This post is the third in what will ultimately be a four-part series on Hiring and Working With People “With” Asperger’s/Autism. I’m writing this series in response to the (encouraging and long-overdue) uptick I’ve observed in the incidence of news headlines involving businesses/companies beginning to specifically and publicly seek out people on the Asperger’s/autism spectrum. It’s definitely a welcome trend, and I approach this news with cautious optimism. The optimism exists for obvious reasons – hey, Aspergian/autistic people are getting noticed in the business world and bonus!–the mainstream media consider this newsworthy. We have the opportunity to “hit the big-time” as a community, at least by conventional trains of thought.
I haven’t neglected or forgotten about the “caution” in the “cautious optimism” part – I’ll explain that later.
For now, I’d like to cover the last of my pre-written material, which involves a discussion about the application/interview process and promotion. (Note: This post may be edited/updated several (or many) times, as I continue to receive feedback or gain additional information from the Asperger’s/autism spectrum community.)
Characteristics that come into play in these situations (some of which have been mentioned before, while others have not) include:
- As discussed before in this series (here and here), many of us have auditory processing challenges (we may be slower to interpret verbal communication; we may also misunderstand that communication).
- As mentioned before, we often interpret communication (written and verbal) more literally.
- We can be anxiety-prone, even in response to (what others may consider to be) minor stressors.
- Most of us are incredibly introverted; it’s not that we can’t interact with people–we usually certainly can, but we can become fatigued more quickly after doing so.
- Many of us have reduced eye contact, especially when we’re the one speaking.
- Almost all of us have some sort of “repetitive motor movements” (i.e., “stimming” activities) may be increased when meeting with people, especially for interviews and performance reviews. By adulthood, many of these movements are imperceptible, taking on forms that are more socially “acceptable”.
- Most of us have a social awkwardness, in which we’re simply unsure of what society typically expects from people, especially when filling certain roles and/or in certain situations. Interacting with other people (such as during an interviewing/hiring process, or during a performance review for promotional consideration) can be more stressful for us than it is for other people. In-person meetings and phone conversations each carry their own sets of stress (at least, in my experience).
- Making small talk at the very beginning of an interview or performance review can in itself be challenging for many of us.
- Conversely, many of us may talk for longer than might be considered “normal”, especially about subjects we’re interested in, or if we have a lot to say about a particular topic.
Next, I’m going to offer suggestions regarding the application/interview/hiring and performance review/promotion processes, with the above characteristics in mind.
When reviewing our application, it’s important to realize that while some of us look quite impressive (conventionally speaking) on paper, others of us may not appear to be anything “special” at first glance. This is particularly true of the two in-person Aspie/autistic friends I’ve ever known; one had gone through extensive training and although they lacked job experience, they would have been an ideal candidate for many job openings for which they weren’t considered. The other had no university education at all, but had honed their technological skills by collecting devices of all types, taking them apart, examining their insides, tinkering with them, and fixing them. This person knew everything about every computer operating system, every phone system, every type of radio, and just about anything else one could think of. Yet, they were passed over for many job opportunities because they didn’t have a university degree or an official software/hardware certification.
The important lesson here is actually directed toward employers, consisting of the traditional idiom: “never judge a book by its cover.” That mantra especially applies to people on the Asperger’s/autism spectrum.
In the interview process, our presentation will vary pretty widely. Some of us will be quieter, with short, seemingly-flat answers to questions, whereas others of us might give an oral essay. We might appear “odd” or “awkward”, perhaps lacking in charisma or “surface appeal”, or we might blend in with society’s general impression of “normal”. Believe me, we’re interested and engaged. At times, we may find it challenging to express our enthusiasm, and thus, we might come across as disinterested or careless. This is NOT true, however.
When we’re more reserved, it’s often because we’re actually feeling our excitement, joy, anxiety, enthusiasm, desire, etc. more intensely, and as children, we may have been scolded by parents or teachers, or maybe made fun of by classmates, or possibly endured cold or disapproving looks from strangers. As a result, we may have learned (sometimes painfully) at a young age to tone down our behavior, emotions, and expression thereof. Thus, at times, we may go too far the other way, suppressing our body language to try to appear calm, reserved, mature, and above all, “acceptable” to the rest of society.
My Advice: I recommend making every attempt NOT to judge us based on conventional qualities such as body language, facial expression, verbal characteristics, eye contact, firmness of handshake, ability to make small-talk, etc. Yes, it’s possible to throw the “unwritten rule book” out the window. What to do instead?
Here are a few takeaway points:
- Simply attempt to see the value of the individual person sitting across from you. Dilating one’s mind to accept and consider those who differ from the conventional average goes a long way.
- Listen to the words we say, and take them (us, the words we say) at face value.
