Hope you’re all doing great.
As a self-employed autistic, a lot of my time is not spent doing the actual work. Instead I do a lot of writing emails to people. Those can take the form of applications for teaching or tutoring work, of covering letters to literary agencies or back-and-forth messages about organising training sessions. This may seem like a disadvantage, but, since a lot of my previous teaching work was bound up with communication between myself and other staff members, this is actually not that different.
Still, sometimes, I have to do job interviews. And the two most recent job interviews were successful, in that I was hired for both positions. How do I do that, many autistics ask? What is it about you that allows you to get these positions? Others asked me if I provide interview training or if I can share resources for autistics, to improve their interview skills. This blog will address that, but it won’t have one-size-fits-all solutions to 100% guarantee autistics to pass every single job interview. The change shouldn’t come from us, because the barriers from entry won’t address themselves. The more autistics manage to climb the wall, the higher the wall will become from the other side.
This is a video from the National Autistic Society that shows an example of an autistic person having a job interview. As you could see, it doesn’t go well.
I’ve had job interviews like that. I’ve had meltdowns and shutdowns and panic attacks. Sometimes this was due to the sensory overload, other times due to me misreading social cues. I was once rejected for a job due to my dresscode being inappropriate (I did not have the money to buy formal clothes). I have walked out of job interviews weeping.
But I’ve also passed job interviews, with flying colours. In 2017, I had just been in hospital after an overnight section under the mental health act (I’ll talk more about that one in a subsequent blog) and I got an interview at an English language school in Oxford four days later. I got the job and worked there very happily for three full years.
As you’ve been able to read, passing an interview doesn’t equal being safe from discrimination, find it here. https://jorikmol.com/sunday-13th-december-2020-bad-news-and-resilience/
It shouldn’t be on us to change. HR professionals need to. Every time I work with an HR professional, I tell them this. “You’ve been trained to work with your gut. You use it to get a ‘vibe’, a ‘sense’ of someone, that disregards our skills and achievements. You may not be ableist, but your gut is.”
Well, the strawman responds*, how can my gut be ableist? It can’t even distinguish between milk and pure chocolate! That kind of response is neither here nor there. Ableism, like racism, homo- and transphobia, xenophobia, classicism and misogyny; is not usually a direct choice, to somehow become evil. No. These responses are often subconscious and have everything to do with the ways in which we as humans have been socialised. The cultural products we consume, the beliefs and values of our parents, friends and social networks (pre- and post-internet)
* To the uninitiated and my boyfriend, this is a joke; a strawman argument is a rhetorical device in which the speaker imagines an interlocutor who disagrees with them, only to make an argument that supersedes that counterargument, to make themselves look more competent and capable. My autistic boyfriend is not the best at understanding jokes.
A few years ago, a piece of research was published that showed that after seeing them for no more than a moment, neurotypicals will rate autistic people lower on the likelihood of developing a friendship, based on first impressions. And significantly lower at that. These are called thin-slice judgements and are used in marketing to assess whether a product has viability. It shows that neurotypicals don’t even have to hear us speak to realise that we’re different, just a look will do, in less than a second. And that’s it, we’ve lost out on a potential romantic partner, our lives saved in an emergency, or, yes, the job interview.*
*If you’re interested, I’ve got a link to the study right here: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5286449/
Because of the history of the world, most professionals in the field of HR are neurotypicals. Direct discrimination occurs at the door, when the HR professional stands up, says “We’ll be in touch,” and, when the person leaves, writes “not a good vibe” and crosses out the name. More direct discrimination occurs when their supervisor or the HR board does not feature any neurodivergent people who would be able to pick the interviewer up on a potential snafu.
Indirect discrimination occurs even before that. This can be as mundane as the design of the work environment. Because of the history of the world, architects are taught to design neurotypical environments for neurotypical minds. That’s great for them, but this can cause the use of lighting, such as fluorescent tubes, that can work distractingly. On the level of noise-saturation, the printer can be in the same area, causing overload that way.
