If you are familiar with the topic of autism and the workplace, you’ve likely noted that extensive time and energy is dedicated to the way in which an autistic job seeker can change their presentation style in effort to get hired. I was recently contacted by a job candidate on the autism spectrum who wrote:
As I read through your article, I thought about my (vocational) counselor. The first things she told me were to make eye contact, this is America (she’s an immigrant), and Don’t bullshit with long stories, answer the questions asked you. Their whole approach seems to be trying to turn autistic people neurotypical through coercion, sort of an ‘autism conversion therapy.'”
This is not an out of the ordinary message. Sadly, this pressure to fit in and fake it is enough to deter some job seekers on the autism spectrum from looking for viable work. Trainings have been developed to teach the autistic to pass the interview. Individuals have been warned by peers and mentors alike to not disclose their neurological condition to a potential place of employment because of possible consequences of discrimination and judgment. Some vocational books seem to want to patch up the “square head” autistic just enough to fit into a round hole. Job coaches concern themselves with just getting the autistic through the door.
But what happens after the door is closed and the job begins?
A person can only mask who they really are for so long. What happens after the hiring process is mastered? Are we then, as autistics, to be coached how to mask ourselves to fit the workplace culture?
Some folks on the autism spectrum have been forced through necessity to go into survival mode when interacting socially. They have learned that sometimes it’s necessary to wear a mask or act as a chameleon in order to fit in and avoid ridicule and bullying. In fact, out of the thousands of autistic I know, most cite being the subject of workplace bullying as the No. 1 reason for leaving a job. What is wrong with coaching autistics to act non-autistic through the interview process? Answer: It is another way of telling autistics to don a mask and reject an aspect of self.
To a degree, most job seekers put on their best hat during an interview. But autistics aren’t being asked to put on our best hat. In contrast, we are being told to mask our authentic self.
How an individual acts, speaks, moves, makes eye contact, digresses, fidgets, or shakes are all aspects of a person’s neurological and personality makeup. By teaching autistics to be something they are not, we are being taught to fake it until we make it. This cautionary coaching is comparable to advising a blind person to act a bit less vision-impaired or a person who uses a wheelchair to stand up with a walker for the sake of first impressions. What should be taught is how to fully embrace self, how to feel confident with brain variances, and how to gain insight into the value of what divergent thinkers can bring to the workplace.
While it can be an advantage to teach anyone (not just autistics) basic job-seeking skills, pointing out what autistics do as wrong or inaccurate or not enough only serves to perpetuate the cycle of regression and segregation. When thinking of advancement and growth in society, we’ve got it all backward. We should address the whole and make changes for the good of all, instead of narrowing down what is in need of fixing for one select subgroup of society.
We shouldn’t be trying to fit the “broken” autistic into the traditional interview. We ought be fixing the broken interview process to better include everyone.
A Closer Look at the Interview Process
In the eyes of many autistics (and some non-autistics) the traditional interview process is viewed as akin to an audition that is filled with arbitrary etiquette and unspoken expectations — an evasive, subjective process that doesn’t effectively assess skills, talents, and potential. Here is what some adults who identify with being autistic or having Aspergers had to say about the interview process:
“I highly doubt I’d ever get a job through the interview process.” — Intern at Radio Station, Maldives
“People are more concerned with body language during an interview than if you are highly qualified for the actual job.” — Special Education Teacher, USA
“Sometimes (we) miss out on good opportunities because someone less capable presents better in interview. I have to work harder and achieve more to reach the same level as people with better social skills.” — Disability Supports Coordinator, Australia
“ … Interviews have prevented me from getting into school and other jobs.” — Medical Scribe, USA
“Most interviewers assume that my lack of eloquence and the fact that I often take a long time to formulate a verbal reply (and sometimes can’t come up with one at all) mean that I am incompetent. Our lack of interview skills does not necessarily mean we lack job skills.” — Software Tester, USA
What We Can Do About It
It’s time to adapt our interview processes, instead of expecting a minority to adapt who they are. We ought implement ways to include neurodivergent individuals in a manner that is truly inclusive, a process that allows for authenticity, understanding, and accepting.
Here are four ideas to make the interview process more inclusive.
Make Across-the-Board Adjustments and Don’t Throw Out the Interview
When establishing interview guidelines for potential employees, make across-the-board adjustments for everyone who applies, not just autistics. A recruiting agent will not necessarily be informed if a jobseeker is autistic, unless a candidate chooses to disclose. (It’s against the law in the U.S. for a hiring agent to ask if someone is autistic.) Second, agencies could be at risk of possible litigation if one minority is job screened in a different way than the mainstream public. It’s one thing to make reasonable adjustments for one jobseeker who has openly disclosed a disability, and requested accommodations in the hiring process, and quite the other to clump members of a minority into one type of job screening, while all other jobseekers partake in a traditional screening process. The most effective inclusion strategies will benefit everyone and exclude no one.
