The Autistic Employee Part 2: Job hunting advice for my fellow autistics
This article is the second in a four part series around supporting autistic people in the workplace to not only deliver great outcomes for the business, but also help us to grow as professionals and reach our full potential. See also The Autistic Employee Part 1: 28 tips for hiring people on the spectrum. Keep an eye out for the next instalment — The Autistic Employee Part 3: Advice for managers.
Job hunting can be tough and when you’re autistic, it’s even harder.
The group activities, the 4-on-1 ‘speak when you’re spoken to’ panel style grilling (that actually happened to me) and the lengthy assessment centre sessions can be an absolute nightmare. It’s one big social fest where Executive Dysfunction and Sensory Overload aren’t welcome. I can’t tell you how many times the job hunting process has caused a meltdown.
Depending on what you do and what stage you’re at in your career, our neurological differences can mean the difference between making it to the next round of interviews or not. Don’t even get me started on the hurdles we face to actually land the job.
It’s not all bad news though. The autistic brain presents a unique opportunity. The way we think is an advantage and when that thinking is applied in the right way to the right approach, we can obtain meaningful employment without having to change a damn thing about ourselves. Instead of suppressing our autistic traits- we can use them.
To disclose or not to disclose
That is indeed the question. Do we reveal our neurodiversity or do we keep it to ourselves? If we do ‘out’ ourselves, when do we do it? Depending on where you live and the job you’re applying for, you may have some flexibility around what you need to disclose. Do some research and know your rights before you decide either way. If you do have a choice, ultimately I think it comes down to what you feel comfortable with. Everyone is different- I’m loud and visible on social media with my autism pride plastered all over my digital footprint but not everyone feels that way and that’s OK too. It’s more than OK. My disclosure experiences have been really positive. Sharing my neurodiversity has enabled me to access more support and gain workspace accommodations such as a fixed workstation in an ABW (Activity Based Working) world. Weigh up the pros and cons and do what is best for you.
Have a plan
Executive Dysfunction is a real productivity killer and job hunting is no exception. A friend of mine once said “Behind every successful person is a well-designed excel spreadsheet” and she was right. Record all your job hunting efforts in a table format so you can see everything at a glance. It doesn’t have to be pretty, it just has to work for you. I also use Trello to manage my to do lists to keep me focused. I used to write them down on paper but said piece of paper always seemed to go missing rendering it useless. There’s also something delightfully satisfying about moving the cards in Trello from ‘To Do’ to ‘Done’.
Get a mentor
It’s a lot easier than it sounds and the benefits are significant. A good mentor can challenge your thinking, bring a new perspective, be a brainstorming buddy and help guide you to where you want to go. Have a think about what you want to achieve and also consider what you might be able to teach your prospective mentor. Mentoring works best as a two way relationship where both parties bring something to the table. The next step is to brainstorm up a list of possible mentors. It might be someone in your field that you admire, someone at your current workplace or someone in your community. Then all you have to do is reach out to them and ask. It’s that simple. People are always telling me how fearless I am in approaching strangers and reaching out to people I admire but I disagree. I just don’t see it as a thing to be afraid of. What’s the worst that could happen? They say ‘No’? That’s fine, you can then move on to the next person on your list. That does happen but people say yes as well. If they’re time poor, I would suggest scaling it down to one meeting rather than making it an ongoing commitment.
Build your network
Networking is not a dirty word and it’s not impossible for autistic people. It’s not about using people or meeting as many people as you can and making it rain business card style. It’s about building meaningful two-sided relationships. Relationships are what make the world tick over and the right one might just land you a job opportunity. I really struggle to follow the flow of a conversation when talking to someone face to face and when I was starting out I found myself naturally drawn to online forums. I felt that expressing myself in writing was the best way to present what’s going through my mind. When I say online forum, I’m not talking about Whirlpool or Reddit- which I’ll admit can be hilarious but not quite right for this. No. I’m talking about moderated professional forums where people come together online to have intelligent discussions about what they do for a living. In my case it was the UX Mastery community forum. I joined because I wanted to connect with UX professionals from all over the world. I wanted to learn about them, support them and share my voice. I have learned so much and my involvement in the community has opened so many doors including job offers, publications and speaking opportunities. I’ve even met some of the community members in person too and it was great because I know them from our interactions online and they accept me for me. Whatever it is in your field- find it and engage with other professionals in a way that suits you.
Look beyond traditional job pathways
To get a job you have to wait for an opening, fill out an application and then go to an interview or two right? Not necessarily. Traditional job application pathways can be incredibly stressful and often unsuccessful for autistic people but there are other ways. Of all the jobs I’ve held (10+) and been offered (I’ve lost count), I’ve only had to apply for three of them. The rest were obtained through networking and meaningful relationship building. Three of them came through paid work experience placements with employers who simply didn’t want me to leave. Two of them came from me approaching people I admired and saying ‘Hey, I’d like to work with you- how can we make that happen?’ Make a wish list. Write down all the companies and people you’d like to work with and then start building relationships with those people. Think big! You never know what will happen. Build your network as we discussed above and the opportunities will come.
Say yes to free job hunting support services
If you are eligible for job seeking support, take it. Even more so if you are highly educated or seeking a role in a professional field. These services can help cut through the noise, serve as an advocate for your value as a potential employee and connect you to employers who are open to hiring people with differences. It’s not about getting a hand out — it’s about making the most of the opportunities available and this is a good one. These services tend to be given at no cost to you, but still ask the question upfront. If you find one that tries to charge you a fee, move on and find one that doesn’t.
Never give up on having a career that makes you happy
I once had a recruiter tell me that my university level industrial design education was worthless. She told me the best I could hope for in terms of employment would be an administrative support role. There’s nothing wrong with that- some of the hardest working and most brilliant people I know are EAs — but it wasn’t what I wanted. It wasn’t what I poured 3 years of sleep deprivation, countless litres of paint thinner and gentle blue foam sanding into. Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do what you love and that you should just take a job and be grateful you’re employed. Take the job because those bills aren’t going to pay themselves, but never give up on what you want for your career.