update: job searching with autism (an update 7 years in the making!)

It’s “where are you now?” month at Ask a Manager, and all December I’m running updates from people who had their letters here answered in the past.

More than seven years ago, I printed a letter from a reader whose son is on the autism spectrum. He was years away from working age, but she was looking for advice about about how to help him when that time came. Here’s the update.

It seemed so far away when I first wrote in, but now my son is already 18 years old. In some ways he’s doing great—he has a couple of close friends that he texts with constantly (who would ever imagine *that* would be a good thing!), and he was a commended student in the National Merit Scholarship competition. In other ways his behaviors still cause some problems. His grades have been abysmal at times because he just doesn’t care about doing basic homework assignments. We’re working with him on that attitude, but it’s slow going. He’s usually gone waaaay deeper on the topic than the rest of the class, but he just doesn’t want to “waste” his time documenting it via written assignments. (Insert parental facepalm). He’s currently an A+ student intellectually but a B to C student at best grade-wise. Overall, we’re seeing him slowly mature, so we are only gently pushing on the job front right now. He’s living in an apartment building because his campus doesn’t have dorms, and that’s added a lot of extra changes to his life, so we’re letting him get used to that first, and then add a job into the mix.

With some of his issues with homework and other basic responsibilities, I’ve been worried about how he will perform in the working world, but the past two summers I’ve had a glimmer of hope. I have a key role in a local festival, and in 2018 I told him that if he helped me during the setup, I’d let him hang out the rest of the weekend at the event while I was working. He helped out cheerfully the first day, and then slipped off to go have fun as we’d discussed. Midway through the day, I found out that instead of goofing off, he’d gone back to the main office and continued to volunteer. He made friends with another boy and they worked crazy long hours helping everyone out. By the end of the weekend, the organizers were taking pictures with him and giving him all sorts of swag. He did all of this on his own, without any involvement on my part. It was the first time I’ve truly felt that he could do fine on his own. By all accounts, he was a perfect “employee” under some pretty trying circumstances. This year he came back and they actually trusted him enough to handle money, and though it was completely a voluntary position, they paid him a small stipend for how much work he had put in.

It’s very difficult trying to parent a teen on the spectrum because we can’t always tell when the issues are normal teen stuff vs when it’s caused by his challenges. We can be strict on the normal teen stuff and it resolves, but the spectrum issues can only be fixed by taking a different approach. So we’ve had a lot of “learnings” (ie we go too far down one road before we realize we need to respond another way). I’d give anything for a do-over, but since that’s not an option, we continue to muddle on. We are seeing growth and maturity starting to kick in though, and I think that as he starts to take more ownership, he’s going to step up on the responsibility side as well. So we remain quite hopeful that he’ll be able to be a self-sufficient adult, and given his intellectual strengths, he may even be able to be quite successful. Thanks to everyone who weighed in back then, as I read through all the replies and have kept them in mind over the years since.

{ 73 comments… read them below }

  1. Sarah*

    Thank you so much for this update. I have a 12 year old who was diagnosed a little over a year ago. He sounds similar to your son – if he’s interested, he’ll go all out, but if not, it’s a real struggle. I, too, have wondered about his career, so I’m going to eagerly go back and read everyone’s advice, but it’s nice to have some hope for those rough days.

    1. Duke Flapjack*

      You hit the nail on the head. What I discovered about myself (I consider myself a reasonably well-adjusted Aspie) is that I had to get into a career that I was highly interested in. In my case, low-voltage (fire alarms, cameras, etc). I’ve had struggles with companies over the years, but all-in-all since I am still enjoying the work that I do I can motivate myself pretty well to do it.

      1. KoiFeeder*

        Another professional autistic here, and wholly agreeing. I’m grad school and not working, but self-motivation is not my strong suit. Although, one of my other motivation hacks is that I tell myself that the koi would be disappointed with me if I didn’t, and it works surprisingly well (now, that I can’t make myself care more about /teachers/ than /carp/ is probably a whole other issue).

        Only related to my first paragraph on the grad school front, but one of the things that made it easier to “waste my time” summarizing my research is that writing it down brings up more questions that you don’t think about at first. And it helps with understanding things if you have to explain it, too- pretending that my job is to explain what something like “flexible mandibular symphisis” means to third-graders may not be fun, but it certainly helps me understand it viscerally as well as logically.

        1. NQ*

          Me too. I will work my ass off in a position I love, like my old job. And as a scientist, there are many like me around. FWIW, I madly love the field I’m working in, but there are a couple of pretty big culture/environment issues in my current place, so planning to move on – at a time that will suit my CV if I can stick it out for long enough…!

          Can’t relate to feeling like documentation is a waste of time unfortunately(?), as (unfortunately?) others’ impressions of me is high on my level of priorities, and most autistic girls tend to get strongly socialized into this kind of culture. Things like clear performance goals help me keep that top in my mind. Although I agree it’s a waste of time in reality, the corporate world is a different version of reality. If he’s into reading, Yuval Noah Harari’s books (eg: Sapiens) may be interesting for him to focus on deep discourse in this area. I agreed with nearly all of it, and he presents a very strong evidence basis for every point he makes. Or it may turn your son into a total nihilist!

