Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Employment Issues in Autism: Finding and Holding a Job

I was going to do just one post on employment issues, but I found so many articles and so many different themes to explore that I should probably break it up into several posts. In these first two, I'm going to describe what the typical autistic or Aspie experiences when trying to work. This post will be anecdotal, interspersing my own story in with the stories of the six people interviewed in this 2004 article by Karen Hurlbutt and Lynne Chalmers.

Hurlbutt and Chalmers's subjects tended to be very well-educated (four of the six have college degrees, and one of those four has postgraduate degrees) and knowledgeable, but could not find employment at their own skill level. The jobs they could find they were not often able to keep for long, either.

I have a degree in political science and am trying to get a decent job with decent pay and benefits. I have cleaned cat cages, done janitorial work, office work at the VA, [been] a telemarketer, and I worked in a group home on the early morning shift.

I had to take whatever jobs I could get, whatever was offered --- usually menial jobs, like entry-level computer or fast food. I think the longest I ever held a job was 2 years ... I don't think I've worked longer than 3 months at any given place this past year.

I graduated from KU two years ago, with degrees in biochemistry and English lit. After graduating, I tried to find entry-level work in a lab somewhere in the Kansas City area. At first, I applied to an awful lot of places, and used two different job-placement companies, though I did not avail myself of any special services for people with disabilities. (At the time, I did not think I'd have to, since my grades were unusually high and I had a lot of lab classes and a good assortment of skills). In two years, I've had a grand total of four interviews. The vast majority of places won't even bother to call me. Of the four interviews, none has been successful. I consistently get good feedback about my educational background and skill level, and the one potential employer who did give me a reason for not hiring me said that they did not think I had the right kind of personality. I'm therefore convinced that interviews are my Achilles heel, which matches up with the experiences of Hurlbutt and Chalmers's subjects. They don't specifically mention interviews, but they do say it's the social, interactive aspects of jobs that tend to thwart them, and get them fired.

I have no trouble doing the work. I am always professional, correct, kind, etc. It doesn't help. They notice that I don't have the same emotions they do.

I think that jobs usually are 80% social (conversations, lunch, breaks, chit-chat) and 20% work. People with autism are the other way around!

A big problem I have with interviews (I have not yet had coworkers to interact with, so interviews are going to be the main windmill at which I tilt) is being able to answer the questions they ask me quickly. I often have to think long and hard about my answer, and some types of questions I never can answer at all. They often ask me to tell a story about a time I solved a problem or displayed initiative or something, and I always come up short. My memory isn't, as most people's is, I guess, The Continuing Story of Me so much as it is a disjointed collection of vivid snapshots, mostly of sensory impressions, like shapes and colors. I can have prodigious recall for details, but don't ask me to produce a narrative. This makes it hard, as you can probably imagine, to create any kind of "sell" for myself when I don't walk around with a self-concept stored in my head at all times. At any given moment, probably 90% of my processing power is devoted to noticing and remembering visual (and auditory) details; attempting to do something unrelated at the same time takes a lot of time and a huge effort. But because no job interviewer ever asks you to name, say, ten things in the room that tell you what time of day it is, or to dead-reckon how far it is in a straight line from where you're sitting to the door, no job interviewer ever sees how much my brain is able to do! They probably think I'm stoned, because all they see is my passive face as I'm trying to push back the tidal wave of irrelevant mental activity and answer their question.

No comments: