Positive Approaches Journal, Volume 11, Issue 1
Knauss | 39-44
Volume 11 ► Issue 1 ► May 2022
A Reflection on Retirement from Someone on the Autism Spectrum
In October 2019 at my last job with the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania (COPA), I was asked to write an article on my office’s recognition of Breast Cancer Awareness Month (October), for the Department of Human Services’(DHS) website. Given that I was already quite involved in this awareness activity and that I liked to write, and that my own biological mother, Marion, died from breast cancer in 1963, this was a natural assignment for me. Whether this task for me was paid or unpaid, it was for a cause that I believed in. It was work – work toward helping others and contributing.
In April 2021, I retired from my career of 29 years with the State. I am still doing work to help others, albeit unpaid and part-time. Retirement for me was not a transition from full-time work to a life of total leisure. It was a transition to a new period of my life that combines work, relaxing, family time, some travel, and more writing.
In this essay, let me examine my transition into retirement, why I am still doing volunteer work, how I feel about work, and how I balance the above elements in my life.
First, the basics. I am 67 and have been married to my wife, Connie, for 36 years. We have three married daughters, and seven grandchildren. From 2007 to 2019, I served as the volunteer leader of a support group for adults with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), Spectrum Friends of Lebanon County. I ventured into this support group because in 2003 I was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome.
As most people know who have been around individuals with ASD, anxiety is a constant companion for many. It is certainly true for me. Part of my anxiety is that I am a high energy person. I like to work as an outlet for that energy. Consequently, I have always put in that “extra effort” on my jobs. I like doing a good quality job, I like helping others and I like to produce good results.
Work for me is also an outlet for my creativity. I am an idea person, and I am a self-starter. Sharing my ideas at work and in community organizations has been good, and not so good. Not everyone in organizational life likes a person who is somewhat outspoken and looks at life from a critical angle, like I do – perhaps like many individuals with ASD do. As a result, I have found that I do my best work when I have a lot of freedom. Freedom to be creative. I like being the hands-on person in charge of the project or program. Consequently, I have done quite a bit of good work as a volunteer in the community in the last 42 years, since it is easier to be a volunteer than a paid employee. No one needs to pay me.
Bottom line, I have always liked to work, whether it was paid or unpaid.
I first started thinking about retirement in 2012, when I was not very fulfilled at my job with the State. I was 57 at the time, and I knew that 60 is the normal retirement age for State employees. I got to thinking, is there a better way to use my time? Are my wife Connie and I okay financially for me to retire at age 60?
Fortunately, in 2014 I was able to transfer to another agency within the DHS, thanks to a good State contact within DHS, someone who came to meetings I did staff work on and who was later promoted to Supervisor. He had an opening, let me know, and hired me. I am forever grateful. That move made me postpone retirement.
I have to admit something – about eight years ago, I had a nightmare that originated from a fear I had of retirement. It was a little scary, the thought that retirement and I might not be a good match. I have always remembered that. But, as a way to get me ready for the inevitable, I started reading articles about retirement. I tried to do planning on what I would do with my time. I knew I had to keep doing work of some kind, whether or not I was compensated.
Years ago, I came across an article about retirement that said, new retirees have a lot of time on their hands. Perhaps TOO much time. The article said some retirees suffer from depression. I did not want to encounter mental or emotional difficulties after I retired. There was one State employee who retired from the State but then came back to State service – in my office around 2012. In retirement, he said, he attempted unsuccessfully to launch a new career in the private sector; but he became depressed. So, he came back to the State, and after about a year and a half, he retired a second time.
His experience prompted me to do more planning for retirement. One concept I had is that, with retirement, I could branch out with the ASD support group I led, do more activities, spend more time helping various individuals with ASD one on one. That was a good concept. Actually, I have not planned and led any support group activities since COVID started interrupting our lives in March of 2020.
However, in retirement, I am still involved on a continuous basis with two autism-related organizations – this Positive Approaches journal as a member of the editorial board, and the annual Pennsylvania Autism Training Conference (PATC). In addition, following retirement I served as a panelist for discussions at three autism-related events in 2021, and I was a participant on another panel discussion this past March 30 for the Autism in the Courts Taskforce Summit (sponsored by the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania).
I have also continued volunteer work with my church. And, at the request of their single mother, I am an adult mentor – somewhat of a father figure – to two teen-aged girls and their 20-year-old sister who apparently haven’t seen their biological father in about 10 years. Additionally, I am trying to obtain a volunteer position on the Parks and Recreation Board of my township. And my wife, Connie, and I are quite involved with our seven grandchildren, doing more field trips with them and, sometimes, their mothers.
These volunteer activities are important to me, not just because I enjoy them but also because they fulfill in me that sense of pursuing social justice – which is something that many individuals with ASD feel, according to my research. I also want to serve and love God by serving and loving others; I want to do evangelism. I believe I have a purpose in life, a reason to get out of bed in the morning.
These activities, along with spending more time with my wife, Connie, and our seven grandchildren, are keeping me busy. Some people will ask, when are you going to … just relax? After all, you’re retired. Well, I don’t want to just read books or watch (infamous) Jerry Springer all day or play golf. On the other hand, I have to watch that I don’t get overextended. My first priority has to be my wife and my family. Unless I have a prior commitment, I never turn down opportunities for family time with our children and grandchildren. Connie and I do a lot of things together, such as taking a walk every day and doing more errands together. She does some volunteer work with me.
Why do some people retire from paid (and possibly unpaid) work by age 49, like my friend Tim in Colorado, while others work into their 70’s, 80’s or even 90’s? Some enjoy working, some want to keep making a difference in the lives of others, some do it to make more money. Some want to make an impact before their time is up.
I think retirement is all an individual thing. I tell myself this – Work may be four letters long, but it is NOT a “four-letter word” in the negative sense that SOME words are.
When I was working full-time, I remember a time when my former coworker, Amber, and I picked up another coworker, also named Dave, for a lunch at a Harrisburg restaurant. He was retired and said, smiling broadly, “every day is like a Saturday.” Personally, I do NOT hate work. I actually envy people who have jobs they love.
I believe this is the essential question – how do you want
to use your time?
For me, work is still an important part of how I want to use MY time. I am only 67, am healthy and have lots of experience and skills, so why waste them? I also realize that I’m not a very relaxed person. Whether that’s good or bad, I don’t know. But that is my personality, which has been shaped in part by my ASD. So, it means that, in retirement, I need to keep working on projects and programs. For my own sake and hopefully to help other people as well.
Dave Knauss is retired following a career of 29 years in Pennsylvania State Government. He served as an Income Maintenance Caseworker for 12 years at the Berks County Assistance Office. He also served as a Human Services Program Specialist doing policy work at the Office of Medical Assistance Programs and doing quality assurance work at the Office of Long-Term Living. His career also includes ten years as a reporter and editor at three newspaper organizations in central Pennsylvania. He has a Bachelor of Arts degree in American Studies from Dickinson College. From 2007 to 2019 he served as the volunteer leader of a support group for adults with ASD, Spectrum Friends of Lebanon County. He was diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome in 2003. While his ASD is just a small part of his identity, he believes his ASD is a gift.