Autism Job Club

The following is an excerpt from Michael S. Bernick and Richard Holden‘s The Autism Job Club, which is now available. If you like what you see, please purchase a copy of this excellent book!

Chapter 15: Autism, Craft and Calling

It is through the values of craft and calling that will come additional hiring of adults with autism in the practical economy.

The autism-focused businesses,  major employer initiatives and employer outreaches set out in the previous chapter are necessary, but not sufficient. They must be tied to answering how adults with autism bring advantage to employers in the practical economy. The answer in turn lies in the qualities of craft that adults with autism bring to the practical economy, and can be the autism community’s competitive advantage.

Craft and calling are not new concepts. But they are finding new relevance in the American economy, especially in the practical economy.

I. The Re-emergence of Craft in the Practical Economy

First, let’s start with the re-discovery of craft, in the unlikely venue of television.

In the early 2000s, it would have been difficult to find anyone in the entertainment industry  predicting the popularity of “work reality” television shows about bakers, car repairpersons and hair stylists. Yet, these shows appeared in the next few years, found an audience in the general public and brought fresh insights about work.  Work reality shows such as “Cake Boss”, “America’s Next Top Model”, “American Pickers” , “Pawn Stars”, and “Tabitha’s Salon Takeover” not only achieved ratings, but also generated numerous related shows in their occupations.

The success of these shows is in how the profiled workers perform their jobs: the care for detail, going beyond the cash nexus, finding pleasure in the work itself . Jobs termed “throwaway” jobs by policy commentators a few years earlier, are shown as sources of dignity and satisfaction to these workers.

Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s,policy analysis and journalism often portrayed  jobs in the practical economy as jobs to be avoided at all costs.  No matter that these practical economy jobs usually provided a service that people desired (car repair, hair care, nursing home care) or produced a real product (baked goods, pawn shop items). Still, they were often characterized as  throwaway jobs, distinguished by lack of challenge, tedium, low status, and low wages.

The most influential account in shaping this throwaway jobs view was  Barbara Ehrenreich’s  Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, published in 2001.[1] Ehrenreich takes a series of low wage service jobs over a year’s period—as a waitress in Florida , a housecleaner and nursing home aide in Maine, and a Wal-Mart employee in Minnesota. She takes these jobs without indicating her education or background on her job applications. She lives only on the wages she earns, which means she stays in cheap motels and apartments.

Ehrenreich is a talented observer and writer, and her book set the meme on practical economy  jobs. These jobs are distinguished by their low wages, well below what is needed to support a family. These jobs have no mobility opportunities. Further, they are characterized by difficult physical labor (waitressing, cleaning hotel rooms, nursing home care), unsafe and unsanitary conditions, and/or constant petty humiliations ( psychological tests and drug tests).

Also in 2001, novelist/writer Ben Cheever published  Selling Ben Cheever: Back to Square One in a Service Economy, with critique of the non-knowledge job world.[2] Like Ehrenreich, Cheever is a college graduate, though unlike Ehrenreich he does not hide his background. He takes service sector jobs outside the knowledge economy. Over a period of five years he works as a Burns security guard, a telemarketer, a salesman at CompUSA, a salesman at Nobody Beats the Wiz, a sandwich maker at Cosi Sandwich Bar and a car salesman at Wegman Auto.

Cheever introduces  the reader to several former while collar workers  he meets in these jobs who have been fired or downsized from higher-status and higher paid jobs. Downsizing is a main theme of the book: a former IBM manager who is working at the car lot on commission, a certified public accountant who is working at the computer store, a Burns security guard who tells Cheever he’d been  a phone company executive. Other themes are the tedium, repetition and difficulty of surviving on the low wages of sandwich making, or security guard, or commission salesperson.

Even at the time of these books and other critiques of the service sectors, a number of writers dissented from the conventional wisdom. They showed the practical economy jobs in some positive light, including the craft possible in the jobs. A few  followed the approach of Ehrenreich and Cheever and took practical economy jobs. Charles Platt, a senior editor at Wired Magazine, took a job at Wal-Mart, and though he highlighted the low pay, he also highlighted the craft possible in a retail clerk position.[3]  Adam Shepard, a recent college graduate, set out with $25 in his pocket in Charleston, South Carolina, living in a homeless shelter. He  moved through a series of practical economy positions to show the income and mobility possible even in low wage jobs.[4]

The re-emergence of craft in the practical economy, though,  found its fullest expression in the   first decade of the 2000s with the rise of the work reality shows. These shows focused not on the knowledge economy jobs of analysts, lawyers, accountants, software engineers, web designers. Instead, they show craft and meaning in the jobs of bakers, car repairpersons, waiters, ice road truckers, pawn store owners, and antique restorers.  Four of the highest rated of these shows were “The Cake Boss”, “America’s Next Top Model”,  “American Pickers”, and “Pawn Stars”. They are worth briefly describing, for their celebration of the diverse forums for craft.