    2. many bells down*

      My son is exactly the same about school work. He tests off the charts (a perfect ACT score in science!) but he just can’t be bothered to do ordinary class work. We’ve put him in an alternative school program to repeat his senior year. He chose that over just taking the GED exam. And they helped him get a job!

  2. UbiCaritas*

    What a great update! Your son sounds awesome – and so do you. Best wishes to you and your family!

  3. Tau*

    Thanks for the update! I am crossing my fingers for you and your son.

    I’m an adult with Asperger’s who’s been working for a few years now. I… admit I am seeing a few things in this letter that remind me of me, and I really hope I’m wrong and your son is just being a teenager and will mature out of it because those problems really suck to have and in my early thirties I still have not found a satisfactory way of dealing with them. I’m going to mention them here so you know to keep an eye out, but as said I very much hope I’m wrong here and this does not apply.

    Basically, the bit where he was a “perfect employee” at your volunteer gig but struggles with doing his homework? So I have major executive function problems (planning and executing tasks) and need some form of external structure to be able to do… most things, really. The result is that I will regularly fail to do really basic, simple things for no apparent reason as long as I am the only one who is hurt by me not doing them. The instant there’s some sort of external dependency there, that provides a lot of the structure I need to actually get shit done. I’ve been trying and failing to find a way to make that extend to things I have to do just for me ever since I moved away from home. Of particular note: when I was younger, I would describe this as “I didn’t want to” or “didn’t care about” doing a thing, because that was the only narrative I knew for not doing basic stuff and because I was sufficiently out of touch with my own emotions (autistic alexithymia, represent) that I didn’t notice the contradiction there.

    The good news for you is that even if this is the case, by its very nature it doesn’t actually have that much of an effect on employment. I am A++ fantastic at my job and only struggle with a few seemingly-unimportant things like expense reimbursements. It’s my personal life + my life during university that is and was an absolute mess.

    1. Lance*

      ‘The result is that I will regularly fail to do really basic, simple things for no apparent reason as long as I am the only one who is hurt by me not doing them.’

      As someone on the spectrum with high-functioning autism… I can relate pretty strongly to this. I was also, as a kid, someone who didn’t do a lot of homework (up to, at one point, getting briefly suspended for a consistent failure to do so) because I was learning, and this is extra busywork, so what’s the point? It’s the same thing I’ve been doing, so why should I have to show it off to everyone? In some ways, I’m coming to the same issues at work, in some part because everyone’s so hands-off that I occasionally end up letting (minor) things slip through the cracks.

      As far as suggestions go… I unfortunately don’t have much to offer either. Others have suggested (as far back as middle/high school) to use a planner or something of the sort, but I just as soon forget it exists. The best I can suggest to the OP is find things he likes doing that can translate to work, or find whatever ways he likes working and that work well for him, and try and go from there. The second volunteer gig would be a good place to look for that; he came back and stuck around enough, seemingly without direct incentive from you this time, to help out, right? There’s definitely something to that.

      1. Tau*

        I have occasionally had middling success with something vaguely planner-shaped, but it is really really hard and involves weird workarounds like recording my todo list in comic form in order to make it less overwhelming and also tends to fall apart the moment things start going badly in my life again. When “write in your planner” just ends up being the next really basic thing that only benefits me which I inexplicably don’t do. Setting alarms also kiind of works, but can also be hit-and-miss as they involve a lot of mental juggling to get myself in the right frame of mind which I’m not necessarily capable of if I’m not doing well.

        Really, I should probably try to talk a bunch of this stuff through with a good therapist who’s experienced when it comes to adult autism to see if they have any smart ideas (not the one I had a few years ago who completely ignored any mention of autism for two sessions and also didn’t seem to realise alexithymia was a thing), but… y’know… take everything I’ve said re: having huge amounts of trouble doing stuff when I’m the only one who benefits from it, and now imagine trying to organise therapy. :/

        1. EinJungerLudendorff*

          I managed to make a planner sort-of work, mostly by putting all my agenda stuff in it and leaving it open on my desk. I couldnt ignore it if I wanted to.

          Of course, actually doing anything i put in the planner is a problem all its own.

      2. Duke Flapjack*

        My HS guidance councellor was highly frustrated by me because I was a pretty consistant ‘C’ student but got a 29 on the ACT my first time without any studying.

      3. OP Mom*

        Thank you both so much for your perspectives! It’s really helpful for me to hear about the different challenges you’ve each faced, and to get a sort of glimpse into some of the struggles he might not always want to share with me.

      4. Elenna*

        ‘The result is that I will regularly fail to do really basic, simple things for no apparent reason as long as I am the only one who is hurt by me not doing them.’

        Oh look it me.

