Finding Employment for People with Autism or Aspergers
I am a psychologist and my area of expertise is with individuals who identify as either Autistic or Asperger’s. My goal is to identify these individuals and help them become self-accepting, self-aware, and excited about who they are and who they will be.
Embedded within my private practice (Southeast Psych) is a media company which helps get psychology out to the world in a fun, free, and exciting way. We have cameras, a green screen, and high-end video editing software. In addition to some of the major film editing work, we realized we were also in need of someone who could add graphics as well as animation to our projects.
Due to this need, we reached out to the local community college and other surrounding universities in an attempt to fulfill this need through a potential internship program. Animators can be had to find. Various individuals sent us portfolios of their work, and based on those submissions, we conducted interviews. Note! We received the work product first with a resume rather than conducting the interview first.
During one interview, I had the pleasure of meeting Matthew. I immediately recognized Matthew was on the spectrum or “Aspie.” Matthew also knew he was on the spectrum and was able to concisely and eloquently describe his social and educational experiences. He described himself as having a social fuse which sometimes burned too short, and he would sometimes need time alone to recharge the fuse. I was impressed with his self-awareness as well as his identification with and knowledge of the spectrum.
My Interview with Matthew is Here!
Based on my review of his portfolio, Matthew was clearly talented in animation and video editing software. However, his interview skills were not the best. To be honest, his interview was very poor. Matthew presented with pressured speech, anxiety, and volume control issues. His eye contact was almost non-existent, and he wore a fedora and leather vest to the interview. Noting the superhero decorations in our office, he incessantly talked about superhero movies. The topic of heroes was clearly his special interest, and our conversation about the internship was derailed by his hyper-focused discussion of Marvel versus DC characters.
In contrast, two other people interviewed for the internship position. Both individuals had strong backgrounds in film editing and other relevant technology. Their interview skills and references were strong. Given most any other workplace interview, one of the two latter candidates would have landed the job. However, I gave the internship to Matthew because he fully understood the autism spectrum. I also knew that because of his self-awareness and embrace of autism, Matthew would be highly focused on his work and diligent almost to a fault.
Matthew’s Work Product Got Him the Job… NOT His Interview Skills!
In her speeches around the country, Dr. Temple Grandin often notes a similar experience to that of Matthew. She jokingly acknowledges should she have had to interview for any of her jobs, there would be no way she would ever have been employed. However, her work product spoke for itself, and no other person’s work compared to hers.
So in thinking about adulthood and what it means to get a job, I have compiled a 5-point checklist for not only landing a job but also finding satisfaction within the workplace. This list of 5 action steps is not weighted in any special way. If anything, the steps are all equally important, and should you check them off consistently, you’ve done everything possible to be successful in your search for satisfaction in the workplace and in life.
1. Know Yourself
Most people do not know themselves at all. The majority of people make decisions throughout their day completely unaware of why they made the decisions they did. Some suggest that 80% of our actions on any given day are completely unconscious. Therefore, we are putting little thought into living deliberate lives.
I have many young adult clients who are very isolated. I have introduced them to groups of like-minded individuals who are also interested in friendship. But most often people on the spectrum tend to not exchange phone numbers or other personal information allowing them to get together. When I ask why they do not exchange phone numbers, they answer, “I forgot.” But when I dig deeper, there is a tremendous fear of rejection which haunts them from childhood. These individuals were not aware of this unconscious avoidance of personal contact due to prior social abuse. Once they were aware, asking for phone numbers became easier.
Knowing yourself is critical. A 30-year-old woman gave excellent insight in which she describes her process of finding her limits:
If you identify as being on the spectrum, testing the world out in safe ways can help you realize you may be far more capable than you knew. Also, find a therapist or a mentor who will guide you through the process of understanding your identity and abilities. Don’t find your information about Asperger’s or autism online, but do read reputable materials such as anything by Dr. Tony Attwood or Tania Marshall. Seek out support groups and do not settle until you have found a Jedi Master who can guide you down the path of self- acceptance, and self-awareness.