“The Cake Boss” premiered on April 19, 2009, on the TLC network. The main character is Buddy Valastro, who runs a bakery in Hoboken, New Jersey. The bakery, Carlo’s Bake Shop, has a baking and sales crew of nearly 30, including Buddy’s mother, four sisters and three brothers-in-law.

On the surface, the “Cake Boss” episodes are standard sitcom fare. On Christmas Eve, the crew must pull together to meet a rush of customers, which allows Buddy to reflect on the importance of family. A drag queen, Miss Richfield 1981, orders a “happy holidays” pop-up cake, which the crew must deliver to her New York City show. The shop’s two delivery guys, Anthony and Stretch, dress up as elves to deliver a cake to a women’s fashion business.

What is original, compelling and important about the show is the job values it demonstrates.  Buddy and his crew do not approach baking as low skilled, production work. Instead, they are craftsmen; operating with creativity, care for detail, and willingness to put in time to get the product just right. Buddy and crew approach the pop-up cake and the women’s fashion cake as works of art, just as they approach the other theme cakes they create (robot cake, roller stake cake, billiards table cake and life-size race car cake). “I’ll redo a cake 10 times if I have to,” Buddy says of his drive. “I’ll work, you know, four days straight. I will do what I have to do to get the job done.” Even with the non-theme items, the regular cupcakes, cookies and pies, Buddy and crew continually are looking for ways to innovate, improve, be creative.

Though Buddy calculates how to make money, he also approaches the bakery as a calling. Through the bakery, he is serving others. He is providing his customers, mainly Hoboken residents, with quality cakes and cookies that they value and derive pleasure from. Further, through his response to customer demand, he creates a job not only for himself but also employment for others.

“Cake Boss” has led to other shows featuring the craft of bakery workers, “Ace of Cakes: and “Amazing Wedding Cakes”, as well as the craft of cupcake specialists, “Cupcake Wars”, “Cupcakes Girls” and “DC Cupcakes”.

                “America’s Next Top Model” (ANTM) premiered in May 2003, on the UPN network, and quickly became one of the highest rated shows on the network, continuing for over twenty seasons (2 seasons per year). Despite on-going changes in the judging panel, the format  remained similar: each season started with 10-14 contestants and each episode one contestant was eliminated, based on modeling ability.

ANTM was criticized as over-emphasizing female physical appearance. Yet, the main message of ANTM was exactly the opposite. Listen each week to host Tyra Banks and technical advisors Jay Manuel and  J. Alexander: Modeling is far more than looking good, modeling is a craft. A model cannot simply show up. She must study the rules and norms of modeling, must understand photo-shoot directions, must master the runway walk. J. Alexander, the runway adviser, speaks about balance and posture and meeting the client’s goals, rarely about looks.

“American Pickers” premiered on the History Channel in January 2010, and has continued to the present. It focuses on Mike Wolfe and Frank Fritz, whose business is “picking”, traveling throughout the country to purchase antiques and collectibles, from ordinary people. Usually, the goods are in run-down condition and are in need of repair or restoration. The pickers try to identify the gems among the bars and antics of junk.

For  Mike and Frank, their business is craft and calling. They are looking to make a profit in their antique restorations—each week, the Pickers announce, “We’ll buy anything we can make money on”, and “Where other people see junk, we see dollar signs”. In practice, though, they purchase antiques that will not be profitable, but are objects of beauty or importance that should not be lost. Mike purchases a rusting guitar which he’ll probably lose money on because he believes it should be rescued; so too with Mike’s collection of Indian motorcycles and vintage bicycle that are more labors of love than money makers.

                Pawn Stars is another work reality show on the History channel, premiering in July 2009, and continuing to the present. It focuses on the workers at the World Famous Gold & Silve Pawn Shop,  a family-owned pawn shop in Las Vegas, Nevada. The main character is Rick Harrison, and he works with his father Richard “Old Man” Harrison,  son Corey “Big Hoss” Harrison, and Corey’s friend Austin “Chumlee” Russell.

These pawn shop workers daily meet with customers who bring in a wide range of items, from old cars to silver goods and furniture, to sell or pawn. The workers provide history lessons on the items, as well as discussion of their cost estimates. The pawn shop becomes not a cheap and empty  means of commerce. Rather, it is an on-going history lesson, by workers whose mission is to identify and rescue artifact.

