It’s been almost a year since I graduated with a BS in psychology from Wright State University. It was a long road, but in the end, I made it, mostly thanks to the WSU disability services department and the intensive support they offered me. I don’t think any other school could have done it. To be honest, I don’t think that WSU disability services would have thought they could do it, either, if they’d known ahead of time what it would take. I was always getting the rules bent for me, special arrangements made, people calling in favors and drawing on their connections for my sake. Somehow, people kept seeing me as somebody who could excel in school. In the end, I did, though not nearly as well as I hoped I would. I never got that biomedical engineering degree I wanted to complete, and I only had a 3.5 GPA. But I graduated. I learned a lot. I had some experiences, especially during my lab internships, that are irreplaceable.
The past year has been difficult. Within a month, I missed going to classes. I had to do something with my life; so I doubled down on my work for the autism memorial and for ASAN’s disability day of mourning web site. I don’t know whether I’m imagining it, but lately there have been more and more homicides of disabled people. I’m falling behind–there are dozens of names waiting to be researched.
This year has also been taken up by searching for a job. As a disabled person, I’m eligible for “Opportunities for Ohioans with Disabilities” (formerly Rehabilitation Services Commission, formerly Bureau of Vocational Rehabilitation), which seems to love paperwork nearly as much as it loves changing its name but nevertheless offers some decent job-search assistance.
The trouble is that the jobs I’m looking for are so very specific. My sensory system is easily overwhelmed, so I can’t do a job that involves noise, bright lights, smells, or chaos of any sort. I need an extremely orderly work environment. I can’t drive, so my options are limited to within two miles of my apartment, or on the one bus route I’ve learned how to use. I have a psychology degree, and I want to do research; but for that, I need a master’s or doctorate. I need reliable hours. If I work more than part-time for low wages, I end up losing Medicaid, so I need a job that will offer health care regardless of my multiple pre-existing conditions.
It’s been a year now, and hundreds of job applications later, I still don’t have a job. With help from M., who comes in every week to help me fill out applications and search for more possibilities, I’ve managed a couple of interviews. M. is getting frustrated, and so am I. He says that my main problem is anxiety, that I’m so afraid of failure that I slack off and don’t try to get a job. I respond that this is not an irrational fear; I’ve had a dozen jobs in the past, and always failed at them despite doing my best. Often times, I burned out and ended up sliding straight into depression. So with that much failure under my belt, is it really so surprising that I’d be afraid it’ll happen again? M. suggests a job that involves working full-time as a receptionist, and I point out that I don’t think I can sustain that kind of social interaction for eight hours a day. Or he suggests a job that’s a ninety-minute bus ride away, and I point out that the last time I tried that I ended up thumping my head against the window and wishing I could jump out onto the highway.
M. also has this really annoying habit of telling me “not to label myself”, that he doesn’t believe in labels, and that he sees me and says, “If you hadn’t told me, I’d have no idea you had autism.” I know he means well, but I wish he would stop acting like “you don’t look autistic” is a compliment! It’s not. Autism is a part of my identity. It’s a fact. I don’t feel flattered if you tell me I don’t look autistic; I feel like you’re trying to erase or dismiss a part of me.
That “natural”, NT-style interaction you see? That’s not instinct; that’s years of hard work. I’ve worked my butt off to learn to communicate neurotypical-style during job interviews, and M. acts like that’s something I can just manage anytime I like, without much effort. I am autistic. I am properly autistic, properly disabled, and I am not exaggerating. It’s not just some little quirk that can be ignored because I’m “so smart”. I need a job that fits me, or I am going to fail again, just like I did the first dozen or so jobs I tried.
Other than that, M. is actually a decent caseworker. We’ve found a lot of jobs that might fit me; it’s just that everybody wants experience, which I haven’t got. Lately, my top pick has been pharmacy technician, something that appeals to my detail-oriented nature and desire for order. I’ve also been looking into tutoring jobs. I’ve been applying for every laboratory technician job I can find, of course.
And writing….Yeah, there’s writing. The trouble with writing is that I have no formal experience, despite being quite good at it. I recently got Top Writer on Quora, which is an endorsement I didn’t expect until I got it and someone told me it meant being one of the best few hundred among millions of contributors. But how do you put that on a resume? You can’t say, “People on the Internet like my writing.” Nobody thinks that’s significant. They still don’t understand that the Internet is part of the real world.
In other news, I recently finished Neurotribes, which is a history of autism and includes the history of the neurodiversity movement. It’s odd to read about the history of things I lived through. I wasn’t in on the foundation of neurodiversity–I’m no Jim Sinclair or Mel Baggs–but I’m definitely in the second generation, the people who were first to join the neurodiversity movement when Wrong Planet was still a niche web site and the Ransom Notes campaign was pissing us all off. I’m starting to see, more and more, the things I and others were talking about years ago becoming part of autism culture and leaking out into the mainstream. There’s even a fidget-spinner fad. Who’d have thought it?
It seems the autism rights movement is really coming into its own. I feel like we’re at that stage where the Deaf community was when they signed, “Deaf President Now!” at Gallaudet. I just hope we can survive the coming four years, leaving nobody behind, without losing our pride and sense of community.