2. Broaden Your Social Skills
Just because you socialize differently does not mean you socialize wrong. In the workplace, you will often find individuals who talk about sports, marriages, or troubles with their kids. There can also be a great deal of office gossip where people talk about others behind their backs. Office parties and out of work get-togethers can be common in most work settings. In order to succeed in this deep end of the social ocean, I often encourage individuals to read the book “How to Win Friends and Influence People,” by Dale Carnegie. Learning to socialize with those who emphasize neurotypical socialization skills can be a useful exercise and interesting as well.
I find this quote exceptionally realistic and in tune with the realities of society. And while it may be difficult and take extra work, the payoff is real.
I encourage my clients to become human detectives in which they learn to delve into the lives of their co-workers in a respectful manner. Broadening social skills sometimes means leaning into another person’s life and putting your own special interests aside, at least for the time being. Finding a workplace mentor or other individual who can help you with this process can be invaluable. Don’t go it alone when it comes to socialization. Seek advice and always check yourself through the guidance of others. And actually, as was the case with Matthew the intern, I served him as a workplace mentor and guided him through lunch place conversations. To his credit, he demonstrated exceptional humility and allowed me to provide such guidance.
3. Work Hard
While many of my clients and friends who are on the spectrum are exceptionally intelligent, I always tell them that intelligence never wins. Hard work always wins. The spectrum heroes with whom I work can often channel a hyper-focus that puts everyone to shame. However, this hyper-focus on an area of personal interest needs to match up with the workplace. Again, finding a mentor or workplace coach to help match up a special interest with the workplace environment can be invaluable.
I am often dismayed when I see an individual who knows everything about ancient Roman history and can actually translate Latin but is relegated to a job in a checkout line at a grocery store. Finding a path between one’s special interest and a future career must begin early in life. However, do not despair. There are many psychologists who are also job coaches and can help individuals identify workplace specialties that match their interests. In addition, I have had many clients who start out with one specific area of interest, and as they dig deeper into that area, they find another avenue of success.
Identification of workplace success and best fit really begins with exceptionally hard work. No matter what an employer sends your way, do it to the best of your ability. And if you struggle, ask for help and guidance. Hard work always beats intelligence. And hard work combined with a special ability always beats social skills.
4. Build a Portfolio
As mentioned earlier, your ability to obtain a job may rest upon your ability to complete an interview. Interview skills may not be your best. However, self-awareness and the ability to communicate the fact that interview skills may not be your best can be highly beneficial in an interview. I would more likely hire someone who tells me they have poor interview skills, but they possess an excellent job product than someone who fakes their way through an interview process poorly. Portfolios can represent you as an employee.
A portfolio can appear in many different ways. Writing samples, sample websites, the formation of an aeronautical social club, or even exceptional cosplay can actually get you employed. Recently, an Aspergirl indicated an interest in working at my private practice. As chance would have it, the position of hostess with high engagement and socialization came available. And as chance would further have it, this hostess position was designed to serve individuals who are on the spectrum and girls who were also interested in cosplay, anime, and other spectrum interests. Her special interest and her rehearsed social skills helped open the door. However, her authenticity, self-awareness, and self-acceptance sealed the deal. I had no desire to interview anyone else but her.
5. Be Patient
This step is probably the most difficult of all. Many parents have come to me when their child is 7 or 8 and will ask, “do you think he will ever have a job and be able to live on his own.” I used to be shocked by this question, but being a parent myself, you do want the best for your child and it is very hard to see how your child will turn out as an adult. It is a long journey filled with bumps and bruises as well as successes. Most of my spectrum clients have a longer journey than most. A 17-year-old may look more like a 14-year-old. And while it may take more time, the ultimate expression of this individual can be amazing if they consistently follow the steps noted in this chapter.
Yoda to Obi-Wan: “I cannot teach him. The boy has no patience.”
Obi-Wan: “He will learn patience.”
Star Wars Ep IV: A New Hope