Photo by Caleb Jones on Unsplash

Part of My Journey is the Journey

Jim Irion


For 30 years, I have been plagued by an inability to make confident career decisions. This affected the most important period of my social and economic development: my early teens to my early 40s. I attended college twice and earned a bachelor’s degree with lifetime honorary memberships to two national honor societies. I have held gainful employment with summer, full-time, and temp jobs. Most of my performance reviews have been positive and I have good attendance records.

I sought help from various career service outlets, including before I graduated college. Nothing helped. It was not until 2022, after attaining a better understanding of autism, that I was able to recognize a crucial part of the problem. Masking, an otherwise normal process, has interfered with my career decisions and adversely affected my mental health. Join me as I seek to explore and finally explain one of the most challenging issues of my life.

Masking, also known as camouflaging, is a natural defense mechanism that involves mimicking the behavior of others in order to blend in. Autistic people mask to compensate for differences in thinking and behavior, which are revealed during socially important interactions. I have observed this, particularly with those who are more independent, such as myself. We will often seem to blend in based on our outward appearance, but not with how we communicate.

As a result, some people may mistakenly believe that autism can be identified based on our easily visible personal hygiene. It is commonly accepted that masking can cause more damage to those who are autistic. I have spoken with several who have had difficulty recognizing the behavior in themselves as well. To understand how masking has affected my employment decisions, it requires going back deeply into my past to look for clues.

Starting to analyze as early as first grade could be beneficial. When asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I replied that I wanted to be “happily married to a beautiful wife.” As whimsical as this seems, it is curiously revealing of my thinking at such a young age. An ideal time to examine this would be before my transition to junior high. As I recall, in sixth grade at my school, the first scholastic career decisions were made.

A guidance counselor declined to approve scheduling me for college prep courses because she believed my grades were not adequate. Some of my peers later viewed this decision as prejudiced due to my diagnosed attention deficit disorder. All I could focus on was getting through each day, trying to fit in socially, and my emerging adolescence. The college courses were still scheduled.

As I progressed through high school while enduring a lot of disruptive bullying, I recall being casually discouraged from pursuing some of the first careers I was interested in. Two of them were paleontology and creative writing. I grew up interested in dinosaurs after learning about their abrupt extinction on television. Writing was an outlet for creativity. I was placed in the wrong math courses, which may have affected my overall skill level. Students at my school were then given a choice between three preparatory options: college for engineering and business, or learning a trade skill.

I distinctly remember feeling nothing about either option. I neither confidently believed in what skill I was good at nor knew what field of interest to pursue. This may have increased my susceptibility to passive peer pressure to pursue college. I picked Engineering Degree Prep. Three months after graduation, I started my first semester.

As with many young college students, I was terribly overwhelmed by the experience. Each test often felt like a singular mission to study for and pass before moving on to the next. College life was reduced to one class after another, at least for the socially awkward. I majored in mechanical engineering technology. Initially, the AutoCAD (Computer-Aided Design) courses were of interest for using computers.

In my second semester, I needed a technical math course to fulfill my degree requirements. However, compared to my other professors at the time, the one I had for this course was uncharacteristically tougher with the coursework. I struggled until, before the end of the semester, I withdrew to avoid failing. This changed everything.

The calm sense of structure created by my otherwise insecure career decisions was shattered. Symptoms of anxiety and depression flourished. One year after high school, I could describe exactly how I felt about my life. “If I cannot decide whether or not to live my life, no one can make that decision for me.” No matter how much positive reinforcement I received, I was unable to see my life in any different way. Looking back, I now surmise that this was the result of autism’s logic-driven thinking.

I finished college by making yet another weak career decision. Instead of dropping out after paying so much for tuition, I changed my major. But it was for a nondescript Liberal Arts degree. I can still remember my last day on campus. Snow colored the ground white. I looked back, wiped away the cold tears, and left, dreading my empty future. There was no meaningful purpose or confident path through the rest of my life.

The following year, I participated in my last summer work program and used it to pay for car insurance. I reached the maximum age limit for eligibility. With zero employment leads, minimal savings, and no dating prospects, my outlook on life was increasingly dismal. During that summer of 2003, I unexpectedly attempted suicide. I wanted to live a happy and fulfilling life but felt inescapably absent from both. The only way I could cope was to force myself to ignore what I did and try to move on. Not exactly healthy.

At 21 years old, I was still young. Or so I was often told. Three months later, I got my first full-time job but still felt no sense of purpose. I just worked there for four years to pay bills. An expectation to succeed gradually weighed on my mind. Many of my high school classmates had moved out on their own, were excelling at their careers, getting married, and having kids. Except me. I was left behind.

