One of the biggest challenges facing the autistic population is finding employment. And sadly, this is the case for all areas of the autism spectrum, whether the person has profound disabilities and/or learning difficulties, or whether the person has multiple university degrees and no medical conditions.
16% of autistic adults are in full-time employment (a statistic unchanged between 2007 and 2016), with only 32% of us in any kind of paid work.
This was compared to 47% of disabled people in general being in work, and 80% of non-disabled people in general.
Rather tellingly, 77% of autistic adults want to work.
On the plus side, the tide is beginning to turn in the right direction. Several high-profile companies (Microsoft being the obvious example) are beginning to look specifically for autistic candidates, because public perception of autism is changing and people are beginning to realise that maybe we actually have strengths too.
But what is it about autism (with or without intellectual disabilities) that makes it so hard for people to hire us? An increasingly popular talk of mine that I give during speaking engagements is entitled “why autistic people don’t get hired, and what we can do about it”, elements of which I’ll refer to in this article.
This article will start by laying out some context about why autistic people struggle to find employment. After that, I’ll be offering advice from experience on how to increase your chances of passing a job interview. And at the end, I’ll be giving my opinions/experience on when/whether to bring up the fact that you’re autistic.
A little extra note before we begin: I am very aware of the struggles autistic people face once they have a job, especially in unaccommodating workplaces. That is a topic that’s worthy of its own article – this one will focus entirely on the topic of getting hired in the first place.
(Oh, and I should probably mention the little extra things too: namely Autistic Not Weird’s Facebook page, which has now reached a six-figure number of followers(!) and is open to everyone seeking guidance or discussion about autism (whether you’re autistic yourself or not). And for the last couple of years writing for ANW has literally become my job, so if anyone believes my work is worth a cup of coffee per month, my Patreon page is here.)
So why do so many autistic people struggle to get hired?
Here are the three biggest reasons I can think of relating to job interviews, but doubtless there’ll be more.
1) There’s a difference between being good at a job, and being able to talk about being good at a job.
I’ve never been much of a show-off. I’ve always hated show-offs, personally.
While I was training to be a teacher, I was very naïve in my approach to employment. My strategy was to just become the best teacher I could be, and let my results speak for themselves. After all, headteachers are generally wise enough to see through the show-offs’ attitudes.
Sadly, this strategy did not work. I was very good at persuading interview panels that my heart was in it, I’d work extremely hard, and I was motivated to build up young people’s self-esteem and love of learning, but there’d always be one candidate who’d just sit down and gave the correct answers. School after school were wishing me all the best and hoping I’d get a job somewhere, but they had to go by the person specification and who fulfilled which tick-boxes in their criteria – regardless of how much they liked the other candidates.
I really don’t like saying this, but I soon regretted spending all of my energy becoming the best teacher I could be. I wished I’d spent at least a little energy learning how to talk about being a good teacher. I learned too late that all the teaching skills in the world couldn’t help me pass a spoken-word beauty contest. (And yes, I think the phrase “job interview” needs replacing in the English lexicon with “spoken-word beauty contest”. Someone please make that a thing.)
The truth is, it’s not necessarily the best candidate who gets the job. It’s the candidate who performs best at the interview who gets the job. And that’s why autistic people struggle so often to find employment.
2) Anxiety about non-autistic expectations is a big part of autism.
Being autistic is like taking part in a game where nobody has explained the rules to you. You’re just expected to magically know them without instruction, because everybody else magically does.
The people who perform best in job interviews are the people who know how to “play the game”. Who know how the format works, know which buzzwords to use, know the right amount of eye contact and can use the “context-opinion-example” formula (I think it was that, anyway) that helps them to construct a good answer. [For those curious- that formula basically involves mentioning why the topic they’re asking about it important, then giving your opinion on it, then using an example of how you have put this into practice in the past.]
This means that a load of non-autistic people struggle with interviews too, because they don’t know how to “play the game” either. So you can imagine the additional layer of difficulties that exist for those who spend their day-to-day lives struggling to work out other people’s unspoken expectations!
But by far the biggest reason…
3) The world is built with everyone else in mind.
This is an understated issue with the autistic experience in general. Schools are built with the 99% of non-autistic children in mind, which is why academically clever autistic children often struggle to access the curriculum (or even last through the school day in an extremely loud environment with bizarre, unclear expectations). For the same reasons, job interviews are also designed with everyone else in mind. Heck, even the workplace itself is designed with everyone else in mind, from the physical setup of the office right down to the subtle backstabby office politics you find in many places.
So this all sounds pretty depressing, right? Well, it is. (And I mean it literally I’m afraid: jobsearching had a huge negative impact on my mental health, as well as my perception of myself and my worth as a person.)
