3 Key Challenges for the Autistic Volunteer

Today’s post is in honor of National Volunteer Week—and of all people, with or without special challenges, who make time to help build a better world.

“Volunteering defines America,” states President Biden in this year’s Volunteer Week proclamation. “We seek to lift everyone up … Service also benefits the volunteer [as it] can teach important skills, help build professional networks, and provide an empowering sense of purpose. Volunteering brings people together, uniting us around our common belief in the dignity and equality of every person and giving us a chance to learn from others we might otherwise never meet.”

Anyone with autism or disability has special reason to agree with that statement. Even in a time of accessibility and accommodations, the “typical” demographic often thinks of us as the beneficiaries of volunteer service, not as volunteers ourselves. It’s true that autism brings challenges to volunteer work—just as with paid work or schoolwork—but just as with paid work or schoolwork, such challenges can be met.

Today’s article covers three common challenges for volunteer workers with autism, plus tips and apps for meeting those challenges. (Check our App Search Tool to find additional apps recommendations.)

Challenge #1: Finding the Right Volunteer Work

This is not about limiting your search to “things people with autism are good at”: the autistic population has the same range of interests as neurotypical people. Our real challenge is difficulty with executive-function skills—planning, self-control, “reading” people or situations—which can trigger freezing up or melting down under overstimulation.

We’ll look closer at planning and self-control under the next two challenges. First, a few suggestions on choosing what to volunteer for:

  • Do focus on causes and organizations you care about. Don’t volunteer just because your family/friends/church group are doing it.
  • If you’re passionate about an organization that is known for big fundraisers, but crowd noise drives you to public meltdown, remember that organizations also need help with data entry and other behind-the-scenes tasks.
  • Don’t hesitate to explain what you can and can’t do, or to ask for specific accommodations. If anything, volunteer jobs are extra-accommodating because they rely heavily on good relationships with volunteers.
  • Appreciate your natural gift for long-term commitment. The organization will!

Apps for working remotely and/or with communications difficulties:

Challenge #2: Making Time for Volunteer Work

Autism typically means limited time-management skills, so it may be extra-tempting to volunteer for more than you can handle. And extra-frustrating to realize you can’t handle it.

It pays to get planning help from an objective friend, family member, or therapist. And remember to:

  • Include such factors as transportation in your “available time” estimates.
  • Be honest about your personal limitations. Never mind what works for the (probably neurotypical) entrepreneur who wrote that great blog post on getting 90 hours of productivity from each week: you have your own individual energy tank, and you need to respect its size and whatever drains it fastest. (Personal example: I love my Saturday volunteer shift with the cats at the Houston SPCA, but I limit it to two hours because answering visitors’ requests quickly becomes fatiguing.)
  • Schedule the most important and challenging activities for when your energy levels are highest.

Apps for managing your schedule:

Challenge #3: Holding Yourself Together on the Job

In volunteer work, where resources and people can change on a day’s notice, the unexpected is even more inevitable than in the rest of life. Sooner or later, your meltdown button is going to be pushed by a last-minute cancellation or a worst-case-scenario computer crash. The only way to deal with this is to be prepared for it.

  • Don’t let overload and fatigue weaken your defenses beforehand. Allow each task twice as much time as you expect to need.
  • Stay in good physical condition through healthy eating, physical activity, and adequate sleep—and don’t forget “me time.”
  • Conserve your mental energy, too. Save daily time for meditation or just “doing nothing.”
  • When you’re really on edge, take an immediate break from stress generators. Go outdoors for some deep-breathing time and a brisk walk. You’ll return much better prepared to handle whatever needs handling.

Apps for managing your stress:

P.S. Special thanks to the Walk With Me participants who volunteered their time last Saturday to help fund our services at Easter Seals Greater Houston!

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