Beyond these four shows are more than twenty work-reality spin-offs, variations and competitors in the same industries and others: “Pimp My Ride” on workers in an auto custom repair  shop,  “Tabitha’s Salon Takeover” and “Shear Genius” on hair stylists, “Ice Road Truckers” on long-haul truck drivers in isolated areas of Canada.

II. Craft, Calling and the Autism Workforce

                How refreshing  are these work reality shows; and how much they canhelp all workers, those with autism and the neurotypicals, recapture jobs in the practical economy. How much the these shows can push back against the idea of “throwaway” jobs, and help all workers try to find craft. For it is in craft, our economy obtains quality services and products. It is also in craft that workers inject meaning in jobs.

This point about meaning is worth elaborating on. The same job that one baker, hair stylist or nursing home attendant might regard as without meaning, can be a source of pride for another worker. It all depends on perspective and craft.

Perhaps no book expresses the values of perspective and craft in the practical economy better than one of the early 1970s, Studs Terkel’s  Working. [5]  The book subtitled, “People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do”, is an oral history of workers primarily in practical economy jobs: waitress, bookbinder, cement mason, gravedigger and other non-knowledge occupations. The popularity of the book was due in good part to the craft described in these jobs, and how workers injected meaning in their work.

A waitress tells Terkel, “When I put the plate down, you don’t hear a sound. When I pick up a glass, I want it to be just right. When someone says, ‘How come you’re just a waitress’, I say, ‘Don’t you think you deserve being served by me.’”

A bookbinder takes pleasure in repairing old books because “a book is a life”. A gravedigger takes pride in the neat lines and square edges of his work.

In the years since Working was published, other books have addressed this relation of craft and work meaning in our post-industrial economy, notably Robert Schrank’s  Ten Thousand Working Days[6] and Don Snyder’s The Cliff Walk. In The Cliff Walk: A Job Lost and a Life Found,  Don Snyder, a former college professor, details his loss of job in academia and re-emergence as a carpenter. [7]  Snyder first describes how he loses his job as a college English professor, remains unemployed for  a lengthy period of time, and is reduced to supporting his family through food stamps and handouts. He slowly gets his life back together, first by taking a job as a golf course maintenance main ($8 an hour), then as a carpenter ($15 an hour) and finally as a handyman ($18 an hour). As the book ends, he is getting back to a middle class lifestyle. Much of the book is about the satisfaction and craft Snyder finds as carpenter and handyman, in  providing a service that his client homeowners need.

For adults with autism, craft will offer a source of meaning. It will also offer a competitive advantage in many cases. The founders of the autism-focused businesses and autism-focused hiring initiatives of the previous chapter see their experiences as bearing out a competitive advantage in craft. Other professionals in autism employment have come to this view.

In chapter 11 on technology employment, technology professionals spoke of the autism advantage in certain technology positions, such as software testing and quality control. These professionals identified abilities in concentration, comfort with repetition and memory for detail that were held by many adults with autism and central to job performance.

So too these abilities are main elements of performance and  craft in the practical economy, and linked to adults with autism. For car wash owner John D’Eri, his workers with autism perform better than other car wash workers, in concentration, attention to detail and loyalty. Ms. Heather Davis, the parent of a son with autism and prime mover behind the TIAA-CREFF apple orchards business, claims that the ten apple harvesters with autism perform better through their concentration and routine than other harvesters. “Most people not on the autism spectrum get bored” Ms Davis told an interviewer, but for someone with autism “routine isn’t such a problem for them”. [8] The performance study of the workers with autism at the Walgreens Distribution Centers reported better performance outcomes by these workers and lower turnover.

Going forward, an autism advantage in the skills linked to craft needs to be further explored, documented, and hopefully built upon.  Job coaches and counselors and others who work with adults with autism (including family members) need  to be aware of the advantage, help cultivate these craft skills and sell these skills to employers.

By no means will all workers with autism possess these craft skills, but experiences so far should give us hope that many will do so. Approaching employers under the banner of craft will be the better strategy for expanding autism’s domain in the practical economy.


[1] Barbara Ehrenreich, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, Henry Holt and Co., New York, 2001.

[2] Ben Cheever, Selling Ben Cheever: Back to Square One in a Service Economy; A Personal Odyssey, Bloomsbury, New York, 2001.

[3] Charles Platt, “Life at Wal-Mart”, Boing Boing, February 1, 2009.

[4] Adam Shepard, Scratch Beginnings: Me, $25, and the Search for the American Dream, Harper Collins, New York, 2008.

