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What jobs can't I do if I have Asperger's syndrome?

Asked by Leanne, Upstate New York

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I have a milder form of autism (Asperger's syndrome). Are there certain jobs that I cannot do after I get out of college? What are the jobs that I will not be able to do?

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Mental Health Expert Dr. Charles Raison Psychiatrist,
Emory University Medical School

Expert answer

Dear Leanne,

Your questions raise a very important point about how people can and cannot function when they have a psychiatric disorder. The point is very simple, and in your case, it boils down to this: You can do any type of job in the world that you are good at and that you enjoy. You shouldn't let a diagnosis of Asperger's syndrome hold you back from any type of employment you want to pursue. On the other hand, you shouldn't feel like you have to work in one type of job or another to meet other people's expectations.

Before I tell our readers a little bit about Asperger's syndrome, let me let you in on a secret. Most of the greatest men and women in history (and many of the most important people alive today) have struggled with one psychiatric disorder or another. Did you know Abraham Lincoln had such bad depression that at one point, he wanted to kill himself? Have you ever been to one of our beautiful national parks? Did you know that the man who built our national park system had manic depression? Believe me, the list goes on and on.

The psychiatric diagnostic manual states that "the essential features of Asperger's Disorder are severe and sustained impairment in social interaction and the development of restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior, interests and activities." I have worked with many people with Asperger's over the years with great pleasure, because although they are, by definition, socially awkward, they have been to a person -- in my experience -- sweet and decent with keen minds and passionate interests in things that I also often find of interest. Unlike many other patients I've treated, I can remember every Asperger's patient because he or she always had one of these unique interests. So, for example, I took care of a fellow once who not only knew every train line in 19th century California, but could also tell you what times the trains left the various stations, say in 1879.

Let me tell you a story about Asperger's syndrome that illustrates both how it runs in families and how individuals with it can go quite far indeed. Many years ago, I was the head psychiatrist for a service that saw patients in a large university hospital. I got called to see a fellow who was depressed about his illness. As we talked, it became clear to me that he had Asperger's syndrome. When I asked him about it, he immediately brightened up and confirmed my diagnostic hunch. He knew a great deal about the disorder.

As we talked, he started telling me about each generation of his family, because history was the interest that burned in his soul. He knew everything about his family tree, including the fact that he was a direct descendent of Sam Houston, the man who was instrumental in winning Texas' independence from Mexico in the 19th century. "This Asperger thing has run through every generation of my family," he told me. "Old man Houston had a pretty good dose of it himself." The patient then went on to tell me in great detail many things about Sam Houston that would indeed fit criteria for Asperger's syndrome.

I have often thought of this in the years since, because one of the really interesting things about Sam Houston is that when Texas voted to join the Confederacy in the Civil War, he stood firm on the side of the Union, ruining his political fortunes as a result. That is an example of a trait I admire in people with Asperger's syndrome, which is a tough determination to be true to their deeply held convictions.

So Leanne, obviously I can't give you advice on what type of job to pursue and what type to avoid, because I don't know you. But let me encourage you to think outside the box and ask yourself whether you might be able to turn your own personal passionate interests into some type of gainful employment. Of course, that is good advice for all of us!

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