“Don’t deorbit”, they warned.
I was told that the ISU Space Studies Program was intensive but in the end, it didn’t feel much more demanding than the final year of my degree. I had heard it described as the ‘insufficient sleep university’ but although I was faltering toward the end I was no worse than any of my friends. But I also knew that is so stimulating and inspiring that perhaps the hardest part of SSP was leaving. What they did not know was that I wasn’t on an orbital trajectory at all and, with nothing to go back to, I knew that I was facing a particularly fiery re-entry.
It has now been over 18 months since I graduated from Southampton. I had high hopes for what would come next: The University of Southampton proudly claims that their Aerospace engineering graduates typically earn £25–30,000 within six months of graduation and with that kind of income I could have cleared my overdraft, continue the activities I got involved with in university, and kept in contact with my friends. More importantly, I would have a job that made full use of my degree and given me the opportunity to contribute to the industry I’ve worked so hard to join. In short, I could have become the person I was capable of becoming. Instead… nothing.
The difficulty I’m having is not all to do with jobhunting itself, however. While people with Asperger syndrome and autism experience unique challenges with finding work—I have written an article on LinkedIn about this where I propose some solutions—there’s another problem I’ve been struggling with. Having Aspergers means I’ve got a strong need for routine and structure. In a professional environment such as a workplace, or at the SSP, I can usually work perfectly well as I have a fixed starting time every day. My university degree didn’t provide the same kind of structure, but I was provided with buddy support and I arranged to meet with him in the mornings if I didn’t have lectures, to create the same effect so I got into campus to get started on work.
If there were any doubts about my ability to perform in a professional environment, my achievements at SSP should have thoroughly dispelled them. But just as being in the right environment can bring out the best in me, being in the wrong environment can have the opposite effect. There’s no structure here, nor any social reinforcement from the people around me (quite the opposite in fact), and I find myself drifting aimlessly in search of something to connect with. To help address this, over the past few months I’ve been actively looking for some kind of support similar to the buddy support I received while in university. My aim is to once again re-create the effect of having someone waiting for me, of having a kind of social reinforcement to encourage me to get started on things. This might be seen as something of a crutch, but it’s a very necessary one and one that is proven to work.
But the past 18 months have had a detrimental impact. With no income of my own, I’ve had to make do with what I can get from benefits. This is enough to cover my current outgoings but I have been unable to clear the debts I accumulated during my degree, which are taking a big chunk out of what little income I have. With little left after that, I have had to be extremely careful. I can’t afford to spend more than a little money each month, far too little to consider getting back into things like surfing, for example: the cost of a surfing trip in petrol alone would almost be too much. I had been following my interests on social networks like Pinterest to help inspire and motivate me but I found it increasingly frustrating knowing that I could not afford to participate in them, that what once was within my grasp when I was at university was now far out of reach. More troublingly, I can’t afford to travel to conferences to network with potential employers and I’m concerned about how I’ll be able to get to job interviews if they take place a long way away. It’s been hard not to feel like I’ve been shut out from life.
The SSP provided a reprieve of sorts, and a chance to finally move on, but it was only short-lived. I need to find something more permanent, something that can provide me with a solid footing to move forwards from. I’m hoping that my efforts to find support will work out soon, and I’ve begun to re-awaken myself to the things I’m interested in like surfing and skydiving in the hope that my circumstances are about to improve. I have also joined Tumblr, where I’ve been following autism blogs and hashtags and learning a great deal about my condition that I hadn’t really understood before.
What I do next depends heavily on the outcome of my search for support and social reinforcement. I hope to find something soon. Once I do I can seriously ramp up my job search efforts and, hopefully, find a job relatively soon after; I have some ideas for projects I could take on as well. When that happens, I can start to clear my overdraft and get back on a board and, perhaps, in the air. For now, how—or if—this works out remains to be seen, though I hope that my renewed positivity bodes well.