From Real Estate to Accountancy: Changing Career Direction with Asperger syndrome
MJ: I am always interested to learn about a career change decision of someone with Asperger syndrome (AS) as work has always been central to my experience of someone with AS, as I was someone who never really knew what I wanted to do as a career.
You started off working in the real estate (estate agency) business I believe? What were you reasons for choosing that career path, how successful was it and were there any specific issues that related to your AS there – both positive and negative?
KA: Interestingly, I had no intention into going into real estate when I applied for the job. The funny part was that I actually “accidently” applied, as I had circled the wrong advertisement in the newspaper while looking for a career and did not realize the error until after my resume was submitted.
What I do currently is analysis for a real estate research service, which provides research assistance to real estate agencies and brokers. As a result, my main interaction with clients is over the phone and almost exclusively with real estate brokers. My AS has made it challenging at times to deal with irate clients, since in these situations social skills are in great demand. Of course, AS has also been a source of strength as effective research really needs attention to detail, especially dealing with real estate transactions. Obviously, the broker uses this data when selling to their clients (the end-users) and expects their purchased data to be accurate, which if it is not, means they will lose credibility in a field where credibility is vital to survival. Overall, I believe my experience has been very successful there and recently I even managed a small team.
Beginning just last week, I moved to a more analytic position with less supervisory responsibilities since this was the type of worked I preferred (the compensation was also better and, of course, was an increased incentive to take the position).
MJ: From a career perspective, what do you think the key issues that someone with AS needs to consider?
KA: Choosing a career which recognizes the limits and strengths stemming from AS is crucial. I have had positions that have not worked out very well, simply because they relied too much on social interaction. Basically, with AS, the best career to have is one you enjoy, one you are really good at or where the concept behind the job is in your skill set.
In short, the bad news about AS is that it can limit the types of work you can do effectively, but the good news is that your AS can put you far ahead of your co-workers in other positions. For me, I have a 70/30 rule: 70% of my time on non-people related work activities and 30% on people related activities. So any job I do look at, or apply for, should have a similar balance so that I know that I am probably much more likely to be successful in it.
MJ: you made a conscious choice to change career and study for accountancy qualifications. What were your motives for doing this?
KA: Mainly my real estate studies focused on a certain aspect of business transactions. However, accounting focused on a much wider economic picture and plays a role in some manner in everything from a rural lemonade stand to a multinational business.
I strongly believe that a thorough understanding of accounting leads to a deeper understanding of how money weaves its way through the economy. Money, of course, is the underlying foundation of any business and understanding how money works often leads to better business decisions.
MJ: could you say something about accountancy as a technical discipline for someone with AS. Why do you feel it is an appropriate area to work within given the condition? How do you feel it draws out its positive aspects: attention to detail, accuracy, working largely with figures etc?
KA: Accounting can be a great field for someone with AS, as attention to detail is critical in this area. Obviously numbers and accuracy play a large role in keeping the books straight and accurate. Those with AS know that accuracy and attention to detail is a major strength, so accounting really plays to those strengths. It is also less involving with social skills, as many accountants (depending on the position) spend the much of their time looking over and vetting the books.
MJ: I mentioned in my last question working with figures. However, accountancy also means interacting with people. How do you feel you will cope with this requirement and have you taken any additional training to increase your skill set in this area?
KA: Interacting with people can always be difficult for people with AS in many situations. I’ve actually found though, in some cases, when you’re an accountant that often clients and customers are much more tolerant of certain mannerisms they otherwise wouldn’t be as tolerant of.
In the US, there is a common misconception that accountants are not “people persons” and that they are normally socially unaware since many people visualize accountants as being alone in a room with their books all the time. This misconception can actually be used as an advantage in that, at least, it gives the impression that the lack of social skills is due to the fact that you’re more interested in making the clients money and providing a job well done.
Of course, social skills are needed to maintain accurate results. Personally, I do plan to take more real world courses in social interaction; in fact, I am taking a marketing class which has a number of assignments which require getting data from interviewing people and getting their input on prospective marketing ideas.
MJ: I know from my own experience recently as someone who has tried to re-train and take on additional studies that going back to the classroom at a later stage is a far from easy process (like me, you are in your 40’s I believe?). How have you found this and have you encountered any specific difficulties or issues?
KA: I am actually 28, but have been working for a relatively “long time”, officially starting to work at 16 and having done unpaid work prior to that going as far back as 8 years old with copying/faxing.
Needless to say, I still have difficulty in learning concepts that were much easier when I was younger, so it is certainly hard to learn a new subject even though some might consider me to be “still young”.
Often, with technical concepts, I will have to read closely and slowly and even re-read the same chapter just to be able to process the information. My mind will often “wander” as well, making it more difficult to concentrate. The best strategy, at any age, is really to take your time studying by starting out with just one class a semester, see how you can handle that and then take more classes the next semester if you feel comfortable with the additional work/school load.
MJ: I have always been fascinated by the learning experience from an Asperger perspective. Personally, if the data I am trying to learn is of interest to me I find I can assimilate it pretty comfortably; if not, I find it very hard to retain information, especially large amounts of technical knowledge.