- Time/resources permitting, your company might designate someone to find out much more about Asperger’s/autism. I highly caution one to be extremely mindful of the source of this information; many “charity” or other “official/conventionally-accepted” organizations propagate misinformation and provide no help at all, often doing more harm than good. Rather, Rudy Simone has published a few excellent (and relatively short) books on employment/career advice for people on the Asperger’s/autism spectrum, and Samantha Craft also alludes to various job experiences in her book “Everyday Asperger’s”. My blog post from several months ago features a collection of excellent blogs written personally by Asperger’s/autistic people, many of which also touch on employment/job/career aspects; to save time, simply search for applicable terms: “employment”, “interview”, “job”, “career”, “work”, etc.
We may not look the interviewer in the eye, especially when it’s our turn to talk. We may look at the conference table surface, the floor, or the framed art just above your head on the wall behind you. Please don’t take that the wrong way. As mentioned, we are indeed (often extremely) engaged and enthusiastic. Focusing on someone’s eyes may feel like staring (either we’re doing the staring or someone is staring at us, either of which is uncomfortable), which can interfere with our ability to concentrate. Focusing on something other than someone’s eyes allows us to concentrate again. For me, it’s akin to “taking the pressure off”. Again, it’s nothing personal, nothing specific to the interviewer themselves.
A popular and stubborn misconception says that a lack of eye contact indicates dishonesty, lying, or otherwise hiding something. This is absolutely not true. Over 40 years of research has completely debunked this myth. It’s also nothing personal against the interviewer (or to whomever else with whom we’re talking); we’re not trying to avoid the person or express disinterest, dislike, or any other negative emotion. It’s simply a matter of discomfort, and this generally applies widely; for those of us who are more uncomfortable making eye contact, we will generally experience this discomfort with almost everyone, maybe except for a few very close family members or friends (if that!). Therefore, please don’t take it as a personal affront, sign of disrespect, sign of disinterest, or “evidence” of dishonesty.
- Don’t mistake lack of eye contact for dishonesty, disinterest, disrespect, etc.
- Looking away helps us think; it also often helps us express ourselves coherently, and it may help us listen better to you
In fact, businesses/companies will be encouraged and optimistic to know that people “with” Asperger’s/autism are very likely to be some of the most honest people you’ll ever meet! (Remember the previously-mentioned parts about “taking things literally”, “being straightforward”, “saying what we mean and meaning what we say”.)
Because of the level of literalness, please take what we say at face value. Try to avoid any existing temptation to read more into what we say than we’ve actually said; don’t assume there is any hidden meaning, double-meaning, or hint. As a general rule, we tend not to “do hints”. We tend not to have a hidden agenda, and we tend not to imply a double-meaning. If we say something, it’s usually very much the truth.
- People “with” Asperger’s/autism are generally more honest than the general population
- We say what we mean, and mean what we say – please do the same
- Trust what we say, take it seriously
- Never assume, especially in regards to double meanings or hidden messages or secret agendas – there typically are none
During the interview, we may be easily thrown off-guard by unexpected questions. It’s not that we’ve been pulling your leg during the more “typical” questions throughout the rest of the interview or simply repeating what we’ve read from career advice books or websites, and it’s also not at all indicative of lesser intelligence. Rather, this is another instance in which our auditory processing delays/challenges may be involved. Please don’t take this to heart; just give us time to process and prepare an answer. (During which time we may look at the floor, the table, etc. You haven’t lost us; we’re just thinking, is all.)
Personally speaking, while my thought processes are generally very rapid, I may have difficulty thinking on my feet in response to what someone else is saying. This can be especially true over the phone. In these cases, I often need to take extra time (a few seconds) to compose my response.
Sometimes, when we answer interview questions, we may err on the side of briefer answers, for fear of “oversharing” or “monologing”; we’re not trying to act like sticks in the mud, and we’re not trying to create a situation in which you feel like you have to pull teeth to get answers out of us. We may simply be more reserved, and out of respect or hesitance, or because we’re unsure of exactly how much depth you’d like us to go into when answering the questions, we may figure it’s “safer” to give shorter answers. By doing so, we know that we won’t go off on a monolog and lose you and your interest (or look “silly”) in the process. We know we won’t waste your time. We may figure that giving briefer answers will allow the interviewer more opportunities to interject and ask follow-up questions at multiple points in the conversation. We’re usually aiming to please.
On the other hand, others of us may actually engage in that oversharing or monologing, especially if we are indeed eager to share. We’re not trying to bore you, be rude, dominate the conversation, waste your time, or otherwise disrespect you in any way. We might simply lock into an increased focus, the ultimate “zen” of being “in the moment”, and we may momentarily forget that our audience is what/who it is. This is NOT a form of self-absorption, nor is it a game of “look how impressive I am” one-up-manship. Generally speaking, we’re the antithesis of narcissistic. Also generally speaking, life for us does NOT consist of a series of contests against a backdrop of attention-seeking behavior. If we end up over-sharing, it’s because we want to communicate with you, build a bridge of understanding between us, and arm you with information to help you. We may figure that the more you know, the better. In this situation, too, we’re usually aiming to please.
