An Autistic Adult’s Guide to Getting Hired: Should You Base Your Career Search on Your Special Interests?

To read the previous posts in this series or to contact the author, check out the table of contents and FAQ.

The popular press and several autism-parent groups often express enthusiasm for the hiring options of autistic adults.  When these aren’t about announcements from companies like Microsoft of plans to hire specifically autistic people, they’re often couched in terms of autistic “special interests” as a job strength.  “Encourage your kid’s special interests!” these enthusiasts say.  “They’ll lead to a job later on!”

As well-meaning as this approach sounds, it’s (a) simplistic, (b) oblivious to the realities of how hiring actually works, and (c) lacking in understanding of what special interests are and how they operate.  Here’s why limiting your job search to your special interests might be a bad idea:

1. Special interest burnout.  Some special interests last a lifetime.  Others don’t.  It’s often not possible to predict when or if any particular interest will “burn out.”  Do you really want to be stuck in a job whose topic now just mocks you every day with how luminous it used to be?

2. Not all special interests are job-transferable.  I, for example, can quote twenty seasons of The Simpsons from memory, thanks to my longstanding special interest in the series.  This is not a marketable job skill.

This illustrates a related point for parents: encouraging special interests on the grounds that they’ll “lead to a job later on” is counterproductive.  My twenty-year special interest in The Simpsons provided stability, predictability, a site of common interest with friends, and a great deal of joy during my upbringing – but had my parents tried to limit it on the grounds that it was “not marketable,” I would have lost all those things.  Had it been marketable, pressure from my parents to “get a job in it” would have probably caused burnout, once again depriving me off its benefits.

3. “Special interests” are not the same thing as “skills.”  Yes, you need deep content knowledge to do certain jobs – but overwhelmingly, employers are looking for skills, not subject matter expertise.  As a rule, the job market assumes that you can learn any content you need as long as you have the skills.  In fact, most employers prefer that you come in with a strong skill set, rather than deep content knowledge, because most employers want you to approach the content in the way they see it – which may not be the way you see it.

4. Not all autistic people have “special interests.”  So-called “special interests” are very common among autistic people – but not every autistic person has one.  Some autistic people never have a deep and abiding love for any particular content area or activity.  Some have a deep and abiding love for a content area or activity in childhood, but not in adulthood.  Some “flux” in and out of this state at various times in their lives, for various reasons, and under various conditions.  Special interests are neither stable nor universal.  Trying to build a career path on a thing you think you “should” have but don’t leads only to failure.

Fitting Special Interests Into the Job Search (or Proceeding Without Them)

Although finding the right job isn’t as simple as following your special interests, there’s definitely value in mining them for ideas to pursue in the job search.  Here’s what to ask:

1.  Which of my special interests are actually skills, or actually involve skills?

I’m hyperlexic and hypergraphic; in a sense, my longest and most enduring “special interest” is language.  Reading, researching, and writing are skill sets.  Sure, I’ve got an astonishing depth of content knowledge related to them, but usually, what I’m marketing to employers or clients is the ability to write their content into being, not the ability to write about writing.  They supply the content or concepts; I supply the text.

This is one place in which Temple Grandin’s example is also instructive.  As pretty much everyone who has read anything about autism knows, one of Dr. Grandin’s longstanding special interests is animal behavior and animal welfare.  (She’s even written a book on it.)  But her skill at engineering and design is what allowed her to direct that content knowledge into a viable career path.

When inventorying one’s special interests for potential career options, ask not only what the content of each interest is, but what skills are involved.  Skills are transferable in a way that content isn’t.  More importantly, skills are marketable in a way that content isn’t – even in the bona fide “professions.”  For instance, as any lawyer will tell you, law school teaches you the skills needed to be a lawyer; it does not teach you the content of the law.

2.  When I was a kid, what did I picture myself doing when I grew up?

I add this one not only because it’s great advice for just about anyone seeking a career path, but because for autistic people, it can provide an “out” from expectations that you would grow up either with a so-called “real job” (a 9 to 5 that had nothing to do with your actual interests or strengths) or with no job at all.