Central to this is the learning of concepts. I did accountancy on an MBA course and found it hard because I couldn’t relate the information to real life. To give an example: it was only when I got my father to explain depreciation in the context of the new commercial vehicle he bought, i.e. it was written off/down by 20% in value each year, that the principle took hold.
Do you have any thoughts on this?
KA: I tend to also learn easier if the subject is one I am familiar with. I find that my studies typically lead to two results in what I learned when I study by myself. I either don’t learn a concept, and sometimes it never sticks even after much practice. Other times, I learn concepts easily, and can master them quickly. Usually, with the concepts I wasn’t able to pick up on my own, I consult others for advice or an alternate explanation.
My calculus class was very difficult for me, since the math book explained concepts cryptically and would “assume” I knew certain equations halfway through solving them, leaving out key steps needed to solve the equation. I found the internet helps very much as I found a number of different websites which explained how to solve the problem. While no website in particular has made it easy for me to understand, I was able to gather as many websites as I could, combine them and draw out a process to gain the understanding of how the equations worked. Through experience, I found the best way to learn a new concept is to bend the concept into terms one can understand, even though it may take lots of time.
MJ: I would like to talk now about the career change process in general as careers is one of the most visited areas on aspergermanagement.com.
Are there are any specific issues you would like to highlight as a consequence of your career change process? Are there any specific lessons you have learnt from it?
KA: As anyone with AS knows, change is a hard pill to swallow. Those without AS don’t have the issue of having to deal with a constantly changing mental state when living in a constantly changing world. In short, their minds are their stability, so they have an anchor in a chaotic world. AS on the other hand, has minds with no anchors, so a chaotic mind in a chaotic environment is similar to trying to juggle a constantly changing number of items while on an extremely slippery surface. With change, it feels like there is no stability at all.
Career change is like this as well, once you have been doing a job for a long time, you begin to get used to the people and patterns. Often, change usually changes the people around you and the patterns in daily work. My reaction to this change was often uncertainty for a few days at most.
The best way to cope, especially with dramatic change, is to initially ignore your feelings on it. By ignoring your feelings, you are suppressing the panic mode, so after the initial shock you are more able to digest the event. Of course, most people react instantly to an event, but often no initial reaction at all is better than any other kind of initial reaction.
Career changes take time to adjust, so trying to adjust slowly is a big help. One way I used was to continue working on tasks from my old job to help me learn on my new job, even if I wasn’t getting compensated for my work on tasks done in my former job. One thing is for certain though: any career change should be planned well in advance and fully investigated for those with AS. Working on a worst and best case scenario in your mind is the best way to do this, getting you mentally prepared for what could be an unexpected career decision. Of course, this is good advice for those without AS too, but adaptation to change is often more difficult for those with AS and mental preparation should be taken more seriously.
MJ: As visitors to my site will know I am currently working on a major Transitions Project with the careers service at Nottingham University here in the UK to assist students with Asperger syndrome follow a more structured and appropriate careers program and, hopefully, help them make better/more informed decisions with regard to choosing an appropriate career.
The reason for doing this is that, here in the UK at least, there is relatively little support for people with AS, certainly for adults and those looking for professional positions in particular.
Do you have any observations on the situation in the US and what more do you feel the government could do there to assist?
KA: I personally think the UK government is well ahead of the curve in regards to the US when it comes to Aspergers support (especially with the Transitions Project). The US government is well aware of the problems people with Aspergers face, but our Congress gives very little money towards anything related to assisting those with AS after 18. The main spending priorities focus on extreme autism cases and purely scientific research into the medical aspects of AS (this sort of research usually creates a great university paper but ends there). The money for social programs that is provided by the government goes almost exclusively to high school students and lower, creating the impression that after the age of 18, AS/Autism disappears.
To my knowledge, there is not a single federally funded program the US government has that looks at people with autism and AS following high school graduation (usually age 18 and after). Any college level and beyond program for the benefit of people with AS/Autism would go a considerably long way. I do have some hope the new Obama administration may be more receptive to adult AS/Autism support.
In any event, education on AS/Autism should also be encouraged, as many here in the US believe AS/Autism means a complete non-ability to communicate and do not know that autism related disorders come “in many flavors”.
MJ: finally, is there any specific advice you would like to give a person with AS considering a career change?
KA: Career changes can be a hard thing to make, especially someone with AS/Autism has to take that factor into account. For example, I wanted to have a sales position for a long time and took a short term 3 month job as a salesman. I came to realize though that having a sales position meant I needed very refined social skills. This became very difficult for me and downright impossible to maintain after awhile. Within 3 months, I realized that the AS was holding me back despite how hard I tried to not make it work against me.
After I left the sales position, I came to realize that AS was a part of my life whether I wanted it or not, so I might as well use it to my advantage. The end result being that I’ve made more money with real estate research than I ever made on my best commission in sales, simply because my AS came to be a major benefit when doing highly analytic work.
MJ: Thank you for your time and good luck with the new career.