18 December, 2011

pink-collar jobs and autism

I take it really hard when I see someone defending the ability of A/autistic people to work or more generally "contribute to society" (not an idea I'm fond of) by saying things like:

*we can hyperfocus on something and do it really well.
*we might seem rude but if we work in a geeky environment, like if we are video game programmers, this won't matter! And if we don't our coworkers can learn to understand and forgive our rudeness because we do a good job.
*we may have more needs in some areas but we have fewer needs in other areas because we don't party/spend time on Facebook/care about fashion/play sports/something else stereotypically non-autistic. (It's too bad because the blog where I read this had a good point about "special needs" not always meaning "more needs" but I thought it wasn't helpful to rely on stereotypes this way.)
*we might have special interests in science or art that lead to us being amazingly skilled in those areas./We might have "splinter skills" or "savant skills."

People with and without autism say these things and they mean well. But I don't like it, not just because I am offended by stereotypes or something, but because it is personally threatening to me.

Every job I've ever held, and probably every job I've ever even applied for or been interested in, has been a pink-collar job.

I feel a little weird using the term pink-collar because it was coined for kind of a critical use--it refers to jobs usually done by women and the reason these jobs are in their own category is because they tend to be lower-paid than traditionally masculine jobs that have the same workload and educational requirements. But pink-collar is the only term I can find that easily covers the sort of jobs I am thinking of.

Some examples of pink-collar jobs are hairdressing, nursing, teaching, and waitressing. These jobs are a bit different from the kinds of jobs people are usually thinking of when they talk about how Autistic people can succeed in the workplace, because a lot of the job is about interacting with people other than coworkers. These don't all apply for every pink-collar job, but some of the requirements for a pink-collar job might be:

*treating people courteously and being friendly
*not hurting or abusing people
*being well-suited to working with kids
*remaining polite when someone gets mad at you
*being able to put someone else's well-being ahead of your own
*doing everything you can to fulfill someone's request

It is probably apparent that none of these qualities are stereotypically Autistic. I even see comments to that effect thrown around without much thought--that people with autism aren't good at customer service, or that we don't like kids. I'm not just trying to be all, "I'm good at customer service and I like kids, your argument is invalid!" but to point out that when even "positive" descriptions of Autistic people's work imply that we can't do certain kinds of work, it makes it harder for us to get jobs, or be open about our disability if we do get those jobs.

I know I'm not a super rare exception in a world of Autistic people who want to be electrical engineers, because I know lots of Autistic people, especially women, who want to work in special education. Special ed is a really good example of a field where, if you were applying for a job, you would want to convince your potential employer that you had all the qualities on that list. Which is to say that if your employer has been fed stereotypes of what Autistic people are like and what kind of work we can do, telling them you have autism could really hurt your chances of getting the job.

I know some people who will be open about their autism when applying for a job. I would never, ever do this. Right now I am looking for a job in healthcare and it scares me a lot to know that my disability label is associated with being violent, rude, and uncaring. I really love having this blog because I always wanted to write something that people liked and got something out of, but I regularly consider deleting it because it would be so easy for anyone who googles me to find out I have autism.

Basically what I'm trying to say is that even though my disability doesn't make me better at doing pink-collar jobs, I don't think it makes me worse at them, and I would like my suitability for them to be judged by who I am as a person instead of my disability label. I feel that even when people try to talk positively about what Autistic people can do in the workplace, they often ignore the fact that some Autistic people don't want to work in an office or in a stereotypically un-social field like science. So they don't defend us against some of the stereotypes about what we can and can't do, and sometimes they even reinforce those stereotypes by implying we are best at certain kinds of work.

I'd also like to point out that while my family was able to pay for me to attend college and I was (barely) able to finish my degree, a lot of people with autism don't have the option of the white-collar jobs we're supposed to be so good at. If you spend all your breath arguing that we can be engineers or architects, that doesn't help people who don't have the money or don't have the ability to get the education to do those kinds of jobs.

(NB that this post might not be relevant to people with autism who can't work, and some of it might be relevant to people with other disabilities like mood and psychotic disorders and intellectual disabilities.)


  1. we are brain-twins on this, thanks for posting it

  2. Yes, thank you for this post.

    I would be horrible at a job that involved an advanced understanding of computers and technology. It really bugs me that those kinds of things are so often positioned as our only options.

  3. I think I'm guilty of saying the stuff that you found threatening :( - but I get it because I notice the same limitations being assumed onto me. For example the assumption about wanting repetitive tasks (I'd rather do a new thing every day) or being in the back room (I'm actually good at technical communication and facilitating groups) or not being bubbly-controlling enough to work with little kids (not all kids like that anyway)

    This is another post from me about special needs vs more needs, FYI:

  4. That actually is the post I was talking about. But I didn't want to link it because I was like, I haven't commented on Ian's blog yet and I don't want our first interaction to be him seeing that I have linked him in this post, but here you are anyway and I feel bad.

    I do think that post is really smart though. The beginning especially made me think. It's interesting to think how life would be for kids with disabilities that make them act less "social" if parents/teachers didn't see being social as a big goal. I can't imagine my childhood without adults trying to force me to do things with other kids, and I think my ability to have friends when I was older didn't really come from being forced to talk to other kids for a certain amount of time every day in 5th grade, or whatever.

  5. ... and this is why I'm planning to keep my Aspergers diagnosis on the down-low when I go for my induction with Samaritans. If I tell anyone there, it will be after I've (fingers crossed) proven myself perfectly capable of doing the job, and not before.