[5] Studs Terkel, Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How they Feel About What They Do,  Pantheon, New York, 1972.

[6]  Robert Schrank, Ten Thousand Working Days (MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1978.). Schrank, a former Ford Foundation official, details the many jobs he has held over the fifty years of his work life. He starts in the 1920s in a furniture factory and over the next years works with his hands as a plumber, coal miner, and machinist. He then turns to a career as a union official, city commissioner, and foundation official. In these latter jobs, he continues to be plagued by the thought that he is not “productive”. He adds, “I must confess that since I left the shop floor I have never been able to answer that question satisfactorily for myself or my fellow union officials, or for professionals, academics, or consultants.”

[7] Dan Snyder, The Cliff Walk: A Job Lost and a Life Found, Little, Brown and Co., Boston, 1997.

[8] Susan Ladika, “Companies Find Fruitful Results When Hiring Autistic Workers”,, July 16, 2012.  Ms. Ami Klin of the Marcus Autism Center at Emory University tells the writer,Ms. Ladika, that her research shows adults with autism pay close attention to detail and following rules, to a greater extent than other workers, and are more reliable than other workers.

10 thoughts on “Autism Job Club”


    • Loborojo on May 11, 2015

      I have no patience to read this long epistle….

    • xenocity on May 12, 2015

      Umm it does make some good points, but it forgets the following:

      1) The U.S. and other industrial economies, even those of India and China (went to college with many students from India and China) are still undergoing a huge market correction, which was caused by easy credit and the subsequent financial meltdown.

      2) unemployment for people under 40 in the industrial economies including India and China, is quite high, due companies not wiling to hire them. My fellow classmates from India and China talked about how hard it was for college grads and young people as whole to get hired, leaving most of them unemployed or working for family.

      3) Entry level jobs no longer exist for the most part. Unpaid internships require 2+ years of “industry” experiences (hence the world industry) and in many cases industry certifications to get hired. What entry level exists, requires 3-5+ years of experiences and industry certifications and the specific set of skills each employers requires. This makes it very difficult for college students and young people as whole to get hired even in the U.S., this partly the reason why I haven’t been hired yet despite all the applying and interviewing I’ve done.

      4) Training for the most part is non existent. You are expected to be able to the job you are being hired for with no training or adjustment phase. You literally are expected to know everything required to do that job the day you start. Even when I interviewed at General Motors IT department, they expected me to “hit the ground running” aka no training on how to the job I was applying for at GM IT. Yet they send their employees to an 8 week course on what GM is and learn the culture and history of the company. You literally cannot be expected to know how each position in each company works and the software and hardware they use. Each company uses different hardware and software among other things, some of which is proprietary.

      5) Asinine requirements. Seriously how does a young person even one in college get the 2-5+ years of experience required for the internships, let alone the necessary years of industry experiences required to get an entry level job. I interviewed near the end of 2014, that expected me to have at least 2 years or so of enterprise software, which you cannot get in an internship let alone college due to the sensitivity of the software to a business’ operations. Also how do you get professional/industry certifications (which requires years of industry experience), when you have to work for a few years before you can get them?

      6)Industry experience required… How do you get the necessary industry experience when most internships now require 2+ years of experience and last during the summer months? How does a young person or college person this day in age even get the internships with the asinine requirements? From my experiences general work experiences counts for nothing essentially being equal to unemployment…

      Yeah how does someone under 40 get hired in todays climate?
      Seriously I keep running into asinine rejections for all the jobs I interview for, let alone never hearing back for most I apply for…!

      It’s not us Aspies and autistic who aren’t getting employed, it’s heavily impacting young NTs, almost 1/3rd of my graduating class was unemployed and many of them still are unemployed. another 1/3rd were underemployed and lucky if they could get 20 hours a week and were worried about being let go…

      Maybe I will pursue starting my own company…

      • techstepgenr8tion on May 24, 2015

        Accounting is a mess too. I had seven years experience as an auditor to find out that it didn’t count if I wanted to cross over into general accounting. Everyone wanted ‘exact-match’ experience and I had to start looking and interviewing as if I’d just gotten out of college again. It seems like the only way you can get taken on for the experience, albeit somewhat unreliably, is by way of temporary services. Otherwise yeah – there’s hardly such a thing as a job that’s opened for 0-2 years experience. It’s usually either 1-3 or 3-5.

    • SilenceIsGolden on May 13, 2015

      “…I will pursue starting my own company…” Exactly my thought!

      And the best way to cut through all that corporate nonsense crap !

      • xenocity on May 13, 2015

        I’ve been thinking about.

