A Spectrum of Possibility

April 2, 2024
Navigating everyday life in auto repair when you're on the autism spectrum.

Kyle Oestreich is a skilled, detail-driven auto technician. He also has autism.

Though he was diagnosed with ADD/ADHD as a boy, he discovered he was on the autism spectrum accidentally. Oestreich says he knew he was a little different and his wife used lovingly to rib him about being autistic. “Originally, it was kind of just a running joke,” Oestreich says. His wife, who has a medical background, noticed the symptoms in her automotive technician husband, but he shrugged it off. It wasn't until a service advisor he worked with, who also had a medical background, mention that he could be autistic that his ears perked up. “It kind of caught me off guard. I was like, ‘Wait, what did you say?’ She's like, ‘You've got Asperger’s,’” Oestreich recalls. 

According to data from Autism Speaks, an online advocacy organization dedicated to championing the inclusivity of individuals with autism, one in 45 adults in the United States lives with autism. Moreover, only 21% of people with disabilities, including autism, are employed. In the United States, it’s estimated that 5.4 million adults have autism spectrum disorder—the equivalent of the population of Minnesota minus Saint Paul. 

Following the encounter with his service advisor, Oestreich took a personal inventory of his symptoms and little idiosyncrasies he’s experienced throughout his lifetime. He also enlisted the help of his mother, who provided her perspective via email. Oestreich presented these items to his primary care physician, asking her if he might have been misdiagnosed with ADD/ADHD as a boy, and if he he may have the markers for autism spectrum disorder. 

“I mentioned all this to her, and she was like, 'Yeah, I'd love to read everything.' So, let her read everything. When she got done looking at it, she said, ‘Yeah, 100%,’” he remembers. 

For Oestreich, getting answers was a breath of fresh air, as having a professional opinion or diagnosis often does. It helped him to understand who he was in relation to the world around him and offered clarity as to why he performed the way he did at the shop where he works—Miracle Nissan and Infiniti of Augusta. 


Work-Life on the Spectrum 

Autism, or autism spectrum disorder, is a global dysregulation of the nervous system. It contains a broad range of conditions that come through displays such as differently appearing social skills, repetitive behaviors, and through speech and nonverbal communication. No two people with autism function alike, as each person has their strengths and challenges. Those with high-functioning autism can lead lives not too different than the neurotypical adults around them. 

Brian R. King, MSW, lives with autism and is a coach who has invested nearly two decades in helping individuals with autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. He refers to the grouping as AuDHD given that symptoms of both conditions can overlap. King says people with autism and ADHD can make fine employees, despite the dismal data on their ability to maintain employment, If the right structure is in place for them. “I've seen a couple of people on the spectrum that were amazing at auto repair,” King says. 

He adds that auto repair shops can be challenging environments for those on the spectrum given their introverted nature, communication challenges, and occasional time blindness and inflexibility. It requires shop owners to be more encouraging toward them to get the best out of them. He advises auto repair shop owners to be cognizant of their team members on the spectrum—if they’re aware—and to seize the opportunity to lead with grace and acceptance.  

“When you have somebody that needs to navigate the environment differently than you, that's an opportunity for you to become educated and more empathic because you're getting to know an experience you're not familiar with, and hopefully enough where you can say, ‘Man, I don't understand your struggle, but I can see you're struggling. Is there anything I can do to make it less of a struggle? Happy to work with you on that,’” King says. 

The Strengths and Challenges for Techs on the Spectrum 

For Oestreich, having autism has helped him to be a highly efficient technician. He says one of the strengths gained through having autism is perfectionism in the bay. Nothing gets past him. Every car is perfectly inspected and precisely repaired.  

“The end result in my mind is that it's perfect. When it leaves, there's no chance of a mistake, no chance of a comeback,” says Oestreich. “There are very little mistakes in repairs or diagnosis. Probably close to zero as you could get.” 

When a vehicle hits his service bay, he gets into a deep hyperfocus that allows him to immerse himself in his work. 

“Once you get focused on a job, you just get into it. You stay focused and you grind through it. You can be really quick at getting repairs done and in the flat rate world, if you can be quick, you can make some really good money,” he says. 

He also has above-average working memory. Oestreich says he’s able to remember repairs he’s done on cars as far back as 10 years ago when he sees them again. “We’ll see a car and it'd be like, ‘Yep, it was this. I remember. We did this,” he says. 

A trait often found in people on the autism spectrum is a high sense of moral justice and a dislike of unfairness. Oestreich is no different. He says it can be a strength when he’s advocating for his team in the shop, but on the same token, it can be a challenge because part of being autistic entails an inability to let things go until they’re resolved. 

“(I can get) frustrated or fixated on things that are out of my control. That’s probably the hardest thing. In my mind, my own moral code, I can’t get past that because it feels that shouldn't have happened,” he says, adding that it once made him seem like a pain to work with in the eyes of management at a former shop.

King, like Oestreich, says he too must be careful in communicating. It’s something he’s had to learn to manage because if not careful, he can be easily misunderstood by those without the condition and seen as one without a filter when he’s only trying to connect.  

“The No. 1 problem I've been trying to solve for myself is how can I connect with other people more easily because my whole life before that was offending people and not knowing why. I was so blunt. I was honest. If I had an opinion, I shared it,” King says. 


Navigating ASD: Employee and Employer 

Given that maintaining employment is a challenge for those with autism and ADHD, with 50% of the latter often losing their jobs due to the condition, the challenge for these individuals is whether to disclose their condition during an interview. Oestreich says he once told a potential shop about his Asperger’s and didn’t get called back. Ironically, he interviewed with them a second time under different management and got the job by not disclosing his condition. He says it’s a case-by-case situation and the technician with autism or ADHD needs to make a judgment call based on how they feel the interview is going. Sadly, this shouldn’t be, but some employers misunderstand conditions like autism and ADHD, only having references linked to how the symptoms present in childhood. Oestreich says others with autism should instead find strength in who they are, lean into it, and accept themselves as they are. 

“From my perspective, just accepting it, and embracing it, and saying, ‘Hey, look, this is the answer I've been looking for. It's not a perfect world. But that's my biggest thing—accept it and embrace it. Use that to give you clarity and answers, and then kind of use that to get whatever help you might think you might need.” 

On the job, King says those with autism and ADHD need to do everything to make themselves at home in the bay, creating routines that make them successful. This can be having their tools organized in a way that makes them most productive or playing music that keeps them in a resourceful state. 

“Figure out what helps keep that feeling of enthusiasm or happiness going. Do you need to listen to podcasts on certain topics that jazz you up? Listen to your favorite music. Move in a certain way. The environment is not always responsible for meeting your needs. See what you can do to bring the solutions with you,” King says. 

He adds that for shop owners managing team members with either condition, showing grace when mistakes are made and having some humor about some of their little quirks can help them feel secure in the workplace.  

“People (with these conditions) don't always have a sense of time. They (may) lose track of what day of the week it is and come in on a day they're not scheduled to work. That's something maybe that can be treated with some humor,” King says. 

He says for those who employ people with autism and ADHD, the key is to observe them, listen to them, and watch how they work. You might be surprised at what you discover in these employees. Because they thrive in routine, their thinking, reasoning, and problem-solving are so counterculture that their approach to work may help everyone around them in the shop. 

“If there's something they really love to repair … you're likely going to find the more time they spend with (doing it), the faster they're going to be able to do it, the better it's going to be done. And they might even find workarounds nobody else has discovered,” King says.

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