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The Autism Spectrum According to Autistic People

Autism neurodiversity

Thriving at Work While Autistic, Introverted, Shy, and Otherwise Different: Part 1

Crafting the Calling: Job Matching and Job Crafting

By Ludmila N. Praslova, Professor and Director, Graduate Programs in Industrial-Organizational Psychology, Vanguard University of Southern California.

I was 14, and it was job craft or die.

The term job crafting – redefining and re-imagining your job as an employee, including job tasks as well as relationships and our mindsets – would not be invented for many years, and my “differences” would not be labeled for decades (though I was clearly introverted, shy, and otherwise different). But if I were to live to become a professor of organizational psychology, I had to invent job crafting for myself.

Labor education in the Soviet Union started early. Living on the outskirts of Moscow, we could walk to collective fields, and so we did, starting in elementary school. Weeding would have been tolerable if summers weren’t so hot and work shifts so long. Harvesting potatoes and beets was actually kind of fun, and I did not mind lugging sacks of vegetables in the open field. But now we graduated to the factory work, and I was in trouble.

It was a knitwear factory, and the girls would be sent to the knitting floor or to the sewing floor. I was terrified. Industrial knitting machines were about 6 feet high and five feet in diameter, circular, rotating, noisy monsters placed in long rows about 3 feet apart across the shop floor, with one worker servicing multiple machines. One of our neighbors lost half a hand to such a machine. I was clumsy, and noise made me sick, dizzy, and unable to function. I was going to faint into the machine and die.

The sewing assembly lines were even noisier. Fainting into the sewing machine was unlikely to be deadly, but given my lack of manual dexterity to which my handy parents referred as “your hands grow out of your behind,” I was guaranteed mangled fingers. Knitwear production was about as poor match for me as it could get, though perhaps entrusting me with a tank would have been worse.

I don’t remember the entire chain of events – which means I was scared out of my mind. But the sewing floor also had an “ancillary production” shop, where fabric remnants were turned into hats and mittens – and I could see that those remnants were not fully used. With some creative arranging, it was possible to make additional baby hats and mittens. After a bit of show and tell, me and my friends, the four misfits, were spending afternoons in a quiet(er) shop matching up fabric remnants. Win-win. The ancillary job I created lasted after we graduated – one of my friends, Natalie, held it full-time for many years, until the factory was eventually closed.

However extreme my example is, win-win is the point of job crafting. Even more so when we are in jobs we actually signed up for. The goal of job crafting, and specifically task crafting, is not dumping the work we do not enjoy on someone else and doing nothing. The point is making contributions best aligned with our abilities and growing in the direction we are designed to grow while delivering organizational outcomes.

Occupational Matching and Job Matching Result in Better Individual Outcomes

The first individual-level step toward a successful career is occupational matching – finding the general fit with a cluster of jobs. It was quite clear that manufacturing was not a fit for me, agriculture was a so-so fit, and that to find something I am actually good at I would need to go to college – something no one in my family did, but I was most eager to do.

Job matching is more specific, and refers to a particular role. Both occupational and job matching need to take into account individual abilities, as well as interests and values. It is a common mistake to assume that abilities and interests are interchangeable – they are not. We can be excellent at things we do not enjoy, things that drain us (please never call me a “data cruncher”). We also can be very interested in something, yet horrible at it by objective standards. For example, I wanted to be a spy, inspired by the World War 2 heroics of righteous agents in the series “17 Moments of Spring” – but I am hopeless at lying, so I don’t think I’d last very long.

Matching both abilities and interests is important for every individual, yet even more so for those who are neurodivergent, because of “spiky” ability profiles with areas of exceptionally high as well as unusually low abilities. My “spikes” poke holes in testing “ceilings” of memory, writing, and creativity, and in the “floor” of multitasking. That means I can memorize the driving manual in little time, but still can’t drive on freeways.

Of course, we know that there are all types of ability profiles in autistic individuals, which is why I am not a fan of the popular pigeonholing of everyone into tech jobs or accounting. There are plenty of autistic creatives, humanities teachers, and healthcare professionals. Temple Grandin’s  TED talk provides fascinating examples of different types of minds and of how taking advantage of unique ability patters can translate into remarkable contributions to the workplace and to the word in general (for a brief summary, see here).

Intense “Special” Interests are Crucial in Job Matching of Autistic People

Interests are also crucial in job matching of autistic individuals because these interests are so intense, they become diagnostic criteria. My mother once resorted to burning a book in an attempt to pry me away from “excessive” reading. It did not work. In graduate school, dissertations had to be empirical studies. I wanted to write a theoretical dissertation. So I did both. I was sick with economic insecurity, my food budget was $1/day (in the US, in the early 2000s), but I still did both. If I want to learn something, you’d have to kill me to stop me from learning it. However, while doing something we like is important, selecting a career based just on a special interest alone may backfire – the emotional investment might be too much to handle. Considering the general area of interest along with abilities is likely to be more practical.

Another aspect of matching is values. A person who values relationships and collaboration would not do well in a highly competitive, cut-throat environment. A person who values achievement will be unhappy in a system that rewards high and low performers the same.

There are also considerations of the form of employment. Some people do best as employees, preferably in a well-run organization, and are OK with the hierarchical nature of traditional workplaces. Others aspire to be managers – and yes, autistic people can be managers, but more about that in the next installment. Many autistic professionals are much happier in flat organizations where they can function as relatively independent individual contributors. Yet others want to be self-employed and seek entrepreneurial paths.

My preference is an “intrapreneurial” job within an organization that allows me to exercise creativity by developing innovative areas of growth for that organization – meticulously researched, of course. For example, I established new departments and projects within a multinational not-for-profit and started new academic programs within a university. Most of the titles I’ve held so far were “founding” –  as I kept crafting jobs that weren’t just jobs, but expressions of a calling, building on both institutional needs and my passion for learning and innovation.

Crafting the calling is fun and rewarding – but it’s not all rose petals. When you craft fun jobs, someone is going to try to take them from you. I crafted mine the hard way, by doing the job for a long time before upgrading the title – and sometimes the credit and the title went to others. The job itself, even if a perfect match, is not everything. Jobs are embedded within systems of interpersonal relationships and larger organizational dynamics. Colleagues can make or break the experience. Organizational leadership can make or break the experience. Hence, my next installment will focus on some of the highs – and lows – of relational aspects of thriving at work while autistic (introverted, shy, and otherwise different).

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