Around eighteen years ago, I met the first autistic person that I was told had this label. This was in my very first “real job.” I exited the world of waitressing to work in a residential group home managed by Devereux Treatment Center in Santa Barbara, CA. Five autistic males, all older than myself shared a home. I was part of their lives for a time. I was 20.
I was young with not nearly the wisdom of these men, who allowed me into their lives. Each of their faces, habits, and our connections continues to be stored in the special place in my brain where memories live. It’s been a while since I thought about what I really learned in that job, what still lives in me, why I’m so happy that I stayed in this field.
Today, I am somewhere mid-career. I have chosen to continue my professional path with autistic people and their loved ones. I’ve changed jobs a few times, grown up, started a family of my own, and created a work-family. And I still I find that my work fills my soul.
I am exactly where I want to be.
Yet, it seems like people leave the field of autism for all different reasons; some commonly transition into workplace issues, sometimes educational pursuits, but too often I hear the same story. It’s the stories of fatigue, dissatisfaction, feeling disempowered, not enough hours, too much driving, too hard, and burnout, or wanting something different. Often, clinicians reflect and determine that it’s time to leave the autistic community. To those people and everyone in their first job within the autism community…
Stay. It’s worth it. Here’s why:
1) Human interactions are good for us.
Robert Waldinger is the head scientist of the longest running research project on human behavior at Harvard University. His findings are simple, human connection is good for us. Connection brings true happiness and life satisfaction. My role as a therapist is to create connection and in turn, I get the health benefits. Plenty of workplaces have human connection but none as deeply emotional as being part of a child’s life. There is the simple joy of connecting with children. There is the heart-swelling feeling of being part of a child’s development; watching them move through life. There is the comfort in our future in knowing that our world reaches our future generation. There is the earnest feeling of knowing that our work matters. There is nothing more important than connecting with a child.
2) Doing good creates happiness.
Clearly you should leave the field if you can’t approach other human beings with kindness and empathy. There are other jobs that may suit you. But for those of us that want to push some good into the world, the autism community could use some support. Guess what? Doing good things for society is also good for us. Dr. Richard Davidson, neuroscientist, contends that when we are generous with others, we actually change our own brain circuitry wiring for wellness. Our brain creates neurochemical rewards when we treat another human-being with loving kindness. For me, I have an opportunity to show up and be kind each and every day. So often, people ask me ‘how do I do it?’ suggesting my job is hard. I get so many internal rewards from the work that I do, it would almost be hard to imagine not doing it. Doing good has certainly created my own happiness.
3) It’s fun.
Stuart Brown, researcher on play, shares with us that play is not just for children. Play is essential for happy and healthy adults. For me, I get to play everyday. From making marshmallow shooters, to a competitive battle of Catan, to water balloon fights; my days are filled with children. Because of that, I get to keep my inner child alive. I love this about my job. Sometimes when I’m munching on Oreos and playing Jenga with one of my awesome clients, I immediately feel gratitude for the work that I do.
4) Necessity of experienced voices
I feel like the universe had my back when she handed me my first job in this field. I’ve since created my own path, becoming a sort of specialist in the field. We’ve all heard the bit about how it takes 10,000 hours to be an expert. Whether this number is accurate or not, it does seem to suggest it takes us some time to become competent at most things that have any level of complexity to them. Becoming a competent clinician takes a bit of time to develop. So many people leave the field before allowing themselves to mature in their work. Those feelings of discomfort when we don’t know what we are doing are often ones that we want to escape. Yet, if we can lean in to that feeling, tell ourselves that it's okay to experience this discomfort and keep learning and growing; we all benefit. The autism community needs experienced people. We need more competent clinicians. We need clinicians that have grown their clinical skills over a few years or decades. We need experienced voices that are willing to take on what is currently happening and create positive change.
We are all different and many of us have varied experiences in any one career. I hope that if you are struggling with burnout, fatigue, or unhappiness at work that you take a moment to attend to all the ways that your work is supportive to you as a human being.
How does your work fill your soul?
Clearly, I know that all autistic people are not children. The intention of this blog was not to write about the diversity of the spectrum but to discuss one aspect of my current job.