Aspies and Workplace Issues

Normally when I’m presented with a news story about Asperger Syndrome or that in some way covers autism spectrum disorders, I choose to read it and then pass along the information to my friends and subscribers. If you’ve been following WWA, you know that I’ve been systematically tackling topics that affect the lives of many Aspies, especially Aspie women – topics that affect my own life as well. Given that, it seemed appropriate that when this article appeared on the front page of Monday’s Columbus Dispatch, I should not only comment on the article but write about my own experiences in the employment world and with trying to find a job.

I have lived and worked in the Columbus area since 1998. I was happy to see a local newspaper like the Dispatch cover Asperger Syndrome, especially addressing it beyond the typical scope of discussing children. In the article, I read with interest the story of a young woman named Chelsea Ridenour who has qualifications that would certain make up a very stellar resume: she is a summa cum laude graduate of Capital University, can communicate with a computer in six languages, and judging from what I read easily gets calls from prospective employers. However, she remains unemployed, despite her credentials. And she is not the only one – the article referenced a statistic provided by the Ohio Center for Autism and Low Incidence that only 6 to 14 percent of adults with autism are competitively employed. What does this mean for us? Either we are unemployed, like Ms. Ridenour, or we are underemployed – like myself and many other adults who have skills and experience which would qualify us for professional employment.

In this, I recognized a little bit of my own story. When I went to college, I earned a B.A. in Communications, majoring in Telecommunications (which at Bowling Green State University meant radio/television broadcasting as well as media in general); worked in various positions, including on-air, music, production, and traffic staff for WFAL, one of two radio stations on our campus; and served in a few other campus organizations. Then the broadcasting industry underwent significant changes, which were ushered in by the Telecommunications Act of 1996: this meant media companies could own more stations in more markets…and in turn, consolidate staff in the stations that they owned in each market. This translated to less opportunity, so upon graduation I moved to Columbus and accepted a helpdesk job at a locally owned and operated Internet service provider. I did this because I had experience working in the computer labs while studying for my undergrad and I figured a job was better than no job. This led to six or seven years of entry-level tech support and call center jobs until I accepted a contract position for a local college’s distance learning program in 2007. Since 2008, I have been working as an administrative assistant for one of the departments at the same college. I should also add that I earned my Master of Business Administration in 2005 from Keller Graduate School of Management, so I fall into the underemployed category – and have done so during different parts of my work life.

Then I reflected further on my work history and recognized how Asperger’s has affected my seeking and keeping a job. A couple of different things floated up to the surface: my trouble with interviews and how my issues with social interaction have affected my work life.

Job Interviews

Earlier, I mentioned that Ms. Ridenour’s problem seems to be with interviews. She and many other people with Asperger’s have trouble with them because interviews require some degree of social interaction – many employers judge us by our social skills in addition to our past work experience, education, and other qualifications. Also, as the parent of a 28 year-old woman with Asperger’s put it in the article, interviews may be overwhelming for us. And if you think about it, it makes sense – social skills aren’t our strong suit, and if you throw our natural tendencies towards anxiety and some sensory issues in the mix, you can see why interviews might be problematic. If we do poorly in the interview, we may not get the second call or even a second notice.

I have always dreaded interviews, sometimes to the point of hating them. Believe me, I’ve studied information about how to conduct oneself in interviews, and all of the information seems to be geared towards putting one’s best face forward. But when I’m actually in the interview, I feel a little lost. I know that interviews are tough for everyone, but in my case I’ve felt like I was navigating a mine field without a map or any hints as to where the mines are buried – so I’ve ended up winging it, knowing the whole time that I’m being judged by how I present myself, my body language, how I act, and how I respond to questions.

A few of my past interviews stand out in my mind. One was for an entry-level helpdesk position about five years ago for a major health-care firm that the contracting company I’d registered with recommended me for. I froze up, I was stiff, and I tried to adhere to a mental “script” of sorts, sticking primarily to business. I was told later by the recruiter for the contracting company that I wasn’t accepted because the interview board felt that I didn’t display enough of my personality for them to gauge whether I’d be a good fit or not. After I thought about it, I figured out what the problem was: I don’t do well being interviewed by multiple people at the same time in a group interview session and it literally terrifies the crap out of me.

