Finding the Right Fit: Good Tech Internships and Jobs Empower Autistic Students

STEM contributor Abi Hunter flips the script on “paternalistic and exploitative” discussions about autistic employees. Read on for a savvy and empowering approach to thinking about careers in tech.

“Think of a child with autism as a robot born without instructions that you need to program yourself before it’s of any use,” wrote one author of an article about autistic people in tech. I don’t think I have to justify my revulsion; the conversation about autistic people in technology or in the workforce (or in life, period) is fraught with dehumanizing metaphors and explanations of how yes, actually, autistic people can even be useful to you. “Overwork your autistic employees,” they say. “They won’t mind!”

As a woman in STEM, and earning an advanced degree in computer science, I’m already in a minority. And, despite what I suspect is overrepresentation of autistic people in the software engineering world, sheer numbers mean that I’m also a minority in that regard. There are just too many neurotypical people in the world for us to outnumber them or come close to doing so, even in a field where skills like analytical thought, logical outlook, and ability to focus are an asset. These are traits that many autistic people possess in spades, but that doesn’t make us a majority by any means.

This means that the conversation in tech, as in so many other places, skews both paternalistic and exploitative. If you google “autistic people in tech” most of the articles you’ll get are about how autistic people can benefit the companies where they work. They’re about the ‘untapped resources’ among autistic people. How we can make companies better. How we can help startups get off the ground. They’re dehumanizing. They talk about people as resources, not as individuals.

This is not one of those articles. This is not about how the tech industry can benefit from you; rather, it’s about how you can benefit from working in the tech industry, the traits that might make it a good fit, and how if it’s right for you, it can be a rewarding, enjoyable, and sustainable long-term job.

I was drawn to a career in programming because solving programming problems feels like a logic puzzle. The wild, unbelievable idea that someone might pay me to solve logic puzzles all day long made me pursue internships in technology after my sophomore year in college, and more specifically internships in software engineering. I was inexperienced; I had only taken two programming classes, and I had never done my own project or participated in someone else’s. But I managed to convince a small startup to hire me.

It wasn’t the first time I had worked in tech. The summer before, I had done marketing and research work for another startup, but the big difference was the work I was doing: building the product versus working to promote it. In both cases, I found the culture a refreshing change from the previous full-time job I had held: canvassing door to door.

To a certain degree, because of some of my strengths, I made a good canvasser. I am persuasive and good at sticking to a script. It was still an awful job, one that sapped my emotional, social, and physical energy. Programming for eight hours a day was the diametric opposite. That’s not to say I wasn’t tired at the end of a day. Anyone would be. But not only was the work itself better for me, the workflow was as well.

Most startups follow a model that essentially relies on large to-do lists, and I, like many autistic people, thrive on checking off tasks and visualizing my progress towards a goal. With the focus on work towards a goal rather than putting in hours on a specific schedule, in many (but not all) workplaces it is easier to both work from home and work on flexible hours. It is important to communicate and clear this with your boss. It’s not acceptable all places, but the culture among startups often makes acceptance of these practices more common.

While software in 2019 is often a collaborative and team effort, many tools and practices common among startups can make this easier than in other environments: Slack and other common workplace chat programs make it easy to take time to compose messages and think about what I’m going to say. Meetings via webcam mean that eye contact isn’t expected. In fact, it’s practically impossible.

It is important, for us perhaps more than many others, however, to know when to go home. The video-game savvy may have heard about the weeks leading up to game release, sometimes called “the crunch,” when some employees can be encouraged to work 100-hour weeks. Most software operates on a shorter release schedule, and the hours are less extreme but may still go beyond 40 hours per week. Even when working on a project that matters to you, it’s still important to enforce boundaries and do what you’re being paid for. Many people act as though because autistic people can be prone to special interests and hyperfocus, it’s ok to overwork us. This isn’t true. We deserve lives outside of work just as anyone else does, and we deserve to go home at the end of the day and relax. This is a boundary that can be very important to maintain and enforce, especially as young people entering the workforce. Burn-out, loss of joy, even seasonal depression from lack of sunlight can impact our ability to do well at our jobs as well as our mental and phyisical health.

What it can be is right for some autistic people, and even harmonize beautifully with our strengths and talents to allow us to follow enriching and enjoyable careers in tech.

Even with that caveat, there are many things about workplace culture that make startups good for some autistic people. These workflow benefits can be common among branches of work to varying degrees, but they’re definitely not all restricted solely to the techies in the office. Depending on the workplace, they can be found in HR, product development, design, management, and others. Even if your strengths lie somewhere other than product development, there might be a place for you among the thousands of companies out there. The model isn’t right for everyone. It’s not even right for every autistic person. What it can be is right for some autistic people, and even harmonize beautifully with our strengths and talents to allow us to follow enriching and enjoyable careers in tech.

In the end, despite the sometimes overwhelming message from people in tech and people in the media, claiming that we benefit the tech industry so much, we’re allowed to take care of ourselves. For me, the most rewarding jobs have been in the tech field, and that’s why I’ve chosen it.

That’s great, Abi! But how do I go about starting a career in tech?

A lot of people in the industry are self-taught, which can be a problem if you suffer from executive dysfunction and find it really hard to focus on just one thing, like if you sign up for five different Coursera courses and forget about them all within two weeks (guilty as charged). For me, the best thing was to take a class: it forced me to turn in assignments and maintain my dedication over the whole quarter. Once you’ve done that, or if you’re self-motivated enough to finish a whole edX or Coursera course on your own (and good for you!) go ahead and put it on your resume and LinkedIn.

“X seeking Y” can be a good LinkedIn header, cover letter opener, or objective for your resume. Even if you’re not in the industry yet, you can still be a “ _ major seeking internship in software engineering,” and that can tell people that you’re interested, especially people in your network who might be looking. If you’ve learned a programming language, put that down too, but also be careful not to over-exaggerate what you’ve done. It’s ok to say you’re a beginner. A lot of interviews at good companies will focus less on exactly what technologies you know, and more on how you think and approach problems.

If you are trying to break into software engineering, I can’t recommend sites like HackerRank enough–they’ll get you used to approaching problems in a systematic way that will come in handy in interviews, and grow your expertise in your chosen language quickly. If you’re at a university with a career center, they’ll probably have programs and resources specifically for people seeking jobs in tech. You can email them, go see them in person, or potentially even just sign up for an email list. An online jobs board specific to your university, if there is one, can also be a good resource, and you can search for keywords.

And finally, if you’ve started to look at offers, Glassdoor can be a great place to find out if the place you’re thinking about working is going to be a good environment for you.

I’d love to hear from others who have also found a career in tech to be rewarding, so if you have questions or comments, please don’t hesitate to use the comment box!

You might also like the following STS resources: Patrick Pontificates: An Autistic STEM Grad Student on the Value of Jobs and Volunteer Experience and How to Prioritize the Work/School Balance and The Push for Neurodiversity: Six Reasons to be Hopeful About Job Prospects for Autistic Students.

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Abi Hunter is an undergraduate at the University of Chicago currently completing her Bachelor of Arts in Linguistics jointly with a Master of Science in Computer Science. She has worked in software development for two summers. She is passionate about the intersections of formal linguistic theory and computer science, and hopes to pursue further graduate work in this field. Abi is passionate about STEM and computer science education in particular, and loves sharing her understanding of her favorite complex topics in programming and linguistics.

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