One of the best things about being self-employed is that nobody will ever interview me for a job position ever again. But for those who aren’t able to be in that position, here’s some advice.
How to increase your chances of being hired
When applying for a job
Follow the person specification. Seriously.
The jobs I applied for were all in the public sector, so I never saw a job application pack that didn’t also have a person specification. Given that this is the sheet that legally must be followed to determine which candidates to invite for interview, they’re literally giving you a sheet that describes what they’re looking for in a job application! For example:
You could write the most beautiful, appealing job application the world has ever known, but if it doesn’t meet the points of the person specification, they can’t invite you to an interview. So make sure you follow it.
Also, many jobs (teaching, for example) will offer prospective candidates a chance to visit. If you have this chance, take it: not only will it give you an opportunity to make you stand out (e.g. “ah, that’s the person we saw last Thursday – this person made an effort to come and visit us!”), but you’ll learn for yourself whether it’s the kind of place you’d actually like working at.
Preparing for the interview
Find a method that works for you. You, individually.
I learned pretty quickly that I performed better after one night of rehearsing my answers than four nights of rehearsing.
Why? Because by then I was already terrified of job interviews, and I performed better after one night of anxiety than four nights of anxiety. The extra three nights didn’t improve my rehearsed answers anyway.
Of course, I got criticised quite heavily for appearing lazy and leaving things to the last minute. But the objective was to pass the interview, and my methods increased my chances whereas everyone else’s methods did not. Whatever works for you, do it.
In the interview
In theory, preparing for a job interview is similar to preparing for an exam: you predict the questions, you work out suitable answers and you rehearse them.
In practice, one thing I learned too late is that memorising your answers ad verbatim is unlikely to work. The same questions will often be phrased just a little differently, which means your prepared answer may be less applicable to the actual question. (For example, the question “what are your career ambitions?” is subtly different to “where do you see yourself in five years’ time?”, although the question behind the question is whether you have vision for progression.)
So in my experience, it’s best to prepare your answers as if you’re telling a joke or a story. If you tell a joke to six different people you’ll probably phrase it six different ways (unless you’re me as a child, who told jokes all day long with the exact same word-for-word phrasing each time), but the main points and the punchline are always consistent. If you’re flexible enough with your interview answers, they can fit to most ways the question will be phrased.
It’s worth mentioning, of course, that the better interviews will be more than just the spoken word beauty contest, and include an opportunity to do something relating to the job. My teaching interviews usually asked me to teach a class for half an hour, and my admin interviews at least had a token Excel test.
Know what these are, and make sure you shine in them – especially if they relate directly to the job’s day-to-day work, and if you find the Q&A difficult.
And the big question… should you mention your autism?
I get asked this question a lot. My first response is “why do you want to mention it?” And often the answer is along the lines of “so it’s not a surprise for them later,” or “well… just so they know.”
There are circumstances where talking about your autism can be advantageous, and occasionally there are good reasons for it. But “just so they know” is not a good reason.
After all, non-autistic people don’t have to tell prospective employers that “I’m not autistic, which means I engage in gossip, I drop hints rather than being specific, my attention to detail is lacking and punctuality isn’t a big thing for me either”, so why on Earth should autistic people do the same with their own struggles?
Oh, and one overlooked fact in all of this is that your diagnoses are nobody else’s business. I put off seeking an Asperger’s diagnosis for ages because I really believed I’d have to declare it on job application forms. Once I realised that there was no such requirement, I went ahead and sought the diagnosis I needed, and it was me who got to decide who else found out and when.
Like I said, sometimes mentioning your autism is an advantage. But it must be strategic. Let’s go through the job application process stage by stage.
In your CV/resume
Before I go any further, read and memorise this paragraph:
The sole purpose of a CV/resume is to persuade the employer to invite you for an interview. Nothing more, nothing less. If something makes them more likely to invite you, include it. If it would make them less likely to invite you, leave it out.
This applies to autism, previous employment/experience, which languages you speak, and everything else. But obviously, don’t put anything down that you can’t back up later. There’s no point in getting an interview if perceived falsehoods on your CV stop you passing it later.
If I were to apply for a job with an autism charity, mentioning my own autism would be a very good idea. (Unless, of course, it’s one of those autism charities that despise autism, or think that the autism discussion is better led by a board of 100% non-autistic directors.)
If I were to apply for a job where autism isn’t at all relevant, then I’d see no logical reason to include it in my CV (unless I know for certain that the employer is openly seeking a neurodiverse workforce).
To those who think it’s sad that I would leave my autism off my CV/resume, remember that a CV isn’t a suitable place for spreading autism acceptance anyway – I’m applying for a job here, not campaigning. It’s better to save any evangelism until after you’ve signed your contract.