The second interview I thought about was for a telemarketing-style position for a local company that sells database access. I wasn’t really aware that it was telemarketing, thinking that it was just a call center position as the ad described. I was given a tour of the facility, after which the interview took place. I tried to be a little less business-like and a little more what I deemed personable, asking my own questions about the position and the company. What I think was the deal breaker was when the interviewer showed me to the call center floor – right at that moment, one of the reps had made a sale, and the entire floor started cheering. I think the interviewer gauged the look on my face – which was probably deer-in-headlights – and decided I wasn’t a good fit. Truthfully, I think I would have gone mad (and not in a bohemian mad eccentric poet kind of way) if I’d taken the job. Could you imagine working in a place and trying to take phone calls where there was cheering going on every five to ten minutes? Ugh.

The last interview that comes to my mind thankfully had a good outcome – it was for the aforementioned support position for the distance learning program. This interview consisted of one-on-one interviews with various individuals in the department. Again, I froze up and got nervous. Thankfully one of the interviewers who served as quality assurance for the program and who also happened to teach at Keller where I’d gotten my MBA from recognized that I was in a sort of “interview mode” and encouraged me to relax. I got through the rest of the interview just fine and ended up with the job. I also believe that the people who interviewed me and who I later worked with valued skill and ability over any potential quirks or social foibles I may have displayed.

Social Interaction in the Workplace

Problems with social interaction could affect someone with Asperger’s in a couple of different ways: 1) issues working with co-workers, understanding office culture, and office “politics”, and 2) impedance of performing basic job duties if social interaction is required as part of the job (for example, customer service and call center jobs). I’ve encountered both kinds of problems, but for privacy reasons, I’d rather discuss my own experiences with the latter in this post. I can, however, speak generally about the first kind of problem.

My mother once said of one of her previous jobs: “I’m here to work, not win a popularity contest.” To a large degree, because of our limitations with social interaction, one’s philosophy about workplace life and culture might boil down to just that. We show up, we do our jobs to the best of our abilities, and contribute what we can. But in spite of this, a lack of understanding of the social dynamics of a workplace can lead to problems, such as getting passed over for promotions (i.e. you don’t socialize, you keep to yourself, and you don’t get noticed) and undergoing tension and problems with coworkers (which I’ve experienced personally). We might find out the hard way that, depending on the organization and the industry, a good percentage of the workplace life involves social interaction – something that we naturally tend to struggle with.

One could say, well, you could just show up and do your job and not care. That’s true. But in the case of those trying to work in customer service capacities or positions requiring frequent social interaction, a completely different issue arises. You’ll remember that I mentioned earlier about my work in call centers. Since I’m an introvert as well as an Aspie, this was in my case a recipe for disaster because of the extensive social interaction required for a call center job. I could do it, but it wore me out, stressed me out, and burnt me out: I’d come home sick to death of ringing phone,s whining customers, and ready sometimes to just pass out. I don’t think it’s any wonder that I never stayed in each position beyond a year or two.

But the entire experience wasn’t completely negative, and I was able to make it through to some degree. I think my best asset in those jobs was probably my ability to follow maps and understand processes both visually and mentally. Give me a system, a visual map, a flowchart, or a set of written instructions and I do pretty well. That, plus my attention to detail, note-taking abilities, and written communication abilities are what helped me qualify for and hold down those jobs as long as I could. And since I’m mildly affected, I could probably stand it better than another Aspie in my position. On the other hand, there might be Aspies who could do better than I at call center positions. This is probably another case of your mileage may vary, but I’m willing to bet that most Aspies would find the level of social interaction required for call center work a challenge.

Solutions?

