MAKING THE TRANSITION FROM THE WORLD
OF SCHOOL INTO THE WORLD OF WORK
Temple Grandin, Ph.D.
Colorado State University
Fort Collins, Colorado, 80523, U.S.A.
During my travels to many Autism conferences I
have observed many sad cases of people with Autism
who have successfully completed high school or college but have
been unable to make the transition into the world of work. Some
have become perpetual students because they thrive on the intellectual
stimulation of college. For many able people with Autism college
years were their happiest (Szatmari et al., 1989).
I would like to stress the importance of a gradual
transition from an educational setting into a career. I made the
transition gradually. My present career of designing livestock facilities
is based on an old childhood fixation. I used that fixation to motivate
me to become an expert on cattle handling. Equipment I have designed
is in all the major meat plants. I have also stimulated the meat
industry to recognize the importance of humane treatment of livestock.
While I was in college I started visiting local feedlots and meat
packing plants. This enabled me to learn about the industry.
Many successful people with Autism have turned
an old fixation into the basis of a career. I was lucky to find
Tom Rohrer, the manager of the local Swift Meat Packing plant, and
Ted Gilbert, the Manager of the Red River Feedlot (John Wayne's
feedlot). They allowed me to visit their operations every week.
They recognized my talents and tolerated my eccentricities. These
people served as important mentors. Educators who work with autistic
students need to find these people in the business community. I
finished up at Arizona State University with a Master's Thesis on
cattle handling and chute design. At the same time I did some freelance
writing for the Arizona Farmer Ranchman Magazine. This enabled me
to further learn about the livestock industry and develop expertise.
My next step was to get hired for my first job
at a large feedlot construction company. Emil Winnisky, the construction
manager, recognized my talents in design. He also served as a third
important mentor to force me to conform to a few social rules. He
had his secretaries take me out to buy better clothes. At the time
I really resented this, but today I realize that he did me a great
favor. He also told me bluntly that I had to do certain grooming
niceties such as wearing deodorant. I had to change. I was most
interested to read this passage in one of Kanner's papers about
people with Autism that make a successful adaptation: "Unlike
most other autistic children they become uneasily aware of their
peculiarities and they begin to make a conscious effort to do something
about them." (Kanner et al. 1972).
Emil was an eccentric guy himself and that may
explain why he hired me. About six months after I was hired, Emil
was fired. I continued to work for about a year, and I quit because
I was asked to participate in some highly questionable business
practices. While I was at the construction company I learned drafting
from Davy, their wonderful draftsman. Davy and I got along, he was
a shy loner who drew the most beautiful drawings. From contacts
I made at the construction company I started doing freelance design
work. I started my independent consulting and design business one
job at a time. People respect talent, and I soon developed a reputation
for being an expert. While I was slowly building up my business
I had enough financial resources so I did not have to take a job
at McDonald's to pay the bills.
The freelance route has enabled people with Autism
to be successful and exploit their talent area. Computer programming
is often a good area. To get the business started people with Autism
need someone to help them get some of their initial jobs. A freelance
business also helps avoid some of the social problems with a job
in one place. I can go in, do the design job, and then get out before
I get involved in a social situation where I could get into trouble.
Other freelance businesses which can work well for people with Autism
are piano tuner, motor repair, and graphic arts. These jobs all
make use of skills that many people with Autism have, such as perfect
pitch, mechanical ability and artistic talent.
Lack of Social Understanding
I soon developed a reputation in Arizona for being
an expert in my field, but I got into trouble socially. I caused
a big bunch of trouble for Tom Rohrer, Manager of the Swift plant.
I did not understand that people have egos, and that protecting
their egos was often more important than loyalty to the company.
I naively believed that all Swift employees would always act in
the best interests of their employer. I assumed that if I was loyal
and always worked for the good of Swift's, I would be rewarded.
The other engineers resented me. They sometimes installed equipment
wrong, and they never consulted me. They did not like this "nerd"
telling them how to do it. Technically, I was right but socially
I caused trouble for Tom Rohrer after I wrote
a letter to the President of Swift about a bad equipment installation
which caused cattle to suffer. The President was embarrassed that
I had found a fault in his operation. I thought he would be pleased
if I informed him of the mistake, instead he felt threatened and
told Tom to get rid of me. Fortunately, Tom did not kick me out.
Over the years I have learned to be more tactful
and diplomatic. I have learned to never go over the head of the
person that hired me unless I have their permission. From past experiences,
I have learned to avoid situations where I could be exploited or
my employers might feel threatened. I learned diplomacy by reading
about international negotiations and using them as models.