Some forward thinking companies are applying strategies to screen neurodivergent job candidates without the use of interviews. Keep in mind that alternatives to interviews can be extremely stress-inducing for someone on the autism spectrum. One example of an alternative to interviews is asking autistics to participate on the job site alongside a number of other autistic candidates, while knowing only some of the participants will be hired, and that several watchful managers are scrutinizing participants’ actions.
Personally, I’d prefer attending an interview or two, particularly if it’s a blind (non-visual), remote interview, hosted by a neurodivergent individual, or someone privy to autism and the autistic culture. Traveling to an unknown place to audition, job shadow, or work in a cohort to showcase one’s skill set will prove difficult for most autistics. The stress of unknown places and new rules can prove daunting. Add that to a group of strangers competing for the same job, with a high failure rate, and the stress levels might skyrocket.
While it’s noteworthy new hiring strategies are coming into play, and companies are thinking outside the box, throwing out the interview completely might be swinging the pendulum a bit too far to the other side of the spectrum.
The practice of screening non-autistic job seekers with standard interview practices, while at the same time screening autistics with non-traditional means, is a form of segregation and discrimination.
Think twice before creating separate hiring practices just for autistics. I am autistic. I am part of the autistic culture. I am a minority because of my autism (brain neurology and how I present). Most agencies wouldn’t implement job-screening practices that involved segregation — for example corralling women job seekers into a room to perform job tasks and interact with manager — because they think the women might fail the standard interview process tailored to men. Making extreme exceptions for one minority feeds into segregation. There is no way around that. No matter the good intentions and goals, it’s discriminatory in practice. It’s also assuming other job seekers, such as those with PTSD, introverts, and gifted, wouldn’t benefit from alternative practices. It’s better to change the interview to fit everyone or include everyone in new hiring practices.
Modify the Interview
During the past years I have helped to recruit software testers by working with the leadership team to modify the interview approach to be more objective, precise, and sensitive to the diverse candidate pool. I’ve offered the well-studied neurodivergent perspective, and largely been responsible for most of the interview procedures. To date the company has maintained an exceedingly high retention rate of employees, ranging in the 90 percents. It’s not uncommon for candidates to report that our interview process was the least anxiety-producing they’ve experienced. Below are specific interview tips to consider when seeking to create universal practices that allow more opportunities for all job seekers.
- Provide the job seeker with a list of general interview topics beforehand (teamwork, work experience, promptness, organizational skill sets)
- Avoid company tardiness or rescheduling.
- Explain at the start of the interview when it is okay for the candidate to ask questions.
- Welcome a candidate to skip an interview question and return to it later.
- Provide short concrete examples when a candidate is unable to answer a question.
- Use a script (cheat sheet) that lists reassuring anecdotes, effective communication tips, and statements to say when a candidate is nervous.
- Allot extra time for completion of the interview and invite candidates to email with further elaboration, information, clarification, or concern.
- Be conscientious with what is noted on the interview form and imagine the candidate will review the interview form. (In the U.S. candidates have a right to see job-screening notes.)
- To avoid assumptions during interview note taking, use the phrase “candidate presents as” instead of “candidate is.”
- Explain feasible next steps, provide a realistic timeline, and make sure to follow through.
- Use an interview rubric with a precise scoring grid.
- If the candidate is extremely unsettled and nervous, give the candidate the choice of rescheduling for a future time or let the candidate know that the interview rubric is based on skills, experience, and aptitudes, not communication style.
- Ask competency-based questions, questions that match the job description, the objectives of the job role, desired employee traits, and the workplace culture, and avoid open-ended questions and questions about the future.
- Don’t overly focus on social ability and teamwork.
- Ask the same exact questions to everyone. Don’t ask follow-up questions, unless the same follow-up questions are used with all candidates.
- Ask questions candidates can picture in their mind and avoid questions that can be answered with only “yes” or “no.”
- If the response is very short, make a request suggesting more detail. (“I am having a hard time picturing what you said. Can you answer in a way I can picture what you are saying in my mind?”)
- Politely ask to move on, if response is long. (“I have allotted 30 minutes for this call, and it’s been 20 minutes thus far. Let’s move on so we can complete the other questions.”)
- Revisit questions that had unclear or short responses that might make or break a hiring decision.