Autistic adults are woefully un- and under-employed.  As a demographic, we are un- or under-employed out of proportion to the number of us who can actually handle a full-time workload.  There are a lot of reasons for this, but one of the big ones is that, while we can often handle a full-time workload, we often cannot handle it in the traditional 9-to-5 format.  Being able to work full-time isn’t the problem; being able to do it in the way our brains and bodies manage it best is.

Around age nine, I decided that my ideal living situation would be to move to a cabin in the north woods of Michigan and work as a writer and editor, communicating with the world via fax machines and the U.S. Postal Service.  (ISPs had only just come on the scene, and email was not in regular use.)  This image stuck with me for decades, despite the adults in my life disabusing me of the notion that it was a “real job” fairly quickly.

Around age 27, suffering from autistic burnout and confined to bed with a severe fatigue disorder, I started a freelance writing business from my laptop.  It wasn’t until a few years later, writing from that same laptop at a campsite in Tahquamenon Falls State Park, that I realized I had started the business I’d begun dreaming of when I was nine.  I could have done it ten years earlier if I’d only listened to myself instead of believing that a “real job” was only one in which I sat in the office of some employer for a specified number of hours per day.

Many autistic people spend a good deal of their lives hearing that their intuitions are incorrect, impossible, or nonsensical.  Over time, that voice becomes internalized.  Dumping it takes work – but sometimes, that work is the only way to get ourselves onto a career path we can handle.

3.  Network autistically.

Unfortunately, networking matters.  You can land a job “cold,” with no contacts prior to a general job posting (I’ve done it twice), but it’s very difficult and it is not how the vast majority of human beings land jobs.

The trick to networking while autistic is to network autistically.  For most of us, that means beginning via social media.  The good news is that most industries have finally caught on to the idea that one can find talented people via social media.  Since most autistic people find writing, social media, and the Internet to be much closer to our “native language” than in-person communication, the fact that social media hiring is Officially a Trend now puts us at a huge advantage…if, like anyone else, we know how to leverage it.  (Added bonus: this is where your special interests can hella pay off.)  I’ll cover this in detail in my next hiring-related post.

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On Functioning and “Functioning”

Not only did I present on deconstruction, autism, and digital communities at #cwcon this week, I also roomed (and presented) with a number of other autistic people.

I’ve made several autistic friends via the Internet, as I’ve mentioned in previous posts (and in the presentation).  I’ve even met a few of them one on one.  But spending time in a group gave me a perspective I haven’t had before.  Like:

  • The fact that I’ve never had an IEP, or was never diagnosed in childhood for anything, may be relatively unusual for autistics/NDs in my approximate age group.
  • I’m as awkward at autistic conversational norms as I am at NT ones, but I am less anxious about this awkwardness because something about autistic conversational norms feels intuitively right to me in a way that NT conversational norms never have.
  • Most of my autistic body-language norms have been completely extinguished.

It’s this last one that gave rise to the title of this post, because I can’t stop comparing myself to the youngest member of our group, who also had the most overt stereotypically autistic body language: lots of happyflapping, prancing, squeeing, and the like.  I’ve been trained for so many decades to Not Do That that I kept finding myself getting anxious in public on this friend’s behalf.

But here’s the thing.  Friend had far more overtly “autistic” body language than I did – which means that, in popular autism parlance, I was the more visibly “high-functioning.”  But Friend was also far happier, self-confident, outgoing, and comfortable navigating strange places than I was – which means that, from a “can get things done” perspective, Friend was the more productively “high-functioning.”

Put another way: I’m better at “behaving myself” NT-style in public; Friend is better at actually getting things done.

The goal of Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) and other behaviorist approaches to “treatment” is that the treatment target will become “indistinguishable from peers.”  From the point of view of this goal, I’m as close to a success story as one will probably ever get.  Friend is visibly not.  But the comparison of me and Friend makes it clear that being indistinguishable from non-autistic people is not the same thing as being a fully-functioning, mentally healthy member of society.

I’m not sure what Friend’s background with behaviorist approaches to autism “treatment” is.  I know that I was raised in an essentially behaviorist model, in which behavior that didn’t fit the NT mould was consistently punished, and in which any underlying needs or states of mind giving rise to that behavior (whether positive or negative) were never addressed.  So I learned to “behave” – but I also learned that my happiness wasn’t “real” or worthy of acknowledgement, and that my needs were neither “real” nor anything I had the power to control or address.