I think more needs to be written about the challenges that adults with Asperger’s face after graduating from secondary school or college and then trying to find gainful employment that at least reasonably matches with their education, skills, and talents. A few in the field have already written some good materials about career options and strategies for people with Asperger’s and other autism spectrum disorders: Ruby Simone’s Asperger’s on the Job and Dr. Temple Grandin’s Developing Talents books come to mind, as well as books by several authors with Jessica Kingsley Publishers. I think one major gap of understanding is a lack of familiarity with Asperger’s on the part of career counselors and other individuals who often must help people with Asperger’s find employment. I think I would also challenge state agencies that are charged with dealing with development disorders to become more familiar with Asperger’s syndrome so that they can be more prepared to help individuals or direct them to needed resources.

Also, much has been mentioned about narrow, special interests. Probably one helpful thing for anyone on the spectrum is to turn one’s interests into a career. There’s a saying that I’ve heard that a person is like a plant: tie it to a stick when it’s young, and it will grow straight. Like the plant, early help and support when a person with Asperger’s is young will help them prepare for the work world. Encouraging special interests, helping the young person broaden these interests into something translatable into a career, giving them opportunities to build their experience, and helping them create and showcase tangible evidence of their talents will certainly help that young man or woman do that.

Now, what about someone like myself who’s already an adult? I feel as if I’ve been adrift career-wise for my entire adult life. It’s not all been for naught, as I’ve picked up some useful skills, talents, and knowledge along the way. But I did not get the kind of help that I detailed in the last paragraph as a teenager – in fact, I was actively discouraged from pursuing my first love, which is writing. Instead, I began my undergraduate studies as a business major and then switched to studying broadcasting after I discovered that I liked working on the air as a disc jockey and after I nearly failed business calculus my freshman year. But in the end, writing is my first love.

My off-the-cuff thought is that for the short-term, I might need to find resources to help me during the job interview process, since that is where I have trouble. Ultimately, I should target employers who value skills, talent, and experience over the social dimension. Dr. Temple Grandin has mentioned this in her book Developing Talents as well as other helpful strategies for people on the autism spectrum to gain meaningful employment, which includes creating a portfolio of our work and contacting the hiring manager as opposed to going through the company’s Human Resources department. Perhaps since many of us are already accustomed to doing things unconventionally, this will be one more area in which we will need to do so – to find our ways in rather than being kept out.

But in the end, I need to pursue something that I love. I think finding out that I have Asperger’s Syndrome has helped me tremendously in understanding why certain things have gone wrong in my life, including my career and my preparation for the adult work world when I was younger. I can’t say for certain what I will do next, but a change of direction is likely the idea.

Thank you for staying with me through this lengthy and to a great degree a more off-the-cuff post than usual. In the meantime, talk back to me: what have you encountered in the world of work? Are you competitively employed, or are you under- or unemployed? Did you choose the road of entrepreneurship, and how has this worked out for you? What do you think needs to be done to help people with Asperger’s have better chances of being gainfully and competitively employed?

Until next time,

Nicole

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7 thoughts on “Aspies and Workplace Issues

  1. I think this is a difficult subject. I worry that career counselors (in reality, rather than the ‘ideal’ counselor you imagine) would tend to view a kid with Aspergers as fitting a number of predetermined boxes and take the easy path of pushing them along a career path ‘for their own good’. Most careers people already have their own set of prejudices – I wanted to be a vet, but when I told mine that I got the sniffles around guinea pigs she told me an allergy excluded me from being a vet and that was that. They wanted a decision made quickly, and anything that enabled a career to be crossed off and the field narrowed was a plus. Aspergers would enable the crossing off of a lot of potential careers.

    Also many autistic people have difficulty disobeying ‘authority’, tending to agree with whatever is put before us rather than endure the stress and anxiety of saying no. (this might be a better area for training counselors.)

    It could also funnel us into employment where the least number of adjustments have to be made by an employer ‘You might enjoy working for local company X, but they have open plan offices and that’s unsuitable for people with Aspergers, so go fry chips at MacDonalds as that’s your only other local option’

    I doubt a career counselor would consider a creative career for an Aspie, based on current prevalent beliefs – after all, we’re supposedly unable to comprehend fiction, and any artistic tendency is still often dismissed as an idiot sauvant ability, not ‘real’ talent.

