How technology can help people with autism succeed in the workplace

February 22, 2017

Ethan Cross is the international bestselling and award-winning thriller author of eight novels, including the soon-to-be-released series debut of Spectrum. Learn more about Ethan's novels.

Corporate culture has finally caught up so that those of us with autism spectrum disorder can use technology to help us not only survive in the workplace, but exceed all expectations. Technology enables us to build our own environments to suit our needs, allowing us to bring our strengths to the forefront and reduce or downright eliminate the areas where we struggle. Remember, we can't change our brains, but we can help change the world around us.

If I had my choice, I would choose to be alone with my work. That's my personality and how I've always been. I find dealing with people for long periods of time with little to no alone time to be an exhausting endeavor. However, we all need those real-life connections and other people in our lives. They are what make us better people and push us to outgrow our own limitations.

But the great thing about this digital culture is that there are far more opportunities to mold our workplace into one that downplays our challenges and amplifies the opportunities to use our individual talents.

My degree is in Computer Networking and Programming, and my first job after college was at a computer firm that handled everything from business servers and software to running network cable, functioning as a wireless internet provider, and general computer repair. It definitely wasn't the ideal working environment for me.

Next, I became a support tech and then the Chief Technology Officer (CTO) for a national franchise. This is when I discovered that I absolutely hate talking on the phone. I’ve found the telephone eliminates or degrades many of the coping mechanisms that I've learned over the years, such as analyzing people's nonverbal communication, their facial expressions, their posture, their kinesiology. Using such techniques, I am able to function fairly well in face-to-face communication, but I'm blind to all of those factors over the phone.

Luckily, this was at the beginning of the "non-brick-and-mortar" corporate revolution. The franchise company I worked for began hiring people from all over the country. Our marketing person lived in Colorado. A client support specialist lived in Georgia. The CEO lived in Tennessee. And I was able to work at home from my own office in Illinois (only going into the office or traveling for meetings). I also had several co-workers who handled client support calls, allowing me to do what I loved: creating software.

You may be saying: “That's all well and good, but I don't work in the tech industry.” But today there are far more opportunities to work from home than ever before. 

During my time as CTO, I started to pursue my true passion and wrote my first novel, THE SHEPHERD. At that point, I wanted to start moving toward becoming a full-time writer, but my writing income wasn't enough to support my family. So I transitioned to a job in the publishing industry and became the Marketing Manager for a publishing house. I worked from home, had most meetings over video chat, and flew to New York City a few times a year for planning and sales conferences. After a few years in the publishing industry, my books started to take off in a big way, and I made the transition to writing full-time.

What this means is that I can make my own schedule and spend most of my time alone, creating my own worlds and following a dream that has been an obsession for as long as I can remember.

But here's why all this is so relevant and important for people with autism spectrum disorder.

We live in a day and age when you can essentially "hack" your life and rewrite it to be what makes you the most comfortable, productive, and happy. I used to feel like I was always running on empty. I would spend the weekends with friends and family, dealing with all of the social anxiety that comes along with such gatherings. Then I would go to work every day and face the same challenges. Now, by controlling my work environment to be one that focuses on my obsessions and avoids areas that cause me stress, I'm able to have a “full tank” when I go home to my wife and kids and attend social functions.

I encourage anyone on the spectrum to find a career that you love and that will allow you to "hack" your work environment to make your professional life a safe and energizing experience. As you can see from my story, this process takes time and forethought. But many of us on the spectrum can find professional success and happiness by tailoring our work environment to suit our own individual strengths and challenges. Working at home may not be the right path for all of us, but I'd bet that many of my fellow autistics would excel under such circumstances. And the opportunities are truly endless. Just off the top of my head, I can think of a friend who works from home as an accountant and one who works from home for an insurance company. And that's without even touching the many lucrative outlets for freelance work. The opportunities are out there and are becoming more accessible, no matter your field of interest.

It won’t happen overnight, but it is possible for us to "hack" our environment to achieve our greatest potential. And for many of us with ASD, our potential is often beyond our wildest dreams.

"Vision without action is merely a dream. Action without vision just passes the time. Vision with action can change the world." --Joel A. Barker