I also woke up every day for thirty years wondering if today would be the day I’d put my suicide plan into action.

In “Q is for Quiet Hands Getting Loud” (part of the “Blogging from A to Z” series for Autism Acceptance Month), Sparrow Rose Jones writes:

But when I look around at myself and my fellow adults Autistics and hear their stories, it seems to me that this “indistinguishable from peers” goal is one that only a tiny fraction of Autistic people are able to accomplish. Beyond the relative unattainability of “indistinguishable,” the stress of trying to reach that goal can do long-term damage to a person’s body and to their self-esteem.

The dirty truth about “quiet hands” and other attempts to train the autism out of us is that these sorts of therapies — teaching us to look others in the eye, stop fidgeting, stop rocking, stop doing anything that “looks too autistic” — is that these therapies are not really meant to help us. They are meant to make others feel more comfortable around us and to allow others to try to forget that we are

Autistic.

What I want everyone to take away from seeing me in public alongside anyone more “visibly autistic” than I am is this:

I’m one of the handful of autistic people who, for a few brief moments, achieved indistinguishability from peers.  What you are seeing now is the result of thirty years of constant work toward that goal.

It was not worth it.

 

Writing While Autistic

Yesterday, in the capstone course for my MA, our professor asked us to write about our relationship to writing: the good, the bad, where we write, how we write, etc.

My relationship to writing, like my relationship to everything else, is autistic. And it’s a complex relationship for that reason.

My autism came with a side of autistic hyperlexia, which many of the so-called “experts” call a “splinter” or “savant” skill. They don’t mean this approvingly. They mean that the hyperlexic’s ability to produce torrents of words is not the same thing as communicating, that we might be able to write but surely we have very little idea what we mean.

I’ve also been told that my hyperlexia is actually OCD, a compulsion that should be suppressed or redirected for the sake of my mental health. At one point I actually started writing a short story about a woman who goes insane following this very advice.

Writing is a compulsion for me, but not in the way one means when one talks about obsessive-compulsive disorders – although the difference can be hard to explain. It’s a need the way food, sleep, and exercise are needs: basic to my fundamental health. I don’t write to avoid feeling bad; I do it to feel well. I find an intense joy in it. When I have a migraine, I write basically non-stop for the duration of the migraine. Most of what I write makes no sense, but it doesn’t need to. It is the act of writing that provides relief.

Several of my classmates said they didn’t particularly like writing, but they liked having written. I find having written to be a major letdown. My first scholarly, peer-reviewed article was published recently; after I got done crowing about how my first scholarly article was published!, I actually felt hollow. During the holiday break, I filled a notebook with fanfiction nobody will ever read; now, a week later, I’m not even sure where I put that notebook, since I’m on to a new one.

I so love writing, and have so integrated it into my life, that the next part is even harder to explain: Despite loving writing, I also hate it.

I hate it because even though I produce words at an astonishing rate, I don’t think in words. I think in complex multidimensional structures that look like fractals (but aren’t always – I’m a humanities scholar, and humans are far messier and less predictable than fractals). Writing is, for me, a constant process of translation. I’m always turning those thought structures into words. And when I do, pieces are lost, because words are inherently limited and limiting. Limits frustrate me.

And so I live in a state of constant tension: I cannot not write; writing is always imprecise. Yet it is, most of the time, a tension without anxiety. It is the easiest “flow” state I know. Writing is the definition of eustress. So much for the experts’ “splinter skill.”

Special Problems in Modern Autism Rhetoric: Relativity

I was reading Lawrence M. Krauss’s Fear of Physics during my last migraine (as you do), and I realized modern autism nonsense has a relativity problem.  It goes like this:

1.)  Claim: “Autistic people lack theory of mind.  This is why they are bad at humanities-related things, like relationships and literature.”

2.)  Claim:  “Autistic people are unusually good at science-related things, like physics.”

Claim 1, when it is based on anything at all, is usually based on things like Baron-Cohen et al’s results in administering the Sally-Anne test to autistic children (handy infographic, minimal science at the link).  I don’t know what folk nonsense Claim 2 is based on.

