Prisms of Perception 7: ‘Employable Me’ – How Does Autism Affect Employment
Entering the final year of my undergraduate degree, I’m sure a vast number of students will stand in agreement with me when I mention that the pressure of the working world is building up quicker than the magma inside a volcano. The constant stress of trying to build an outstanding academic and professional record, continuously trying to better yourself against your competition. Everything you do simply doesn’t seem to be enough at times, and the doubt that builds can be a huge knock-on on your self-confidence. Of course, however, as students, the worry exists because it’s essentially our first time entering the chaotic world of work. But there are numerous adults who may have left school or university a while ago and that same worry may still be as fresh as the day they graduated. This may be due to general confidence issues, or there may be deeper, underlying factors which many of us may overlook.
I recently watched a documentary called ‘Employable Me’. Originally an Australian television series, the UK version aired on BBC Two a while ago. The documentary followed the lives of extraordinary job seekers who suffered from various neurological conditions, and how their conditions were affecting their communication abilities and subsequently their ability to secure a job. There was one particular individual’s journey that certainly touched my heart. This young man was autistic. He spoke very openly when being interviewed on the show, and mentioned that he had applied for over a thousand jobs but just wasn’t successful. Now, I must mention, that I am not autistic. So, learning more about autism was very interesting to me, especially since I wanted to understand how and why autistic individuals were perceived differently in job interview situations.
Again, not being autistic myself, it’s important to clarify our understanding of autism before any assumptions can be made on how it can affect daily life. The first thing that needs to be understood, is that autism is not an illness! Having autism simply means that your mind works differently from others around you, and there are various subtypes, which can be influenced by both genetic and environmental factors. These differences in mindset can cause challenges when socialising and interacting with others, and may even cause levels of anxiety as a result. There are also certain stereotypes associated with autistics which I find quite interesting.
Many people believe that autism is a form of ‘deficiency’. In fact, it can be rather difficult to diagnose as it simply isn’t as apparent. This seems to be more frequent in females rather than males. According to an article in Spectrum News, a comprehensive study conducted in 2017 illustrated that the ratio of diagnosis between girls and boys is 1 girl to 4.2 boys. Another assumption that happens to be quite frequent, is that autistic people are extremely intelligent. In such scenarios, the word “intelligence” can be interpreted in several ways, and the levels of ‘intelligence’ can vary from person to person, as it can with non-autistic people. There is a constant debate on whether there is a correlation between autism and high levels of intellect, specifically, genius levels of intellect. An article by Heidi Moawad in Neurology Live mentions that studies have not directly pointed out a link between autism and intelligence. Contrastingly, a study conducted by professors at Ohio State University demonstrated that families that were more likely to produce autistic children were also more likely to produce geniuses. However, if by “intelligence” we mean that many autistic people like to have a particular focus on something, then yes, that is true. According to autism.org, many autistic people have highly focused and intense interests and hobbies, which can be seen from a fairly young age. They may end up becoming specialists in their area of interest, and find happiness in sharing their knowledge. A knowledge that has taken a lot of time and dedication to acquire.
That’s an important element to consider here – time. Autistic individuals may require extra time to process information, in order to process their responses to certain situations. And unfortunately, the last thing a job interview gives is time. That being said, there have been some extremely positive changes in job applications that accommodate a number of people who may need extra time or assistance, such as extra time given in online psychometric tests, or being able to take breaks during an application. However still, you can never truly know how somebody will perform in a job until they actually do it. It’s the principle of providing that opportunity that will solve this. According to Lisa Rudy’s article on Very Well Health, fewer than 50% of autistic people are employed. Out of those, many only work part-time jobs, or, jobs for which they are overqualified. Heading back to the correlation between autism and employment, the question is not necessarily how autism affects employment, but more so why it does.
As job interviews rely heavily on communication skills, autistic people may struggle to “sell” themselves and their skills, even though, as mentioned before, their skillset may be highly specialised. But due to autism affecting certain brain pathways, they may not be able to communicate these skills efficiently, which of course is very unfortunate, as their skills may not be recognised for a long time, even though they may be highly beneficial to many companies. In addition to this, there are also several other factors that need to be taken into account. According to autism.org, autists face challenges during interaction, as mentioned earlier. These include challenges such as understanding body language, maintaining eye contact, speaking with a level of formality, thinking in abstract ways and answering open-ended questions. Any non-autistic individual would find maintaining all of these elements in a job interview to be a challenge, it can be overwhelming to any individual, no matter who you are.
I’ve never interviewed anybody for a job, so it would be wrong of me to act like I possess all the knowledge of difficulties that companies may face during the recruitment process. I know employers have their reasons for why interview times are set the way they are, and why a recruitment process is carried out in a particular way. It boils down to giving everybody a fair chance, which of course is how it should be. And again, I must reiterate, I very much accept and appreciate the extra diversity measures put into place. After all, there is a difference between equality and equity. Remaining impartial and just is always crucial. However, I would like to highlight why employing an autistic induvial would be more of an advantage than one may think. Autism.org (yes, the frequent references clearly illustrate how insightful the site is) draws us back to the concept of having an intense interest, which clearly implies the ability to maintain high levels of concentration, which is one of the most vital skills needed when completing any task. This may also mean that they would have very high attention to detail, and may be able to think more technically about something. And, for example, in a world that is quite close to being taken over by computers, having somebody with an abundance of technical abilities and a mind for IT would be nothing but an advantage. However, we must also realise that not all people with autism may have a ‘specialist subject area’. They may just generally be as good as any other person that is hired, but factors such as prejudice can certainly play a part when making a decision.
There are several things that can be done, and are being done by some companies, in order to make the recruitment process less daunting for autistic individuals, such as providing the interview questions in advance or providing breaks throughout the conversation. But even these slight alterations could mean a world of difference to somebody. Giving equal opportunities to all candidates is definitely a step in the right direction, however, taking certain steps suited to the individual’s conditions would rectify a lot of issues. Sometimes giving everybody the same thing isn’t always fair. Some people may require a little more, or even a little less, for us all to stand an equal chance. And sometimes “different” can be an asset and not a handicap for a company, on the contrary to what their prejudices may lead them to think. Anyone with a different way of thinking should be listened to and understood, and even taking a little bit of time to speak to somebody with autism could change your views on many things. Such mindsets will always be an asset to society.
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