When I still worked in an office, I found the smell of the ink toner overwhelming, and the coffee machine was on the office floor. I would go outside with the smokers as the cleaning products used were off-putting. I worked in a call centre, which used an automatic dialer to contact people, so I would be surprised into a call I didn’t know what was going to happen, with zero preparation time. The audio quality was poor and fuzzy, the connection noise was a rough plasticky click. If they’d shown me the working practices then, I would have had to mask physical discomfort. My colleagues often smelled of cigarettes, perfume, food or body odour. I’m not saying that I didn’t smell bad myself; I was 21, depressed and underslept. Of course I can’t have smelled all that great. I’m just saying that I was more sensitive to that of other people, particularly one guy who wore a musk-scented cologne. This was nauseating. The lighting was all fluorescent tubing, the sound of which was worse because they weren’t cleaned regularly and somehow the baking of dust on top of the tubes at the start and ends of the day made the buzzing sound even worse.
All of that, I needed to pretend wasn’t affecting me in the slightest. Add to that the social expectations of an office; be relaxed but not too much, walk, sit and speak (or don’t speak) in very particular ways. I had to swap between formal and informal and adjust my body language and voice style on the fly, depending on the person I was talking to and (especially when it came to management) be able to anticipate the type of response they would want before they had expressed what they were going to say in the first place. How on earth did I manage? With difficulty, of course. And the constant knowledge that all I was experiencing was just me being ‘difficult’ and ‘exaggerating’ ‘for no reason other than wanting attention.’ That’s called internalised ableism.
Yes, Jorik, that’s all well and good, you say. But that isn’t telling me why you can pass interviews and I can’t. Well, the main reasons are: a. being a good performer and b. luck. I can act the part, as exhausting as it is. I know my role in an interview. It’s a hard role to play, but, the more interviews I did, the better I got at pretending to be the kind of person they wanted me to be. Whenever I have an interview, I block out the rest of the day for recovery time. I still need to. I will be preparing my responses from the moment I know I’ll have the interview until the time I have it. I’ve had meltdowns because I was asked a question I hadn’t expected. That doesn’t happen anymore. In my head, I calculate what questions I can expect and prepare answers for them. The rest is improvisation. By now, I’ve practiced my tone of voice and know what to say and what not to. I’ve found it easier to do interviews online, because it is less like I’m entering the lion’s den, where the other person has all the cards and I come into their space. On zoom, nobody feels confident. That’s a significant advantage.
I’ve been asked if I disclose my being autistic in the interview. Yes I do. I always do. I’d rather be discriminated against at the door than turn my life upside down to do a job that will exhaust me only to lose it and suffer the consequences. If they don’t want autistics, then that job isn’t for me. I also disclose that I’m gay and am in a relationship with a man. Again, I don’t want to discover that I’m being hired by homophobes.
I got hired for my first EAP job (English for Academic Purposes) by University of the Creative Arts, London. I’ll be working there over the summer for their non-English speaking student intake. I used my experience working to improve student mental health and accounting for neurodivergence. I started by reading about EAP and the differences between it and EFL/ESOL (teaching English as a second language in language schools and at a secondary level). I listened to podcasts that discussed the differences as well, https://teflology-podcast.com/2016/05/11/episode-43-eap-with-russ-mayne/ was an excellent first start. This taught me that there wasn’t much difference between what I’ve been doing for the past five years and what will be expected of me. I had to show a lesson plan, so I spent a long time thinking about a new plan, which I abandoned in favour of showing one I’d used for an observation in 2018. I decided to go all-in on the neurodivergence angle. That was a risk, but it paid off.
At the start of the interview, I remind my interviewers that I’m autistic and that if I get asked a question, I’ll tell the truth. That sounds weird, but HR professionals and interviewees do this strange dance around each other where both try to anticipate what the other wants to hear and play into each other. The interviewee tries to show themselves in their best light, the HR professional tries to fit their imagined ideal candidate onto who they’re interviewing. In response, the interviewee tries to mould the HR professional’s ideal image back onto themselves, while the HR professional tries to challenge the interviewee’s presentation and figure out where the gaps are. It’s a tug-of-war where both are essentially trying to get the same result. But all this goes on behind several masks and facades. For me, that’s exhausting to have to cognitively assess in the moment, while also trying to answer the questions. I just tell them I will be honest and get myself out of this game of intuitional 4D chess. That has gone down well every time. I make it clear that I can’t play the game they’ve been trained to play and I answer genuinely to every question that’s put to me.
