An Autistic Adult’s Guide to Getting Hired

After several years of producing articles, white papers, and whatnot on human resources and job-search advice, I’m giving serious thought to writing a guide to job-seeking for autistic adults.  Because, while a lot of the advice out there is good as far as it goes, it usually doesn’t go as far as giving us the advice we need to network, survive interviews, and so on.

This project is still very much in the embryo stage.  I don’t even have a working outline.  I will gladly accept questions and recommendations for topics – leave them in the comments please!

For now, here are my top three pet peeves about job-search advice from an autistic person’s point of view:

1.  Eye contact.

If one more person, blog, or book advises me to “make eye contact” during an interview, I am going to have a meltdown.  That’s not a threat, it’s an inevitability.

More to the point, I think the “eye contact” advice is largely overrated and is actively harmful to the autistic person’s chances of doing well in an interview.  Here’s why:

  • I have been practicing faking neurotypical “modulating” eye contact for 32 years now and counting.  This is literally the best fake-neurotypical modulated eye contact you will ever get from me.  Encouraging me to try harder isn’t going to help.
  • If I’m worrying about my eye contact, I’m not paying attention to the things in the interview that really matter.  Like my skills, or how I can help the company.

2.  Fidgeting.

I get it.  Fidgeting makes people uncomfortable.  Heck, when I’m teaching and my students fidget, it makes me uncomfortable.  But like the eye contact thing, the “don’t fidget!” advice is not only useless for autistic job-seekers, but actually harms our performance.  Much better to recommend ways to re-direct those stims that are so necessary for us to think and communicate in a high-stakes environment.

True story: during my interview for an editing job in 2004, I stimmed by playing with the hem of my blazer under the table.  At a law firm in 2008, I redirected hand-flapping into perhaps-excessive but readable gesturing.  I got both those jobs.

3.  Networking.

Networking advice and speed-dating-style “networking events,” it turns out, are useless for everyone – and the industry is starting to realize it.  But this nonsense is, I think, even more stress-worthy for autistic people, for all kinds of reasons related to social anxiety and sensory overload.

The hard truth is that most jobs come through people, not postings.  (Although I have landed two separate jobs from postings in which I did not know a soul.)  But autistic people have profound abilities to develop depth of relationships, rather than breadth – and this can be a great strength in hiring when we know how to use it.  The problem is that conventional advice doesn’t do much to help us use it.

 

Since these are my three biggest pet peeves, they’ll probably be among the last questions I address – what makes them my pet peeves is that they are tough and hella anxiety-provoking.  I’ll probably start with interview questions, those being somewhat more in my area of expertise both as a human-resources writer and as a rhetorician. But please send suggestions!

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14 thoughts on “An Autistic Adult’s Guide to Getting Hired

  1. Great idea! and I very much agree with you about all 3 points.

    With eye contact, I work as a research interviewer – so I have to approach specific pre-sampled household and do 2 rounds of interviews with them, the second round later by appointment with every household member. Before that, I have to persuade them to accept to go through the interview process. I worried a lot about eye contact when I started in the job.

    I have no problems making eye contact, but I tend to find it intrusive, stressing and distracting after a short while – it makes me feel agitated and ruins my concentration, so I had to chose between making real eye contact or doing my job well / thriving with my job. I chose the latter. Instead of forcing myself to look into strangers’ eyes, I focus on a point slightly lower on their face. Some people insist on eye contact by stepping out, looking straight into my eye and not let go – but most don’t, and I know have the theory that eye contact is overrated, and that people don’t necessarily like too much direct eye contact with strangers, especially not when approached right on the edge of their private territory (~ at their front door).

    My key interviewer strategy is to be as respectful as possible of peoples’ personal space, as non-intrusive as possible, and I try to carry out that strategy in every aspect of my body language and what I say et.c. – and it includes to not look directly into peoples’ eyes. I am having good results and rarely experience rejections or defensive behaviour, so I think I’m on the right track (although of course I can’t say for sure what the reason is for the results).

    Of course, a research interview isn’t the same as a job interview – the context is different, and I’m the one who represents a company. The pressure to accept even very intrusive eye contact is much higher in a job interview. However, I still think eye contact is overrated, and that there should be more flexibility in job interview advice to accept different types of strategies that suit different types of people… instead of forcing a “one type fits all” strategy on everybody; here under that direct eye contact is mandatory or even a good thing.

