I’m Aiden Tsen, a 20-year-old Autistic, LGBTQ+ freelance illustrator, public speaker and writer.

I’m entirely self-taught - I didn’t even do Art GCSE! I only started drawing in December after dropping out of university due to long-COVID, starting an Instagram account of Pokémon food fusions. Originally, I wanted to illustrate full-time. Then I realised how hard it is to gain followers and find people who want to pay me for my work.

So, in May, I started public speaking and writing. I’ve gotten further than I imagined possible - I’ve presented at Autscape, Europe’s largest Autistic conference. I now have a new general art account and illustrate for my other work and others', such as for the BBC New Creatives short film The Clinic. These generally pay more per hour or at least result in more publicity.

My dream is to succeed in my other freelancing work and get into consultancy, and then get additional illustration gigs.

Job title: Freelance illustrator

Monthly earnings from illustration work: this month it’s been around £100, it changes all the time though, mostly upwards since I’m just starting out

Number of side hustles: 5 currently - public speaking, freelance writing, tutoring, note-taking, academic studies

Average monthly earnings from side hustles: £700, which is also increasing

Location: London, UK

Living situation: living with parents at the moment, to be moving into discounted accommodation before the end of August since I’m going to be starting a Master’s course in September

Monthly expenses

Currently minimal since I live with my parents and don’t pay for rent or food at home (I am 20), so my expenses look like:

  • £8 per month on my phone bill
  • £50 maximum on transportation, though I usually don’t hit this due to being cheap and working such long hours I don’t get to go further than a kilometre from my house
  • A harsh upper limit of £50 on social activities - I prefer cheap activities anyway

Once I move out, each month I’m expecting to spend around:

  • £500 on rent and bills
  • £100 on food, maximum - my course covers the cost of weekday lunches and I will be making as many meals out of it as possible
  • £25 on transport, which is also partly covered

day one

1.52am: I’m rushing to complete an illustration commission due today - I’m always like this. It’s all okay in the end though when I finish the piece. I send it to the client, yawn and get ready for bed. The client likes it and it earns me £18.

8.34am: A Ko-fi payment comes in, which I know is for my blog because the person emailed me saying thank you. Though it’s not much (£2.76), I’m grateful - it covers most of my travel costs for a day and I wasn’t expecting anyone to donate to me from my blog anyway.

10am: Most of the hours until 6pm are filled with unpaid gigs and research. Today, this includes but is not limited to: watching autism conference webinars, drafting an article for A Room of One’s Own and attending my first QPOCPROJECT Committee Meeting as the new Bi+ Officer.

I also chase up two pitches, one of which would be paid if successful. At this stage, I need the publicity more than anything.

I’m so tired that after I eat dinner, I go straight to sleep.

8.45pm: While asleep, I get an email from Prolific, the survey site I use, saying that I’ve been awarded a £13.50 bonus for one of the surveys I completed, which was originally £8 and only took me 20 minutes.

When I wake up, I have two thoughts. First: that’s not a bad hourly rate. Second: I’m annoyed that Prolific is my most consistent source of income when it’s also unsteady and even my unpaid work is simply better.

Total earnings: £34.26
Total spend: £0

This is a good day - normally I work longer hours (9am–9pm) and earn far less. I’m glad to have this writing gig.

day two

5.47am: I’ve been awake since around 2am because of how early I went to sleep the night before, getting through messages etc. Now though, I’m working on the content and slides for a talk for the end of August about resilience. It’s great - within an hour, I’ve already worked out what I’m going to say and I should be paid £200 for it!

7.46am: I nap for two hours and try to fix my sleep schedule

11.38am: I’ve just finished up my talk and Discord engagement for Autscape, the largest Autistic-run conference in Europe. Though it wasn’t paid (I actually had to pay £10 to attend other talks at the programme) it was definitely worthwhile - I’ve made more friends and I’ve reached a larger audience, which is really cool.

1.14pm: I’m taking part in an online consulting internship so I’m on a webinar. In the background, a Prolific survey comes in about entrepreneurial experience which pays £1.25 for my feedback. I complete it in around 8 minutes, happy to be getting a bit more income.

7.14pm: I get an email from Prolific saying that my money from surveys has been transferred to my Paypal. I check it out and Monzo tells me that £40.53 has been received. That’s several outings covered, including if I decide to eat something small.

Total earnings: £41.78 

Total spend: £0

An even better day than yesterday re savings! Unfortunately, I suspect that’s most of my earnings for the week now.

day three

8.00am: An email from Prolific requesting two short interviews. Normally I’m not interested in these, but it’s been a slow week regarding surveys and this is about sensory experiences, which is mildly my favourite topic as an autistic person. It pays £10.

11.05am: Just done having a meeting with my mentor. It’s really lovely to catch up with him to get tips on how to not overwork myself etc, and we’re currently trying to see if I’d be able to do a panel discussion for the company that he works for. If it goes ahead, it would be paid well and it would likely be in September or October.

3.20pm: Finishing up a discussion about a speaking gig in January that would be paid, with me suggesting £200 as the rate. It was a really efficient meeting and it was lovely finally getting to meet the person who reached out to me, so hopefully it goes ahead!

4.37pm: I take a two-minute survey on Prolific for 63p. It all adds up eventually.

11.58pm: Prolific provides again! £3.75

Total earnings: £4.38 

Total spend: £0

A lot of the work I’m doing currently is laying down a foundation for future success and earnings, for nothing immediately. Although I know that what I’m doing is valuable and will pay off in the long run, the almost complete lack of immediate gratification is frustrating.

day four

12.55am: Since I’m still awake following an evening nap the day before, I finally get around to setting up an account on UserTesting.com and complete a test, which takes seven minutes and should net me $10 (£7.19). Now though, it’s time to sleep.