Does that include being honest about reasonable adjustments, autistic burnout and sensory issues? What about social issues? Are you honest about all of that? Yes, yes I am. The jobs I go for involve a minimum of interaction with other members of staff outside of clearly delineated contexts, such as staff meetings. There isn’t a staff room, or an “office culture” I have to expend valuable energy adapting to when the professionalism stops and the “personal” begins. I find having lunch with colleagues more exhausting than a staff meeting, especially if I don’t yet know them very well. The worst are team building and staff training days. People behave appallingly and are often unbearably loud. If that makes me sound like a Pollyanna, well, I suppose. I’m just super sensitive to noise. I loved working at EF but the staff training days in the lecture room brought me to tears with auditory overload. I was allowed to spend group activities in the staff room and would come back for the food (obviously).
But doesn’t that make me look incredibly unappealing for an employer? Maybe. If so, I don’t belong there. But, since I’ve been disclosing all this in my interview, I’ve been hired more often as I come across as more confident. I am, because while I may be masking, I am showing the interviewer that I know myself and I am giving them clear directions on how to manage me. What HR wants is not people without problems, it’s people who don’t have problems that are unexpected. Teaching is an exhausting job and many people who go into the profession are doing so out of a sense of purpose. These people are emotionally connected to their work, which breeds dedication but also a tendency to crash. HR staff in education knows this, so they make adjustments to retain staff. When I worked at EF, when I was vulnerable, I would tell my boss. At first, I felt super guilty and like I needed to constantly make amends for actual and perceived wrongdoing on my part. I felt I needed to constantly sell myself anew. Nowadays, I don’t feel like I have to prove my value anymore.
Actually, that’s a lie. On Saturday, I’d had a bad night’s sleep and I felt I had to prove my value to my partner after trying to pick a fight over nothing. It’s dependent on my overall state of being, but I will always feel like I’m not good enough. That’s ok, though.
Where was I? Oh yeah, interviews.
The good thing about this approach of radical honesty is that it makes me appear confident, because I have the most experience of managing myself. They know they can rely on me to self-manage, even if I have bad days. I think it’s disarming, because the rest of the conversation is me explaining my current practice as a teacher. I talked about my experiences as a trainer and the organisations I’ve worked with, the speaking engagements I’ve done and subsequent work, too. This all showed me in a positive light, though not purposefully. This may be an acting thing, but I didn’t use pride or ‘I need this job’ as the supporting intention. I was just telling the truth, saying “this is what I’ve done and these were the outcomes.” It was very clean. I didn’t engage in the game, which made my matter-of-fact approach work even better. I wasn’t trying to say impressive stuff. I was just expressing facts.
Now, in the spirit of radical honesty, there’s still a part of me that says: ‘gosh, what if the HR from UCA will get back to me saying: “er, no, your interview was terrible and we hired you out of pity.”’ I allow that concern to stand and I will retract this blog if that’s the case. Self-doubt cannot be erased, it’s normal and sane to have these kinds of thoughts. We just have to be able to live in the same room as it and get along reasonably well.
But what if you get stuck or lose your train of thought? In the interview, I actually did. I, at one point, lost my train of thought, said that and apologised. Part of that was that I had already answered part of their other question already. I still got the job. Being able to show flexibility in the face of inevitable errors and fuck-ups is highly prized.
Don’t think I didn’t feel it, though, I did. I felt the anxiety hit my fingertips from inside my chest. As it pulsed, I gave a quick flap and carried on. The nausea didn’t hit me until after the interview. In previous years, I might have had a meltdown. Not this time.
But what if you’re looking to get hired in a job without experience? Well, you simply stand a better chance in lower-level positions. There is less at stake in lower-paid positions and HR are more willing to take a risk. This won’t be of use to those of us not even in those positions.
How to challenge that? For myself, I answer that question by disclosing. It’s frightening, but, in the spirit of Queer liberation, I use my privilege to come out and be openly autistic to normalise autistics in the workplace. I can come out and be relatively safe from harm. That is not the case across the board, so I am not saying everyone should come out if they fear their safety and/or livelihood are threatened. But if I feel I can come out, I do. Even in interviews. If those of us who can get in keep on opening up opportunities, then we will be able to get more people a seat at the table. We shouldn’t pull up the ladder.