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    1. Apparently making eye contact isn’t even advice given to NTs nowadays either. Now it seems to be that rather than make eye contact, look at the person’s forehead or even in their general direction.

      It’s recognised that direct, consistent eye to eye contact is actually perceived as threatening and a challenge (try doing that with certain breeds of dogs!) and shouldn’t be recommended.

      People with autism are ahead of the game (again) or so it seems.

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      1. That is interesting. For mammals (and yes, well known with dogs!), the general rule is that a direct stare is perceived as a threat / intimidation / predatory. I’ve grown up being instructed that it is rude to NOT look people directly in the eyes at all time when talking with them or listening, but I actually now think the opposite is true – or even if not rude, that direct eye contact with strangers is intrusive and may be intimidating

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      2. Maybe it’s just NT sloppiness and lack of precision in giving “advice”.

        Making eye contact was never really about making EYE contact directly, but looking in that person’s direction to show that you were paying attention to them or SEEMED to (in fact the insistence on paying eye contact was probably always subtly aimed at those with ASD because of NT insecurities about not feeling the centre of attention!)

        Of course, those of us on the spectrum do take things literally and this is one of many things that can be misinterpreted.

        I also remember being told to give someone a good firm handshake in business circles. I did just that to one poor guy and nearly took his hand off! (He was shaking it afterwards!).

        Following NT “advice” on social norms is a real minefield. I’ve just about given up the ghost.

        Incidentally, on Audible, there’s a really good short audio book on how Aspires, Introverts etc are the new “normal”. I’m not entirely convinced about this, but the audio book provides brief historical and evolutionary background on why it was easier to be on the spectrum in less industrialised societies.

        Very interesting.

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      3. “why it was easier to be on the spectrum in less industrialised societies.” … That sounds quite unlikely to me. Access to advanced information technology and in particular the Internet, has made it so much easier compared to when I was young. A well developed and well organised society makes life much more predictable and reduces anxiety about uncertainty, risks, sudden changes and not being able to know what to do (e.g. if an accident happens). Individuals can depend less on social connectedness and social know-how, and more on intellectual abilities when good infrastructure and information technology basically provides (more) equal access to knowledge and basic services for everyone, so people don’t need to depend on social favours to get by. Less industrialised societies often appear to have less of all that, and instead higher reliance on traditions and social alliances, less tolerance for weirdos, and more chaos and risk in general

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      4. I think that the audiobook was talking about societies, now industrialised, prior to full scale industrialisation.

        How those on the spectrum may have worked in family oriented businesses and worked farms. Yes, they were also institutionalised as well, which is a downside. But life was simpler, fewer people around, even if there was the daily struggle of survival.

        But the main reason is that living in high density populations in cities and towns brought greater emphasis on individualism and being “social”and being able to market yourself in order to find work, which is easier to do if you’re an extroverted NT.

        Susan Cain makes a similar point in “Quiet” about the change in American society from being a “culture of character” to a “culture of personality”

        But I take your point about it being easier to be on the spectrum in the computer/technological age.

        There is greater recognition of being on the spectrum (although not for many women), but that, in a way, only highlights how ill served they are and have been.

        I’m just about to listen to “Neurotribes”by Steve Silberman, which should illuminate things even more.

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  2. I will be following this with interest. I am ASD, and I am a licensed attorney – graduated with JD, passed the bar exam. But no one will hire me. Part of it is that the legal economy is crap, but I’m pretty sure that part of it is that I appear ‘weird’. Eye contact is VERY difficult for me, and honestly, I think I’m going through a good old fashioned autistic burnout – it is harder as I get older to hide my autistic traits.

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  3. The worst piece of advice I’ve ever received was “just be yourself.” Every time I’ve “just been myself” (i.e., acted naturally) in interviews, it’s been a failure. My natural behaviors signal the wrong things to neurotypical people; when I use more neurotypical behaviors instead, it sends them the right message about who I am and what I could do in the job. Thank you, Dani, for starting the process of writing this essay to help Autistic people succeed.

