Self-employment for people on the Asperger’s / autism spectrum ~ The ‘personal’ edition

It’s time to get personal 🙂

When I started writing my previous post on Self-employment for people on the Asperger’s/autism spectrum, I assumed that I would be interspersing my personal experience in with the various informational points.  As it turns out, that didn’t really happen (my apologies!).  In this post, I’ll rectify that.

Every situation has its “the good, the bad, and the ugly” aspects.  I’ll tackle “the bad” and “the ugly” first, because that’s how I can best express our earliest experience.  No holds barred.

As you read on, as scary as it sounds in the beginning, please know that the situation brightens considerably later on.

Quick background, before I get much further: my (male) partner and I graduated from med school and opened up our own independent private wellness practice right away, fresh out of school.  We moved to another city we had only visited a handful of times, for 3-4 days each time, which was nearly 300 miles (500 km) from our previous city, and we knew nothing and no one.  As many of you may remember, the spring of 2010 was a horrendous time for the economy, which is a challenging time to start a new business.

In addition, we also had a house to sell; living 300 miles away and completely occupied with getting our new practice off the ground is incredibly difficult, and so is having to pay three large payments per month–the house, the new (run-down) apartment, and the commercial office space–and neither of us had any other income to support us, nor were banks willing to issue small business start-up loans during that time.  In short, I refer to 2010-2011 as “The Hell Years” for us.  So, this post does carry that bias. 🙂

In the previous post, I mentioned “lots of anxiety”.  For me, that was an egregious understatement.  I was terrified.  To the point where, relative to before, I pretty much stopped sleeping (for the most part).  Sometimes I got one or two hours; other nights gave me three.  Once, I only slept (lightly) for 30 minutes in a 24-hour period.  Four hours of sleep was considered sufficient (a “full night” of sleep), and became the new standard for several years.

“A lot of stress” was also a gross understatement.  I already had (unbeknownst to me) one type of PTSD (from another recent-but-unrelated catastrophic event), and our desperate situation only activated it, throwing it into full-swing and full-color.  I would lay awake in bed, thoughts racing through my head.  Where would we be in six months?  Successful?  Barely making it?  Reverting back to our previous jobs?  Panhandling?  Living out of our truck, homeless?  Groveling on my parents’ doorstep?  Sleeping under a bridge?  Where would our food come from?

We had a finite amount of money saved from my working my ass off on the side during med school (so I was already “fried” from that), but how long would it last?  Did we really need that Vitamin Water?  Did we really need that package of organic hot dogs?  We thought twice about a four-dollar all-day bus pass to go to the mall just to walk around; even if we didn’t buy anything at the mall, the $4 for each of us to take the bus had to be deeply considered.

Sure, I tried to go to sleep, shaking, for about four hours, all the while clutching my partner’s hand in a death-grip, until finally I would say “screw it” and wander into the second-bedroom-turned-home-office and goof around on the computer.  If I was “lucky” enough to nod off before giving up, I would wake up suddenly, paralyzed with fear and unable to move.  Because of this, I’ve spent about 75% of the last 6.5 years unable to sleep in bed (attempting to sleep in bed often creates a flashback, in which I’m thrown right back into that “survival” mode.)

And “survival” was, indeed, very literally in question, and anything but guaranteed.  The bad economy, the tightening of the wallets, the scaling back to the absolute basics… none of that sounded very promising to a practice catering to a specialty/niche population.

The “lots of time” point made in the previous post, for us, translated to “we arrived at the office at 10-11am and didn’t leave until past midnight”.  This was the case even before we opened.  There was an enormous amount of prep work to do: buying, assembling, and arranging furniture; organizing our tools; brainstorming, deciding upon, and writing policies, procedures, and goals; setting up forms and infrastructure on the computer; evaluating options and making yet more decisions; designing, creating, and formatting our own promotional materials, business cards, and web pages; considering pricing, package deals, and other discounts…

“Trial and error” felt more like “error” than “trial” at first.  People like to tout the witty definition of insanity as “doing the same thing and expecting different results”; ours became “constantly doing different things and getting the same result”.  We learned 10,000 things not to do, and 10,000 ways not to do each one of those 10,000 things.

Then came the clientele.  Some were wonderful!  Others expected too much and I hadn’t yet learned how to pre-educate or manage expectations.  If you work with people, these two skills are extremely important.  Pre-education refers to preparing people for what to expect; it’s part of the “managing expectations” umbrella term, about which there’s already a lot written (a visit with Mr. Google will not disappoint; I found a great general article here).  I think we encountered every “nice-but-irrational-person” in our town.

It gradually became apparent that customers/clientele often don’t even know what they want.  That makes it even harder for us to try to anticipate it.  And for many Aspie/autistic people, who tend to think differently than “the rest of the world”, it’s even more challenging to try to “get inside the heads” of the general population.  We, the people on the spectrum, are often drawn to different things; we hold different values; we often have different priorities.  Attempting to figure out how the neurotypical population thinks and what they want, expect, value, and are attracted to, can be tricky.