        I did homework assignments, but only because my parents and teacher cared about them and that was enough external structure for me. I basically never did assignments that were just for practice, not to be handed in, and I developed a bad habit of basically never going to class during university. So far, work is better because my supervisor knows what I’m doing and that provides motivation to do it (mostly). I also may or may not have ADHD?
        One of these days I will go talk to a therapist, maybe, but hey look, it’s a (not-so-simple) thing that benefits only me, so I didn’t do it even when I was in uni and the process was actually fairly simple…

        1. Penguin*

          The quoted part applies to me too! And your last sentence used to apply to me, but then, I had a roommate I was very close work push me into therapy. It was right around his birthday that I had a meltdown that led to this, so he asked me to find a therapist as a birthday present for him. Suddenly, me going to therapy would apparently benefit someone else, so I did it, and actually stick with it for several months and got a lot it of it! Now that I’ve learned how helpful therapy can be for me (and, through therapy, how leaving my issues unprocessed actually does affect people other than me), it’s become easy to prioritize therapy and actually seek new therapists when I need to. (It’s been 8 years and…more than 8 therapists, hah. They aren’t all good matches; my current one is fantastic for me.)

    2. Duke Flapjack*

      Hey! Sounds like me!

      This is something I’ve struggled with for years. I doubt I will ever really find a solution.

    3. somebody blonde*

      I suggest having a whiteboard instead of a planner and having blocked out planning time at the beginning of the week. I have an online check in system with my manager that serves this function that I fill out on Fridays, and I have a whiteboard with the days of the week on it that I use when I get home from work on Mondays. Just blocking out planning time helps a lot.

    4. KoiFeeder*

      >autistic alexithymia, represent

      Nothing to say that everyone else hasn’t already said, so I’ll raise my hand in solidarity and leave it at that.

    5. SlantedSun*

      I am an adult who is not on the autism spectrum(as far as I’m aware) and you just described my life perfectly, down to being seemingly unable to submit expense reports

      1. chronicallyIllin*

        Hopefully not to be too nosy, but you might also look into ADHD? That motivation issue perfectly described me and I was diagnosed with ADHD as an adult. You might specifically look into inattentive symptoms as they often look in undiagnosed adults, because there’s a lot about ADHD which doesn’t fit the stereotypes.

        I’ve found (personally) that I’ve had a lot of success just learning about ADHD and how my brain works to see how I can reframe stuff and restructure my life to handle that, even before I got any medication. So even if you don’t think it’s severe enough to actually seek a diagnosis, organizing/cleaning/self-care advice for ADHD people might be helpful for you.

        1. Penguin*

          Seconding chronicallyIllin’s comment! I also relate to this thread but am not on the spectrum (I think…), and have been determined to probably not have ADHD via extensive testing…and yet, since a lot of my symptoms/behaviors fit ADHD characteristics, much of the advice for ADHD folks is also helpful for me. (The How to ADHD YouTube channel is a personal fave.) Not everything resonates, but that’s fine! It’s been a helpful entry point for understanding myself and changing my habits.

          1. Tau*

            Yeah, the thing about executive function deficits is that they’re symptoms of a looooot of neurological conditions and mental illnesses. Honestly, I’m not sure mine is entirely due to Asperger’s, there’s potentially issues like depression, social anxiety and possibly ADHD* playing into it as well – I might check out that YouTube channel, in fact.

            (*but, like, try figuring out if you have ADHD when you already know you’re on the autistic spectrum and have a DX for that.)

            I think the main thing to say is that having these problems is likely to be a sign of something wrong, whether it ends up being Asperger’s, ADHD, depression, or who knows what. And if you can, it’s worth pursuing that something to see if anything can be done.

    6. ADHSquirrelWhat*

      I like to offtank (push onto other people) my “motivation” for getting my writing done. Because I love to write, I love the stories I write .. but writing for myself? uuuuuuugh. yeah, I’ll get around to it, but it doesn’t matter, etc etc. But when I’m writing because Friend wants to read it? Then there’s a real advantage to getting it DONE. … I need to apply this elsewhere in my life on that other project, I just realized. Right.

      But I’ve found that when I can offtank motivation – I tell the person that I know it’s a mind-game I’m playing with myself! I don’t actually make them nag or anything! But I can BELIEVE it’s for them, and then I can get stuff done.

      I don’t know if it helps, but it’s helped me a LOT in all kinds of daily tasks. Cooking – because family needs to eat. Cleaning, because family needs a safe place to live that isn’t bug hell. etc.

      1. Oranges*

        THIS. I have ADHD and internal motivation? What’s that?

        I’m mid-thirties and I won’t do the basics of life (laundry, cooking, cleaning) unless I tell myself that my parental units (who I live with) will notice the smell/mess and become worried about me. I’m still trying to figure out a way to do finances.

        When it’s BAD I won’t do the basic basics. Showering, eating, dressing.

  4. Oxford Common Sense*

    Thanks for the update! I didn’t see the original post way back then, but just read it now. I am in a very similar situation to you then- parent of a nine-year-old with high-functioning ASD,
    and starting to think about these challenges (as well as dealing with the day-to-day challenges). Thank you for sharing, and best of luck.

  5. sheworkshardforthemoney*

    This is great to read. I work with young adults in your son’s age range and a few of them are on the spectrum. Once we discover what works for them in terms of understanding the job and expectations, they all turn out to be the best and most reliable workers. It’s a matter of listening and making usually small adjustments.

