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.
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
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’
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
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
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
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
How to increase your chances of being hired
When applying for a job
Follow the person
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
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
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
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
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
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?”
for job interviews, find which methods work for you and keep it on your own
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