I will start this post on Autism and employment by saying we don’t do employment for Autistic people well. So many Autistic people are unemployed, underemployed and / or work in unsuitable jobs.
Thankfully, on a personal level, I have made a career for myself in the professional world. This post will be a mixture of reflecting on how I got to where I am as well as strategies which might help others in their employment journey. I recognise that Autistic people often face significant barriers to finding and keeping a job and just building job readiness skills is probably not going to result in employment where the recruitment processes (interview particularly) and the workplace is not ‘Autism-friendly. It is usually more complex than people just needing a positive attitude and some determination.
This week marks my ten year anniversary of being a public servant. My work history started in 1992 when I was 17. I worked in a fast food restaurant. I hated the work. I didn’t know what to say to my colleagues outside of work. I was there two years and was promoted to a junior manager role. Then a new store manager joined who was a creepy abuser and he subjected me and other colleagues to sexual violence. Not knowing what to do, I quit my job. My life at that point went rapidly downhill. A few years later and I was in a desperate situation as an ex-prisoner with severe mental illness. I had made so many errors and poor choices that I was determined to change. I enrolled in university and started looking of work.
I had a huge degree of perfectionism and was terrified of making a mistake. A fairly easy dishwashing job in a restaurant resulted in some much stress and perfectionism that I became unwell with psychosis. I didn’t give up though. Over the next few years I did what I would now describe as ‘controlled challenges’. I took on incrementally more difficult employment situations and gained confidence. After building my confidence I applied for a graduate job in a Government Department. I had been undertaking study while preparing my employment journey and applied for the graduate job with a Masters degree in Fine Arts. I completed all the recruitment criteria and I was successful. In my whole life I had never worked in an office and I had significant barriers to employment. I moved interstate to take up my job. The change was very scary but I was moving from a world of poverty, misery and a lack of choices to what I imagined would be middle-class heaven.
I loved my job in the public service as soon as I started. There were challenges but there were huge benefitsmust be good as I have been there ten years and have been promoted twice – to the level I am happy to stay at. My world of work went from woeful but I now think it is quite wonderful. I love that I am a visible Autistic person with mental illness who has professional role. While there are a good many of us, not everyone is ‘out’ at work (which is often understandable due to concerns of stigma) and for some people they are told a lot of negative things about their capability to don’t think to try and join the workforce.
Some the issues for autistic job seekers and employees include:
- Anxiety – sometimes worsened through unpleasant and invalidating experiences in previous jobs
- Lack of willingness by employers to hire Autistic staff
- Lack of understanding of Autism among managers and staff
- Communication misunderstandings
- Intersectional disadvantage and discrimination (i.e. Autistic person belongs to other groups which face disadvantages such as non-English speaking background, gender diverse, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander background, or Queer)
- Sensory issues – non-autistic colleagues and mangers often have no frame of reference for sensory overload and may dismiss sensory concerns
- Applications – difficulty ‘selling yourself’
- Interviews Interviews Interviews Interviews!! A job interview favours a confident extrovert. Many Autistic people are neither of those things and find it difficult to wear their ‘cloak of confidence’ and pretend to be confident
- Interpersonal issues
- Discrimination and bullying
- Being perceived as odd or incompetent due to presentation and communicating differently
- Executive functioning difficulties – these can make it hard to manage timeframes and deadlines and prioritise work effectively
- The ‘hidden curriculum’ – unwritten roles for workplace social behaviour which non-autistic people seem to know intuitively but we don’t!
- Understanding how to navigate workplace hierarchies.
Some things I have found helpful in the workplace include:
- In applications and interviews, practice and research. Research the company you are applying to work at. Know what they do. Look at things like their mission statement and annual report to get an idea of what they place emphasis on and then use that knowledge to promote yourself as a good fit with that company.
- With interviews, preparation is the key. Know that a job interview is likely to be difficult but not impossible. Usually if you have made it to the interview stage the employer is convinced you can do the job but just wants to get to know you. As Autistics we can assume everyone will dislike us but this does not always have to be the case. Practice your interview technique and knowledge of the job with a friend, partner, family member or in front of a mirror. In my case Mr Kitty gets to be the boss if I need to prepare for an interview. This will help you to create a ‘road map’ in your mind and hopefully be better prepared and less anxious at the actual interview.
- Consider whether, when and how much you will tell you employer about your Autism. There is no ‘right’ way to do this and it is your personal choice. Give it some thought and work out a strategy. You don’t necessarily need to stick to the strategy but it can inform your thinking.
- Have someone you can talk to about your job and any issues which come up. Preferably this should be someone you know outside of work. You don’t want to spend half an hour venting about the boss to a colleague and find out they are friends with one another!
- When you start a job you will not be as competent as when you have been there for a while. You will learn on the job. We often expect to be proficient at something the instant we start doing it but this is not how it works. Your manager will not be expecting you to be perfect in your first couple of weeks. Try not to be a perfectionist and tell yourself you will improve.
- Reality check. Often we can become anxious at work about something we did or said. This anxiety can become significant and impact on how we do out work. If possible, when you start being worried about something you did or said ask your manager or the person who saw you say or do that you are worried about, whether they are OK with it or if you upset them. You can even say ‘I’m just doing a reality check…’
- If there is such a thing where you work, you could get involved in the disability staff network or similar group. This will put you in touch with other employees who may have some similar concerns and experiences to you.
- There are now some Autism-specific employment programs which are quite good. In Australia – and around the world – there is an organisation called Specialisterne which aims to make 1 million jobs for Autistic people worldwide within ten years. They provide jobs in a variety of industries. In Australia we currently have a number of Specialisterne jobs in IT areas like software testing and cybersecurity and also a program in agriculture. They tailor their recruitment processes and management to be more suited to Autistic styles of communication. These are jobs in open employment, not subsidised places. If you think this is something you would like to do check it out!
- Finally, try not to doubt yourself. You might question your employability or ability to secure and keep a job which works for you. This is understandable given some of the prejudice around Autism. However many Autistic people who thought they would never work – like me – have found good employment ‘fit’.
Jeanette Purkis is an author, public speaker, and autism advocate who has a diagnosis of Asperger syndrome and atypical schizophrenia. She has worked full-time in the Australian Public Service since 2007 and has a master’s degree in fine arts. She is the author of three books on elements of autism and hosts an Internet radio show. She has been facilitating a support group for women on the autism spectrum since 2011. She was named the 2016 ACT Volunteer of the Year and was a finalist in the 2017 ACT Woman of the Year awards.