How can an individual on the autism spectrum feel empowered to improve her/his prospects of employment?
I am once again indebted to Mr. Gavin Bollard, author of the blog called Life With Aspergers. With his permission, I am including this second article on improving employment prospects for individuals on the autism spectrum.
About Gavin Bollard:
My main interests are Cinema, Computing and spending time with my family. I am married and have two boys (born in Sept 2000 and 2003). I’ve been with Notes/Domino since R3 and have been working (and playing) with Intel PCs since about 1986. Prior to that I was into the various 16K micros.
In part one of this series, I “lamented” the lack of services aimed at helping adults with aspergers find financial independence. There are plenty of services available to help children on the spectrum at school. Indeed neurotypical society tends to be quite tolerant of children with differences. Unfortunately society seems to have forgotten that children eventually grow up and that adults on the spectrum still need help.
I ended my post with a couple of vague lists, one talking about what aspies can do to improve their job prospects and another dealing with how society can improve the situation. In this post, I want to look at what aspies can do.
Beware of Fake Jobs
Before I get into the lists from my last post, I just want to talk about a nasty employment problem that I’ve encountered on several occasions.
The phrase; “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know” sums it up nicely.
It’s a sad fact of life that aspies with their limited social skills and fewer friends (compared to NTs) will often find themselves passed-over in job opportunities by people who either have a more engaging personality or who simply know one or more people who are in positions of power at the place you’re seeking employment.
In fact, you’ll find that many advertised jobs don’t really exist at all. Some are just job agencies “fishing” for people to put on their books but others are much much worse. A lot of interviews are simply “box-ticking” exercises so that management can pretend that proper employment procedure has been followed before they give a job to someone they already know.
It’s happened to me several times in my career. A position directly in my area of responsibility becomes available and a new CEO who doesn’t know me particularly well contacts a friend, to offer them a position they haven’t even interviewed for. A series of fake interviews is then arranged and “surprise”, the new person gets the job.
It’s a painful experience which if you understand what has happened will make you feel under appreciated and “used”. Of course, most of the time (if you’re seeking a new job, not a promotion), you won’t even know what has happened. In those cases, it’s simply a big blow to your self esteem.
You need to recognize that this is very common behavior. Quite often, your failure to secure a job won’t be your fault at all. It will simply be that there was no job available. Don’t blame yourself for these failures if you’ve given it your best shot. You shouldn’t take an esteem hit from shady management. Of course, that’s much easier said than done.
Limit Your Education
This was always bound to be a controversial topic, so I apologize in advance for everyone who may be offended.
It’s often assumed by people (aspies in particular) that good grades and higher levels of education guarantee good jobs. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Aspies need to learn that higher levels of education do NOT guarantee good jobs. In fact, they can often significantly reduce your chances of being employed.
Here’s my recommended education rule. It’s an aspie rule and not one that I’d want to see implemented by any organisation. I’d just like individuals to take it onboard for their own benefit.
You’re allowed ONE degree only before you have to get a job. If possible you should do your degree part-time. You’re allowed to change your degree part-way through ONCE.
That’s it. Simple. Now I’ll explain my “stupid rule”.
When you start work, it customary to start at the bottom regardless of your level of education. I don’t mean that a fledgling IT person has to start in the mail room but I do mean that you’ll probably start somewhere below the normal level of operations, for example in testing or in first level support.
Employers like to pay low-level employees minimum wages. This usually isn’t possible if they have higher level qualifications hence employers may look for people without them.
Assuming for instance that you have two prospective employees. One has a Computing Degree and a Doctorate while the other is only in their third year of a computing degree part time. Now assume that the job is a helpdesk role.
It’s almost guaranteed that the person doing their degree part-time will get the job. The more “qualified” person will be tagged as “over-qualified”. Even worse, employment agencies will often decide that the over-qualified person has other issues if they don’t have a lot of experience. They may decide for instance that the person must be difficult to work with. They’ll try to find a reason why they’re not already employed in a good job – and if they find none, they’ll make one up for themselves.
The other thing to be aware of is that people don’t like to employ people who they think may be smarter than themselves. If you’re better qualified than your prospective supervisor, then there’s a pretty good chance that you won’t get employed – or that the supervisor will make your life at work hell.
The other half of my rule says that you can change degrees once. That’s because most people don’t know exactly what they want to do when they start their degree. It’s accepted that you’ll probably want to change once you figure this out. Changing several times though doesn’t indicate that you’re still thinking. It suggests that you’re confused.
If you’re really confused, then it’s time to get a job and worry about education later.
I’m not ruling out further education. You can still get your doctorate if you want. That’s ok. Aspies are capable of just about anything. I guess that I’m saying “just get some work experience behind you first”. Even better, try to stay employed and do further qualifications part-time. That way, you don’t leave any gaps in your resume.