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    1. I feel like that’s the worst advice I’ve gotten as well. I wish it weren’t, but until then, we need to know how to make “being ourselves” work for us when it can and how to compensate when it can’t. Hence this project. 🙂

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  4. I understand that it’s probably outside the scope of what you’re planning to write, but what I needed before I spent two decades on disability and finally just gave up on the entire idea of being employable was not advice on how to land a job but rather on how to keep a job.

    I can “keep my shit in one sock” long enough to make it through a job interview — long enough to make it through with employment at the other end. I have landed at least a good two dozen jobs in my life — probably more. I lost count. But I have never kept any of those jobs for even a full month. I can get in the door, but I can’t keep the act up long enough to stay there. After about a decade of a tossed salad of two-week (or less — often two *day*) jobs mixed with a light vinaigrette of regularly intermittent homelessness, I applied for SSI disability and was shocked to get it so quickly.

    My opening game is grand. I get swamped somewhere in the mid-game and placed in check-mate (a.k.a. fired) awfully fast. (The metaphors! The metaphors!)

    See, this is the thing — I know I shouldn’t “just be myself” in a job interview, so I’m not. And, YAY!, I land the job. But the person who got the job . . . that’s an act I can put on for 30 minutes but not for 30 days.

    So it seems to me that advice on how to land a job is kind of useless if it just ends up with someone accomplishing the goal of landing a job they then have no idea how to keep. How do you put on an act to get the job and then struggle to maintain the act, only to find out that Herculean level of effort was self-sabotage? How do you put on an act to get the job and then drop it to a sustainable level the next day and still keep the job? There’s got to be a good answer here. I’m 47 years old and have never been self-sustaining and have finally just given up on that goal and instead found a new goal of building the most satisfying life a person on SSI can possibly have.

    But for the young who want to . . . . What is there to learn from my string of mistakes? How does a person land a job they can also keep?

    Thanks.

    Sparrow

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  5. YES to all of this, but PARTICULARLY the one about “networking”. One of the fastest ways to send me into a full nonverbal crying meltdown is to put me in a room with a bunch of people and expect us to practice this skill. It’s horrible.

    (For me I think the worst part of it is not the sensory or social-anxiety aspects, though those are certainly factors, but the entire idea of how one has to think about oneself and conceptualize one’s abilities/usefulness in order to even figure out what to say in the speed-dating-type task in the first place. It is utterly foreign both to how I naturally think and to how I have been taught to think and approach / not approach others.)

    I’ve found some vaguely, modestly successful ways of connecting with other writers as a writer, none of which have anything to do with the above, but I have yet to discover any way of making similar strategies work for me in my day-career.

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  6. I have both problems… landing a job and keeping it. I’m currently going through the “Asperger Syndrome Employment Workbook” (Meyer) and as part of that, listed every job I have held in my life. I There are over 40 jobs on the list. Most of them weren’t meant to be permanent anyway, many of them were contract jobs of a predertermined duration, and many others were casual and temporary jobs of the kind people only have for a period of time. My current job is classified as casual, part time (drive out and interview, do the admin at home).

    The reason such jobs are the bulk of the jobs I have had is necessity. I wasn’t really able to get full time permanent jobs, and those I got didn’t usually last longer than the temporary ones (typically shorter), and ended in much more painful and humiliating ways.

    My longest lasting job ever (with the one I have now a close second) was a full time permanent office jobs, and I forced myself to stay there for almost 2 and a half year, both because I didn’t know how to get another job, and because I wanted to teach myself to stay in a job, work out the problems. They didn’t sack me, but I was kept on “indefinate” probabition for the first 9 months (unheard of, probation is 3 months by standard in Australia and that’s what my original contract specified). After I was finally made permanent and had learnt the job I was fairly safe, but found the social aspect of the work environment (office politics, relationships) very confusing, depressing and draining, and had no advancement – day to day management in regard to me seemed to contradict goals that had explicitly been set up for me etc. I’m still quite bewildered as to what was happening around me. The work was boring, but I felt drain half through each work day and didn’t do much outside work hours, so I was often depressed for long periods. I slept alot (incl. on Saturdays).

    I ended up quitting without having found another job first, and then stayed unemployed/doing a few small freelance projects for almost 2 years until I found my current job. I am now in the situation of having to find another job, partly because I don’t earn enough to keep up with the bills, and partly because the job in itself will disapppear in the somewhat near future.

    Great series. I am following it with great interest.

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