    I see where you’re coming from, but I fear the real world would fail to live up to your hopes. Perhaps a better way is mentoring by another person with Aspergers who is in employment, but understands the importance of encouragement and not narowing down options too early. Then again, that might require some of us to ‘come out’ to our employers; that would probably cost me my job, and the reality is that I don’t have the financial or emotional resources to go through court to keep it. It’s a pity, because I would love to fulfil this role; Aspergers has impacted negatively on my career, but I’m still in a professional, full-time job, in the kind of environment that most people would consider completely unsuitable for an Aspie!

    • Hi Tasmaniancraftie:

      Thanks for stopping by and commenting. You do present some valid points here. The problem I see with what you mentioned with career counselors is again, the misunderstanding and prejudices they may have about Asperger Syndrome. I keep saying that educating people is the key…I realise one cannot lead a horse to water and make them drink, but I still think that education and busting myths needs to happen. I wonder how many people in career counseling and related fields really understand Asperger’s, and if so, what resources are out there to help them reach that understanding?

      I think the mentoring idea has some merit. I think that this is another good way in which members of our community who can help might be able to make a difference. But I do see your point — again, this is where there’s the Catch-22. Because of the inherent misunderstanding, misinformation, and prejudices about AS, this is where as you mentioned “coming out of the closet” can cost people their employment. And this is a really sticky area. In theory, the ADA should cover Asperger’s and other autism spectrum disorders when it comes to employment discrimination, but as we’ve seen, there are still a lot of cases in which this does not happen. Also, for some of us without an official diagnosis, it could be very problematic to prove that we are disabled individuals as defined by the ADA. That’s why I know that in some respects, I’m taking a pretty big chance by outing myself without an official diagnosis. As I see it, I work in an organization that values my skills and talents, as well as my work record, above any weird “quirks” I might display, so I’m not so worried. But then again, there’s the future job prospect…they could easily Google me, find this site, and not hire me based on what they read here. Or may they will. I don’t know. I guess I do this because I figure I can at least try to be visible and show that “hey, this is one more example of what Asperger’s might look like”.

      All we can do is keep educating, keep fighting, and keep trying.

      Thanks again for stopping by and offering your opinions. Please feel free to come back and post again.

      -Nicole

  2. Hi!
    Thanks for posting an interesting and thought-provoking article. I have not actually been diagnosed with AS, so I’m not sure if I am an Aspie, but I do have Epilepsy, and I can definitely relate to what you have written above.

    I struggle with all sorts of things that other people consider “easy” for example addressing selection criteria, passing cognitive testing (though I am considered quite clever) and concentrating in an open-plan office are really hard for me. I also feel uncomfortable at Assessment Centres and I don’t like making small talk, though I can manage if I have to.

    These obstacles mean I often don’t even make it to interview stage, and if I do get the job, I feel as if I can’t perform effectively because the environment does not help me. When I’m at work I feel like I spend so much time compensating for my natural personality that I have no time/energy left to do the job properly!

    Unfortunately, so many of the workplace environments I’ve been in don’t actually seem to value effectiveness, efficiency or high quality work at all. They would rather have someone who “plays politics” effectively but does little or no high quality work, in preference to me (I am effective but not interested in political games.)

    So what happens in my case is that I remain at the bottom, being criticized for my poor social skills and inability/unwillingness to fit in, whilst those who have low levels of competence but lots of charisma are promoted quickly. I don’t know if this is an Aspie/Epilepsy problem or just a mismatch betweeen me and our society’s values? What do you think?

    • Hi Louise:

      Thank you for stopping by, commenting, and sharing. I think while many Aspies might able to relate to the kinds of difficulties you mentioned, I think it’s more of a mismatch. This kind of thing, I’ve observed, with any kind of cultural difference or clash between a majority culture and a non-majority person. A more simplistic example — we live in a predominantly right-handed world, with things, gadgets, etc being provided for righties. What happens when a leftie comes along? The mismatch between us and the neurotypical world could be framed in a similar way.

      I am fortunate to work in a workplace where good work, effectiveness, and skill are valued. I hope and pray that you will find the same — in fact it is my prayer for everyone on the spectrum. I think sometimes our values might be misformed and misplaced, and sometimes people don’t bother to read the book after they’ve proverbially judged it by the cover. We have a lot to offer. We must keep pressing on in order to help others — including potential employers — see what. I think Dr. Grandin had some good suggestions, as I quoted in the post, of how to do that.

