Autism and underemployment

previously wrote how a late diagnosis meant that that I was unable to access a number of programmes which help people with Autism get into work. This blog is about underemployment – working in a role for which I am overqualified.

Personally, I struggle with interviews in large part as I am not as expressive as most people and therefore don’t come across as interested enough in the role. As I’ve not passed most interviews, I’ve worked a lot as a temp and I’ve never earnt a huge amount, despite the fact that my earning power should be at least in line with the national average salary given my background and skillset. I have had permanent roles, but one contract was zero hours and didn’t provide much work, and another place I worked for closed down. I have a permanent job but it doesn’t provide me with as many hours as I’d like.

My first three permanent jobs didn’t have the traditional interview structure

The zero-hour role had an interview which was more like an informal chit chat. The second permanent job was one I found through teaching English as foreign language. One day at the end of the lesson, a lady told me that she’d actually been looking for someone to employ in her English teaching company and that she felt I was a good fit. The job involved writing little vignettes which included English idioms and phrasal verbs, as well as doing an audio for these pieces. I was praised for the entertaining quality of my stories and felt for the first time in a while that I was doing something useful, that my work was appreciated and that I was good at what I did. Unfortunately, the company closed down and I was left with less work.

The third job is an admin job which I’ve had for while and I got simply because the people running the business knew that I was looking for work.

With this job I use excel, and I do the accounts twice as fast as the boss with the same accuracy

I am on an app for temping and I’ve been ‘favourited’ by a number of companies for my timekeeping and can-do attitude. I am not saying this to boast, I am saying this as it illustrates that I am perfectly capable of doing a job if it fits my skillset. Unfortunately, I work permanently for a small company which won’t be able to provide me with more work for the foreseeable future, and the temp work isn’t work which will lead anywhere career wise, so I need to look for more work. However, because of my late diagnosis I have an erratic career history and this isn’t good news when applying.

So why did I have a lot of trouble with interviews as an autistic person?

I think there are a few possible explanations:
1) people who gained a diagnosis early were able to navigate the system more easily,
2) people excelled so much in their field of study that they were taken on despite how they presented (unfortunately for me I was great at the theory but not so great at the practical in my chosen field and hence couldn’t rely on being excellent overall in order to get into employment) and
3) some people are very good at masking.

I wasn’t diagnosed till later on in life and I am not too great at masking. I have kind of learnt eye contact but I am not so good in other areas; for example I won’t always remember to smile when I first meet people (it’s not automatic for me). I will also not always be able to work out the best response – I have tried to second guess, and people end up thinking I am weird; for example, I’ll laugh too hard at something or try to change my emotion to suit the tone that the conversation is following.

I have found when I try to anticipate how I should behave that it’s exhausting, and when I don’t get it quite right, I feel that I have failed

I do now maintain fairly good eye contact however I am going to work on smiling as I’ve been told by people that they aren’t sure if I like them. This is generally ok in situations where I get to know people over a long period of time but it’s obviously not ok for interviews! I also struggle with tone of voice and can come across as disinterested.

Talking about this with a friend, he told me it was just something I should get over, and that people who do speech therapy for something like a stutter learn how to communicate more effectively and it was the same thing. I disagree. A speech impendent is fixed/improved by concentrating on the sound of words, masking is about always being on your guard and trying to follow or even second guess what is needed in particular interactions – it’s not the same as fixing a speech impendent.

As there are so many issues with the recruitment process, what is the solution to getting autistic people into employment?

Different forms of recruitment could be one answer. I once applied for a job where they just had a form with skills – no dates to and from for employment, and its so much better. (Who really remembers the exact dates they worked somewhere!). Its also beneficial to other candidates who’ve needed to take time out of the work force for what ever reasons.

The other solution could be trial days which some firms do to recruit candidates where they can show their skillset and not go through the highly social trial which is the interview.

My personal solution was to change my CV so that the experience was summarized more and it highlighted skillset to a greater extent than career history. The CV has got me more interviews however I’ve not yet managed to convince companies that I have the experience they’re looking for. I don’t think this difficulty is entirely related to how I put things across because of my autism. I think it’s also related to having less chance to showcase my skills in the world of employment. As well as changing my CV I’ve applied speculatively so I can kind of ‘create’ my own role. So far one organisation has replied to say that they have a project which involves diversity surveying. Nothing concrete has come of it yet but it sounds promising, and as it’s remote and I feel better able to accommodate my neurodiversity from home.

Rachel Melinek

January 2022

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