9.50am: Just finished an interview organised through Prolific about smartphone usage, which will net me £13.40. It was actually a really interesting chat, so definitely worthwhile.

12:03pm: Just finished talking to someone at Spedal about potentially working for them ad-hoc as a cold food delivery bicycle courier, which would be flexible and paid at the London Living Wage. I want to get back into cycling anyway, so getting paid would be a fantastic reason to do so.

1:58pm: I complete the first training session for an Autistic mentoring programme that I’m going to be taking part in as a mentor, which I would be paid for if I make it through. Hopefully I’ll be successful and be able to help someone else and make money while I’m at it.

5:12pm: More Prolific surveys. £2.21

Total earnings £22.80 

Total spend £0

Once again, I’m laying a foundation here. I have to keep telling myself this.

day five

12:53am: I’m rushing to complete my submission for an Autistic art competition that’s due at 6pm tomorrow. Entries opened at the end of April and I’ve been aware of it since at least early June. I don’t know why I do this to myself.

10:18am: Another Prolific study, this one about finding a specific product on screen. During this, I think my autism probably makes me much faster at the pattern recognition aspects. £1.

10:34am: I’ve just finished drafting an article on death for a competition. I’m not sure how it stacks up to the world at large, but I know that it’s good: it’s honest and sincere.

6:58pm: Someone at Autscape mentioned an inclusivity survey website/panel to me, so I signed up to it. As a result of around 15 minutes of work, I’ve now earned £10, which was the cost of attending other Autscape talks. Definitely worth it. (Plug if you’re disabled: please do consider signing up and then saying I referred you to it!)

8:23pm: Another Prolific survey, this time on disability and the COVID pandemic for £1.62. It’s odd thinking to myself that there was a time before the pandemic. It feels like the person I was before has died. That was the topic of the competition piece I wrote. 

9:07pm: Someone recently got in touch with me asking if I would be willing to run a podcast on Beams, a new short podcast app, on being neurodivergent and careers, and I’ve finally been able to look at it. 90 seconds each: I can do it, especially since I no longer need to rehearse. I complete ten recordings. I’ve asked the person who reached out to me whether or not this would be paid, and they said at the current moment, it would be voluntary but has the potential to become paid if it gets traction.

Total earnings £12.62 

Total spend: £0

day six

8:15am: Back to working on that last-minute art competition deadline! My mom helps me to work on one of my pieces and helps me to review my hastily written artist statement. I rush off to catch the bus (-£1.55) because I have volunteering to do with KEEN London. The deadline isn’t until 6pm, so it’s all fine, right?

2:49pm: I left volunteering early (bus back: -£1.55) to submit my Spectrum Art Award entry. I was originally planning on recording another video, until I realised that I was too tired and actually, I didn’t care enough. So it’s sent off and I decide to nap.

5:01pm: I’m taking part in this employability programme for 18–24-year-olds called Fast Futures by Avado, which I highly recommend and have written about extensively.

However, it does increase my workload. So I’ve just gotten off a team meeting with the team we’ve been given for a two-week project, which was an hour long and which I organised and did all the setup work for - but luckily, everyone is keyed in and cooperative.

I’m so tired I go to sleep.

Total earnings £0 

Total spend £3.10

I’m okay with a day of no earnings. I should at least pretend to rest one day per week.

day seven

5:55am: I wake up early because I went to sleep early. Soon after I wake up, I get a Prolific notification and complete a survey for £1.

8:23am: I’m awake, so I just crack on with the Fast Futures group work, providing a framework for everyone else’s answers and writing up a provisional document on our group declaration. It’s fine. Being the leader is fine.

10:47am: Another Prolific study! Originally it was going to be paid 25p - after I complete it, I find out that it’s been given a 13p adjustment because of how long it took the average participant. I was happy with the original rate since it took me one minute anyway. 38p.

11:41am: I get an email for a Disabled Children’s Partnership Research Opportunity call, which I would be paid £30 for. I respond detailing my availability for next week.

2:37pm: I’ve done everything I need to and so chill on the sofa, watching She-Ra and RuPaul’s Drag Race.

6:58pm I cycle over to a friend’s and we catch up. It’s probably the last time I’m going to see her in person for a year since she’s studying abroad, so although it’s tiring and I do wind up having to talk about my work a lot, it’s so, so worth it.

Total earnings £1.38 

Total spend: £0

Final thoughts

Total earnings for the week: £117.22

Total spend: £3.10

Net income: £114.12

My work frustrates me often, especially on a week that’s hectic yet involves little cash flow such as this one, not least because I’m currently owed £150. Since I’m young and new to the space, I know that I’m doing all the right things by gaining experience (even unpaid) and networking. However, I also know that I do good education and advisory work on equality, diversity and inclusion. It’s been recognised as such by organisations such as Avado and the disability charity KEEN London.

I’ve also noticed that I don’t get much time where I get to just be a 20-year-old. I usually have to be a 20-year-old competing with graduates or established professionals. Or a 20-year-old professional. That means I have to be working twice as hard as anyone: I’ve been working 90-hour weeks, every week, for two and a half months now. There’s not much chance to take public transport anywhere, or sometimes even to leave the house. And so I’ve felt the strain multiple times. 

I don’t think I can change anything now. I know I’m good at what I do, and regularly advertise my work across LinkedIn and Twitter. Now I just have to keep working and reaching out to people. And then the hardest part: waiting.

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