The Autism Bookshelf: The Complete Guide to Getting a Job for People with Asperger’s Syndrome

It’s a goal of mine, albeit one much too deferred, to run the Chicago Marathon. As I was finishing up school in 2008, shedding the pounds I put on from years of cafeteria binges and late-night Chinese takeout, I resolved to run the marathon as a way to cap off an arduous stretch of personal improvement. But 2008 became 2010, which became 2012, and while I’ve run hundreds and hundreds of miles between then and now, I haven’t run the 26.2 I wanted to. So what’s stopping me? All kinds of people out there run this thing every year. It’s not just the best in the world out there. All I need to do is train, sign up, and give it my best shot. But I haven’t. What is it that I’m afraid of?


This winds up being a parallel to the job hunt for a lot of folks on the spectrum. That includes me. I’ve struggled with the metaphorical starting line almost as much as the real one. Prior to coming on board here, I stayed in a bubble of self-employment that was comfortable to my situation, but hardly lucrative. When I was finally forced to send out flurries of résumés, many came back with rejection letters, more came back unanswered, and I wondered why I bothered at all. So I didn’t anymore. It was a career setback that begat personal setbacks, that in turn begat further personal setbacks, and this all would’ve kept snowballing into a very unpleasant situation had I not had the amazing fortune to arrive before you here and put forth the hard work to stay here.


In a way, people with Asperger’s often approach searching for employment as something as insurmountable as a marathon. Just like how the weather on an autumn race day can land anywhere between sweltering humidity and bone-chilling rain, all the planning and plotting out can’t prepare you for every condition you’ll face in an interview. And when you’re fixated on doing everything right and doing it best, so much that you’re scared to death of any surprises along the way, it’s hard to come to terms with putting yourself out there in a pack of competitors and judging yourself against them — to say nothing of the world-class Kenyans at the front. We’re so afraid to fail that we don’t give ourselves the chance to fail. And that, to be a bit trite, is the real failure.


Barbara Bissonnette is a career coach who specializes in assisting people with Asperger’s, and with her upcoming book, The Complete Guide to Getting a Job for People with Asperger’s Syndrome, she hopes to help people with the hardest part of career development: getting a career in the first place.


The book explores a number of key issues that give particular trouble to job candidates on the spectrum, and offers a number of ways to navigate them. Some, like the importance of appearance, seem obvious, but still provide a closer look into all the ways that one has to be “switched on” beyond just dressing for success. Other topics are not as self-evident, and are full of tremendous insight. For instance, people with Asperger’s are notoriously bad liars, and struggle with the nuances of selling oneself. The subtle fluffing that goes into any effective résumé, or the euphemisms and buzzwords that make up the language of the office, conflict with our literal nature and fear of being tarred and feathered for breaking the rules. Fortunately, the book devotes time to writing a résumé in such a way as to be an effective sales tool. With Ms. Bissonnette’s guidance, a résumé can be honest and persuasive in detailing its writer’s accomplishments, while—and this is so key—being well-organized.


To me, much of career coaching, life coaching, sport coaching, or any other mentoring position seems to consist of knowing whether a moment calls for a pat on the back or the equally important kick in the ass. And with all due respect to all parties involved, be forewarned: this is a time for sore rear ends. Procuring a job in today’s climate is stressful, competitive, and hard. It’s not easy for anyone, but when you have Asperger’s, almost any prospective job opening will require you to go “behind enemy lines,” so to speak, and be in a world where, simply put, you are not like your peers or superiors. People with Asperger’s have a lot to offer to employers and to the world. If they didn’t, the author would not have made it her job to bring those talents forth. But this isn’t our world, and Ms. Bissonnette has no warm and fuzzy feelings about embracing every last one of our idiosyncrasies and peccadilloes. As much as we hate it, there are rules to be followed if we’re to get past the gatekeepers.


If we can revisit my marathon analogy, another important lesson this book teaches is one of pragmatism: sometimes finding a job isn’t about coming in first place, but simply making it to the finish line. Ms. Bissonnette encourages readers to put away the “dream jobs” for which they could be woefully unsuited, or to forget about jobs that don’t exist. While Asperger’s lends itself to intense interest in a particular subject, your given subject may not be a lucrative one. Maybe you aren’t able to monetize your encyclopedic knowledge of baseball statistics or model trains or 1980s television theme songs right now, or ever, but the wiring that got you to that point can be rewired for other pursuits. The book contains checklists and personal inventories that will guide readers toward the right jobs.


The Complete Guide to Getting a Job for People with Asperger’s Syndrome is an essential resource. There’s no other way to say it. Finding employment is daunting for people on the spectrum, and the numbers bear that out, but a steady income and the feeling of contribution will go a long way in solidifying one’s quality of life. Even though the numbers say it’s a longshot, I’d like to see every reader of this book—and there ought to be many of you—find a rewarding and meaningful career. But I’ll warn you right now, before you get any ideas: you don’t want my job. There’s a lot of Asperger’s to confront and overcome here. When I’m staring down deadlines, or psyching myself out for the pre-show phone calls that I’m so irrationally afraid to bother people with, or having to be mindful of every lapse in eye contact and every placeholding “y’know,” I just think to myself “I have no business doing this.” But the name of the show, after all, is I Am Autistic. If I could do this show without a single hitch, they never would’ve given me the gig.