Recognize Biased Assumptions
When it comes to obtaining work and holding down a job, the circulating stigmatism surrounding autism, such as social awkwardness and oddities and inability to consistently abide by social norms, commonly set autistics apart from the mainstream.
It is not uncommon for a hiring agent to misinterpret the behavior of someone on the autism spectrum and apply bias opinions and rash judgments. It’s not helpful that there aren’t a lot of leadership role models who are autistic in the public eye, such a CEOs, doctors, lawyers, advocates, authors, and teachers. Most of what is popularized is an autistic in a non-managerial and non-authoritarian role. I’ve seen company literature and newscasts depicting autistics as submissive, such as with the manager, CEO, and HR member standing above the (lowly) autistic who is seated in a chair.
The assumption is we, autistics, are all built for entry-level and non-supervisory roles and that we need be guided. This isn’t the whole truth.
Check your bias at the door when it comes to screening autistics for jobs.
Take into consideration the neurological condition of the jobseeker and the novelty of the situation. Be aware that the candidate’s behavior during the screening process may not be representative of how the candidate acts in everyday life. Recognize that the candidate has likely had ongoing anxiety from day one of the hiring process. To avoid bias, include an autistic as part of the interview or HR team.
Subjective assumptions, to avoid noting when interviewing an autistic jobseeker, include:not genuine, evasive, arrogant, challenging, know-it-all, inflexible, controlling, rude, overreacting, over-sensitive, self-centered, pessimistic, awkward, odd, insensitive, incapable of networking, incapable of maneuvering workplace politics, incapable of handling the demands of a leadership role or manager.
Oftentimes an autistic’s display of honesty and “lack of filter” is interpreted as being rude, blunt, or challenging. In fact, most autistics do not wish, nor purposely set out, to sound obstinate. Many on the spectrum are hyper self-aware but aren’t sure how to come across in a way that doesn’t ruffle feathers. It’s not uncommon for a person with Asperger’s or autism to present in extremes at an interview, such as overconfident and a know it all or shy and non talkative. Autistics have a challenging time knowing to what degree to share their skills and how much to share, and anxiety causes some to talk a lot and elaborate more than typical candidates. Anxiety might lead a candidate to present as meek, insecure, or withdrawn.
What sometimes happens is the meeker, docile-presenting autistics get hired and the obstinate-presenting ones are overlooked.
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Disassociate autistic traits from soft skills. A strong-minded, logical person can still have admirable soft skills — just maybe not during the interview or upon first impression.
We’ve got it all backward.
● Be very honest and frank to their detriment
● Talk a lot because of uncertainty as to whether covered everything expected
● Not realize when the listener has lost interest and is ready to move on
● Talk in short answer responses
● Take questions literarily
● Not make eye contact or look away, up, or down
● Fidget or repeat a movement (flap hands, pace, tap foot, pick scalp)
● Make a nervous noise or have Tourette’s
● Talk loudly or quietly
● Ask many questions or no questions
● Present as insensitive based on tone of voice or matter-of-fact response
● Focus on the same topic repeatedly
● Lack flexibility and be triggered by the unexpected and unknown, making it difficult to focus
(More information about how autistics might present at an interview can be found here.)
Visit Essential and Non-Essential Soft Skills
Some predictors of job success are difficult to measure. Some job skills can be taught. Some skills are not easily acquired or are difficult to quantify and even articulate. Most employees can be trained in hard skills — teachable and measurable aptitudes — such as learning a technical program or practicing an innovative approach to problem solving. Some abilities cannot be easily taught — particularly soft skills.
Juxtaposed to hard skills, soft skills are oftentimes defined as the skills required to get along with others and to get the job done effectively. They cover a vast array of personal aptitudes and interpersonal and behavioral skills that are harder to access on paper. Examples of soft skills include collaboration with team members, adhering to deadlines, being respectful and open to suggestions, and understanding another’s perspective.
Even as soft skills can be elusive by nature, nonetheless they are known to make or break an employee’s chance at job success. Because soft skills are hard to quantify and objectively score, job recruiters might be more apt to hire a candidate that presents as someone they’d want as a buddy.
In cases where subjectivity overrides objectivity, and hiring bias occurs, the autistic employee is often overlooked and discarded.
Some job roles require little to no soft skills. Take, for instance, a work-from-home data analyst who rarely communicates with the client. Other job roles, particularly those in the human relations field, require honed communication skills. Before establishing interview questions for an autistic workforce, or any workforce, 1) establish the essential (and non-essential) soft skills for the position at hand and 2) ensure that there are objective interview questions in place to learn more about a candidate’s soft skills.
Remember, we aren’t hiring someone to be our best friend, or someone like us, but someone who can get the job done.