  6. Green girl*

    One of my BFF’s is on the autism spectrum. She’s a disability rights lawyer. Things aren’t always easy for her but she does so much good. Some days it’s a struggle for her to be on the phone with clients but then the next day she’s speaking to the United Nations about the need for support for our autistic citizens. The world is better for having her in it and yes, she is able to be self-sufficient.

  7. Thankful for AAM*

    Idk if it would be helpful for anyone but google bullet journal by Ryder Carroll. The original one, not the very artistic ones that are also popular.

    He had a learning disability and created a journal system for himself. I think it is brilliant.

    The thing that helped my brothers and son the most was doing real work; schoolwork seemed pointless to them too. Enjoying the real work made doing the pointless stuff easier. Maybe the journal could help track the pointless but required stuff.

    Also, my brother and son skipped University and got jobs in technology. So far it works.

  8. Granger Chase*

    This is a wonderful update! I hope your son is enjoying college so far and it is lovely to hear he has made a group of close friends! I am sure they will be a wonderful asset to him for navigating those early years of adulthood, because everyone is kind of in the same boat when you are first becoming independent. I also want to say thank you for being so invested in your son’s future that you reached out to AAM for advice well in advance so you had extra resources on hand when the time came to need them. Even if you are just “muddling through” sometimes, that’s a clear sign of a wonderful & loving parent to me!

    Best wishes to you and your family for 2020!

  9. Observer*

    I don’t think you need a “redo”. None of us is perfect, and children, even ones with challenges, don’t need perfect parents. What they DO need are parents like you – realistic about both the good and the bad, learning and applying whatever you can, flexible and willing to rethink your strategy and working to insure that your child has his best shot at living his best life.

    None of that is easy, and you deserve tons of credit for doing it. It sounds like your con is on a good path. Hopefully, he will continue that way.

    1. Jackalope*

      Yes, I think an under appreciated gift to kids can be having parents who are trying multiple things to see what will work, and learning that parents aren’t perfect. My dad wasn’t perfect, and I’m sure he struggled as a single parent after my mom died, but seeing him try helped teach me strategies for trying things different ways when the first way didn’t work (a useful life skill), and having him apologize when he got it wrong made a huge difference to me in many ways (including as an adult being able to apologize to people around me, including the kids in my life, which I don’t think is very common). So hang in there!

  10. Anon for this*

    One website your son might find helpful for a variety of things is realsocialskills.org . (The first post on the website can be viewed as being political. The website as a whole isn’t.) It’s got a lot of things I (autistic person) found helpful.
    Blog posts on:
    – boundaries
    – how to handle social interactions/explanation of common social interactions (and the explanations are SO COMPREHENSIVE. A lot of resources like these assume far more base knowledge – some autistic people don’t have a lot of that base knowledge, and others do have it but find it hard to tap into it when learning new skills).
    – how to prioritize when doing something hard. By that I mean that it offers scripts and guidelines for how to do things when you have trouble with some of the aspects – e.g. if you want to talk about something important, and you find it hard to make eye contact and speak clearly at the same time, it’s fine not to make eye contact(/fake making eye contact) so that you can better focus on the important conversation.
    – and a lot of it is implicitly about self-acceptance as well: navigating society as with autism, rather than trying to pretend you’re not autistic (and subsequently having a lot more trouble with doing normal thing because you’re so focused on coming across as not autistic that you don’t have a lot of energy to actually do things or achieve the important outcomes).

    Regrettably the website isn’t updated anymore, the last post is about a year ago, but it’s a wealth of information for people with autism, social anxiety, social difficulties, sensory difficulties, language difficulties, boundary difficulties.. and anyone else as well.

    1. Duke Flapjack*

      I HATE making eye contact, so I figured out long ago if I make contact with that little space in-between a persons eyebrows it LOOKS like I’m making eye contact without actually doing so.

      1. Sorry, what was that again?*

        I’m hard of hearing and part of listening for me is lip reading. I don’t even realize I’m doing it but when someone turns away or covers their mouth my comprehension goes way down. When eye contact comes up I feel self conscious I am generally not making it very often, technically, except when I am the one talking. No one I’ve asked has said they noticed, but who knows, it’s not the sort of thing I’d ask a casual or work acquaintance.

        Interestingly, I was misdiagnosed as autistic as a very young child, this used to be common but I’m told is very rare today.

        Congratulations OP, it sounds as though you are working hard to get your son ready for adulthood.

        Thanks also to the commenters on the spectrum, it’s always a huge plus when we hear from people that have lived the experience.

      2. Anon Here*

        And that’s kind of a good thing. Because casual social eye contact is supposed to be light, not too intense. If you accidentally make eye contact that is too intense or long-lasting, it can be interpreted in ways you would not want (ie sexual interest, trying to intimidate the person, being overly invasive, or just vaguely creepy). I think it’s better to err on the side of “too indirect” / “too little” until you’ve gotten the hang of it.

      3. Anon for this*

        I do that sometimes, or noses. On good days I do eyelashes or glasses.
        And I try ‘look at person when listening, look away when talking’ because it’s harder for me to talk and make eye contact than to listen and make eye contact.
        But on average, I probably look.. er, I now realize that when sitting I tend to look at the table before people which might be interpreted as looking at their bulges.
        I should try to not do that.

