Monday, August 18, 2014

Is starting a business a solution to autistic unemployment?

As of late, there have been a few articles in the media I've located via entering "autism" as a search in Google news.  These pieces deal with entrepreneurship as one solution to the problem of autistic unemployment.  this article is one example, reporting on two different individuals on the spectrum that started their own business.

Yet another article which features the renowned Temple Grandin's photo as a lead-in, also extols supposed autistic strengths, such as the oft-repeated excellent attention to details that persons on the spectrum supposedly have.  The article claims this makes people with autism suited for various occupations, but is rather vague on what these specific professions are and how superior attention to details can help autistic people start their own businesses and actually make a gainful living.  One of the individuals mentioned in both articles has a son who started a yard work and landscaping company and apparently relies on an assistant to help him with this endeavor.  How yard work is suited for someone with attention to detail I don't understand.

Temple Grandin has weighed in, stating that if more autistic people are allowed to develop their talents and interests, they can start their own business.  Autism Speaks has had town meetings where they've encouraged people on the spectrum to start their own businesses.  This is interesting from an organization almost completely lacking in transparency as to whether or not they employ people on the spectrum in their organization.(I  realize Kerry Magroo and perhaps one or two others are exceptions to this rule).  

A short time ago, I wrote  a blog post where I discussed one of the possible origins of the "attention to details" mantra and why it may not actually be valid for most persons on the spectrum, let alone assisting them in employment.

I've actually had first hand experience with this as an individual on the spectrum who has attempted to start my own business.  In the mid eighties, after I'd been forced to resign from my clerical position at the local phone company, I attempted to start a typing and word processing business.  I lived close to UCLA at the time (I've since moved) which was a prime location for this set up as there are a number of college students who would be potential customers.  I advertised in the daily bruin (UCLA paper) and other places and had some customers.  Though some people were satisfied with my work, others weren't and I lost some clients.  The students usually waited to the last minute before their papers were due to finish them, so the turnaround times were horrendously short.  In addition to the dissatisfied customers, having to accommodate the people was tremendously aggravating and it was far more stressful than having a job with regular hours.  I had a really tough time and finally called it quits and started learning medical transcription around 1986 which I worked in sporadically from about 1987-1988 to about 2006.  My supposed "attention to details" did not help.

Aside from having a disability that might make this difficult, how do non-handicapped people typically fare when starting a business?  I had a friend who was a tree surgeon.  In fact he learned the trade from his father who had a successful tree company starting when he was quite young.  In his twenties, he decided to start his own business.  He had a very hard time, it took him quite a while to establish a clientele and he had trouble paying a lot of his bills.  Many times he contemplated whether it was worth doing and whether or not he should just drop his business and go out and get a job.

Eventually he was able to establish a reasonably successful tree company, but it took several years of capital investment and hard work.

According to oft-cited statistics80% of all businesses fail within the first 18 months of their existence.

Starting a business requires hard work, capital outlay and probably excellent social skills (which are saliently lacking in most autistic persons).  It is really tough going for a non-handicapped person.  Is it realistic for most autistic people?  Gadfly doesn't think so.  


Anonymous said...

It also requires for someone to have @ least a certain amount of executive & organizational ability as well,which most autistics have deficits in. As for the likes of JER & Temple Grandin spewing out reputed solutions for autistic un(der)employment, it seems a lot of times their solutions tend to focused on those on the highest end(what was formerly known as mild asperger syndrome) of the spectrum,while neglecting the needs of the vast majority of people on the spectrum ,including you & I. Ari, Temple & JER seem to act as if classic & lower functioning autism doesn't exist or else it's acknowledged just as a means of perpetuating neurodiversity propaganda. If any of those guys really want to help out autistics insofar where autistic unemployment is concerned, maybe they ought to help others learn how to wash cars or be part of kitchen staff. So much for the 'royal we' & their hairbrained ideas.

jonathan said...

Actually there is a car wash that employs autistic people of course, that might not set well with Ari Ne'eman and some others.

Anonymous said...

Working for someone else requires people skills. Your employer, and maybe your coworkers if you have any, are people too.

Working for your own business requires people skills. Your customers are people too.

Now subsistence farming or hunting and gathering on land that you own yourself, *that* doesn't always require people skills. It's just you and the plants and animals.

(Yes, some subsistence farmers and hunters and gatherers do have people skills and social lives, but what they do to get their food doesn't always *require* them.)

John Elder Robison said...

Jonathan, starting a business may be the best option for some of us despite the risks you highlight. If you can’t get the credentials for a good-paying regular job (a college education) self employment looks like an excellent alternative to a low-skill-labor grind. While it’s true that 80% of small businesses fail, it’s also true that 99% of workers in regular employment don’t make it all the way to the tops of their organizations. And a person who fails in his first business may well succeed in his second or third. Failure of one business venture is not the end for the person.

You can keep trying, and try different things. It’s easier to do that in self employment.

Attention to detail may give us an advantage in some kinds of work but I suspect doing what we are interested in means more, assuming it has commercial value. Someone who likes the outdoors and loves flowers may do very well as a landscaper.

Social skills are important in any career but I suggest that people with weak social skills may have an easier time of it in self employment because we don’t have the hurdle of peer and workplace acceptance to overcome. We still have to succeed with customers but one barrier is removed when we work for ourselves.

In addition, many self employed people practice trades that can be performed successfully with minimal social interaction. How many people expect deep conversation with the guy cutting their lawn or repairing a broken light fixture? In trade work, results often speak louder than our words and for that reason I do think it’s easier for some of us to succeed there.

If you look at the range of work self employed people do, a majority of us work in trade or direct labor>product activities where it’s very easy to look at our work product and decide if that’s something you as a customer would want to buy. Whether we mow lawns or write up legal contracts you can see and understand what many of us small business people do. That makes it easier for society to value us because individual customers value our work. People who work for big companies – in comparison – have trouble establishing a sense of value in the community because what they do is much more amorphous.

I believe that is a strong plus for those of us who are different, but working.

jonathan said...

John Robison: Surprised to see you posting here. I thought you were tired of me because you couldn't take my criticism of you (though you're so adept at dishing it out in some circumstances). Assuming this is really you ( and not an imposter or someone breaching your account). You've stated you have no disability whatsoever. Anyone else diagnosed with autism presumably has a disability. Social skills are just as important in running a business as in working for an employer. You can't get around the lack of social skills by trying to start a business. You should read my post about the embedded figures before sounding off about attention to details. It's just a myth put out by yourself and other members of the ND movement. You're quite naive about the problems that people who are disabled by their autism face, the fact that most people can't make it to the top of the pyramid of a company is irrelevant to my post. I'd rather be the employed peon than the unemployed vice president. Very few autistics are employed, practically none have your success in spite of the phony baloney spin you want to put on things. I've tried to show politeness and restraint in this post in spite of the contempt I have for you and your neurodiversity stance (assuming this is really you and not an imposter).

Anonymous said...

"In addition, many self employed people practice trades that can be performed successfully with minimal social interaction. How many people expect deep conversation with the guy cutting their lawn or repairing a broken light fixture?"

Deep conversation? No.

Paying attention to what they say? Yes.

For example: the guy cutting the lawn. If he's too busy not caring what other people think to care that the customer said "remember to not cut the flowers in the corner," and he cuts them in the name of his special interest in mowing exact rectangles, he's not about to get repeat business and good reviews from that customer...