Limit Your Expectations
Most people go to work to earn money. They don’t necessarily enjoy it.
When I first started in computing, I assumed that the entire computing department went home on weekends and did development in their own time like I did. I didn’t think that maybe they wanted to spend time with their families.
My conversations with them were all about computers. I was stunned to find that several of them didn’t even have computers at home. It took a long time for me to get my expectations down to a manageable level and by the time I had, I’d insulted most of the team without realising it.
The other thing to watch out for is the fact that because your work and hobbies can sometimes be inseparable, you’ll naturally get better and better at your job. Eventually you’ll pass your supervisor’s level of expertise. When this happens, they usually won’t be proud of you, they still won’t appreciate contradictions and corrections and they’ll probably be more than a little jealous.
In one of my jobs, I slowly took the manuals home to read (there were about 36 of them) for the AS/400 system. I went from not knowing what an AS/400 was to feeling very confident with them. I expected my colleagues to be happy about this but one of my work-mates stopped talking to me. I’d made him feel insecure.
Be very careful about your assumptions and expectations. Not everyone is the same as you. Other people have different things which are important in life. They don’t like being corrected and they don’t like to feel threatened.
Be Less Picky About Your Initial Jobs
It’s common to leave school or university with a whole heap of great plans only to be turned down at job after job after job because of lack of experience. Sure, there are jobs out there which don’t require experience but they’re low-level and menial. They’re below your interest and you obviously don’t want to do them.
Unfortunately we all have to start somewhere. You wouldn’t be the first person to take a job well below your mental capacity and to know much more than your supervisor. It might surprise to know that this situation almost never changes. It doesn’t matter how high you rise in a company (unless you make it to CEO) there’s always going to be someone above you – and they’re almost always going to be less talented or have less vision.
There’s not much you can do about this. Just start low and try to gain a lot of experience. If you’ve got talent, you should be able to find some time to do things which interest you and which don’t get you into too much trouble.
In my first computing job, while I was supposed to be babysitting a room-sized “mini-computer”, I was also doing quite a bit of PC development. My boss was less than impressed but so long as I did what I was supposed to do, he let me continue. Eventually, as my applications began to have obvious positive effects on the business, he loosened the reigns and allowed me to follow my natural urges.
Choose Suitable Jobs
So now, after telling you to be less picky, I’m telling you to exercise restraint when selecting jobs. It sounds crazy but I often find that people choose jobs on the basis of salary or recommendations from friends and family but it just doesn’t work that way.
One of my friends kept telling me that he wanted a job in IT because he’d heard that it was good money. That’s entirely the wrong reason to choose a career. You need to choose things that you’re interested in and things that you’re naturally good at.
After all, you could be stuck in that career for a long time.
Choosing suitable jobs isn’t just limited to a sphere of interest though. You also need to consider yourself as a person with Aspergers. What things push you to the point of meltdown? What things are socially uncomfortable? What issues do you think you could improve on with work and what issues can’t easily be changed?
If you have massive social issues, then don’t take a job which puts you into constant direct contact with members of the public.
My first real job (after a stint of making dog food) was in a library. It’s a common job for aspies because it offers reduced sensory conditions. You do have to be careful though because often library jobs involve connecting with the public. In my case, I slowly improved on my social skills because of my work at the library – but not without a whole heap of embarrassing social faux pas.
Once we had a staff meeting where we were told that our staff toilets were off limits to the public unless it was an emergency. A few days later a lady came up to me and asked if she could use our toilets. I asked her how badly she needed to go – and the head librarian got very upset with me.
Try Not To Make Waves
Wherever you work, there will always be the office b****. The person whom everyone else refers to as “the dragon”. You’ll find that the office tends to polarise around that single person with a few people supporting them and the majority of people complaining behind their back.
Office politics are almost impossible and there’s only one solution – “duck and cover”.
Usually the “dragon” wants to promote themselves by stepping on the heads of everyone else. They like to hand blame for their failures down the line.
When you first start a job, you hate being blamed for someone else’s failings. It’s the sort of thing that tends to get you riled and often you find yourself lashing out. Don’t! You’d be surprised how easy it is to accept blame and move on. Bosses usually know exactly how the “dragons” on their team work. If you’re a good worker then they tend to know who really is at fault. You don’t need to fight these accusations. Just let them be – unless of course it looks like your job is on the line as a result.
In my jobs, I’ve always gotten on well with dragons because I don’t fight back. I just accept and get on with the job. If you fight back, the dragon will always win. They’re usually in positions of power and they are usually conniving and sly enough to get you caught on a technicality.
Don’t make waves. Just let things be and you’ll find that the dragon will actually begin to support you.