How Emily Beat the Unemployment Statistics

by Jill Wilbur Smith

Earlier this summer I came across a staggering statistic. According to many sources*, an estimated 83 percent of adults with Asperger’s are unemployed.

I stumbled across this information on the Internet a few days after Emily returned home from college. My initial reaction was panic. “Why didn’t I know this?!” I thought. “Why haven’t we been working on this for the past six years?”

I spent the next 24 hours in a funk, keeping this tidbit to myself while I processed what it could mean for our family. I found blog posts and websites that listed the best degrees for people with Asperger’s, most of which don’t recommend English or Political Science, Emily’s major and minor.

I walked around with a worry knot in the pit of my stomach imagining the worst.

Then I got real. My sensible husband helped pull me back from the brink of despair. “What about people with Asperger’s who have a college degree?” he asked. “And who’s the source for the unemployment data?” Good questions. I went back to the Internet.

That search uncovered…nothing. No statistics on how many people with Asperger’s graduate from college. In fact, I was unable to find the original source for the 83 percent statistic, although it appears on many blogs and websites.

So, I decided to ignore the online babel and do what I’ve always done with Emily. Follow my instincts and believe in my heart that she can achieve anything she puts her mind to. Remind myself that her disorder is classified as autism spectrum for a reason. No two people with Asperger’s are exactly the same.

What happened next surprised and overwhelmed me. Emily got a job. Within two months of graduating from college, she landed a full-time job.

I love the story of how she did it. Here’s how it happened.

At my suggestion, she decided to enroll with a temporary employment agency in the hopes of landing an office job while she searched for full-time work. (I offer this advice to anyone looking for a job. It’s served me well in my career.)

On a Monday, she met with an agency in downtown Minneapolis, submitted her resume and took the basic screening tests the agency requires.

On Tuesday, she called her references to see if she could continue to use them for her job search.

One of those calls was to a former Minnesota state representative on whose campaign she volunteered in 2008. He runs a family-owned insurance company near our home. And, he just happened to be looking for a customer service representative to replace someone who was leaving that week. He invited Emily to interview for the job.

On Wednesday, she interviewed.

She started the job on Friday.

Did Emily “beat the odds” of finding employment? Maybe. Or maybe the statistics on the Internet are outdated, untrue or have been misconstrued. Maybe projecting the future for my beautifully complex daughter has nothing to do with numbers, but only with our ongoing journey to explore the many iterations of life that lay before her.

 

*I found one reference to a 2001 study in the U.K., but not the study itself. If you know the original source for this unemployment data, I’d love to know about it!

On Taking Initiative…and Rolling for It

by Emily Smith

My first day of work!

My first day of work!

In this economy, it’s safe to say my family feels justifiably proud of me for having a full-time job. I’m pretty proud of it myself. I doubt, though, that we all feel this way for the same reasons. In the first place, you’re in a radically different boat when you say “my daughter got a job” or “my sister has a job,” versus when you can say “I work this job now.” But more importantly, at least to me, our sources of pride are various.

My sister’s emotions remain a mystery to me. She congratulated me along with everyone else when I landed the job. I congratulated her when she found out that she got her first part-time job. As far as I can tell, she sees me as slightly more “normal” now that I work. It makes sense, I suppose. She has this part-time job as a high school student, and even as a college student, my work experience was limited. Maybe she relates more to my life now. That’s a good thing, right?

If I had to hazard a guess, my mother is essentially proud of me for beating the odds of my peer group, despite autism. Given her past herculean efforts to make me functionally normal, I can’t really blame her for this. “Normal” society tells me this too, but I have an easier time agreeing with them on this than on most other things. A decade of wondering how your child is stunted, what needs to get done to catch her up with the pack, who’s lending her a hand this time, will do that to even the staunchest of advocates. (And yes, Mom, you really are the staunchest of advocates. I love you, and my sister, very much.)

Regardless of their positive intentions, both tend to think in terms of despite autism when I’ve accomplished something. They say, “Emily, you have so many challenges.” I agree, and they’re not minor challenges. Sometimes I wonder, though, if they forget I have gifts, and that those are not minor either. Maybe it’s the curse of adulthood starting to work on me. After all, it’s a common irony that children are universally special.

Conversely, despite the many highs and lows of my relationship to my father, I more often feel gifted than challenged around him. He and I are the other unofficial parent-child pair of the family. His conversations tend to fill up with “did you know that?” or “isn’t that amazing?” rather than “I know! Isn’t that color amazing?” But the exchange of seemingly random facts is our small talk. Don’t judge us; it works fine as long as you’re not hoping to hear about other people’s lives. And it’s safe to say, we never are. No offense, other people.

