Change that leads to better lives

Working environments & the Autism “Epidemic”

I was diagnosed as autistic (Asperger’s Syndrome) in October 2015, shortly before my 51st birthday. Up until this point I had absolutely no idea that I was autistic. I had struggled in high school, starting out in the top streams for most subjects but ending up in what were then referred to as “remedial” classes for most of them.

Working environments the Autism Epidemic 01

There was no support for me either in school or at home, teachers wrote me off as lazy & stupid, my mother told me there was “something wrong with me” & “I needed locking up”.

I left school with very few qualifications.

I was fortunate to obtain a position as an indentured apprentice bookbinder/conservator with Cardiff Libraries Department when I left school & spent the next 23 years in this job, ending up running the department & gaining a very good reputation as a craftsman.

Unfortunately, the department was closed due to budget cuts & I was made redundant. It was only when I began to work in more ‘normal’ office environments that I started to have real problems, the social interactions & uncertainties of everyday work increasingly causing more regular & severe meltdowns, as well as other mental health problems.

Things reached a head when I was working as a postman for Royal Mail, when I had a severe meltdown & walked out. This proved to be the catalyst for me eventually being diagnosed as autistic.

Looking back on my time as a Bookbinder I started to wonder why I had been so comfortable in that job for the vast majority of the time I was there. With the benefit of now knowing I was autistic I realised that the job had, purely by coincidence, been perfectly suited to an autistic person. It was a small, quiet department that had a great deal of autonomy. The nature of the job meant that things were done in structured, methodical ways & the production of physical finished items was very pleasing.

Even the leave system for our department was perfect. I was able to take time off at a moment’s notice, and if I felt like taking a half day or just not going in I could phone in & take a day off. We also only worked a four & a half day week, and also later on adopted a flexi-time system.

This started me thinking about the nature of employment in general for autistic people, and I began to theorise that the changes in working practices during the 20th & the beginning of the 21st century could possibly be related to the vast rise in numbers of people being diagnosed, or at least finally realising, that they were autistic in recent years

Years ago a “job for life” was the norm for a large majority of people, and many of these jobs were also, like bookbinding, in what would now be called “artisan” fields: metalwork, woodwork, masonry, thatching etc. Being “good with your hands” was once seen as a positive thing, with towns & villages having their own blacksmiths, farriers & the like. There were many opportunities for the non-academic, and these jobs allowed people to be valued members of their communities.

In more industrial jobs there also seemed to be a place for everyone, and less able people could earn a living & feel a sense of worth & self respect surrounded by people they knew & were comfortable with.

The 21st century gig economy, with its lack of security & structure, is anathema to autistic people & it seems logical to me that the so-called “Autism Epidemic” is as a result of changing working practices.

Autistic people have always been here, it’s just the world has become progressively less suited to them. As a result people like myself experience problems we never had before.

If I had been able to stay working as a bookbinder my whole life I honestly think I would never have found out that I was autistic.

About the Author:

Rhys Parry is a 57 year old Autistic musician & photographer from Cardiff, Wales.

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