Networking is somewhere between a key and a cheat code to success in life. It’s how about 80% of all jobs are filled. Networking isn’t the easiest task for a person with Aspergers, but if it’s a necessity, what can you do?
I went to the 3rd annual Autism and Employment Conference on Thursday. The point of the conference was to get companies to understand autism and the advantages that people on the spectrum bring as employees. It was my first experience with “networking.” What helped me immensely going in was the fact that I had a mission. I had something to bring to the table – this project, this documentary and website. It’s something that people are interested in.
First there was a forum presentation. The introduction had some shocking statistics. There are 70 million people on the spectrum, 1 in 88 people, and 90% of them are unemployed. This reinforced the need for understanding Aspergers and the benefit they can bring to the workplace.
The first speaker in the forum presentation talked about the Engrenados program in the Venezuelan branch of Cargill. The program’s goal was to integrate disabled people as employees. Over the past three years, they had successfully trained thirty-four disabled people.
That’s great, only 63 million more to go.
As sarcastic as that sounds, it actually does have to be a “one at a time” process. People on the spectrum have different skills and abilities, and they are on different levels with development, maturity, capability, and interests. The job has to be matched to those interests. There are people on the spectrum who would love a simple repetitive job that involves their interest, like a guy who likes computers scanning photos and documents. There are also the higher functioning people who will never tolerate those low level menial jobs.
The next speaker brought up that American success template states that people start in the low level jobs and work their way up. That doesn’t work for people with Aspergers. We should be put right up at the level that matches our skills. We aren’t going to be able to play the corporate politics games and perform well in the low level jobs.
During the workshops I met several people who had plenty to say about Aspergers, and they are going to do interviews for my documentary. In one particular workshop, a girl started criticizing the presenters for providing generic and vague information. It was the same basic info that anyone can learn on Google. High functioning people on the spectrum are already aware of the basics, like brushing your teeth, dressing appropriately, all that. We need the advanced stuff, but they didn’t have anything to answer that need.
Before going to the conference, I didn’t know what to expect. I wanted to challenge myself to go in alone and push myself to go talk to people. I didn’t know anyone, and no one came with me. There were a lot of people present. I knew all this ahead of time, and I prepared myself. I made a video trailer for the documentary that I could show people, and I made business cards to hand out. Unfortunately, the Wi-Fi wasn’t working, and the website was having some technical issues as well, so I wasn’t able to show people the video. But I had the cards to hand out. The idea with my preparations was to present myself as a professional.
What’s interesting is that my preparations worked. I dressed well, had cards that looked cool, and despite not being able to show them the trailer, people were still hooked on my project.
I think getting past my own mental barriers was the biggest challenge. Now that I have some experience, in the future I have an idea of how to approach people for networking. It’s still a challenge, but I’ve cleared the first hurdle. Subsequent hurdles are that much easier since I now know it’s possible.
Honestly, the most important aspect for me was meeting the other high-functioning experts. The intense discussions we had with the presenters in the workshops were very interesting and also illustrated the point of making this documentary. The general public doesn’t actually have a good understanding of Aspergers, and therefore, won’t make the effort to understand their needs and abilities. When I was diagnosed, my parents didn’t have any knowledge about Aspergers, so they had to rely on what the doctors were recommending, which wasn’t the best. My documentary and website will provide direction, the direction I needed back when I was 10.