5 Pieces of Advice for Employers from an Adult with Autism
Op-Ed by Dylan Volk, July 05, 2017

Dylan VolkMy name is Dylan Volk.  I am 25 years old and I have what is known as high functioning autism.  In my experience with almost 40 jobs, having been fired from every one of them, I have some advice for employers.  I would like to tell you 5 things that I want employers to know about people with autism.

1.  "High Functioning" is a misnomer for people with autism.

The term "High Functioning" to describe my disability is one of the biggest challenges I have to deal with in the workplace.  Because I present to the average person as nuerotypical, what people on the autism spectrum call normal, employers underestimate the impact of my disability.   And please make no mistake about it, it is a disability.  Without accommodations I am less able to do the same job functions as other people.  I need assistance.  That is not an insult to me, it is simply a fact of life.  What I find insulting is the term "differently abled."   It leads employers to think that my challenges are no more of an obstacle than any other person's and, therefore, it devalues the struggles I am faced with every day.  As I mentioned, I appear to be normal so I often compare my experiences to the very tall four year old that everyone treats like a 6 year old.  I present as normal so I am treated as normal, but I am not.  I have autism and it affects every aspect of my life and every job I get. People tend to go on face value.  They go by what they feel not by what they know.  I have found that even when I tell people I have a disability and how it will impact my work, if they do not feel like I have a disability they assume I am "just being difficult" or "not cutting it."   And that is when I get fired.  Employers, please do not assume that because I am "high functioning" I am like everyone else.

2.  Forget all the rules about privacy, PLEASE tell people about my disability!

I have asked several employers and Human Resources managers to please disclose my disability to my co-workers.  They usually tell me they prefer not to do that as it violates privacy laws.   They say they don't like to talk about employee's disabilities.  My response tends to blow them away, "The difference between my disability and those of many people who that rule was created for is my disability is invisible. You don't have to tell people about the guy in the wheelchair or the woman who can't see because everyone can immediately recognize their disabilities."   I have found this argument is challenging even for Human Resources managers to deny.  If having co-workers know about my disability means they are more “forgiving," I am perfectly fine with that. It may mean I keep my job.

3.  Take the most specific instructions you can imagine, and make them much clearer for me.

Whenever I get a job I tell my employer that I need extremely clear and specific instructions. And they always say the same thing: "No problem, I can do that."  Issues arise later when they realize that the extremely clear and specific instructions I need are at a level they don't even comprehend. You see, neurotypical people read between each other's lines much more than they know.  For example, when I was working in Utah I spilled some mop water at the pizza place I was working at and had to clean it up.  I mopped and mopped but I just could not seem to get the floor dry.  I went to my supervisor to ask what he thought of the wet floor.  I asked, "Can I go now?"  He said, "If you think that is good enough I guess you can go." As you are well aware, that is not a yes or a no.  It is not clear or specific. I mopped some more. I am not an expert on evaporation. I am not a professional in the custodial arts.  I had no clue what that floor would look like when the water dried.  I asked him again if my work was completed.  He gave me the same response.  In his mind he was totally convinced he was telling me to stay by his tone, pitch and body language. But I am autistic. I take everything literally. So when he said I could go, I left.  I was fired the next day.  When someone with autism tells you they need clear instructions, think to yourself "literal and ridiculously clear" and you might get it right.

4.  We love to work because it is like the exact opposite of the high school cafeteria.

You remember the high school cafeteria, right?  It is like the Wild West of social atmospheres.  As one walks in and grabs their meal he has seconds to decide where he will sit.  The "popular table" is out.  The "drama table" is a no go, too.  And the "jock table" is usually the most remote option for someone on the autism spectrum.  So where do we sit?  And there lies the problem, and the stress for four straight years, seven if you include middle school. The workplace, however, is quite different.  Everyone there is assigned to work specific hours. They are all at work to accomplish the goal of making the company successful.  In a sense, it is an environment of forced social interaction. I like to call it "affirmative social action."  It is one of the reasons I love to work.  I am sure this is true for most people on the spectrum.  People almost have to be friendly to you because you are part of "the team."   Please do not assume that just because someone with autism has not held a job, or hasn't held one for long, they do not like to work.  Give us a chance to prove what we can do.

5. We're very susceptible to peer influences.

Many of us go through life looking to neurotypical people as shining examples of competent social skills. Oftentimes people that aren't on the spectrum end up serving as a model of how to carry one's self, especially those of high social status. So we aren't entirely wrong with this view, but of course there are those times when our black-and-white thinking can have us following a bad example. In high school I was working as a host at Chili's in Portland, Maine and my co-host was a girl who had worked there for years. By all accounts, she seemed very good at her job. A girl came in with her family including both her parents and I remarked that I thought she was cute. My coworker told me it'd be funny if I slipped her a post-it note before they left with my digits. I thought she was kidding at first but then she seemed like she was serious. Now it is true that different things are acceptable at different places, and what is inappropriate at one place of work might be totally acceptable at another. That was the kernel of truth that led me to thinking this was a good idea. Furthermore, if it had come from another person I might not have taken it so seriously but this girl was great at her job and her judgment seemed solid. Finally, I wanted to make my co-workers laugh and to be accepted. Unfortunately, handing the young customer a note when I delivered the check completely backfired when her father came back and lodged a formal complaint against me.  In my mind, especially in my younger years, I felt that if an idea came from a cool, neurotypical person who had all her stuff together, how could it fail? 

Dylan Volk is co-author of Chasing the Rabbit: A Dad's Life Raising a Son on the Spectrum. He is a nationally acclaimed public speaker for autism awareness and autism understanding. You can learn more at

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