December 2021 was something of a bell-ringer in terms of autism news. The Harvard Business Review published the unapologetic piece, “Autism Doesn’t Hold People Back at Work. Discrimination Does.” 

Autistics in the workforce have always known this. It’s still the lizard brain: The same kids who sensed your difference from the herd in the third grade are still with you in the office. At 35, you’re better at masking, but they’re better at making their reasons for not liking you seem legit: “That’s not how we do things here. She ignores hierarchy. She’s not a team player. She’s a show-off. She’s too critical. She looks for problems, nitpicks.” 

Whatever the stated reason, you won’t be doing well at this job. 

A brief reenactment of me making friends at work 25 years ago:

New neurotypical coworker I’d been getting along with: “Mild sarcastic complaint about some redundant task.” 

Me, undiagnosed autistic: “Yeah, it’s like rebuilding the Argo, but no one will sing songs about us!” Snort-laugh.

New coworker: “I get it, you went to college. Stop being such a show-off.”

Me: “No, that’s just how I think!” (Meaning, Greek myths are literally my go-to for humor.)

But new coworker hears: “That’s right, you peasant.”

Rolls eyes, calls me a snob, walks away.

End scene.

Almost two years ago, I wrote a piece for PublicSource: “Women my age weren’t called ‘autistic’ growing up.” It was both my own story and the story of many undiagnosed autistic women. I got emails from women around the world who recognized themselves, or their mothers or their daughters in the story. One mother wrote that reading the piece saved her adult daughter from suicide. I found the responses to be a powerful confirmation that it was the “otherness” we experienced and not the actual autism that was the primary source of pain. I knew that we autistics really were “speaking a different language.”

Since that essay came out, I’ve continued to advocate, especially for older autistic women. I’ve done interviews; I sit on “autistic advisory boards” for some national organizations; I co-wrote a textbook chapter; and I do what I can to connect other teachers with an understanding of how autism and neurodiversity influence the writing process.

Most importantly, I started working with an autism services nonprofit. 

I saw a job posting in August 2020 from a nonprofit agency here in Pittsburgh that serves neurodiverse young people with college coaching, workforce coaching and, most surprising, arts and filmmaking programs. It’s a small organization, and the position was a hodgepodge of marketing, outreach, grant writing and development. It was a perfect match for my resume. 

Consider: What if autistic brains are a natural variation, sort of like being left-handed or extroverted?

I wasn’t looking for a job at the time; teaching at the University of Pittsburgh and rehabbing our new pandemic house kept me plenty busy. Yet it seemed like an opportunity that was too perfect to miss.

I interviewed with the executive director over Zoom. It went well. 

You’d think that meeting over Zoom would rule out developing any sort of rapport. That wasn’t the case. I often struggle with just being around other human beings. New people give off all kinds of vibrations and signals that I don’t understand, and all that data flying at me is incredibly anxiety provoking. I have learned to project what I believe to be appropriate facial expressions, but underneath them I’m really just moderating my breathing. I have often wished to just be a brain with subtitles, and with the miracle of Zoom, that dream has come true.

Without that anxiety, I could speak plainly and comfortably. I shared real ideas, real goals. We developed a real rapport. 

Yes, part of that rapport was possible because I knew I was talking with someone who knew I was autistic and knew what that meant. My quirks didn’t phase her or make her think the real, unmasked me was any less capable. I quoted the ancient Greeks, and she was not offended. 

“Autistic workers need the office equivalent of the “Pittsburgh Left” — it’s unusual, unthinkable in other places, and it’s a program that is managed on a case-by-case basis by every driver in the city,” writes Joey Murphy. “Yet it can make things run better.” (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

Except for my wife, this job is the best thing that’s ever happened to me. I’m doing work that I feel is valuable, and I feel valued because they take my lived experience very seriously. The experience has sharpened my understanding of what I want to advocate for: this sort of comfortable, fulfilling employment for the neurodiverse community, particularly here in Pittsburgh.

In December, the CDC reported that one in 44 U.S. kids have been diagnosed with autism. In March 2020, it was one in 54; the ability to identify autism earlier is improving. 

I can’t say the same for the employment of people with autism: National figures indicate that unemployment for young neurodiverse adults is 30-40% while unemployment is as much as 85% for autistics with college degrees

My investigation of my own life has yielded this: There are at least two naturally occurring sorts of brains. The “neurotypical brain” and the “neurodiverse brain.” Science is starting to agree with me. I can only speak for the autistic/ADHD brain, but it’s a start. Each style of brain is programmed with distinct goals. They are not necessarily at odds with each other, but they are nearly invisible to each other in the wild. This can create a lot of social friction.

The neurotypical [NT] brain is wired to prioritize social interaction and pecking order. The neurodiverse [ND] brain is wired to put that same level of effort into indexing topics. For NTs, one basic narrative is “girl meets boy, they fall in love.” For ND brains, this is much closer to the truth: “Girl meets topic, girl falls in love, girl’s passion is exhausting this field of knowledge, please stop trying to distract girl from her topic.” We are motivated, on a primal level, by different goals. That’s where the communication problems come from. NTs feel that we are rude and standoffish. NDs feel that NTs waste a lot of time on social stuff. Neither is correct, just informed by different priorities.

The “communications problem” has traditionally been laid at the feet of autistics. Autistic children and young adults are given therapy to improve their “social skills” and “communication deficits” because the underlying assumption is that the NT way of communicating is the standard, the default. Getting autistics to communicate in standard NT should solve their problems, right?

Except it never does.

The work needs to be done on both sides.

Consider: What if autistic brains are a natural variation, sort of like being left-handed or extroverted? What if the ways that neurodiverse people inhabit the world are as valid as the neurotypical cultural standard? What if overcoming the communication differences really are a matter of mutual diplomacy?

My advocacy work now is promoting this sort of bridge-building locally.

Why focus on employment? Because a stable, sustaining income solves a lot of problems for autistic people, just like for anyone else.

Why Pittsburgh? Pittsburgh has been losing population for as long as I’ve been alive. Workforce development people have been lamenting the shortage of skilled workers for years and predicting that the baby boomer retirement would wreak havoc. Well, in addition to the pandemic, that havoc is here now. We need a larger pool of workers, and we’ve got a lot of able and skilled autistic people who need jobs. 

Autistic workers need the office equivalent of the “Pittsburgh Left” — it’s unusual, unthinkable in other places, and it’s a program that is managed on a case-by-case basis by every driver in the city. Yet it can make things run better.

Let’s think differently, together. 

Joey Murphy is a freelance writer and writing coach. She teaches at the University of Pittsburgh and is director of development at Evolve Coaching. She can be reached at johanna@evolve-coaching.org.

Illustrations by Andrea Shockling.

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