Happy in Her Own Way

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Our latest reader contributor and parent of an autistic child strikes a chord with me and my family: Late diagnosis. Check. Solitary life. Check. Crushing rejection. Check. A parent’s desperate dream: “I wish more employers could see past the facade of autism to recognize the smart, hard-working people who simply have minds that are wired differently from the majority of the population.” Here’s our reader in full:

Thanks for sharing so many of these stories. My daughter had some of the typical autism traits as a preschooler, but she was so intelligent, we didn’t think she possibly could be autistic.

As she rose through elementary school, she slowly pulled more into her own little world, and away from all of the other children. By fifth grade, her school guidance counselor told us she was certain my daughter was autistic. As we read more about the spectrum, it was obvious to us, too. We didn’t get her officially diagnosed until she was 16, and then only as a precaution in case she needed help in college.

She never needed help (though she did live at home instead of on campus). She finished college with a 3.9 GPA in biology, with a goal to go to medical school because she always had wanted to help others. Her grades and great MCAT scores earned interviews at medical schools, but she couldn’t get past the admissions interviews.

I understand why they couldn’t see her as a physician. She struggles to look people in the eye. She speaks in a monotone. She answers questions with the fewest words possible. But she would have been amazing at the analytical aspects of pathology.

Crushed by the rejection, she went with a backup plan of lab work. Thankfully, a wonderful instructor saw her potential and accepted her into a histotechnology training program.

When she finished the one-year program, the hospital lab where she trained had no openings for her. For eight months, she got a couple of job interviews a month. Like the med school interviewers, they couldn’t see her working in their labs.

Finally, the lab where she trained had an opening and hired her. They had seen how dedicated and smart she was. Two years later, she is the perfect person to work the overnight shift, which leaves her alone in the lab for about half the shift. Following protocols to the letter every time is so important in lab work, and that’s a strength of many with autism. Her life is very solitary, but she’s happy that she has found her own way to help others.

As parents, it hurt us when she had no real friends in school, and no social life in college, but it never bothered her. It took us a long time to realize her needs for happiness were different from ours. Now, we’re so proud of her, and she even seems proud of herself for finding her own niche in life. I wish more employers could see past the facade of autism to recognize the smart, hard-working people who simply have minds that are wired differently from the majority of the population.

On happiness, it took me years to realize that Tyler’s needs were different from my own. And it was only after digging into research on happiness (and a trip to Monticello, where Thomas Jefferson pursued his) that I sorted through the difference between goodness and pleasure. The latter is what parents most often want for their kids, including neurotypicals. But it’s the former that makes them happy (Marc Gellman sums this up nicely here.)

On employment, it’s worth noting here that Hillary Clinton made big news Monday that was little-noticed in the media. Fielding questions from a campaign audience, Clinton told an autistic lawyer she opposed a Depression-era labor law that allow employers to hire disabled people at a subminimum wage. Sometimes as low as 8 cents per hour. (If you or someone you care about has worked for subminimum wages as a disabled worker, please let me know your story.)