        I mean I can easily think of ways mobile technology can used to improve the lives of us suffering from AS and Autism.

        I just need to figure out how to get the capital to the start the company.

        They could also use these devices to get much needed research data on adults suffering from AS and Autism spectrum disorders…
        So far they have very little.

    • techstepgenr8tion on May 24, 2015

      To OP:

      I think the challenge, while these are all beautiful and dignified jobs in proportion to the values the people working in them hold as individuals, it tends to remain the same that in most places it’s a heck of a thing to get by on the income provided by these kinds of careers. Talking to some relatives recently about what a single should make to really be able to make it on their own without living paycheck to paycheck, the were talking somewhere around $25 an hour – and I’m in the midwest where housing and rent are comparatively super-cheap.

      I have a professional degree, am using it, and still at 35 haven’t found the financial security to move out (also still haven’t had the fortune of breaking the $40k per year barrier). I tend to think that if we want a more robust economy where people have the kind of disposable income to spend on various goods, the kind of spending that keeps the whole machine running, we really need to focus on ways to cut back on basic staple costs; housing is probably what cuts deepest into most people’s wallets and at the same time I wonder just how firm the numbers are or how much the right kind of innovations could completely change that game.

    • LadybugQ on June 23, 2015

      I’m getting a lot out of the book. Then again, I’m closer to 50 than 30 and live in the state of Arizona.

    • raugust on July 24, 2015

      OK, how does someone OVER 40 years of age, with 3 University degrees, get into a decent job, when those “asinine job requirements” for OPEN POSITIONS show a mandatory 2 – 5 years “boots on the ground” experience?

      Hey, maybe once I get another car, I could work in NYC for $15 an hour as a frozen food flipper and a mop flopper.

    • IgA on October 29, 2015

      I agree and identify with the difficulty of job/career nesting. I married at near-19, and divorced at 21 (it was a week after my birthday when it was final). I had several jobs before — cashier, office assistant, daycare helper, custodian, and a short time as an EMT. I am great at studying and learning the knowledge for a job, but I am not good at socializing with coworkers. That is what got me “laid off”, “let-go”, or outright fired. I don’t fit in with the social nature of everyone else.

      I lived in my truck for a year after the divorce, partly because I was scared to commit to a place. What if I hated living there; what if I was putting myself in a bad environment with desperate people; what if the rent increases and I couldn’t pay for it; what if I couldn’t … insert so many worries here.

      I didn’t want to be stuck until the lease expired, so I drove around looking at apartments, houses, trailers, any possible home during that year. I parked in their parking lots and studied the residence. You could say I was kind of stalking them, but I had good reasons. I qualified for financial disability from the state, but I didn’t take advantage of any other services. It is a rural environment, and the people working for the state were not … I’m unsure what adjective to use, so to be nice I will say they were not experts in their field. Low pay doesn’t attract the best and brightest. There are likely many great people working for the state, but I had not met any of them at that time. I had several misunderstandings in the past (partly my fault) and couldn’t force myself to try with them anymore.

      I’m in my 30′s now, and am a little better than I was at 21, but am not anymore employed. I did find a run-down house that I learned how to make livable. I then went to college and earned 2 science degrees — partly to hyper-fixate on my interests at the time, but also because I had nothing better to do. School and home-improvement were my only successes within the decade of living here. I can’t stress enough how much that hurts.

      I am proud of earning college degrees, and proud of how much I have learned taking care of my house. However, not being employed, and feeling unemployable (unwanted for my talents), made me understand that my country doesn’t want me. I know I am useful for something. I’m just really bad at marketing myself. I don’t have any references (no friends or family) so there isn’t a way to prove beforehand that I am useful. They have to take a risk, and hire me to see what I can do for them.

      I have a new idea that I am slowly implementing. I found several volunteer work programs in Europe. I chose the country Germany, because I think I might fit into their society better. If I fit better, the socializing problem might not be such a hindrance to keeping a job. They stress work over socializing, and seem to appreciate special skills more. I do not know for certain, which is why I have to go and find out. I am not getting anywhere in my own country, so I must broaden my scope of options.

      I shared my struggles to tell the story how far I have come with myself, but how little that mattered to get me gainful employment in the US. I am thinking, maybe if I gain work experience in Germany, I will have references to try again in the US later. Although, I doubt, if I get settled and like it, that I will want to upend my life again and come back, but I agree with the phrase ‘never say never’. I don’t know what the future will bring. I do know that my present prospects inside the US are nil.

    • Film2240 on April 9, 2016

      I want to join this job club.Please get in touch

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