      Again, thank you for stopping by. Please feel free to come visit and read again.

      -Nicole

  3. I went through my teens and twenties not being able to hold on to any job for a full month. This means I also spent a lot of time in my twenties homeless or living with an abusive partner and putting up with the abuse because the alternative was homelessness.

    I never could figure out why I couldn’t keep a job. Some of them I couldn’t even keep a week! I am very intelligent and was eager to work. Every job, I’d go in with the attitude that this was the time that things were going to come together for me. I never understood why I’d get fired so I never knew what to try to change, but I still kept trying over and over.

    Finally, I found myself homeless yet again and pregnant as well (I have no child, though. She was stillborn.) So I applied for disability. My caseworker looked at my history and filed my paper work and I got accepted within a month — when I’ve talked to other people on disability, they are shocked at how quickly I was accepted. But by that point I had nearly a decade of unkept jobs alternating with homelessness and a stay in a mental hospital and therapy going back to age 5 where it was obvious my whole life that “something was wrong” but no one could figure out what. The caseworker put “chronic recurrent depression” in the space on the form for the name of my disability and I was so beaten down I let her put it, even though I was recoiling at the lie because the depression is not and never has been the cause of my disability but rather the result of a life lived with undiagnosed asperger’s.

    From the beginning, I viewed disability as a stepping stone to getting a better footing in life. But I tried to go to school several times and kept having to drop out of university, no more sure why I couldn’t make it there than I had any idea why I couldn’t keep jobs. I sensed that a university education would make a big difference for me, but couldn’t do it any more than I had been able to keep a job.

    Fast forward to 2001 when I was finally told that I have asperger’s syndrome. That changed a lot of things for me and with the new knowledge and new framing of my life history, I was able to develop the personal tools to stay in school finally. I got two bachelor’s degrees and am currently working on a doctorate but it’s not a happy ending . . . about five years ago, I developed a second disability, hypernychthemeral syndrome (N24) (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Non-24-hour_sleep-wake_syndrome). My specialist said I was the first person he was unable to successfully treat and told me to just try to live on my body’s clock as much as possible since I get so sick and depressed (and go blind! seriously!) when I struggle to keep up with the rest of the world.

    So I can’t do the teaching required to finish my degree (and making my department create online classes is not considered a reasonable accommodation under the law) and now I couldn’t even consider working on a timeclock, even if I didn’t have the life history of being able to hold on to minimum wage jobs. It’s frustrating because when I started to have success in university I thought all my problems with being an unemployable autistic were finally coming to a close but I just traded it for being an unemployable N24. And what job counselor can even begin to help someone who can’t keep the same hours at any point on the clock *and* has such severe asperger’s that they’ve never been able to hold any job for a full month at any point in their life?? I am well and truly screwed and currently struggling to come to accept that disability was not a stepping stone for me and I will be stuck on it and living well below the poverty threshold for the rest of my life.

    What I hate about that is that I feel like I have so much to offer the world but no way to “plug in” so that I can give. I’m smart and learn quickly and love to work and feel productive and useful but I never really had a chance and now I just don’t see how I’m going to get a break in life. People tell me to start my own business and work from home, but I draw a blank. I need a mentor to help me to “plug in” to something, to help me figure out and get something set up. But I realize I’m a very complicated case and good luck finding someone who can figure out a niche for me and then help me settle in to it. And who helps very intelligent adults with autism *and* a rare circadian rhythm disorder? No one, that’s who.

    I can’t begin to say how depressing this all is.

    • Well they really should start doing so, because you are not the only person with cormorbid AS/N24 out there. I can vouch for myself and at least one other person I know. An NT N24 once did some research showing high levels of serotonin (or a mutation in genes that convert serotonin to melatonin) can cause N24. People on the spectrum might not have any genetic mutation but they do have higher levels of serotonin.

      Out of curiosity, what techniques did that specialist treat you?

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