Autism Self Employment
4th June 2021
Would people with autism be good at self-employment?
A lot of people with autism tell me that they would, or do, struggle to be self-employed. This is often because they struggle to market themselves or sell themselves. Although this is no doubt often true for people with Aspergers or autism, it is by no means just autistic people who struggle with selling themselves.
The main thing both people with and without autism need to be successfully self-employed is to be good at what they do and very self-motivated to get work done. That is the reason a lot of non-autistic people do not become self-employed either – you need self-motivation.
But having people do the bits you struggle with can alleviate this problem.
What some people with autism overlook (perhaps because of social difficulties or extremely different ways of thinking and doing things) is the fact that many people who are not autistic outsource many parts of their business they either have no interest in or frankly just cannot do.
For example, Aspiedent’s Autism Training & Consultancy Director Dr Elizabeth Guest is autistic. She is excellent at the research side of what we do. She can teach. She has a gift for making complex stuff easy to understand. This makes her extremely good at many parts of running the business. But there is lots of stuff that she is not good at (many of which are people-related) and which I do instead.
Luckily, our strengths and weaknesses complement each other well.
It all depends on your particular profile, too. We know an autistic businessperson who is good because she is strong at discrete processes. As long as she does something that involves discrete processes she will be fine running her business.
If you are an autistic person who is poor at processes, you need someone that can help you implement your ideas and help you with day to day running of the business.
Those with autism who do not struggle particularly with severe cognitive difficulties, severe processing issues, or additional learning difficulties will generally be able to find a way to be successfully self-employed if they are determined enough to do it.
The support network around self-employed people is important. If you can do your job (i.e. web programming) to an extremely high standard, but not the paperwork associated with setting it up as a business, do you know somebody who can do that for you?
Challenges for the self-employed autistic person
Business support is critical when you are a self-employed autistic person, however getting the right support can be extremely challenging.
For example, the process of applying for Access to Work, the Department for Work and Pensions’ programme for disabled people in employment, which we discussed in another blog, can be (ironically) really difficult to access.
We have also found that mainstream business support programmes have worked less for us due to our unique ways of thinking and doing things. Understanding customer need is a big issue for Elizabeth, our Director, because her way of thinking is just too different. She just cannot see things from the customer’s point of view – she is much too logical and does not understand buyer behaviour in terms of emotions.
In our case, being an autism-run organisation can result in us not being taken seriously by other organisations that work with autistic people. We have found some other professionals struggle to treat Elizabeth as an equal. I have witnessed Elizabeth coming up with an idea that has been dismissed as too ‘extreme’ by a group forum, yet when another professional came up with the very same idea some years later, the forum thought the idea was the best thing since sliced bread.
I do suspect that this is partly because Elizabeth, being autistic, does not have the socio-political influence and the contacts and skills to make the ‘idea’ happen. However, this is a perfect example of how a non-autistic businessperson with lots of business acumen and a socially awkward genius with original ideas can become a power team. If this person had teamed up with Elizabeth years ago, perhaps the idea could have become a reality years ago.
Strangely, the employers we work with – especially in the construction sector – have no difficulty in treating Elizabeth as an equal. Perhaps this is because they think in similar ways. Either that or they do not see the autism so clearly and therefore don’t automatically get worried she is ‘too wacky’.
Being taken for granted is a risk which many autistic people need to be aware of. The helpful and naive nature of some autistic people can lead them into trouble with other ruthless and cutthroat businesspeople.
Dealing with customers and conflict is difficult for all businesses. However, for autistic businesspeople, dealing with conflict and confrontation can be harder than it is for the general population. As is dealing with unfairness and politics.
That said, we know an autistic professional who loved helping his clients with conflict resolution. In general, dealing with people is OK for many autistic people if the interaction is structured.
Dealing with confrontation requires good social skills and fast processing of the information that is coming at them. This is why as an autistic self-employed person it is important to have a supportive and trusted network around you to help with these things.
Networking is difficult for everyone, but it is terrifying for many autistic people. For some, it is a complete non-starter as they simply have little or no idea how to interact with ‘unsuspecting’ strangers. That being said, I know autistic people that are prolific networkers. I suspect those are the autistic people who are hypo-sensitive to emotions (hence do not get upset by ‘rejection’) and who have learned the process of networking and are excellent at following through with this process which then feeds into the sales process.
Some people, like us, have had to find a way around networking. For example, when I do not know how to approach my networking attempts or which angle to take, I start by using networking as an ‘information gathering exercise’. I prepare 3 or 4 key questions to ask people in the room to structure my interactions, start conversations and learn about the people I am networking with (this can even be used as market research).
I think although perhaps scarier for autistic people, networking is all the more important for them. It can also be difficult to get enough social interaction if you are working by yourself. As with non-autistic people, many autistic people need social interaction.
In essence, the challenges to running a business with autism come when there is an aspect of running the business that is completely incompatible with how the autistic person thinks.
Why could self-employment suit some (autistic) people better?
Since autism often causes difficulties with things non-autistic people find easier, like dealing with small talk, commuting on a busy train to work, or ‘office politics’, an advantage of being self-employed is that you can control your working environment. For example, choosing to work fully from home or deciding when to come into the office to deal with other people.
This also relates to being able to control the ‘sensory’ environment. If being in an office causes difficulties due to hypersensitivities or social chit chat, choosing your own space to work in can be a complete game-changer for the better.
Being able to work when it suits you best is also an advantage. We have met an autistic IT professional who got most of his best work done between 10 pm and 1 am when the ‘world had gone to sleep’.
Being in charge also allows you to rest when needed. This does not always work for self-employed people, but the key thing here is that it is ultimately up to them if they want to work. Nobody else is going to penalise them for taking an afternoon or a couple of days off. They are not controlled by others (apart from customers, arguably).
Self-employment also comes with more control over who you do and do not work with. If you are very good at what you do, you can choose your customers.
If you choose your profession well (and that is key), autism may provide an advantage in that the ‘spiky profile’ associated with autism (being poor at certain things but excellent at others) can be a massive asset. Specialising in something you excel at will make it easier for you to sell that service to other businesses.
An autism business network?
An autism/neurodiversity or even disability business network has always been something that has appealed to us. Not because we think people with autism or neurodiversity should simply network with themselves or set up a special ‘club’. But because it could be a great way to pool together skills, support each other, and help each other out.
As mentioned above, often there are major strengths within autism that can be used to help those who have a major weakness in an area. If the network were open to people with physical disabilities too, what they might bring in terms of help with the social side of things could be invaluable for autistic people.
This has got potential, but it must be done right. It could be a loose professional network where people can work together on projects. Those who are good at the business support side can help those who struggle with it. Those good at the technical aspects of running a business could help those who are not skilled in those areas.
This is not a new idea (many businesses buy in services instead of doing it in-house): it is just that autistic people are safer for other autistic people to deal with. They do not need to worry about getting the social bit wrong and autistic people generally struggle to tell lies.
Ultimately, the support network around self-employed people is of utmost importance. Running your own business when you are autistic can be done, aided by lots of self-motivation, skill in what you do, and the correct input where you are weakest.