Baron-Cohen et al’s Sally-Anne results, and their interpretation in cognitive theories of literature and in popular conversation to things like Claim 1, serves as a particularly good illustration of what I’m calling the “autism rhetoric relativity problem.”  The Sally-Anne test of “theory of mind” is a test that is less about reading other people’s “thoughts” or emotional states correctly as it is about correctly interpreting the viewpoints of various observers.  Getting the final question correct depends on being able to predict what Sally did or did not physically view relative to Anne, the marble, the box, and the basket.  In fact, to get the correct answer at all, one must abstract out information considered by the test to be irrelevant, such as any previous understandings between Anne and Sally regarding the marble.

The practice of physics tends to demand that physicists get good at (among others) two things: (1) grasping concepts like “what changes when we observe this physical phenomenon from some other point?” and (2) abstracting out irrelevant information.  In fact, one might argue – and as a humanities scholar I am going to argue – that these skills are even more important for physics than they are for the humanities.  Ergo, if the Sally-Anne test “proves” Claim 1 is true, it also “proves” that Claim 2 is false.  A test that “proves” autistic people suck at relative positioning and ignoring irrelevances also “proves” that autistic people suck at physics, because relative positioning and ignoring irrelevancies are exactly the things that make physics work.

The Spherical Cow in the Room

The reason Claim 1 and Claim 2 can so happily coexist in the popular imagination, of course, is that the popular imagination doesn’t see that the “theory of mind” the Sally-Anne test-takers are thought not to possess is neither the ability to consider relative physical position (important in physics) nor the ability to predict other people’s thought-feelings (important in the humanities).  It’s actually a hybrid.

The hybrid is summed up pretty well in my mention above of “abstracting out irrelevancies” in order to arrive at the “right” answer: that Sally is going to assume the marble hasn’t moved from the box while she’s been out.  The skill, “abstract out irrelevancies,” is crucial to solving any basic problem in physics.  The answer it demands in this context, however, is essentially a humanities matter – because the “irrelevancies” in question are human differences.  They’re questions of agreements, social contracts, relationships, communication, and assumptions; they all have to do with what Sally knows about Anne (“she steals a marble every chance she gets”), what Sally thinks she knows about Anne (“she’ll leave my marble where she found it”), what Sally thinks Anne knows about Sally (“she thinks I won’t mind if she takes my marble”), and so on.

My hypothesis is that autistic test-takers get tripped up at this point not because we are unusually bad at abstracting out irrelevancies.  Rather, we struggle with it when we do not default to the assumption that human differences are irrelevant – an especially difficult default when all our lives we have been constantly reminded that our human differences are deeply and problematically relevant, that other people think our differences are relevant, that we are expected to account for the fact that other people think our differences are relevant (“eye contact is important because it makes other people feel more comfortable”), etc.

I assert that these “irrelevancies” – ironically, the very same irrelevancies that social contact demands we consider relevant – are what make the Sally-Anne question fundamentally unanswerable.  Not all the facts required are in evidence.

The ability to array the human differences in a question, sort them, and target the “relevant but missing” pieces is what has made me a good lawyer, and it has been invaluable to my study of literature.  I can’t say what it might have done for me in a career in physics.  I can say that, insofar as we think the Sally-Anne test teaches us anything at all about any autistic person’s potential career path, we’re on the wrong path.

#AAC Awareness Month

October is AAC Awareness Month, and so far, I’ve been mostly reading.  And thinking.  Especially about posts like this one by Alyssa at Yes, That Too.

Alyssa’s post caught my attention particularly because, as she puts it,

…I am in two categories where people tend not to think of AAC: adults, because who ever thinks about disabled adults who are off doing adult things while also acting disabled; and people with some (in my case quite a bit of) oral speech.

The reason this catches my attention is because I am an adult who is off doing adult things, and also a person with quite a bit of oral speech.  But I am also increasingly aware that my oral-speech abilities are chronically overtaxed.

For me, mouthwordmaking is very much like my hypermobile knees: yes, mouthwords do most of what I need them to do.  Yes, I can talk (and walk) more or less like “normal” people my age in all the expected contexts and for all the expected reasons.  But the point at which I should stop doing that actually occurs much sooner for me than it does for “normal” people.  Every day, I hit that point.  And I should stop going when I hit that point, because to go past that point I have to put improper pressure on the system, resulting in improper function – and, in both cases, increased “mistakes” and a chronic and ever-increasing risk of total system breakdown.

