I have been running my freelance web development business for over 15 years, the last 8 of which have actually involved a business license, paying taxes, and making money. Each year, I do a little  better than the last.

Running a business can be challenging to everyone, and as with most things, can provide extra challenges for autistic people. Also, as with most things, we may have skills and abilities that give us a greater chance of succeeding despite the extra challenges.

In honor of Autistics Speaking Day 2011, I will write about my personal experience of running a business with these challenges and benefits. I have been very lucky and have had a lot of help along the way and would be very happy if I could help someone else looking to follow a similar path.

First, a  few words about luck:

I do not have the business skills to run my own business. Before Karen was my billing manager, I often forgot to bill people and could not keep track who had paid even though I use software to keep track of such things. Software is useless if you forget to supply the needed data. Every month, Karen makes sure that clients are billed and follows up when someone has not paid. Needless to say, this has had a huge impact on the success of my business!

I have also been lucky to have a community of web designers and developers that send work in my direction. Most of this community is in the San Francisco Bay Area and I miss them a lot. I have not yet met that community in Baltimore, but I have met some really great developers at local PHP and WordPress meetups. I have been especially lucky to meet one woman who has welcomed me to Baltimore with open arms, sent great jobs my way, and shares her office space with me!

For the most part, when I work with other internet professionals (designers, developers, consultants, marketing people, copywriters, etc.), I have much less client contact than I do when I am working directly for a client. If I had my way, I would have a partner who takes care of the business and non-technical client management side of things all the time.

Challenge/Benefit #1 – Communication

When I was a new freelancer, I did not yet know about the client phenomenon known as “one more thing”. “One more thing” is when a client thinks a task is very simple, when in fact it may take several hours or days to complete. “Can you just [insert complicated time-consuming job here]?”. I am often expected to do this for free, because it is part of the website that I am building for them. No, I can not just do that. It will add 3 days to the project time and cost $1000.

It is a skill to communicate to clients what is involved in creating the things they are asking for. In most cases, it is best not to be too technical because most people do not understand the jargon of web development. Why should they? By attempting to simplify things into terms that a client can understand and relate to, the amount of time and work necessary to complete a project can seem like it would be much less than it actually is.

I like to have honest relationships with my clients. I do not generally ‘read between the lines’ and I never speak between them. I am autistic. My communication skills are limited, yet for the most part, my clients seem to like and respect me a great deal. Some will become frustrated with me at some point or other due to a communication (or lack of communication) issue, but all have appreciated my honesty, attention to detail, and dedication to giving them the best site possible within their budget.

Challenge #2 – Organization

Every morning, I look at my todo list, get overwhelmed, and start my work day. The list is always long. I use software to prioritize tasks and to view them in very focused ways. Otherwise, I would not have any idea what to do first. If I have to think, I am doomed to spend hours in a state of confusion while rapidly alternating between hundreds of things for 30-60 seconds each. Very bad for productivity to say the least.

Challenge #3, Benefit #2 – Hyperfocus

When I am not serially uni-tasking at rapid speeds, I can usually be found doing the exact opposite, hyper-focusing on one thing for hours at a time, usually code. In general, this serves me well, but sometimes there is a need to come out of the code and attend to something else. I find this very hard to do at times, to the point where I can not give my full focus and attention to something because I can not let go of the code. The amount of confusion that occurs while trying to shift can be very painful and disorienting to me and very annoying and frustrating to a person trying to pull me back.

Hyperfocus can also be a benefit when learning new skills. I work in an industry where there is a need to be constantly learning new technologies and keeping up with older ones. The ability to become so engrossed in something that it becomes all-consuming makes it much easier to keep up.

Benefit #3 – Helping Each Other

At some point, I would like to work with an autistic intern/apprentice and teach them the skills that I have learned in a way that they can understand and in an environment that they can be comfortable in. I have a similar wish to teach karate to autistic people someday.

In the past 5 years, the autistic community on the internet has grown exponentially and brought thousands of people together. This has expanded to “real life” communities, government action, education, and many other areas, but it is still not enough. It is our voices that will lead the way to a better future, whether those voices be vocal or assisted by a device or person. It is our voices that will allow us to reach out to one another, help each other, and share our unique views of the world with the people who’s world is sometimes a mystery to us. It is our voices that will tell the world that we have voices.