After saving enough money, in 2008, I returned full-time to the same college I previously attended. My intent was to finish what I started by pursuing my bachelor’s degree in history. What was it I honestly wanted to finish or start in the first place? I still had no idea. Although I did have a fear of failure in my youth, I always first experienced a distinct emptiness. No career options or jobs I could consider changed how I felt. Even after I held a full-time job for four years to pay necessary bills.

I was beginning to worry. What I did stands out as some of the best evidence of my masking behavior: I lied. I knowingly lied about my degree choice so no one would think I was as broken as I felt. Who would understand lying about which career to pursue? I made the Dean’s List twice and earned lifetime honorary memberships to two national honor societies for the first time in my life. Once I graduated again, I tried to move on. Again.

In 2010, my depression and anxiety returned twice as bad as before, but in a fraction of the time. The only difference was that having previously attempted suicide seemed to provide a barrier against relapse. Well, at least temporarily. I had to apply for temp jobs due to the poor job market and worked dead-end assignments for four increasingly stressful years. Despite my excellent performance, though, no one would hire me full-time. The cost of health care premiums skyrocketed and strained my finances.

Like clockwork, I felt worse on each successive New Years’ Eve. The vast majority of women continued to reject me as well. By late 2014, I finally had enough and relapsed, agreeing on a plan to eventually end my life. I felt I had given myself plenty of time and effort to sort things out. I was in my early 30s and still going nowhere. Despite college and regular employment, something was destroying my life.

My parents continued to allow me to live at home even though I was not comfortable being there at such an adult age. As a result, I took on greater responsibility for helping around the house. At the same time, tensions at home with my parents started to peak. I was unable to explain my lack of progress in life and could not compare it to what their generation had done. Fortunately, before I could act on the suicide plan, I landed my second-ever full-time job in technical customer service at a call center.

This introduced new dynamics to the situation. I had employment again, which was necessary to pay bills. Though socializing was a nightmare. Numerous co-workers tried to get me fired for comments I failed to think about before making them. Despite needing work more than ever, a pit of uncertainty still festered inside me. In 2016, my employment was terminated after only one year. Once again, my life was set adrift.

Within a matter of weeks, I distinctly recall seeing my situation with unexpected clarity. I could no longer ignore how much indecision had disrupted my life. Despite attending college to elevate my employability, and full-time work to pay bills, whatever was inhibiting me remained unaffected. If the indecision continued, I anticipated a risk for an imminent relapse into suicide.

After 13 years of being an attempt survivor, I was well aware of the consequences. This desperation compelled me to try a completely different approach. I made the difficult, and not necessarily correct, decision to stop applying for work. I needed to solve the problem. On my own. My parents were too inexperienced with mental health to offer acceptance or assistance with what to do. So, I requested a counseling referral from my doctor and tried to find answers.

After three sessions to get my bearings, I was encouraged to explore the local volunteer community for guidance. By late 2018, I had spent two tumultuous years figuring out how to address all of my mental health issues. Thanks to a superb case management service, I secured financial assistance that enabled me to afford diagnostic evaluation and treatment through regular counseling and psychiatry. This, in turn, successfully determined additional mental health diagnoses that I exhibited.

As I finally discovered three years later, in May 2022, the most essential thing to fully understand turned out to be autism spectrum disorder. Knowing is half the battle. Without conclusively knowing I was autistic, at any point over age 21, none of my self-awareness, advocacy, or reclamation of my life would have been possible. At a time when it is believed there is an advanced understanding of autism, my issues remain.

Has society been too easy on me? Should my parents have kicked me out? At 41, I lack the social integration and progression that are inherently needed or expected of most capable individuals. I have no stable employment. However, I have successfully held jobs for extended periods of time. In my defense, I have volunteered in my community for over a decade to help a wide variety of people in times of need. I have no financial independence or place of my own to live.

My parents are supportive, which I am fortunate and very grateful for. I have no social partner for companionship, nor do I have children. From my job interview experience, I have seen parents justify certain accommodations, such as being hired for work to support the family. Childless job applicants are singled out and declined employment. Here I am. A capable and commendable autistic adult, just wanting to find purpose and happiness like everyone else.

Part of my journey is the journey to understand masking — perhaps the most complex and challenging aspect of autism that I have needed to understand. For the last 30 years, I have been unable to decide on my own what to do with my life or what occupation to choose. As I have shown, masking may seem harmless and simple. However, if an individual is autistic and not diagnosed, or not soon enough, masking can cause crippling developmental problems throughout adulthood.

This is also regardless of how functional we may appear to be. I made it this far thanks to the patience and support my parents have provided so I could turn my life around. I have come this far because I finally understand my mental health. Now, I can utilize my true autistic confidence, skills, and experience to advocate for effective resources and acceptance of all age groups. Autism is here to stay.

This is “my place on the path unwinding.”



Jim Irion

I am an autistic advocate, writer and presenter. My writing is primary source research material. "A leader leads. They don't walk away when someone needs help."