By Anita Lesko, BSN, RN, MS, CRNA
I have the good fortune to be a friend of Dr. Temple Grandin. We have a lot in common. We are both autistic, and we share a very similar youth that played a big factor in our adult life. We both started having jobs at a very early age. Temple often talks about her early days, when her job was to greet guests at the door for her mom’s dinner party, and take their coats to hang up. Yes, it was a job. She was given a responsibility to carry out.
Among her numerous other childhood jobs was the one I, too, did for many years — mucking out horse stalls. In conversations with Temple on the phone, we’ve talked about those days of our teenage years spent shoveling out one stall after another. We both love horses and being around them. It was peaceful and it was also a form of therapy. In essence, it was our occupational therapy.
All the childhood jobs we did prepared us for the day when we’d start our careers. We were used to working, showing up on time, following orders from a boss, figuring out how to get a job done. It was just a regular part of our life. So, when the day came to embark into our careers, we really didn’t have to transition into anything. We were already there.
Temple is world-famous for her life and career. She’s beyond amazing! She inspires everyone, autistic or not. I also hope to inspire people with my story and wisdom. I’ve got a lot to offer.
Statistics show that 85 percent of people on the autism spectrum are unemployed or underemployed. That’s a staggering number. I see this to be a very complex situation with multiple factors. One of those factors can be changed by parents. Getting your kid working! Every little chore you have them do around the house is a job. Having them help you set the table, do laundry, tidy up; it’s all working. Once they become a teenager, jobs that have more responsibility are in order. Cutting lawns in the neighborhood, helping elderly neighbors or working at a fast-food restaurant can build the foundation for a child’s future in the workforce.
I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t working. As a young kid, my mom would have me helping her in the kitchen. She’d teach me the art of cooking and baking, and under her close supervision she would give me little jobs to carry out. I would be “assigned” to gather all the ingredients for baking a cake. After I’d assemble everything on the counter, she would stand by me as I followed the recipe and mixed up the batter. Of course safety was always her first concern, so she would use the mixer until I was old enough to be able to safely handle it. Then I’d get to pour the batter into the pan, mom would put it into the oven, she’d take it out, and once cool, I’d put the icing on the cake. I would feel very proud of my accomplishment! I’d be chattering away to her during that whole time, as she was my best friend.
I fell in love with horses around the age of four. It became one of my Special Interests, one that has sustained my entire life. I desperately wanted to learn to ride. Unfortunately, my parents were unable to afford riding lessons for me. When I was 12, I became a working student at a nearby stable. In return for work, you could earn riding lessons. I became quite proficient at mucking out stalls. The more I shoveled, the more riding time I got. I dreamed of jumping horses over big fences in competition. My dream eventually came true, because by the time I was 16, I was jumping horses over six-foot-high fences in some big shows. It was my hard work and perseverance that got me there.
During all those summers and weekends spent at the stable, I not only mucked out stalls, but did other tasks like painting fences, picking rocks out of pastures, emptying trash bins, etc. I was interacting with people, learning to follow orders, knowing the importance of showing up on time, getting a job done, and feeling pride in myself. Little did I know that all of those things were preparing me for my “real” job.
Besides the stable job, once in college I held a variety of other great jobs. I worked as a graphic arts designer at my undergraduate college for the four years I was there. I also worked as a skate guard at a public ice skating arena. I was into ice dancing for a number of years, and because I worked at the arena, it allowed me to get free ice time for practicing. That job also entailed selling tickets at the window for the public skating sessions, making popcorn and hot dogs in the snack shop and other sundry tasks. Again, these jobs were preparing me for my future.
In 1988 I graduated from Columbia University in New York City with my Master of Science in Nurse Anesthesia and embarked on my now 26-year career as a Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist. I’ve been working full time ever since, in a job that’s not for the faint-of-heart. The operating room is a very fast-paced, ever-changing, high stress environment, loaded with massive sensory violations. Most significantly, as I call it, I’m floating in an ocean of neurotypicals! I would have sunk long ago without all the life experiences of those jobs I’d done in my younger days. I would not have been prepared to interact with people, situations, and the job itself. To date I’ve done over 50,000 anesthetics, and as I’ve carefully calculated, I’ve interacted with over one million people. That’s a lot, particularly for an autistic person.
My specialty area in anesthesia is neuroanesthesia, which is anesthesia for neurosurgery cases like aneurysm clippings, brain tumors, spinal fusions and more. It’s highly detailed and complex, just what an autistic person loves.
When I see articles about transitioning from school to work, I wonder why the transition is always such a big deal. I believe work experience should start early and be part of education. Working at a job and all that comes with it should be second nature by the time students graduate. If it isn’t, life will be very stressful, and possibly even unsuccessful. Those 85 percent of us who are unemployed or underemployed might have had a different story if they were prepared to enter the job market. If you have never worked any kind of job as a kid and teenager, nothing can substitute for that lack of life skills.
Being autistic and working at a career-type job is like going to a foreign country, not speaking their language, and trying to survive. To this day, all these years later, I still feel like a foreigner in a strange land. Yet I’ve built enough experience and “learned the language” enough to stay employed and have a successful career. I know without a doubt in my mind that I would never have made it as an anesthetist if I hadn’t had all my previous jobs.
I hope every parent will recognize the importance of teaching their child the skills to succeed at work. Keeping them sheltered is not helpful, and can set them up for failure. The only way to get skilled at socializing, learning responsibility and learning to work is by getting out there and working. The more an autistic individual interacts with others, the better they get at it. Therapists, counselors and the like all have their places in helping those on the autism spectrum. But nothing can substitute for real life experiences. Nothing.
Upon completion of school, going out and seeking a job shouldn’t be a first-time experience. Having to learn a new job is stressful enough. If you are prepared ahead of time with years of life experience, you will be able to use all your energy to focus on the job. If you are also having to learn how to interact with people, how to follow orders and how to get along in the workplace, it may seem insurmountable.
I believe it is a parent’s duty to help prepare their autistic child for the future by giving them chores, then in their teen years getting them out there doing some type of job. Real life experience can only be learned by first-hand experience. Sure, your kid will make blunders. I’ve made plenty, and still do! But I keep going. And they will too. It will be the best “therapy” you can ever give your child. Help them to have a job and be able to support themselves for the rest of their life.
Anita was diagnosed with autism at age 50. A graduate of Columbia University, she earned her Master’s in Nurse Anesthesia and has been working full time for 28 years. Her special interests have earned her a flight in an F-15 fighter jet and jumping horses over 6 foot fences. An internationally recognized autism advocate and member of Autism Society of America’s Panel of Autistic Advisors, Anita is married to her husband who is also autistic. She has a new book coming out in September 2017 by Future Horizons that’s going to change health care for autistic individuals around the world. Anita is also a Project Co-Lead on a $250,000 PCORI funded grant for Adults with Autism and other Stakeholders Engaging Together. This project aims to improve healthcare for autistic adults. Anita is speaking at the United Nations for World Autism Awareness Day.