Today’s article was written by guest blogger Andrew Smith, who will be contributing more of his writing to volume two of The Poetry of Autism. Andrew is a 47 year old living in Queensbury who received his diagnosis of Asperger’s Syndrome in 2008, and began writing about autism in 2013. In this article he outlines the challenges people with Asperger’s face in getting and keeping a job, and the modifications employers can make to ensure their employee’s with ASD remain relaxed, comfortable and productive in the workplace.
The purpose of this article is to give an overview of some of the barriers individuals with Asperger’s Syndrome can perceive when applying for jobs. These barriers can be intentional or unintentional, but they are very real to an individual on the spectrum. These barriers can potentially prevent an applicant from being in employment and an employer from having an ideal person for the position. The article will look at some areas where a barrier may exist, how this barrier may be perceived by the individual with Asperger’s and possible solutions to reducing and eliminating barriers and ensuring that an individual with Asperger’s has an equal chance to compete for a position with a neurotypical individual. When the term ‘applicant’ or ‘individual’ is used in this article it is assumed that it implies an applicant with an Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD), which includes Asperger’s Syndrome, unless stated otherwise.
The first point of contact for many applicants and employers is the application form. An application form can be used to discover a wealth of information about the applicant, but if not filled in to a certain standard can be binned without a second glance. This can lead to an individual who may be the ideal candidate for the position being consigned to the waste bin before they have the chance to apply.
Whilst it’s understandable that not every application form can be looked at in detail, it is conceivable that application forms are split into different categories. One such category could be for individuals with an ASD, and these could be looked at in a little more detail than the others and given slightly more leeway when considering whether or not to ask the individual in for an interview.
Filling in an application form can be a daunting prospect for most individuals, but especially for those with an ASD. So many boxes to tick and fill in, so many questions asking this, that and the other and so much information to digest from job specifications to personal specifications and more. All this information can overwhelm an individual on the spectrum, leaving them feeling disheartened unable to fill the form in to the maximum of their ability.
Some simple changes can mean the difference between an application form filled in to the best of the applicant’s ability and one filled in with a feeling of dread. Each section should be clearly labelled in a bigger font made bold to emphasise where one section ends and another begins. This enables the applicant to break down the form into its component parts and fill in each one as they go, knowing they have finished one section before moving onto the next one. This gives the applicant clarity of understanding and peace of mind.
Try and avoid jargon and acronyms if possible. This type of language can be off putting for a neurotypical. For an applicant with an ASD it can mean the difference between applying for a job and not applying for a job. If the applicant cannot understand the jargon and acronyms used, then how can they expect to understand the job? Another solution would be to enable applicants to ring a human resources advisor and ask them questions without fear of it going against their application.
Be specific on the application form and try and avoid abstract terminology. An example of this would be “give five weaknesses or strengths”. Depending on the wording this question can be interpreted multiple ways by an applicant. Because an applicant with ASD thinks very literally and learns for the most part by rote they could assume this question does not relate specifically to the application but to life in general and may miss the point. A better way to word this request for information would be ‘give five strengths you could bring to this job and explain why you feel that they would benefit the company.’ This statement is more specific and focused than the previous one and points the applicant in the direction they are required to go in.
At the interview stage many of the points highlighted with the application section are equally applicable to the interview section. However a couple of additional points need highlighting. The first one concerns how questions are asked. Questions such as “Can you expand on that?” and “If you were an animal, what type of animal would you be?” can be very confusing to a person with Asperger’s. Many people with Asperger’s are very, very logical and structured in their thinking and this type of abstract question merely confuses and frustrates the person with ASD, preventing them from focusing on the interview. A better way to ask this would be to ask “can you give me more information?” The issue here is to be specific and not confuse the Asperger’s individual with abstract terms and vague questions that can be interpreted in many different ways.
Another problem area is that of eye contact and non-verbal communication. Merely looking at someone with Asperger’s after asking a question or after a question has been asked may very well not elicit any response and give the impression that the interviewee is rude or does not understand that there is more information wanted by the interviewer. This is far from the case and some communication prior to the interview by both parties has the potential to resolve this kind confusion occurring.
As for the interviewee, it’s important to prepare for the interview as thoroughly as possible by going over their CV and application form, researching the organisation and possible interview questions. It’s equally important for the interviewer to ask questions in a manner appropriate for someone with a diagnosis of Asperger’s Syndrome. Deviating from the standard format, asking abstract questions that appear to have no direct bearing on the interview or job, using unfamiliar terminology and going off topic have the potential to confuse and upset the interviewee, putting them at a disadvantage compared to a neurotypical candidate.
In The Workplace
In the workplace many other problems and issues can arise. Firstly it is absolutely essential that employer and employee have a very concrete idea of what sort of working environment it will be for the employee. Is it a suitable environment for a person with Asperger’s? Are they happy to work in an environment where there are lots of distractions such as lights, noise and movement? Are they happy in an environment where there is lots of change or different demands on their time from different people? Someone acting as a go between can be very useful in this situation. They may be able to explain the expectations and requirements of both the employer and employee in a way that is better for both parties and avoids confusion.
Communication and language plays a vital role in everyday life, especially in the workplace. If an employer is aware of how Asperger’s affects an individual a lot of potentially confusing and embarrassing situations can be avoided. Being aware that individuals with Asperger’s can take things literally, may have issues interpreting instructions and may have problems and issues with non-verbal communication can. A third party with a good knowledge of autism can be used to iron out any potential problem areas and enable the Asperger’s individual to settle into a new role with confidence.
Making other employees aware that an individual has Asperger’s can make a massive difference to that individual and their experience of work. Of course not everybody will be happy working with someone with Asperger’s and that it is their right to have that opinion. We are all individual human beings and as a race we cannot expect everyone to agree on everything or have the same outlook. However, the employer can do their utmost to ensure any individuals who may have a problem working with someone with Asperger’s are not put in a difficult situation where they are forced to work with them and the potential for conflict is increased dramatically.
Learning is also a vital part of being an employee and here the employer can help tremendously by finding out how the employee learns best. Do they learn on the job? In a classroom? Verbally? Visually? This can make a massive difference to how quickly the employee learns and makes an effective contribution to the company.
All in all it’s important to remember all Asperger’s individuals want is to have safe, secure employment and work in an environment that is suitable for them. They want to feel valued and that they are making a contribution to the company. They don’t want to feel that they are there just to make up the numbers on the disability register, nor do they want to be in an environment where they face constant abuse and are made to feel inferior to neurotypical employees.