Work on the spectrum

“What do you want to be when you grow up?”

I didn’t have the vaguest answer to that question until I was 35 years old, well past the age a grown-up is supposed to know. How I came to dread that question in the meantime and how envious I was of people who seemed to have their futures and purposes figured out.

Ideas came and went through the years, none of which lingered long. The first job that caught my interest was being an airplane washer, which I saw depicted in a Richard Scarry book at a very young age. Then I dreamed of becoming a baseball player. After that there were a few teachers I admired in elementary school, so I naturally thought that maybe I should become a teacher, too, but soon realized that I wasn’t cut out to be in charge of a classroom.

For many years afterwards, nothing seemed to catch my interest as a possible career that I was willing to commit to for life. Despite all those years of uncertainty, there was one thing I did know for sure – I knew that I was not meant to have a conventional occupation.

The problem wasn’t that there was nothing at which I excelled. The problem was that I didn’t know how to translate the things I enjoyed into a profitable career that also suited my abilities and idiosyncrasies. The arts and humanities have always held my passion – music, foreign languages, history, literature – and guess which road all of those areas point toward. That’s right – the aforementioned teaching career that I’ve known all along wasn’t right for me.

On top of that, none of the typical career paths piqued my interest. Doctor, lawyer, nurse, accountant, realtor, salesperson, scientist, computer software developer, etc. … Many people are well-suited for these types of careers and we absolutely need people to do these jobs, but I am not one of those people.

The first time I visited with an academic adviser as a college freshman, she asked me my purpose for attending college, to which I responded that I wanted to acquire knowledge. I had always viewed education as a means to broaden my mind and learn more about the world. It seemed unnatural to me to use education simply as a way to become trained to perform a particular job. As a result, I viewed college as an extension of high school, just with more advanced subject matter. After floundering around aimlessly in college for five years and bouncing from one area of study to another, I did finally manage to graduate with honors with a liberal arts degree.

Fortunately I stumbled upon an opportunity one day during finals week before graduation. Two VA employees had a table set up in a remote corner of the student union. They were looking to hire outstanding scholars who had high GPAs, regardless of major. And the next thing I knew, I was an employee of the federal government.

I spent ten years working on disability claims in a variety of roles, some of which suited me better than others. After the birth of my second child, I returned to work as usual, but inevitably resigned when it became clear that my son – who was later diagnosed as autistic – needed me and the stability of our home environment rather than the unpredictability of day care.

Child number three eventually came along a few years later, so I spent the intervening time as a stay-at-home mom until she was old enough to attend school. In the back of my mind, I knew that I would need to re-enter the workforce when that time came. I also knew I didn’t want to go back to working for the government. While the compensation, benefits, and regular hours were great, I just couldn’t see myself spending the remainder of my working years in a position that didn’t spark my passion or creativity.

While I was pregnant that last time, I had the opportunity to acquire an amazing grand piano for a ridiculously low price. I could tell it was a quality instrument, but that it also needed some work. In the end, it was an offer that was too good to resist. The mover recommended someone he knew that could fix the piano’s issues, and the gentleman came over and proceeded to take the piano apart, piece by piece. I watched in fascination as he worked and suddenly a light bulb went on in my head.

“Wait a minute,” I thought, “you mean people actually get paid to do this?”

My 1924 Haddorff grand, the inspiration for my career as a piano technician.

I knew there were people who tuned pianos, but had never met or even seen one of these rare, elusive creatures until then. It certainly never occurred to me that it could possibly be a career. Furthermore, I envisioned all piano tuners as elderly men. Surely this wasn’t a suitable occupation for a young woman!

I had learned to play on a fabulous vintage upright that was made around the turn of the 20th century by a long-forgotten piano manufacturer. My parents bought it from friends of theirs for $25. During all my years at home, it was never tuned or repaired to my knowledge. As a teenager, I was struck by an inspiration to restore that piano one day as a hobby, but I tucked that idea deep in the back of my mind.

Me around age 12, playing our vintage upright manufactured by the
Early Piano Company in Fort Dodge, IA

As my youngest child grew older, I started seriously thinking about piano work as a possibility, although I still had some doubts. I knew how to play piano, of course, but actually working on the instrument was uncharted territory for me. I would have to learn something completely new from scratch and build a business all by myself. I’m not a sociable, outgoing person – how in the world would I be able to conduct a successful business?