    In terms of specialist education work, austisic adults are the obvious choice to work with austistic kids, really. It's a shame that there are still people who let outdated stereotypes get in the way of seeing that.

  6. I have been told multiple times that I'm really good with kids because I don't get bored and annoyed with them, and because I try to relate to them on their level.

    And yeah, I also get a bit irked when people assume that I can't deal with people on the job because I'm Autistic. My job is pretty inherently social (although not the same sort of constant social interaction as child care). It's especially hard because on the one hand, I don't want people to think that I'm generally socially incompetent, but on the other hand, I actually *can't* handle certain social situations that are not job-related but that I might encounter in the presence of coworkers (such as a bunch of people mingling and conversing in a noisy room). I think some people don't quite understand that not all "social situations" are the same and that you can be very good at some but not others.

  7. I saw on your blog where that person said "how can you be a lawyer with all your social skills problems?" fffffuuuu

  8. and yeah the some but not others thing makes me crazy because it makes me feel like I can never admit to something, like finding it hard to make phone calls, with a potential employer, or with someone who is trying to help me.

    "oh well if you can't make phone calls, what would you do if you needed to answer the phone when someone called the nursing home?"

    um it's not the same thing?

    "oh if you can't make phone calls then how can you work with people?"

    it seems like the conclusion is either "you're a lying liar, stop lying" or "you're unsuited for the job you want to do." but it just isn't the same!!

  9. Louise your hair is beautiful, what did you use on it?

  10. Yeah - that guy was sort of a piece of work. In his defense, I guess, he considers himself unemployable because of his own social issues, and I guess he just assumed that everyone with ASD has the same problem.

    Also, the "some but not others" issue was in full effect at the time; a bunch of autistic people were milling around in an acoustically bad area and talking really loudly instead of proceeding in an orderly fashion toward dinner which in my mind was the next item on the agenda (as it turned out, the restaurant wasn't even open yet), I kept getting cornered by people trying to talk to me (including that guy) even though I was in sensory overload mode, and I was kind of on my last nerve and it showed. This situation pretty much never occurs in the course of law practice.

  11. Oh no! I hope you don't delete your blog because I really like it. Though I would understand if you did, since I can see how it would risk your career. Perhaps you'd consider using a pseudonym?

  12. how long have you had a tumblr again?? I just noticed

    anyway I'm in the process of getting hired for a job I guess, so I'm not that worried right now because if they were going to google me they already would have. I just didn't want to say that because it feels like bad luck since I don't officially have the job.

  13. Also, the other thing is that I'm proud of this blog and I kind of want my name on it. Like maybe this is a tradeoff that isn't worth it, I don't even know if I could dissociate myself from everything under my name at this point and that's scary, but that was my original rationale. I regret the fact that I've been over-personal on here sometimes though.

  14. Aw, thanks. XD To be honest, though, the effect in that picture is mostly a trick of the light. I had used Manic Panic After Midnight Blue on it, but it had faded a lot by the time that photo was taken, to the point where it actually looked pretty dull most of the time. I think I just got lucky with the angle. :3

  15. I've been back on tumblr for a while, but not very active. I need to scan in my doodles. I don't have any good drawings to scan in, but I hope that'll change once I'm finished with BSG. I can't accomplish anything while I'm obsessed with a teevee show. It eats my brain.

    I understand about the blog thing. Anyway, your dilemma reminds me of this xkcd comic.

    Anyway, congrats about the job.

  16. This might be dumb but I feel like Manic Panic in the UK is better. Maybe this has just been my experience but I feel like I remember buying a special kind of the color I used to use (atomic turquoise) when I was over there, that lasted a lot longer than usual.

    Fiona you should draw pictures of everyone from bsg!!! and that comic is the exact situation with me.

  17. This is an excellent post. Those assumptions affects me as well. I thought about going into engineering, only to find that I could not handle the intensive math and chemistry that is required. I like science, but I prefer understanding concepts over memorizing details (which is reverse of the stereotypical autistic strengths).

    I decided on agricultural and environmental education, because face it, I like to educate people! Yes, that requires "people skills." But communicating with younger people has always been easier for me than with people my own age. And when you are going to teach your special interest to others, people who sign up for your class are likely interested enough to listen.

    I am very excited, but also a little nervous to intern at an elementary school this quarter. I hope I don't say anything inappropriate by accident. Not that I swear or wear revealing clothes regularly, but sometimes I forget.

    Yeah, I never put my full name on the internet and attach it to autism, except with my friends and the autism network. I am quite open about my diagnosis in casual settings, because I don't care if ignorant people are judgmental. But when it comes to work, I may have no choice but to deal with those who don't understand immediately, and it's not worth missing a great opportunity over.

  18. All my jobs have been with children. I learned something:

    If their kid likes you & is progressing (be it academically, socially, or athletically-oh wait, I lose autie points because I'm athletic AND teach a sport), the powers that be don't care that you're a bit different.

    I loathe the stereotypes that say I should be an engineer or computer programmer. I like math & science. I'm working on a biology degree, even. But I don't. Like. Coding.And I do. like. working. with. children.

    oh, stereotypes....

  19. Hello,
    I work for Autism West Midlands, a UK based autism/AS charity and I've just come across this post. I've been looking for an email address to contact you on, but can't find one.

    I'd be really interested in publishing your thoughts on employment (like those expressed in this post) in our magazine. If this is something you'd be interested in please drop me an email on sarahf@autismwestmidlands.org.uk - no problem at all if you're not.