Thoughts and illustrations on living on the autism spectrum.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Big Dreams

I am stressed, these days. I am working hard, and it seems there are not enough hours for what I want to do. What am I doing?

Only 15-20% of people with Asperger’s are employed, the stats say. That puts me in elite company. I should feel like a success, then, right? I should be grateful. I should have it easy.

But I don’t. I have big dreams. I’m not content with what I have. I’m a non-profit marketer/fundraiser. I’m good at it, and I like what I do. I work in behavioral health now, but autism is my passion. I want to follow that. Continue to do what I do, in the field that matters to me. Big dream, but I don’t know how to get there. Is it possible?

How did I get here? It once seemed impossible. I have not had it easy.

I didn’t get my first job until I was 19. It lasted all of one week. I bagged groceries, collected shopping carts, and rotated the milk. When they scheduled me opposite my favorite TV show, I left.

The next summer I worked as a busboy at a chain buffet, clearing away melted ice cream-cherry cobbler conglomerations. I had four supervisors, one of whom nicknamed me “Stoneface.” My lasting memory is of her voice barking, “Clean dem win-dezz! An’ this time, dew ‘em right!” I kept the job for a month.

A year later, I took an office support position during in my senior year of college. The job description was split between data entry and answering phones. Early on, I indicated discomfort with the phones. They scolded me at first, but then, they adapted the job to let me focus on data entry. I turned out to be the most accurate in the office. I even developed a guide we all used to decipher the client’s sloppy handwriting. I stayed 7 months there, until graduation.

Just finding opportunities was the hardest thing back then. I had no personal contacts, and internet job listings were still fairly new. At 22, on winter break from grad school, I took a job I’m rather ashamed to mention. I worked for a temp agency in a warehouse, opening and sorting junk mail. It was clearly intended for people without the skills to do anything else, who took the bus in from the city and gossiped cheerfully as they worked. And here I was, a college graduate, feeling very out of place. Better things were out there, I knew, I just couldn’t find them.

Grad school did not work out. My grades fell below the minimum requirement, and I was doubting my choice of field, engineering. I was about to be thrust out into the market for full time work, having never had so much as an internship. But in the nick of time, a professor connected me with a startup R&D company. They paid me to write grant proposals, working from home. It wasn’t enough to live on, and it was isolating.

I asked for a full time position, and space at the office, but the boss resisted. He did, however, offer me a proposition. I could put a portion of my fee “at risk,” and if the proposal was funded, I increase my earnings ten-fold. If not, I lose it all.

I am not a gambler by any stretch, but I was confident in my work. I took him up on his offer. And I won, turning $500 into $5000. Soon after that, I was hired for my first full time position.

Two years later, I had a new “big dream.” Having found success as a grant writer, I was ready to leave engineering and work for a non-profit. That kind of career change is difficult for anyone, let alone with Asperger’s challenges. I sent out dozens of applications, and went on more than ten interviews. The one time I got an offer, I botched the salary negotiation. My search grew frustrating and dragged on for months.

Then, I went on an interview that was different. It was a non-corporate, grass-roots environment. The people I met with were candid and direct. They spoke their mind, with no B.S. They loved what they did, and clearly believed in people over polish. It was a drug treatment center, and I was biased and resistant to the idea. So much so, that I turned down their offer for a second interview.

But three months later, with nothing else having come along, and the refreshing vibe I got still enticing me, I went back, and they welcomed me. They asked my salary requirements, then offered me more. It was a vote of confidence like I’d never had. Their faith that I, an engineer, could do their fundraising, filled me with a sense of value, and it carried over into my performance. I brought in millions in funds, I transformed their Web site, I turned data into charts and graphs, and I learned the art of advocacy through storytelling. I worked for that supervisor for nearly 8 years, until her retirement.

Now, I am looking for a development/communications role in the autism field. Not every advocate steps into a professional role, but I have the background for it. It’s just a natural fit. It’s realistic and possible. But I know I’m looking for a needle in a haystack. Something customized to my strengths and weaknesses.

What will it take this time? To be imaginative and resourceful in my search? To scratch and claw my way to be taken seriously? To meet the right person at the right time? Big dreams will only take you so far; someone needs to give you a chance. And each time I’ve been given a chance, I’ve proven myself, and often gone above and beyond expectations.

I may look successful to you, but in my own mind, I’ve not yet begun to do my life’s work. I do not fit anybody’s mold, and though I’ve never lost a job, I could easily find myself out on the street someday, or back in the mailroom. I take nothing for granted. I have my big dream, and now I’m waiting. Waiting for a chance.

If you would like to network with me professionally, I welcome connections on LinkedIn or Twitter.


  1. Good to hear about "how you got here", and best of luck with the search !

  2. Hang in there Matt and don't ever give up. Some day you will find that perfect fit!

  3. You will find it, I'm sure of it! Both my husband and I work in the non-profit field (he's a fundraiser, and I do grant writing and organizational management). It is hard to find the perfect job - it's great that you are so focused and know exactly what you want. Good luck in your search.

  4. I have only have 2 jobs-1 at the TV shop and the one on the turnpike-the one on the pike I almost didnt get because my boss wasnt going to hire me but someone spoke up to recommend me and I got the job and proceeded to impress the boss the as always happens with aspies-things started to happen-but the boss knows about my AS and is ok with it at least he knows why I am different and can do the things that I can do and wont do the things that I wont do. I am happy with what I do

  5. I'm happy you got your chance and made the most of it, C.R.