Tuesday 9 April 2013

The autism spectrum and the job interview

I'm very conscious of the fact that I tend to talk quite a lot about biological research on this blog and its potential implications for people on the autism spectrum and beyond. To some, this can seem a little one-sided in terms of how autism is viewed and indeed at the expense of a large proportion of people on the autism spectrum who are not necessarily looking to understand how cytokines or dietary intervention for example, might impact on their signs, symptoms or everyday quality of life.
You're hired @ Wikipedia  

Indeed, accepting that the autism spectrum is wide and heterogeneous, for some on the autism spectrum there are more pressing issues which impact on their daily life such as the impact of comorbidities including anxiety and/or obsessions, and under certain circumstances, how these features can truly disable a person.

In this post therefore I want to try and address some of the issues looking at a key part of many people's lives: employment and unemployment, and some of the variables around employment for adults with an autism spectrum condition which might help or hinder their efforts to enter the workplace with a particular focus on job-seeking.

I was brought to this topic by the paper from Dorothy Strickland and colleagues*, and their study looking at the potential usefulness of the JobTIPS employment program (free by the way) in helping a group of young adults with autism getting through the dreaded job interview.

Where to start, where to start? Well, in amongst the various issues that can impact the life of a person with autism, particularly those diagnosed with Asperger syndrome or the so-called 'high-functioning' autism, the transition from child to adult must rank as one of the more stressful periods. The jump from the very organised and very arranged world of school / home schooling and further education into the unknown jungle of adult life and the jobs market is riddled with pressures, not just for the individual but their family and carers too. And let's face it, with the current economic climate as it is, that jobs jungle is very much living up to its name, with many people often 'fighting it' out for each post.

The job spec
Consider how then a potential employer tries to find that ideal candidate and what qualities they generally look for in a person. Obviously they want someone who is qualified to do the job, someone who is reliable and someone who is enthusiastic. OK, no real surprises there. But then you get phrases like a 'good communicator', a 'team player' and the like also appearing in the job specification and suddenly the job spec is no longer about having certain skills for a job. I think you can perhaps see how daunting these additional specs might be for someone who is perhaps not a great talker (or indeed likes to dominate a conversation with their own talking) or who might not generally be at their most comfortable in that team player role.

The application form
Then comes the next hurdle: the application form. What is your name? OK, that's easy enough, as is the other information which is explicitly asked for with closed questions. Your educational achievements and your contact details, no real issues there too. But then come the open-ended questions. What do you like to do in your spare-time? What are your biggest achievements? Why do you think you are the best candidate for this job? How one answers such questions is very much going to depend on how one is able to translate these questions and in some cases how literally one understands such questions within their own experiences and interests.

The job interview
Assuming these hurdles are past, the final stage is the job interview. Y'know all those tips that seem to percolate through the web on 'how to get that dream job'. Be confident but not overly-confident. Eye contact and the occasional smile or other gesture to lighten up the whole experience. A bit of chit-chat on certain topics (as long as you stay on topic and answer the questions). In short: go in there and sell yourself.

All well and good if you are so inclined to such skills. But readers can perhaps see how for those who might be more than a little bit anxious about the whole process - in particular the 'not knowing' about the process - for those who perhaps don't read social cues as others might, or find that using and maintaining appropriate eye contact to be somewhat distressing, might be placed at some disadvantage. And then there are those seemingly obscure questions which seem to drop into interviews to either make the interviewee think on their feet or have some hidden psychological meaning....

The point I want to get across in this post is that one can perhaps see how the job interview process from start to finish is not exactly 'friendly' to many people on the autism spectrum and how some very subtle changes and amendments to elements of the process might level the playing field. I'm not necessarily supporting a call to introduce any positive discrimination or sheltered employment initiatives because such policies can create their own issues. That being said, for potential employers to look at their recruitment policies and think about how many very talented people might be slipping through their admissions net for the sake of a few details, might not be a huge undertaking bearing in mind that work also brings its own stresses.

To finish, a few dos and don'ts for any job interview and some handy hints for any would-be employer interviewing someone with an autism spectrum condition for a job courtesy of the NAS.

Oh, and the eagle-eyed reader might have spotted that the picture accompanying this post is the old (very old) Amstrad CPS 464. So posted because of the founder of Amstrad and his quite well-known catch-phrase 'You're fired/hired'.


* Strickland DC. et al. JobTIPS: A transition to employment program for individuals with autism spectrum disorders. J Autism Dev Disord. March 2013.


ResearchBlogging.org Strickland DC, Coles CD, & Southern LB (2013). JobTIPS: A Transition to Employment Program for Individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorders. Journal of autism and developmental disorders PMID: 23494559

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