        For clarity, though – by it’s fine not to make eye contact(/fake making eye contact) so that you can better focus on the important conversation. I meant that it’s fine to not even fake making eye contact – because faking eye contact also takes energy.

        (BTW – I think a lot of my problems with making eye contact also have to with sensory difficulties of the ‘if you look into someone’s eyes, you’re looking into the ceiling light or sun’ and I prefer to look a little down so that the lights don’t bother me so much..)

        1. Lavender Menace*

          I have generalized anxiety disorder that often manifests when interacting socially, and I do the same thing – look when listening, look away when talking. Sometimes when I’m looking I fake eye contact, but sometimes I don’t lol. I’ve often wondered whether people have noticed and think I am weird or antsy for it, but it makes me anxious to hold sustained eye contact with other people even when the conversation itself doesn’t make me nervous.

      4. NQ*

        Haha, I’m an autistic woman, and because I was strongly socialized to make eye contact as a child I now have the opposite problem – my boss’s boss refuses to make eye contact almost ever and it upsets me more than it should. Because I had it absolutely drilled into me that it’s rude not to! So I’m hyper-aware that he’s being rude. And why is he being like this, is it about me, does he not even care about me enough to look at me, does he think I’m a waste of a salary, does he all-out hate me, etc.

        He’s actually a nice man and decent leader, lol. I don’t detect any aspie-ness in him, and I’m normally pretty good at seeing it, but I may be wrong.

    2. Tau*

      Oh yeah, I love that site. I think the social skills advice there is absolutely fantastic, because it also includes like…
      – boundaries
      – how to tell if someone’s behaving badly, and deal with it if they are
      – recognising your own limits and working within them
      – etc.

      A lot of social skills advice aimed at autistic people sends the message that NT people are always right in social interactions, or generally completely fails to consider that you might be dealing with someone who doesn’t have your best interests at heart. It also often fails to recognise the fact that for an autistic person, “social skills” are often a trade-off: in order to spend energy trying to figure out people’s body language, you need to take that energy from somewhere else. The result is really, really dangerous, and this is basically the only place I’ve seen that circumvents that.

      1. Anon for this*

        Yes! A lot of social anti-skills (for non-RSS (RealSocialSkills) followers: the social skills that generally get taught in social skills workshops and group therapies etc) come down to ‘social skills is doing stuff that pleases the NT person. If they’re happy, you’re doing things right.’

        And the form vs content discussion – RSS’ advice is ‘if someone is hurting you, you can tell them to stop in whatever way is easiest’ rather than nonviolent communication (seriously, I don’t get NVC – ‘I feel hurt when you do x’ might help when the other person cares about you – but if the other person is a bully or is set out to hurt you, it’s only going to make things worse), or ‘maybe you should ask nicely’ or ‘maybe you should explain x’ ‘maybe you should follow the sandwich model of compliment criticism compliment’ which is terrible for autistic people because – a lot of autistic people have language problems all the time, and those who don’t have language problems all the time tend to have them when they’re tired/stressed/anxious.

        Mini-rant over.

  11. Duke Flapjack*

    I can tell you very honestly (because I can clearly see myself in your son) that if an autistic person knows what they need to do and when, there is no problem. I was pretty much the same way; an ‘A’ student intellectually but a ‘C’ academically. I drove my HS guidance councellor insane because I got a 29 on the ACT on the first try without any studying (highest is 36, most people get in the low 20s). I ended up with an English degree in college after changing from an engineering degree because I didn’t have the discipline to keep my math grades up. After college I ended up getting my dream job: installing and troubleshooting fire alarms. It turns out I have an extremely good head for problem solving and thinking outside of the box and I enjoy doing it.

    Basically, your son will probably do reasonably well in life if he has reasonably clearly defined objectives. This is pretty much how I have to live my life and it works for me. Good luck! Autistics and aspies are difficult (I am pretty sure I’m raising an aspie of my own) but can be extremely loyal, hardworking, and very creative if rather stubborn and not particularly motivated.

  12. Dragon_Dreamer*

    I remember having that issue with homework as an autistic kid, sometimes, I *still* have to force myself to actually do my assignments. (Side note, I wasn’t diagnosed until I was 24, well into my second try at college.) I’ve held several jobs in multiple industries, mostly because I kept moving or they were work-study jobs, but some I’ve held for close to or over a decade. (Two of those I worked at the same time! Whee, retail.) I was *very* successful in computer sales, because I was able to use my talent at focusing to become VERY good at fixing PCs, and knowledgeable about the products.

    It hasn’t been the easiest journey, however. I’ve had multiple bosses who took advantage of my autism to deny me raises and abuse my willingness to work. Many bosses refused to meet my (well documented) needs even halfway. I’m blind to facial expressions and body language, and that held me back, especially when I had managers who were unwilling to coach me. This despite multiple meetings where the solution they made and agreed on was that they *would.* This, and customers who sometimes liked to complain that I was “different” made retail *extremely* stressful for me. I’d come home after a GOOD day sometimes, so stressed and people’d out that I’d cry.