Again, Jorik, you’re still not telling me how I should get a job! Yes, I know that! But I can’t get you a job in one blogpost. This is for two reasons. One: because your needs and skills are specific to you and will require individual support. Two: because the reason that you can’t get a job has nothing to do with you. It’s that we live in a system that privileges one neurotype over another. This also falls into the conversation on identity; some white/cis/male autistics can get jobs that other people in our community can’t (I am all three of those things). If you can’t get a job, that’s not your fault. We live in a society that privileges certain people over others and the job ladder is one of those. Especially in the arts, it’s only in the past few years that actually autistics artists are starting to be considered as anything more than curiosities or outsider art. Not that there’s anything wrong with outsider art; I love a lot of it. But Ricky Gervais once illustrated this by walking round an exhibition and saying “that’s fucking mental” at everything there. That’s still in the background of NTs who see our work. This is why autistic artists might get a foot in the door, but the moment promotion or chances of wider success arrive, it’s almost exclusively NTs who benefit. So too with jobs.
There are also autistics whose interests and identities align with the system to such an extent that they can find themselves defending and working to maintain it, to the detriment of others like them. Harry Thompson, here, talks about the Establishment Autie. Watch it, I’ll wait for you to get back.
He’s good, isn’t he?
The point here is not just about increasing autistic people in the workplace, it’s about challenging the fundamentals of what we believe work can and should be.
I get you can’t do that on your own. If you struggle with getting a job, send me an email, let’s talk. I can see what I can do for you personally, though I cannot guarantee success. What I do, though, is actually push for the problems to be solved where they are. You can’t change systemic problems on your own (that is why capitalism is not working, especially in the field of climate change. But, again, neither here nor there). You can’t expect yourself to open doors that are being slammed in your face because of who you are. That’s why we need to change the system, rather than individual autistics.
Does it ever get easier? No. Passing an interview doesn’t guarantee success, such as with the school I worked at until December.
Do I still get nervous? Oh, yes. Even recently, when I got hired as a mentor for autistic students in Bath from September, I was nervous about it. I have been doing this job for years, including for myself! It’s all about making reasonable adjustments, within education. I knew that I still had to prepare myself and I was shaky all day ahead of it, even though I knew I was more of an expert on what I’d need to do than the person who was interviewing me (no shade on my interviewer, who’s an utterly wonderful person and an excellent HR professional). I got shaky afterwards and needed to take off the entire rest of the day.*
How do I pass a job interview, then? I do it by radical honesty, a bit of acting and a whole lot of luck. I’m also 33 and have been doing them for a while now. Practice does yield results. Lowering the stakes helped too. I did not desperately need this job, as I’ve been doing well financially since my last period of unemployment. The less importance I placed in the interview, the better I did. Paradoxically, if you want something too badly, you’re less likely to get it.
I know, life’s infuriating like that, isn’t it?
How do you pass a job interview? I don’t know. I hope you do. But let me know in the comments below how you pass your interviews when you’re autistic, if you, like me, are one of the lucky few. If not, let me know what your horror stories are. You’re not alone, we’ve all got them. If you’re from outside the UK, please tell me how the situation is in your country. This is a global problem, not just a UK one.
When I was last unemployed, I read the book Unemployed on the Autism Spectrum by Michael John Carley. It justified my belief that self-employment was the actual preferred way forward for me and that I was not alone.
The main thing I want you to take away from this is: if you can’t find a job, that’s NOT your fault. You are legally deserving of appropriate work. Society is failing you, not the other way around. In the UK, recent research shows that only 17.8 % of autistic people in the UK are currently unemployed (numbers adjusted for Covid-19). It’s not our fault. Michael John Carley’s book told me that too, when I needed to hear it.
Lots of love, see you next week!
* I will now have to take the 6 hour Introduction to Autism from the National Autistic Society. That’s fine, though I also have to pay for it. I won’t learn anything new, but I will use the heck out of any icons I can stick on my front page. Might as well.