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.

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.

 

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!