    After a few complaints that I wouldn’t/couldn’t look people in the eyes, I learned to look at their noses. Only a few folks caught onto that one, and almost all were chagrined when I told them why. The last one complained to my boss, saying that r*****s shouldn’t be working. 9.9

    Another guy complained I made him “uncomfortable.” See, I can’t count change backwards, my brain gets mixed up. So no starting in the middle and ending with, “And that makes $x.” I count up to the amount I’m giving them, if that makes sense. This guy was having none of that. He decided he was going to try and teach me the “right” way. After I told him that I counted it the way I did for a reason, his response was, “Oh, I know, they want you to do it your way, but this way is SO much better.” I gave him my blandest look, and replied, “No, sir, I’m autistic.” He shut up, took his change and scuttled off. After his complaint, he avoided me forever after.

    I’m *very* glad to be out of retail, my life is MUCH less stressful. I’m still dealing with the health issues constant stress caused, but recovering slowly. As for your son, the best thing you can do is help him de-stress after a shift dealing with people. You can’t be his advocate to his bosses (sadly) but you can encourage him to recognize when someone’s taking advantage of him, and give him decompression time after work.

    If he does go to college, I learned that 14 credits is my limit, and no more than 2 classes per day, or *maybe* 2 classes and a lab. Getting involved in clubs helped my social network, but I still have to remind myself to put homework before fun. :P Getting subsumed by homework, however, is just as bad! That balance is hard to achieve. I wish him a lot of luck, and remember, his college journey may end up being a little longer than his peers’, but that’s OKAY.

    1. Dragon_Dreamer*

      Almost forgot! Get his autism formally documented! Good for HR to have, and any college will have a Disability Services office. They are there to advocate FOR him, and a good one will help him succeed in any way feasible!

  13. Dianachestnut*

    Thank you so much for this update. I have a 10 year old who sounds just like your kiddo and being self sufficient and employable is my biggest worry as he grows older. He’s fully hit tweenhood and we’re struggling with finding the line between normal development and spectrum, which is challenging for discipline and correcting purposes. Your update brings me hope and peace as we’ve had many years filled nights.

  14. OP Mom*

    Hi all! I really appreciate all of the words of support and the stories many of you have shared! When we first got his diagnosis, it was very hard to find any practical information for older kids, and it fills me with joy to see how—even in just my son’s lifetime—there’s grown to be such a wealth of information to draw upon!

    As an update to the update, his first semester grades were all over the map, but he’s matured enough that we were able to have a very good talk about it. One issue has been that he hates admitting he has challenges, so he struggles on his own. I think I actually got through to him this time that there are a lot of supports available to him—he’s formally diagnosed, so he can use the school’s support program, plus there are a lot of student resources in general.

    I’ve found that he *really* loves having his independence, so it’s been motivating him to make this work. He’s been in touch with his professors and talking with them openly about his challenges as well as what steps he’s taking to get on top of his school work. I think his biggest struggle is one I faced in my first semester—it’s super easy to let things slide because no one is checking up on you daily, and then you realize too late that you should have been doing more earlier. Outside of classes, he’s doing much better than I did at managing his money (I started a long period of credit card debt in my freshman semester), and he’s started occasionally talking to his new classmates. I’ve also encouraged him to set a goal of inviting at least 1-2 people over to play games or study for classes together, and he’s excited to try that out.

    I always tell him, his diagnosis is not an excuse, it’s just an explanation for some things he’s good at and some things he struggles with. Everyone in the world has different challenges to face (and believe me—going through the teen years, I often thanked my lucky stars to not have some of the challenges my friends have faced with their kids!), and there’s nothing for him or anyone else to be ashamed of—no one can avoid having to deal with tough things, we can only try our best to deal with them. The beautiful thing about life is how so many other people want to help us succeed!

    Happy holidays to all who are celebrating, and happy Wednesday to those who aren’t!

    1. Lance*

      ‘One issue has been that he hates admitting he has challenges, so he struggles on his own.’

      Speaking for myself… I think a lot of this factor in particular revolves around social stigma that’s hard to get away from when a lot of adults, while the child is growing up, just don’t understand, and the fellow children see a lot of the behaviors intrinsic to the autistic spectrum to be something weird. It’s almost something of a… shall I say, isolationist line of defense: a belief (however false it may ultimately be) that if they can do it, then why can’t I?

      The problem, of course, being that they often aren’t in fact doing it alone, and the knowledge base isn’t there… but there’s still something of a need to prove oneself against these ‘normal’ people.

      It’s something that I’m still, at 35, strongly struggling with. On your end, the best I can suggest for such an issue is plainly this: continue being a supporter. Try and focus on what’s right, rather than what’s wrong, and go forward from there. Try and make him comfortable knowing that he is still doing a bunch of the right things, but just needs a bit of a push toward the rest of them. Also make sure he’s comfortable knowing, as like the managing his own money situation, that he is capable of doing a lot on his own, without outside assistance.