After being invited for interview
This is where the temptation to tell them “just so they know” often kicks in. And my response, as mentioned earlier, is “why do you want to mention it?”
If your autism means you may need additional accommodations in order to access the interview, then yes. Tell them. You have the absolute right to those accommodations, and not asking for them would put you at a disadvantage.
If you don’t need extra accommodations, then ask yourself what your motive would be in wanting them to know. And again, ask yourself “would this course of action make them more likely to hire me, or less likely?”
During the interview
To me, if you’re going to mention your autism this is the best place to do so. Why? Because your CV may end up in the hands of someone who doesn’t know what autism is, gets concerned about whether they can accommodate you, and declines “just to be on the safe side”. (Yes, this is illegal, but employers are usually smart enough to find a different, legal reason for why you don’t meet the criteria for an interview.) But once you’re at the interview it’s too late for them to uninvite you, and too late for any misconceptions about autism to get in the way of you walking through the door.
But even then, think strategically. Talk about autism in a way that makes you more likely to get the job, not less likely.
I’ve only mentioned my autism once in a job interview, and it was one of the few interviews I actually passed. Here’s the story.
When I ‘came out’ as autistic mid-interview
In my days between primary school teaching and what I do now (writing for this site, authoring the Underdogs series, delivering speaking engagements and special needs tutoring too) I was applying for a filing job in a mental health clinic. I’d already failed three admin interviews by that point.
The pattern was always the same: I’d do brilliantly on the practical tasks, the Excel spreadsheet test and so on, but it would all fall apart when people walked into the room and started asking me questions.
This interview was no different. Their opening question was a two-parter (and the two halves weren’t even related), so after answering the first half… I fell silent and struggled to put the rest of my answer together.
I then thought ‘well, that settles it. Experience tells me that if I keep going the way I’m going, I’ll inevitably fail this interview. So since I’ve got nothing to lose, I might as well experiment a bit.’ I figured it would either be the best thing I could possibly do or the worst thing I could possibly do, but I decided to drop the A-bomb. (Oh, and by amazing coincidence I’d launched Autistic Not Weird just a few days before the interview, so it was a lot easier having just told the whole internet.)
My words were something like:
“Ok, I’m going to do something I’ve not done before in an interview. I’m autistic, which means I have the perfect kind of brain for this job. I’ve got the attention to detail, I’ve got the concentration and focus, I’ve got the loyalty to work well in a staff team… but I don’t have the perfect brain for job interviews. So you’ll probably hear me stumbling over a few answers here, but please don’t see that as a reflection of how well I’d perform at the job, because if I were to pass the interview I’d most likely be really good at it.”
Which wasn’t bad for a totally improvised speech.
Turns out they admired my honesty, and gave me the job.
Why did it work?
If I hadn’t mentioned my Asperger’s diagnosis, I probably wouldn’t have got the job.
But it wasn’t because I talked about being autistic. It was because I talked about it positively. If I’d spent the interview saying “I’m autistic which means I can’t do this, I struggle with that, I’m awful at this but I’d be a good employee, honest,” then I wouldn’t have got the job.
So again, if you’re going to talk about your autism during the interview, do so. But talk about it in a way that increases your chances, not in a way that decreases them.
(To finish this point, I’m well aware that the strategy I used wouldn’t work with other interview panels. But these days I would use it with all interview panels regardless: if you have a discriminating interview panel, the worst thing that can happen is that you hide your autism successfully, get the job, and then have to spend every day working under a boss who discriminates against autistic people. Sometimes missing out on a job is better than gaining one at the expense of your mental health and general wellbeing, or even the risk of unfair dismissal that would impact your chances of getting the next job afterwards.)
Like I said at the start, I’d like to think that the tide is beginning to turn in the right direction for autistic people. That’s all well and good, but little comfort to the autistic person who needs meaningful employment now and not in ten years’ time.
But with practice (even if painful practice), it gets easier.
When applying for jobs, think “is this line going to make them more likely to invite me to an interview, or less likely?”
When preparing for job interviews, find which methods work for you and keep it on your own terms.
When you’re at the job interview, take the advice above and apply it to your own situation. And again, if you’re going to mention your autism, mention it as a positive. Everyone else will be mentioning their positives, so why shouldn’t you?
Underdogs, a near-future dystopia series where the heroes are teenagers with special needs, is a character-driven war story which pitches twelve people against an army of millions, balancing intense action with a deeply developed neurodiverse cast.
Chris Bonnello is a national and international autism speaker, available to lead talks and training sessions from the perspective of an autistic former teacher. For further information please click here (opens in new window). Autistic Not Weird on Facebook