Since my daughter Sarah was diagnosed on the autistic spectrum at age one, I’ve fought as hard as any Tiger mom to help her grow up to become as accomplished and independent as possible. Instead of striving for the “American Dream” — including owning our home— Henry and I invested our energy and money in our daughter’s future. We looked for the best schools, the best therapists and cutting-edge treatments, and paid top dollar for them in the hopes of giving Sarah the best chance of achieving her dream of going to college and becoming an independent adult. Always in the back of my mind was the idea that Sarah’s brain could keep growing and learning; maybe tomorrow or next year she would function more like a neurotypical kid. I always believed she would eventually learn to read, make friends, get invited to parties, have a boyfriend, graduate high school, college, and – find a job! With Sarah’s spunk and determination, I was convinced she’d exceed the expectations of the curmudgeon therapists who’d long ago predicted she’d be doomed to live in an institution. But I also knew Sarah’s brain might take a very long time to grow up ….
Early on I gave up on Sarah catching up to her neurotypical twin brother, Max. An intellectually gifted boy, he raced further ahead of his sister with every passing year. Luckily, Dr. Stanley Greenspan—a renowned child psychiatrist—had warned me that helping Sarah would be “a marathon, not a sprint.” Propping up my spirits along the way, he added that “one child might learn to write script at age nine, while another might not do it till age eleven.” Of course all that mattered in the end was accomplishing the task, right? (These days script doesn’t much matter anyway). According to Dr. Greenspan, the plasticity of Sarah’s brain would enable her to continue developing until age 30, whereas her twin brother would probably reach intellectual maturity at an earlier age.
But as Sarah says, “It’s not good enough.” What Sarah wants—like other young adults—is a full-time job that makes meaningful use of her talents. Now that her school days are behind her, my daughter is looking for a new purpose—meaningful work toward meaningful goals. Instead of good grades and teachers’ compliments, Sarah now seeks payment and positive feedback for a job well done.
Speaking of media attention, the press has also focused on people such as Temple Grandin, with Asperger’s Syndrome, the mildest form of autism. Thanks to Grandin—the now-famous author and animal behavior expert—attitudes toward autism have improved somewhat. These days there is a neurodiversity movement, which views high-functioning autism not as a disability, but instead as a different mix of talents and human potential that can actually helpcompanies improve. To some extent, people with Asperger’s Syndrome have even become media darlings. Surely you’ve heard journalists rhapsodize about Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, speculating that their brilliance may be due to undiagnosed Asperger’s Syndrome.
The question is: Why should a company go out on a limb and hire someone with autism when there are boatloads of neurotypical millennials looking for work? Answer: Maybe a young adult with autism will love and appreciate one of those entry level jobs disdained or merely tolerated by neurotypical college grads. Further, young adults on the spectrum might perform repetitive tasks BETTER than their neurotypical peers, bringing more enthusiasm and an eye for detail because they are stimulated (rather than bored) by this painstaking work.
Bonus: Who knows what businesses may learn, or how they might profit, from the unique perspectives offered by different kinds of minds? (Remember Temple Grandin.) Furthermore, patience, kindness and a willingness to adhere to routine—qualities associated with many on the spectrum–might prove very beneficial to some employers. If we’re going to have laws requiring ramps for people in wheelchairs and accommodations for the deaf and blind, don’t we have a moral obligation to provide people on the spectrum with opportunities to be productive in the workplace? Nurturing and educating people with disabilities have been critical first steps, but we MUST keep moving forward.
“Why can’t you tell me I’m doing a fantastic, wonderful job?” Her tone is both plaintive and demanding. “Will you be proud of me if I get a paying job?”
Saying I’m proud of her whether she gets a job or not isn’t going to satisfy her. Like most neurotypical adults, Sarah can’t feel proud of herself if she’s not productive. Can you blame her?
I don’t need gifts this holiday season. What I want is for my sweet, hard-working Sarah is to find a paying job, (or even an internship that leads to one.) Maybe next year.