My dad seems proud of me for practical reasons. Reasons of money, productivity, well-being. Granted, I don’t always get this either. Ten years ago he was telling me to always follow my bliss. He still does, on occasion. At present, it seems like I can’t go a day without hearing how much of my income should make rent (a third of it), how to prioritize my other spending (needs first), and the merits of homemade sandwiches versus increasingly expensive fast food (you know, you can get an entire chicken at Byerly’s for $5.99! A whole chicken!). But hey, I’m still saving up to move out. I could use a nickel’s worth of free advice every now and then. Thanks, Dad.

So what makes me proud of the job? Not the job itself. I know, you thought we’d banter about what my job is like, didn’t you? Sorry, gentle readers, you’re out of luck this time. I’ll get the hang of banter someday. Maybe.

I get to use this job… to figure out other jobs. Yup. Read that again.

Why wouldn’t I just be happy about this job, you ask? Well, first of all, my job is made up of tasks that are easy, punctuated by tasks that are terrifying. For most people, those labels would probably be switched, since I think filling out complicated insurance forms is easy and phone calls are terrifying. But the contrast still stands.

The crux of the matter for me is that I get to use these new skills and this new environment to project myself into the future. I get to see what I like to do and don’t like to do, where and how I like working, and with whom I might eventually work. That’s useful information I didn’t have before.

I’ve always had this ambition to “be a writer,” and sort of vaguely figured the day-job stuff would happen later. Now the day-job stuff is actually happening, and I’m feeling pretty awesome about that. It’s Phase Two of “What do I want to be when I grow up?”

I could write and… conduct actuarial research! This one would be lucrative, plus I’d be awesome at it.

I could write and… work with animals! The kid in me still really wants to fly out to Galápagos and tag penguins FOR SCIENCE! It could happen.

I could write and… do marketing for an RPG gaming company! So far, I like this one best and think its timetable is the shortest. If anyone at Paizo Publishing reads this, I would climb the highest mountain to work with you. Which is good, because you’re based in Washington. Anyway, I love you guys, so roll for initiative. And I guess I should make a Climb check.

Bottom line: This is my first iteration of adult life. And it’s the first iteration of many. The function that drives them: What kind of bliss can I follow, to keep my other bliss alive?

That’s one glorious fractal.

When Hitting the Wall Is a Good Thing

by Jill Wilbur Smith

On a Friday night on the last day of May 2013, I walk into the house to find my husband, Gary, on the phone with Emily. “Can you talk to Emily,” he says holding the phone out for me. “She backed into a wall with the Avalon.”

For what seems like the first time in 22 years (but probably isn’t) I can’t talk to her. Not at that moment. My sense of disappointment and anger is too great. I’m ashamed to admit that. My daughter has had an accident with her car, and I’m too angry to talk to her about it.

It isn’t the first time we’ve received such a call. There was the Good Friday rear-end collision on Hennepin Avenue. The time she swiped an oncoming car in a snowstorm trying to avoid a pedestrian in the road. The incident when a hit-and-run driver clipped her rear bumper on I-94. And the series of calls that her battery was dead until we figured out that when she installed a friend’s bike rack to her car, she not only dented the trunk lid, but broke the mechanism inside that turned off the light. The light inside the trunk kept draining the battery.

IMG_5854My extreme disappointment on this night, however, is because it’s supposed to be an evening of celebration. She’s coming home from college after four years—with a diploma. A great achievement. And something I wasn’t always sure would happen.

For Emily, having an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) has meant that milestones neurotypical (NT) kids her age achieve aren’t always a given. But she has graduated from college in four years, something not many NT students achieve, let alone an Aspie like Emily. Granted, she’s had her challenges, but she’s graduated. And I selfishly want to celebrate her achievement, which I think of as mine, too.

So I hit the wall. I’ve held it together for months, coaxing her through her depression, helping her figure out how to withdraw from a bad living situation and finish her degree. This setback is one-too-many for me. Gary tells Emily I’ll call her back and hangs up the phone.

I pace around the house, take deep breaths, and brace myself to call her back. She doesn’t answer her phone. Or several text messages. My anger builds. Finally, she returns my call.

“Hi, mom. Sorry. I have my phone on vibrate and didn’t hear your call.” She’s calm. Not what I expect. She seems to be taking her situation in stride. A somewhat atypical reaction.

Through a series of phone calls and texts we come up with a plan. Correction. She comes up with a plan—one that involves her taking care of the situation on her own.

My anger has had an unexpected benefit. It’s prevented me from doing what I’ve done for most of her 22 years—swoop in and save her. She’ll work this out, staying with friends at least until Monday when a mechanic can look at the car.

On Saturday, I get a text from her. “In spite of all the hassle,” she writes, “it’s been pretty fun. One thing’s for sure. The day I finished college is one I’ll never forget!”

And neither will I. Although not for the reasons I’ve dreamed about. That’s my life with Emily. Always unexpected. Never typical. Sometimes it takes hitting a wall to remind me of that and to show me that unexpected doesn’t mean catastrophic. Just different.