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.
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.
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,