My partner and I made it through.  For us, the only way around it was through it.  Experience, however painful it was/is, is the best teacher.

Our business makes up a huge part of our identity and purpose.  This means that we tend to take it quite personally when someone has an objection, complaint, suggestion, or otherwise doesn’t see eye-to-eye with us.  It took me a long time to realize that what people want is sometimes unsustainable or even flat-out impossible.  It took me a while to realize that however personal their criticism seemed, that the problem often (not always, but usually) had more to do with them than with me/us.  It took me a long time to stop checking the clinic’s email and agonizing over every message.  And it took me a long time to stop severely discounting my services.

This Aspie tends to be a people-pleaser.  Having often been accused of being “too rude”, “too direct”, etc, or having often been misinterpreted by other people, resulting in an immediate, unexpected negative emotional response from them, I’ve been gun-shy of asserting myself, instead finding it easier to just let people have their way.  Over the years, I had become a doormat.  Never do that; if that’s currently your tendency, please do some serious self-strengthening work in this area, because the customers/clientele will smell the insecurity or (falsely) believe they can just have their way any time they want it.  If you give an inch, they will take a mile.  Even if you’re not giving an inch, if they think you are, they’ll still try to take that mile.

Surprisingly, trying to be too friendly or give away too much often backfires.  You’d think that clientele would appreciate that and respect/admire/like you more for doing so, but they don’t.  Instead, giving discounts or being too helpful can actually devalue your worth and/or authority (if “authority” isn’t applicable, then you can substitute “expertise” or something similar).  It may feel funny at first, but decide on your price and stick to it, without caving and backing down.  This is especially true if your business involves larger-priced items or services; if you need to, practice asking for those large amounts in front of a mirror or role-play with a good friend or family member.  Practice until it rolls off your tongue and you don’t become self-conscious.  Practice until you don’t think about it anymore, until it becomes matter-of-fact.

Our policies morphed and transformed over the years, evolving to become relatively strict and air-tight.  Our procedures are just as strict, and we don’t deviate from them for any reason.  Document, document, document.  Whether it’s the sale of a product, art creation, idea, service, or something else, protect yourself.  We went pretty far in this area; we installed recorders on our phone lines that activate anytime an incoming call is answered or an outgoing call is made.  We sealed up our Financial Agreement, which we wrote kind of like a contract with clientele.  We learned to front-load information (that’s the pre-education I mentioned earlier), in written format.  And our written agreements require their signature and date.  We provide informational handouts, again in written format (the average neurotypical person doesn’t have nearly the memory or attention to detail as the average Aspie/autistic person).

For the first year and a half, we couldn’t afford to hire an assistant.  Once we could, it was a godsend.  Up until then, I had been answering the phone myself (eeeek!), scheduling appointments, checking clientele in and out, processing payment, etc.  This was unnerving for me because it placed me right smack dab in front of people, like a sitting duck, a tempting target.  That ringing phone could be someone wanting to schedule an appointment (yay!), or someone seeking freebie expertise (not-so-yay).  Sitting at that reception desk, I also got to deal with the salespeople.  Oh my goodness, the salespeople…

If you’re starting any business, the people who will find you first are sales representatives working on commission for other companies that know (or think) they’re related to yours.  You’re their target market, and they have you in their sights.  They promise the world and the moon, which we Aspies naturally tend to take literally–at first.  We’re pretty straightforward, so our first inclination might be to believe that other people are, too.  Salespeople are the ultimate package of everything that can be annoying about the average neurotypical/allistic society.  It’s like allism on crack; they’re extremely extroverted, they tell half-truths while lying by omission, they pretend to be your friend (or worse, they pretend to be an interested potential customer), they tend to downplay (or hide) details (the “fine print”), and they have no regard for your schedule or your time.  They barge right in unannounced and they won’t.  Stop.  Talking.  Even after you’ve indicated (four or five times) that you’re not interested.  Rather than listening to you and your business needs, they browbeat you over the head with how great their product is.  Instead of trying to find products/services that match up with your goals, they try to match you up to the product whose sales bring them the highest commissions.  And they won’t shut up until you’ve agreed.  Don’t give in.  Instead, we researched the trespassing, harassment, and solicitation laws in our locale and posted them on the door.  Even going to that extreme didn’t stop them all, but it at least sent them the message that we’re aware of our rights.

Many salespeople will try to win you over with what you want most: more customers/clientele.  But most of those services are scams.  They won’t deliver what they promise, and there are probably clauses written into their contracts that boringly state something to that effect (no guaranteed results/success).  And besides, think about it; if they’re on your phone or in your workspace, chances are that they found you, right?  So that indicates that your presence is out there, and that you’re findable.