Whether we over-share, under-share, or something in between–I think–generally has to do with our personal experiences. If we’ve benefited from sharing additional information, we’re likely to do that as a rule; if the ramifications of sharing more information have been negative, then we’re more likely to hold back until we’re sure the extra information is desired.
- We may overshare
- We may undershare
- Whichever our tendency typically depends on our experience, which strategy worked better
- Either way, it’s to “aim to please” to try to help – it’s usually about building a bridge of understanding, establishing familiarity
- We’re generally not interested in one-upping anyone or attracting attention to ourselves
This can be a semi-touchy area; this is true for many people in general, but it can be an especially sensitive topic for people on the Asperger’s/autism spectrum. Compared to the previous section, this one is relatively brief.
Some of us want to work up the ranks and earn promotions. We may adhere to conventional methods, applying for entry-level jobs in the hopes that we will climb the proverbial ladder, assume greater responsibilities, and reap greater conventional rewards.
Others of us are less interested (or maybe not interested at all) in getting promoted. I’ll admit here that I have never worked in “corporate America”, nor any medium-to-large office, and thus, even though I have read (for fun) many office/”human resources”/career advice blogs and websites, I lack the personal experience. From what I understand, however, there appears to be a sort of pressure (explicit or implied/assumed) put on someone in a particular job position to get promoted, or to at least attempt to do so. There seems to be an underlying message that says that if you don’t, you’re somehow not motivated, not a team player, not interested/engaged, a lazy or sub-par employee, insufficient performer, etc, etc.
Something about this rubs me the wrong way. My opinion is that if someone is happy where they’re at, doing what they’re doing, and they don’t desire to change that, there’s no sense in forcing them to change, forcing the conventional social construct of “upward mobility” on someone. If someone is content where they are, congratulations to both that “someone” and the company who hired them! Satisfaction Mission accomplished! I vote “let them be”, if they are truly content.
That being said: Never Assume, and that pertains to promotion, also. Additionally, if an employee on the Asperger’s/autism spectrum doesn’t desire to be promoted, that does NOT ethically exempt a company from continuing to conduct performance reviews and awarding earned raises.
That employee’s monetary value/worth to your company will increase over time, as they accumulate additional skills, training, education, experience, maturity, etc, just like “everyone else”, and thus, they deserve to be properly compensated–and to have their compensation appropriately increased–accordingly.
I recommend the following:
- Have open, direct, and neutrally-charged/nonjudgmental conversations about promotion, and I would do this not once, but periodically, beginning with the interviews and hiring process itself.
- I would absolutely NOT use a lack of desire for promotion as a “strike against” that candidate/employee; they might turn out to be a perfect fit for that position, and the best employee you’ve ever had.
- If possible, as suggested by a friend on the Asperger’s/autism spectrum, provide or offer an employment path/career track option/alternative that does NOT involve, expect, or necessitate promotion, and let the employee choose.
- When determining compensation, I might consider applying the following strategy. First, research the usual “going rate” for that type of work, as you probably already do. Next, consider the potential benefits of having that position filled by a someone who is trustworthy, drama-free, hard-working, detail-attentive, genuine and honest, straightforward, highly intelligent, passionate and motivated, able to work independently, and not likely to manipulate, back-stab, or play head-games. Then consider – how much MORE (than the average pay-scale) would that employee be worth? And then, pay it.
Closing Words – about the “caution” in “cautious optimism”…
In the beginning, I mentioned that I was “cautiously optimistic” about the new wave of companies becoming aware of the upsides of hiring people on the Asperger’s/autism spectrum. That is good news indeed.
However, the “caution” comes from the fact that we, the people on the spectrum, as a whole, have a long history of being marginalized, and a shorter-but-equally-detrimental history of being exploited. The conditions are ripe for exploitation; after all, we’re generally too-trusting, at least until we get “burned” in some way. We’re genuine people who tend to take people at face-value and interpret communication literally. Many of us are also unemployed/underemployed, or have gone through bouts of this phenomenon in our lives. Thus, the predatory threat is very real to us.
Don’t Be That Jerk. Don’t be the bad apple that ruins the whole proverbial basket, souring us on the business world. Instead, take the high road. You’ll be glad you did.
One more (the final) post is on its way. That post will tie the rest of the posts in this series together, under the answer to the question: “why should companies bother (making these considerations, making these accommodations, making these changes, etc)??”
Stay tuned. It’s coming. 🙂