If you are so inclined, you may purchase a copy of the book here.


The Autism Bookshelf: The Asperkid’s Secret Book of Social Rules

When you see me on I Am Autistic here on The Autism Channel, I’d like to think you see me as well-behaved. I try not to cut guests off. I avoid looking down at my feet, or up at the lights. And if I ever had a terribly boring guest—not that I have, of course—I would never dream of sighing, rolling my eyes, and playing with my phone. I have a pretty good idea of what to do and what not to do. Too much of this, I’m afraid, I had to learn the hard way: scoldings from teachers, punishments from parents, and that discomfort that you carry every day when you realize you still haven’t mastered all the pesky details of being a social human being. It’s one way to learn the rules, I suppose, but it certainly can’t be the best.


Jennifer Cook O’Toole has written the book I sorely could have used growing up: The Asperkid’s Secret Book of Social Rules. Not only being on the spectrum herself, but raising a family of five where everyone is part of the “Asperfamily,” Ms. O’Toole is uniquely experienced in identifying areas where people with Asperger’s can use some improvement. The book is a guide to refining the physical, mental, and interpersonal quirks that make us who we are, but also make us stand out in the wrong way. These life lessons are presented in Ms. O’Toole’s unique voice: friendly but authoritative, having lived as something of an “Asperger’s spy” among people off the spectrum, now reporting back to us for our benefit.


The visual presentation of a book meant to reach out to young adults—such as this one—can be pretty dicey for an author and publisher. A dry, no-frills affair will alienate a great deal of readers who need more than just words on paper to really absorb a book. At the same time, one cannot reach out too far, either: cutesy illustrations and over-the-top youth-culture imagery are a turnoff to kids who can read a book just fine, thanks, and don’t need to be condescended to by grown-ups in order to do so. I’ll never forget being assigned the youth-oriented spinoff of the old self-help book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, self-evidently entitled The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Teens. The front cover featured those blue jeans that the kids wear, so we would know right away that unlike its counterpart, this rap session would really be hip and with it. Fortunately, Ms. O’Toole and illustrator Brian Bojanowski hit this one right down the middle, starting with the front cover. The mottled black and white of the classic composition book is a time-honored image of reflection and expression, something that will slide in nicely on any teen’s bookshelf. And even though I’m well aware that I’ve just engaged in the forbidden act of judging books by their covers, this stuff does matter.


Within, Mr. Bojanowski’s illustrations complement the text, rather than distract. Ms. O’Toole distills every chapter down to its “need-to-knows,” a collection of rules and lessons ranging from universal truths like “everything is hard before it becomes easy” to autism-specific advice like “neurotypicals expect us to grasp the gestalt,” and this is where everyone gets huge credit for not overdoing it. Set in big loopy letters beneath cats or nature scenes, “everything is hard before it becomes easy” is the sort of banal platitude you’d find tacked to the wall of any public school classroom, and if you’re a kid on the spectrum in dire need of social guidance, that classroom is probably not what we’d call your “happy place.” But here, in black and white, from someone who can write to young adults without talking down to them, it comes off not as empty classroom dressing, but as a succinct piece of wisdom worth holding on to.


While roughly 95% of the book’s wisdom can be put to use right away, perhaps that last 5% is more of a graduate-level course in socialization. In the book’s chapter on listening skills, following tips on basics like eye contact and body language—basics I could still stand to master!—the author advises the reader to engage in something called “reflective listening,” in which the listener repackages the words of the other person speaking, or tells the person how he or she seems to feel. For instance: when I say “aw, man, the Cubs lost again!”, the reflective listener would say “are you upset about this?” When I would say, “yeah, I’m really tired of them losing so much,” the reflective listener might reply “you seem to be a big baseball fan.”


A couple things here. Conversation is an art. Maybe I can’t make a masterpiece myself, but I can appreciate them when I see them. And in the hands of someone on the spectrum, I’m not always sure something as nuanced as reflective listening can avoid being paint-by-numbers. Consider that there are still people out there—people who aren’t on the spectrum—who can’t demonstrate their engagement without sounding rigid and by-the-book. This is advanced stuff. There’s also the reality that a young adult on the spectrum is going to wind up doing a lot of interacting with like-minded folks. Now, I don’t know if it’s part of a greater Asperger’s worldview, part of my working alongside glad-handing sales departments, or both, but I feel that I’ve honed a pretty keen sense of when there’s a “strategic” aspect to a dialogue: when you’re that “on,” what are you selling me? Goods? Services? Or just yourself? I fear that contrary to the best intentions, this approach can be off-putting and agitating to a listener on the spectrum, eventually leaving both parties ill at ease.


Nevertheless, The Asperkid’s Secret Book of Social Rules is one secret that needs to be shared with the entire class. The lessons in this book will prove critical for kids with Asperger’s, and may even be a worthy refresher for the rest of the family, too. It can be a mean world out there for people like us, and a book like this will go a long way in helping us navigate it. It’s a regret of mine that I came along too early to benefit fully from the many helpful lessons contained in this book. I hope that you and your family can.


If you are so inclined, you may purchase a copy of the book here.