Dealing with salespeople is a daily headache.  Our approach is to have them drop off or send any written materials on their product/service, with a friendly-but-firm instruction not to contact us again (not even to “check in” or “follow up”), and to inform them that we will evaluate their written materials, and if we’re interested we will be the ones to initiate contact with them.

About the assistants…it’s true that hiring one can be an extraordinary relief!  Finally, I was able to retreat to my designated office, work on my own tasks and projects (that only I could do; I couldn’t delegate them to anyone else), see more clientele, and work in peace, quiet, and independence, without interruption.

But employees can be a double-edged sword.  Some are there just to warm a seat in exchange for a paycheck and maybe benefits package.  Some people are rather parasitic, expecting a certain standard of living, without having to put forth much effort in return.

Others can have motives that are far more sinister.  There are indeed self-admitted “confessions” (it sounded more like bragging) of women who were hired for job positions to which they applied solely for the benefits package and paid leave, and when their benefits “kicked in” after a probationary/trial period, they took their paid time, used it up, and then gave their two-week notice of leave.  Those women had had no intention of staying at that job; they just wanted to fund a vacation, maternity leave, or some other situation.  Unfortunately, that scenario is more common than we think.

Others’ motives are darker yet.  Some may be thieves or identity thieves.  Some secretly harbor additions to drugs (even prescription drugs), gambling, sex, alcohol, etc.  They may come into work hung over and unable to perform properly.  They may steal money, products/merchandise, equipment (such as computers, TVs, music players, etc), or even your identity, to fuel their addiction.  They may waste time and/or put your computer system at risk by browsing sites related to gambling or pornography.

Signs to watch for ibclude a daily clearing of internet browsing history, or perhaps frequent trips to the restroom (especially on Monday mornings), requests for Mondays or Fridays off, frequently missing work (coming in late, leaving early, or calling in sick altogether), complaints of money issues or constant requests for raises, complaints of health issues such as nausea or headaches, frumpy dress or lack of professionalism, horrendous breath, dark circles under the eyes, eye pupils that are very large (cocaine or meth) or very small (heroin or other opiate drugs), sweating (often meth), etc.  These signs can’t be hidden.  We’ve actually seen them all; at the time, we didn’t realize what it was.  Never trust completely; always be watching.

Some employees are just plain unprofessional.  We had one actually “hit on” certain clientele.  We’ve had clientele report rudeness to us.  We’ve had some assistants who simply couldn’t uphold our policies, or they were so computer illiterate that we couldn’t actually trust what our schedule indicated.  Some are spacy; some are (to put it bluntly) dense as a box of hammers.

Important point: if you begin to wonder if an employee is going to last in your workplace, it’s probably time to start considering letting them go.  Documentation, here, too, is crucial; chances are, you’ll need to document insubordination–along with attempts to rectify the problem–a set number of times before terminating them.  I highly recommend checking with your local, regional, and national laws, and getting to know them well.

A good assistant is worth their weight in gold, however.  If you’re working with people, they take the pressure off of you, serving as a healthy professional barrier between you and your clientele.  They can fend off the salespeople and the potential scammers or other potential troublemakers.  They can serve as a sounding board for ideas, a second opinion when it comes to “feeling a person out”, and an advocate/cheerleader/promoter of what you offer.

So what is self-employment like for us now?

It very much helps that my partner and I were each able to pursue our own individual interests; this allowed us to diverge and branch off into our own specialties, which happened to also be our primary interests.  It also helps that we each have our own offices, our own independent spaces in which to work, produce, create, think, research, learn, etc.  We have devised a few systems.

As an Aspie, talking face-to-face and “shooting from the hip” in conversation is challenging, so we’ve decided that emailing among office members is the way to go.  With email, we can each send and receive messages at our convenience, no one is interrupted, and we can compose our replies slowly and thoughtfully, organizing our thoughts and proofreading as needed before hitting the “send” button.

Our policies and procedures are strict, and we’re very selective about who we hire.  We have also learned from those early painful experiences, and taken plenty of further education/training and gathered business/clinical experience, such that we’re now much more comfortable with who we are, what we do, and what’s required of clientele.  We do inadvertently teach people how to treat us, whether for better or worse.

Sometimes we leave early.  Sometimes we stay late.  Sometimes we say yes.  Sometimes we say no.  Sometimes we say maybe, and we’ll consider it more deeply when we’re ready.  We’ve never missed a deadline.  We rarely let down a patron.  We sometimes make mistakes.  We always try to make up for them.  We try to please most.  We don’t try to please all.  We don’t tolerate disrespect, whining, or attention-seeking; clientele who want to stamp their feet and make a scene are politely directed elsewhere.  We have fired employees.  We have “fired” (dismissed) clientele.  We like everyone we currently work with.  We love to serve our clientele.  We’ll always keep learning.

The buck stops here.

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