange view of work.
Work should be the setting for this rich personal growth, where many aspects of life enter into play: creativity, planning for the future, developing our talents, living out our values, relating to others, giving glory to God. It follows that, in the reality of today’s global society, it is essential that “we continue to prioritize the goal of access to steady employment for everyone,” no matter the limited interests of business and dubious economic reasoning.
We were created with a vocation to work…
…Work is a necessity, part of the meaning of life on this earth, a path to growth, human development and personal fulfillment. Helping the poor financially must always be a provisional solution in the face of pressing needs. The broader objective should always be to allow them a dignified life through work.
Work gives us meaning, it can help us grow personally, develop our talents and plan for the future. So work is vital to human flourishing.
So, why is it in American society in the 21st Century, work is viewed as a prize for the most talented?
Throughout my adult life, I’ve observed how work is not something where you are formed into a skilled worker. Instead, you must have all your skills ready to go. There is no interest in training an employee, they need to hit the ground running. In this environment, work becomes a prize handed out to the most talented. This is the meritocracy in action.
But we know that not everyone is ready the moment they start their job. Sometimes it takes time for people to grow into their position. In a culture where work is attained through merit, scores of people are forced to find whatever scraps they can in order to make a living.
There is a statistic that has gone around about the unemployment rate of persons with autism. The rate I’ve heard is somewhere around 85%. I’m uncertain how accurate is this picture, but I think there is some truth that the unemployment rate is high. I can’t answer for other people with autism, but I’ve always found the job market to be an uncaring place for me. The reason the unemployment rate for people who are autistic is this high is because of the kind of job market we have in America, one that is based on merit and one where professionals are valued and blue-collar positions are not.
Being on the spectrum means that I enter the job market with challenges. You learn soon enough that our society doesn’t have time to help those with neurological disabilities like autism or ADHD or dyslexia. Since those talents are easily visible or the mistakes are seen before the person, the potential employee is judged and more often than not is either not given a job or if they have a position are told to leave. In our merit-based system, if you have challenges, you are viewed as incompetent or lazy or stupid.
I’m not stupid, even if my self-esteem makes me feel that way. I have talent and skills. But when it comes to putting those talents to work in the workplace things have gone awry. I’ve tried to help my past supervisors understand my predicament and I hope for some grace and I don’t get it. Instead, I am let go for not doing a good enough job.
Most people with autism have talent, but it takes time for it to come to fore. What they need is encouragement that they are of value and that they have something to offer. It doesn’t happen by yelling at them or telling them to “step up,” as if they aren’t already doing that.
I then have to deal with the shame of having not lived up to expectations. Even though I’ve tried to make sure I don’t repeat the same mistakes. Even though I want to try harder and be better. But my autism always shines through and the mistakes happen. You live with this shame of not being a responsible partner to my husband. You live feeling that you aren’t talented, but an incompetent burden.
When you find yourself in a job where you make a mistake is that you feel you have to try harder to be a better worker. You think that way because your supervisors and coworkers think you aren’t really working that hard and just need to buck up. But the thing with autism/Aspergers, or ADHD or dyslexia is that you can’t simply work harder. Working harder doesn’t make a disability go away. The person with this kind of disability has to learn how to work with it and what they want from their employee is a little understanding; to ask questions before you start yelling.
Sometimes it takes time for someone to be at their best. Sometimes one has to work hard to get to the desired level. To get to that level means it takes time. However, time is something that is in short supply in the modern workplace. There is not a place for accommodation and training in a job market that runs according to the meritocracy.
I am working now with Vocation and Rehabilitation services from the State of Minnesota that will help with some job coaching. I’m hopeful it will allow me to find a workplace where I can grow and not feel a sense of shame or feel like a dunce.
But I think our job market must change- not just for people like me, but for everyone. We have to create an economy that is built more on seeing the worker as an apprentice, where people can learn their position, places where people can grow into their vocation. We need all of this because we need to stop seeing work as a prize, but as something that can be beneficial to the worker and society as well. If we want a society where fewer people are “on the dole” and more people are self-sufficient, then we need to see work as something that gives everyone, including people disabilities a semblance of dignity.
I know that there are things I have to do to work better with a disability. But this is a two-way street. One day, I want to come into an environment where I’m encouraged, especially when I fall short. I want to learn that I have value. I want to start a new job knowing I don’t have to have all the answers or pretend that I know everything. I want to be secure at work and not worry if this is the day that I get fired for whatever reason. Work should be a place where you come as a student ready to learn.
Several years ago, I wrote a blog post relating to how persons with autism are like dandelions. A dandelion is a flower, but most of us look at them as weeds. People with autism and other people with disabilities are dandelions. For most of my work life, I’ve always felt like a weed to others. I’ve never felt that I had talent or smarts. I’ve found it hard to feel that I have worth. I know that some of this is me changing my own attitude, but it is hard to do that when you are judged so often. You start to believe what others say about you.
But I believe that I am more than a weed. I think I have some flower in me. I know that I have skills and passions in writing. I know I have a desire to try new things and to learn new skills and my portfolio is replete with work where I learned how to write better or make better graphic design. I know I am flawed, but unbeknownst to most hiring managers and potential and past supervisors, I am also someone of great talent and determination. I wish that people could see that before looking at my faults.
Our meritocratic society believes that people with neurological disabilities are worthless weeds. Nonsense. We are flowers that can be beautiful. You just have to look at things differently.
You just need to look at me differently.