The decisive moment arrived one wintry day when my eldest daughter and I were chipping ice from our sidewalks. She made a comment indicating that the males in our family should be the ones doing this difficult job, not we poor females. As soon as she said that, I made my mind up then and there that I was going to pursue this crazy dream of mine to become a piano technician. I wanted to show her that a woman can do anything she wants, and that she could envision herself in a role traditionally held by a man if that is her heart’s desire. For the sake of myself and my children, I wasn’t going to let my self-doubts hold me back any longer.

So I enrolled in various home-study and in-person classes, courses, and seminars to learn how to work on all aspects of pianos, from tuning to repairs to restoration. I was almost always the only woman in these classes and usually the youngest by far, although it seems the tide is shifting on this male-dominated field as more women of all ages are entering the profession. It has taken some time and a lot of hard work to gradually build my business, but I am so fortunate to have finally found my purpose and passion.

Aside from being around pianos and music all day, one of the things I love most about my profession is that I get to work mostly by myself. I listen only to what the instrument is saying to me while I work on it. When I’m not doing that, I happily spend hours in my shop focused solely on whatever job needs to be done. I never get lonely or bored working by myself. I do have to talk to clients in person or on the phone, which is the hardest part for me, but even that has gotten easier with time and experience.

Much to my surprise, I also became a teacher! Well, sort of. While still a stay-at-home mom, I began teaching private music lessons as a means to supplement our household income. I have discovered that working with students individually is something I really enjoy and find very rewarding. I’m also extremely fortunate to work as a paid accompanist in our local schools. I don’t have to be in charge of a classroom; all I have to do is show up and play!

I am one of the lucky ones. Obtaining and maintaining gainful employment is difficult for many people, but is especially challenging for those with ASD due to their unique communication and social impairments. The vast majority – between 50 and 75 percent – of working-age adults on the autism spectrum are unemployed or underemployed.

Even before employment begins, navigating and mastering the application and interview process is problematic. Of the many hindrances autism can cause with employment, by far the most common obstacles are communication and social difficulties with supervisors and co-workers, which often lead to termination. Those who are employed report high levels of stress and anxiety due to many factors, such as trying to fit in socially with co-workers, sensitivity to workplace noise and stimuli, and fear of the unknown, to name a few.

Vocational rehabilitation has not been found to be successful for most on the spectrum. Instead, many benefit from on-the-job support services, such as appropriate job placement, a supportive environment from supervisors and co-workers, on-the-job training, workplace modifications, and long-term support.

By far the most important factor in an autistic employee’s success is how receptive and knowledgeable the employers and co-workers are of autism. Not only does the autistic employee benefit exponentially from others knowing more about autism, but the end result is an environment where everyone in the workplace is more successful.

Thankfully more and more people are learning about autism than ever before. In the meantime, I will continue to share my experiences with autism and revel in my good fortune and ability to work by myself on my own time. If you need me, I’ll be in my shop.

One thought on “Work on the spectrum

  1. Wow! So many times while reading this blog I thought, me too! It was also relatively late in life at age 33 that I had the idea to become a piano technician. Up until that time I had made my modest living by playing in bands and working at a music store giving lessons and anything else that needed done. After marriage and the birth of our first daughter, I suddenly realized I had to become a real adult and earn a better living for my family. I sat alone late one night and listed the things I liked and was good at. Of course I loved music. I was good with my hands on all things mechanical and then had the epiphany to become a piano tuner. I went to the library and found one book on the subject. Two pages in I knew this was for me and the next day bought an old upright for $15 and started exploring this mysterious machine, and the rest as they say is history. I am like you in so many ways. I like the solitary work, being responsible for my own results. The social aspects have been difficult but thanks to the fact that this job forces me to interact with strangers every day has made dealing with people much easier over the years. And yes the phone is the worst. I am ashamed to say that I have lost more than a few customers for taking too long to return calls and is something I still work on. I have always thought this job was equally suited to men and women and I love seeing strong, smart women like Kristen and yourself doing so well in the profession. I hope it’s the wave of the future.

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