How can an individual on the autism spectrum feel empowered to improve her / his prospects of employment?

I am once again insulted to Mr. Gavin Bollard, author of the blog called Life With Aspergers. With his permission, I am including this second article on improving employment prospects for individuals on the autism spectrum.

About Gavin Bollard:

My main interests are Cinema, Computing and spending time with my family. I am married and have two boys (born in Sept 2000 and 2003). I've been with Notes / Domino since R3 and have been working (and playing) with Intel PCs since about 1986. Prior to that I was into the various 16K micros.

In part one of this series, I “lamented” the lack of services aimed at helping adults with aspergers find financial independence. There are plenty of services available to help children on the spectrum at school. Indeed neurotypical society tend to be quite tolerant of children with differences. Unfortunately society seems to have forgotten that children ever grow up and that adults on the spectrum still need help.

I ended my post with a couple of vague lists, one talking about what aspies can do to improve their job prospects and another dealing with how society can improve the situation. In this post, I want to look at what aspies can do.

Beware of Fake Jobs

Before I get into the lists from my last post, I just want to talk about a nasty employment problem that I've encountered on several occasions.

The phrase; “it's not what you know, it's who you know” sums it up nicely.

It's a sad fact of life that aspies with their limited social skills and fewer friends (compared to NTs) will often find themselves passed-over in job opportunities by people who either have a more engaging personality or who simply know one or more people who are in positions of power at the place you're seeking employment.

In fact, you'll find that many advertised jobs do not really exist at all. Some are just job agencies “fishing” for people to put on their books but others are much much worse. A lot of interviews are simply “box-ticking” exercises so that management can pretend that proper employment procedure has been followed before they give a job to someone they already know.

It's happened to me several times in my career. A position directly in my area of ​​responsibility becomes available and a new CEO who does not know me particularly well contacts a friend, to offer them a position they have not even interviewed for. A series of fake interviews is then arranged and “surprise”, the new person gets the job.

It's a painful experience which if you understand what has happened will make you feel under appreciated and “used”. Of course, most of the time (if you're looking for a new job, not a promotion), you will not even know what has happened. In those cases, it's simply a big blow to your self esteem.

You need to recognize that this is very common behavior. Quite often, your failure to secure a job will not be your fault at all. It will simply be that there was no job available. Do not blame yourself for these failures if you've given it your best shot. You should not take an esteem hit from shady management. Of course, that's much easier said than done.

Limit Your Education
This was always bound to be a controversial topic, so I apologise in advance for everyone who may be offended.

It's often assumed by people (aspies in particular) that good grades and higher levels of education guarantee good jobs. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Aspies need to learn that higher levels of education do NOT guarantee good jobs. In fact, they can often significantly reduce your chances of being employed.

Here's my recommended education rule. It's an aspie rule and not one that I'd want to see implemented by any organization. I'd just like individuals to take it onboard for their own benefit.

You're allowed ONE degree only before you have to get a job. If possible you should do your degree part-time. You're allowed to change your degree part-way through ONCE.

That's it. Simple. Now I'll explain my “stupid rule”.

When you start work, it custom to start at the bottom regardless of your level of education. I do not mean that a fledgling IT person has to start in the mail room but I do mean that you'll probably start somewhere below the normal level of operations, for example in testing or in first level support.

Employers like to pay low-level employees minimum wages. This usually is not possible if they have higher level qualifications since employees may look for people without them.

Assuming for instance that you have two prospective employees. One has a Computing Degree and a Doctor while the other is only in their third year of a computing degree part time. Now assume that the job is a helpdesk role.

It's almost guaranteed that the person doing their degree part-time will get the job. The more “qualified” person will be tagged as “over-qualified”. Even worse, employment agencies will often decide that the over-qualified person has other issues if they do not have a lot of experience. They may decide for instance that the person must be difficult to work with. They'll try to find a reason why they're not already employed in a good job – and if they find none, they'll make one up for themselves.

The other thing to be aware of is that people do not like to employ people who they think may be smarter than themselves. If you're better qualified than your prospective supervisor, then there's a pretty good chance that you will not get employed – or that the supervisor will make your life at work hell.

The other half of my rule says that you can change degrees once. That's because most people do not know exactly what they want to do when they start their degree. It's accepted that you'll probably want to change once you figure this out. Changing several times though does not indicate that you're still thinking. It suggests that you're confused.

If you're really confused, then it's time to get a job and worry about education later.

Further Education

I'm not ruling out further education. You can still get your doctorate if you want. That's ok. Aspies are capable of just about anything. I guess that I'm saying “just get some work experience behind you first”. Even better, try to stay employed and do further qualifications part-time. That way, you do not leave any gaps in your resume.

Limit Your Expectations

Most people go to work to earn money. They do not needarily enjoy it.

When I first started in computing, I assumed that the entire computing department went home on weekends and did development in their own time like I did. I did not think that maybe they wanted to spend time with their families.

My conversations with them were all about computers. I was amazed to find that several of them did not even have computers at home. It took a long time for me to get my expectations down to a manageable level and by the time I had, I'd insulted most of the team without realizing it.

The other thing to watch out for is the fact that because your work and hobbies can sometimes be inseparable, you'll typically get better and better at your job. Usually you'll pass your supervisor's level of expertise. When this happens, they usually will not be proud of you, they still will not appreciate contradictions and corrections and they'll probably be more than a little jealous.

In one of my jobs, I slowly took the manuals home to read (there were about 36 of them) for the AS / 400 system. I went from not knowing what an AS / 400 was to feeling very confident with them. I expected my colleagues to be happy about this but one of my work-mates stopped talking to me. I'd made him feel insecure.

Be very careful about your requirements and expectations. Not everyone is the same as you. Other people have different things which are important in life. They do not like being corrected and they do not like to feel threatened.

Be Less Picky About Your Initial Jobs

It's common to leave school or university with a whole heap of great plans only to be turned down at job after job after job because of lack of experience. Sure, there are jobs out there which do not require experience but they're low-level and menial. They're below your interest and you obviously do not want to do them.

Unfortunately we all have to start somewhere. You would not be the first person to take a job well below your mental capacity and to know much more than your supervisor. It may surprise to know that this situation almost never changes. It does not matter how high you rise in a company (unless you make it to CEO) there's always going to be someone above you – and they're almost always going to be less talented or have less vision.

There's not much you can do about this. Just start low and try to gain a lot of experience. If you've got talent, you should be able to find some time to do things which interest you and which do not get you into too much trouble.

In my first computing job, while I was supposed to be babysitting a room-sized “mini-computer”, I was also doing quite a bit of PC development. My boss was less than impressed but so long as I did what I was supposed to do, he let me continue. Occasionally, as my applications began to have obvious positive effects on the business, he loosened the reigns and allowed me to follow my natural urges.

Choose Suitable Jobs