But I don’t.  Because to stop pushing the system past its limits, to stop meeting social demands that I walk and talk “as expected” for a person of my apparent age and -bodiedness, gets unnecessary and unwanted attention.  For most of my life, it has been more worthwhile to me to put chronic and unnecessary strain on my own systems than to deal with the approbation of a world that demands abled performance (and performativity).

In fact, until I read Alyssa’s post, those same performative demands had made me assume AAC wasn’t an option for me.  Not really.  I have an AAC app on my phone, but I have never used it.  I’ve learned a fair bit of ASL for times I don’t have words, but I rarely use that, either.  Even though I’m aware “alternative” means are available to me, I go on chronically overloading the speech-system.

Ironically, I’m kinder to my knees than I am to my speech center.  When a series of illnesses and medication reactions left me ataxic and mostly-bedridden from 2007 to 2011, it took me about a week to start walking with a cane and about four days to become a staunch advocate for mobility aids at any age.  To me there is no such thing as being “too young” or “not disabled enough” to need a mobility aid: if it makes it possible to live your life more closely to the way you want to live it, use it!

Yet when it comes to using an AAC device – which would make it possible to live my life far more closely to the way I want to live it in terms of communicating more effectively – I balk.  My colleagues all see me as A Person Who Can Talk At Will, and I don’t know how to navigate not-being that person.  I have no idea how to answer questions like “What happened?” and “Why are you using that?”  I have no ideological objection to giving the truthful answers: “I’m autistic” and “I realized I could communicate more easily this way.”  But I have a deep emotional terror of being Odd In That Way.

I don’t remember having any such terror about using the cane, which makes my recent reading of Robert McRuer’s Crip Theory even odder to me: compulsory able-bodiedness didn’t terrify me the way compulsory able-mindedness does.  I didn’t, and don’t, give a crap if my body appeared Odd, since I can demonstrate at a moment’s notice that my brain Works Right.  But there is something much, much closer in not-talking to suggesting “Hey, my brain doesn’t Work Right.”

(Except it does, and the point of not-talking is to help it work even more right.  But I’m so afraid of transgressing the rules of abledness performativity that I’m willing to function less well in order to continue reassuring others that I function acceptably well.  This is why I keep repeating the word “ironic.”)

Perhaps the most disappointing part of all this, for me as an academic, is that for the past several months I have been deconstructing the concept of “speaking” as it relates to autistic people, our portrayals, and how “interventions” and “treatments” are approached for us by non-autistic parents, teachers, scientists, and the non-autistic world at large.  I am, academically, well well aware that “making mouthwords at all costs” is not only an illusion, but a delusion; that there is in fact no “there” there when it comes to claims that mouthnoise “speech” is superior to other forms of communication in any way, for any other form of communication can be demonstrated to be “superior” to speech in any way attributed to speech.

(Derrida himself works through this problem in “Of Grammatology“, though I doubt his explanation is any clearer than the one I just gave.)

So, yes, I’m aware of AAC.  I’m aware that using AAC would make my life considerably easier.  I’m aware that my adoption of AAC into my range of communication tools would also make the lives of other AAC users easier by creating one more “point” at which people I interact with could get used to AAC use as just another form of communication by real, concrete humans they actually know and trust.  And I’m painfully aware that my own theoretical and ethical positions conflict with my own fear when it comes to incorporating AAC use into my own life.

So what now?  I sit with it.  I sit with the painful awareness, and eventually the pain and I will process ourselves into something less painful and more productive.  Like any other painful awareness in my life, the only way out is through.  But I would gratefully accept thoughtful, informed advice.

How TPGA’s Mods Failed Me

It’s been a really tough week to be autistic.

This week, The Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism (TPGA) had a massive, multi-thread moderator fail on its Facebook page.  I can’t link to the most offending threads even if I wanted to, as they’ve been deleted in their entirety.  But the “highlights” (lowlights?) I personally witnessed include:

(TW: insults, support for ABA therapy, trauma-inducing treatment of autistic people.)

Continue reading “How TPGA’s Mods Failed Me”

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!