      Overall, though, good luck to him and you going forward! And as an autistic person who’s grown up with a lot of these issues being pointed out, thank you for making them ‘traits’ more so than ‘issues’!

    2. Rosie*

      I really appreciate your story. We have a 16 yo that we are starting this process with, and it all sounds very similar. I’m nervous and scared for his future, and his inability to acknowledge any of his diagnoses (also dealing with social anxiety, some depression). But I also see how important it is to him to be independent. I’m hoping that desire will help him move forward.

    3. Project Manager*

      Thank you for sharing. Mine is eight. We just put him back in public school, and he’s doing really well, but I definitely have my worries. As you said, it’s an ongoing struggle figuring out what non-preferred behavior (e.g., refusing to complete a task) is autism and what is just being a kid, because you have to respond differently to the two.

      I read somewhere that parents of kids on the spectrum report higher stress levels than even parents of children with terminal illness, which I have no trouble believing.

  15. Traveling Nerd*

    Congratulations!! I’m a woman with (what was) Asperger’s and I’m now a Senior Director of software engineering – so being very successful is possible!!
    I used to have the same exact homework challenges as your son — in the working world I’ve found making calendar entries and task lists to do all of the boring little work every day has helped me immensely.
    My unique perspective has often helped out my workplaces – though it often had challenges. Once my boss told me that I was always right, but I needed to make my views more popular. I had to learn the hard way to not be so blunt and to take the time to bring other people around to my point of view (but it was a skill I was able to learn!)
    I also sometimes keep notes on how to interact with different colleagues — it works great.
    It sounds like your son is on a great path to succeed and he is so lucky to have a caring parent.

  16. LGC*

    This is such a wonderful update – and perfectly timed! I’m glad your son’s grown up to do so well. Wishing you the best this holiday season.

  17. char*

    I’m an autistic adult, and I have to say, I find work waaaay easier than school specifically because there’s no homework involved. In school, I completely did not have the time management skills or executive functioning required to get longer homework assignments done on time, so I struggled a lot in any class where the grade was based mostly on papers or other large assignments. When I did manage to get said assignments done, I got good grades on them, but half the time I couldn’t manage to complete them at all.

    Meanwhile, the schedule and structure of work helps me focus on my job. At my job, most tasks are either pretty small and discrete, or at least are well-defined and explicitly broken up into smaller components. At work, no one ever tells me I have four weeks to write a ten-page paper on the Iliad and then leaves me to my own devices.

    It helps that I found a job that plays to my strengths. I tend to get lost in details, which can make it hard for me to figure out where to start larger tasks… but since I work in QA, my job is to pick up on all the little details that might otherwise get overlooked, so my detail-focused nature becomes an asset instead of a detriment.

    One caveat is that I’m great at my job when I have one, but the process of finding a job was extremely difficult for me. Job hunting plays into every single one of my weaknesses; the only way I managed to get my current job was by getting help with my job search through a vocational rehabilitation program for people with disabilities.

  18. somebody blonde*

    I wanted to add a comment here because while I am not on the spectrum, I had exactly the same attitude toward homework your son has when I was a teenager. Give him this message: I am doing fine despite not getting the best grades, but that has cut off opportunities for me that I might other wise have had. Yes, it’s a waste of time to do homework designed to reinforce knowledge you already know, but it’s not a waste of time to get good grades, so do the minimum required to get them.

    Also, as reassurance to you and all parents out there with kids like this: it had basically nothing to do with my real job work ethic. It’s very easy for me to work hard at doing work that has a real-world need to be done. My problem with school was basically that it’s full of practice exercises that will essentially be graded and never be useful to anyone independent of the grade I got.

    1. Jackalope*

      One of the things I found helpful (and this may or may not be helpful to your son, OP, but if it does it’s worth a try?) is that part of the point of homework is to help embed the info into your mind more thoroughly. There are many things you can understand with a quick explanation but if you don’t practice them then you’ll forget within a short amount of time. I remember the math drill sheets we had to do when I was in elementary school, for example; I didn’t like them at the time but now I’m thankful bcs it’s decades later and I can still do basic math in my head. If he can think of it as practicing the info that he’s learning so he will remember it longer then maybe that will help make it seem less useless.

      1. somebody blonde*

        Yeah, this would never have been persuasive to me (and possibly many autistic kids, because I think this is a common spectrum trait). My memory is freakishly good. I don’t need any homework to embed something into my memory. I just need to have found it interesting or notable the first time i heard or read it, and since that applies to most things, I remember a lot. So the idea that I needed to practice was always obviously bs to me, because I genuinely didn’t.

        1. Oranges*

          I’m not on the spectrum but this was me. I didn’t need the work to get things into my head and i haaaaaaated “busy work”.

          What worked well with me was tutoring. I would help someone else with their homework and then copy it onto my sheet.

  19. drpuma*

    My sibling was diagnosed with Asperger’s. They’re about 10 years older than your son, and currently self-sufficient with a good job. When they were in undergrad, they took a semester-long career course for academic credit, that helped place them in a summer internship that ultimately led to their first job. If one exists, a similar program could be good for your son. For my sibling I think it gave them a lot more explanation and support – that they needed! – than they would have received from a couple of trips to Career Services.
    You sound like an awesome parent. You guys will be okay! Enjoy the season.