Getting in trouble over the social aspects of
work is a problem area for many people with Autism. Learning the
work part of the job is easy. Many people with Autism expect all
people to be good. It is a rude awakening to learn that some people
are bad, and they may try to exploit them. This is a lesson that
an independent person with Autism must learn. For people with Autism
who take lower level manufacturing jobs, the other employees should
be involved and trained to help the person. The co-workers need
to be trained to understand Autism. A higher functioning person
with Autism can avoid trouble by keeping his mind on his work. One
man worked for five years in a lab, and his employer was happy with
his work. One day he got into trouble when he went drinking with
the guys and got fired. He would have been better off if he had
declined. To avoid problems, I keep my contacts with clients in
the technical department. Attempting to date or flirt with people
in my client's work places would cause many problems, so I just
don't do it.
Autism Follow-Up Studies
There have been two major studies on the follow
up of adults with Autism who have made a satisfactory adjustment.
Szatmari et al. (1989) described six high functioning adults who
graduated from college and were able to live independently. One
of those people became a perpetual student, and the other five have
jobs. There is a tendency for people with Autism to become perpetual
students because they like the stimulating but structured college
Two of the people in Szatmari's study became salesmen
and two worked in a library. The fifth person became a physics tutor.
Physics tutor would be a good job to do on a freelance basis. People
with Autism are often good at teaching others in their areas of
special skills. Jason Utley from Kentucky mastered the skills to
become an Eagle Scout, and the other scouts liked him because he
teaches them to tie knots. Teaching and being a salesman involve
social interaction but it is often one-way interaction where the
person with Autism gets to talk about his area of interest. It does
not require a complex understanding of social relations.
Kanner et al. (1972) followed up nine high functioning
cases where a good adjustment had been made. Five of these people
had jobs. The jobs were bank teller, lab chemist, blue collar Agricultural
Experiment Station worker, accountant, and library page. One of
these people bounced from job to job due to social problems. The
job placements that were successful did not involve complex social
interactions. A bank teller's interactions can be routine and stereotyped.
The person who became the lab chemist originally
had a nursing job. This job was a disaster because she did not know
how to be flexible. She learned from the nursing text book that
mothers should nurse their babies for only 20 minutes. When she
abruptly took the babies away from the mothers in the obstetrics
ward they became angry. She could not understand why. When she switched
to the chemistry lab, she was appreciated for her knowledge of chemistry.
The person who is now an accountant got dismissed from a previous
job after he was promoted to a supervisory position. I heard about
another sad case where a man with Autism had been a successful draftsman
for many years in an architectural firm. When he was promoted and
had to be involved with clients he was fired. He should have been
left working on his drawing board.
In summary, a person with Autism can make a successful
transition into a job or career.
1. Gradual Transitions - Work should be started
for short periods while the person is still in school.
2.Supportive Employers - Parents and educators
need to find employers who will be willing to work with people with
3. Mentors - People with Autism, especially the
higher functioning, need mentors who can be both a special friend
and help them learn social skills. The most successful mentors have
common interests with the person with Autism.
4. Educate Employers and Employees - Both employers
and employees need to be educated about Autism so they support the
person with Autism and help him. They also need to understand an
autistic person's limitations with complex social interactions to
help him avoid situations which could cause him to lose his job.
5. Freelance Work - Freelance work is often a
good option for very high functioning people who have a special
skill in computers, music, or art. The person with Autism will need
someone to help him get the business started and possibly educate
clients about Autism. Successful freelance businesses have been
started in computer programming, piano tuning and graphic arts.
6. Make a Portfolio - People with Autism have
to sell their skills instead of their personality. They should make
a portfolio of their work. Artists can make color photocopies of
their work, and computer programmers can make a demonstration disc.
The portfolio of the person's work should be shown to the people
in the art or computing department. In all of my jobs, I had to
get in the "back door." Since people with Autism do not
interview well, the personnel department should be avoided. Technical
people respect talent, and a person with Autism has to sell his
talent to an employer.
Kanner, L., Rodriguez, A., and Ashenden, B. (1972).
How far can autistic children go in matters of social adaptation?
Journal of Autism and Childhood Schizophrenia (Now titled: Journal
of Autism and Developmental Disorders), 2: 9-33.
Szatmari, P., Bartolucci, G., Bond, S., and Rich, S. (1989). A follow-up
study of high functioning autistic children. Journal of Autism and
Developmental Disorders, 19: 213-225.
Revised February, 1996. An earlier version of this article appeared
in The Advocate, Summer, 1992.
© Copyright Temple Grandin.
Permission to reproduce Temple Grandin's story about Autism has
been kindly granted by www.autism.org. Any requests for reproduction
must be sent to www.autism.org for their approval. Visit their site
for a wide range of articles on Autism Spectrum Disorders.
Click here for the full range of Asperger's and autism fact sheets and personal stories