  20. Practical Criticism*

    I’m married to a wonderful man who was diagnosed with Asperger’s and ADHD as a child. I know not everyone on the spectrum has the same story but I wanted to say that he has a great career in commercial/corporate lawyer, so there absolutely is a possiblity your son will be self-sufficient and successful. There are some parts of the job he struggles with: networking and time management, although these have got better as he’s learnt strategies. He’s found a type of law involves less direct client work and lots of clever problem solving and written argument, both of which he’s exceptionally good at. People will forgive “odd” eye contact when you get the job done really well. He has executive function issues but because he gets so laser focused on work, these usually end up relating to home life. (I’ve gotten used to giving him frequent reminders of dates/tasks, and reminding myself he doesn’t forget or ignore things on purpose.) I’d agree with people above who say that motivating themselves for real world work with tangible consequences for not completing it is different to school work: my husband will put in ridiculous hours to see that his work gets done because he knows there’s no alternative. It helps that he’s effectively self employed, so there is no one to set his hours, demand face time – all of which he would find frustrating.

    It sounds like your son is doing really great so far, especially in a time of a lot of transitions. My husband found university much easier (socially and academically) than school, and work much better than both, so I hope things will be the same for your son. Best wishes and have a wonderful holiday season.

  21. CJ Wonder*

    One thing that has been awesome for me as a young adult with autism is finding an autism focused therapist who can talk me through the workplace. I learned how to do school really well but it was like starting at square one once I entered a professional work environment. She’s been great help! I’m also in an awesome job where I feel I CAN share my autism with my boss and have received supports. Make sure you get into a supportive environment when you start out! That molding of good behaviors is so important.

  22. Brogrammer*

    OP, you sound like a great mom and your son sounds like a great young adult.

    I’m not on the spectrum but I do have ADHD. Like your son, I struggled with homework when I was in school because I saw no value in it. To be frank, I still feel that way! I don’t think tasks have inherent value beyond what they accomplish and homework for a topic I already understood was just busy work.

    It turns out I thrive in customer service because I have people coming to me with problems that need solving. Even when the work itself is tedious or draining, I’m working with a clear purpose. That keeps me engaged with what I’m doing. On good days, the work itself is rewarding – solving problems can be a fun challenge – and on bad days I can power through because I know people are relying on me.

    It sounds like your son really thrived in the volunteer setting because there was structure that helped him function and he also saw the value in what he was doing. Part of learning to navigate the world with a developmental disability involves building skills to navigate non-ideal environments, sure. But equally important is knowing your strengths and seeking out situations where you’ll thrive.

  23. Former Employee*

    I have never been diagnosed with Autism and have no reason to believe I have it. That said, I, too, hated doing homework. I didn’t like school much and homework essentially prolonged the school day and often seemed pointless.

    I knew I would feel better once I could start working. After some false starts in unsuitable work situations (think “mean girls” all grown up without maturing), I found my niche in the business world.

    While I sometimes had to work long hours, once I left the office my time was my own.

    Working was definitely a better fit than school for me.

    So, some of this is probably Autism related while he may just be someone like me who fits better in some types of environments than in others.

    Parents don’t need to be perfect, they just need to show that they care and that they want what’s best for their child. Based on that parenting test, I’d say you score 100%, OP.

    Best to you and your son and Happy Holidays, whatever you celebrate.

  24. Safely Retired*

    I believe one key will be finding an organization and boss that has the foresight to tailor the job to his strengths, to allow him to excel. If I had been a kid today I would probably have been labeled in some way, though perhaps not to the degree your son has been identified. Back then I was just a smart but lazy kid as far as everyone was concerned. I cared about learning, which I did. I didn’t care much for homework, studying or grades. I found a field I could do well, got my degree in it, and had a successful career where I stuck to jobs I could do well. I was a “go to” guy for much of my career, one people turned to when they needed clarification of the work. I was fortunate to be in an organization that was happy to make the best of my strengths.

  25. Aspermom*

    Mom to a 12 year old Aspie here, and these discussions are so incredibly helpful. My son sometimes refuses support because he thinks he will have to do everything without help later, so he has to learn how to do things himself now. He also sometimes thinks he should be responsible for something now that no (or very few) kids his age would be responsible for, like buying gifts for friends. We have to remind him he’s still young and we’re still his parents and we still pay for things! Overall he turned a huge corner in maturity this last summer, and we know there will always be challenges for him living in an NT world, but we are very hopeful.

  26. SebbyGrrl*

    That was a beautiful gift that will carry me on a cloud of goodwill into 2020.

    The kid’s alright – kudos and SO MUCH Joy for you and your brilliant young man.

  27. Oranges*

    THIS. I have ADHD and internal motivation? What’s that?

    I’m mid-thirties and I won’t do the basics of life (laundry, cooking, cleaning) unless I tell myself that my parental units (who I live with) will notice the smell/mess and become worried about me. I’m still trying to figure out a way to do finances.

    When it’s BAD I won’t do the basic basics. Showering, eating, dressing.

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