Neurodiversity and work (level B2)

I sent some interview questions about neurodiversity and work to anon in the publishing industry; here are her answers:

Since graduating from university, I have been fortunate enough to have been in constant full-time employment. This is very unusual for a person with autism, but there are several reasons for this. From the time I started university to the end, I suffered from severe depression. The university was worse than useless; they just told me to drop out. I had always struggled socially, but university was too much. The focus was on partying and sports, two things I struggle with and dislike. After a year at university, I was diagnosed with dyspraxia. This explained why I could never throw a ball and struggled to ride a bicycle or use a skipping rope. No one ever made the connection to autism, even though many autistic people also show signs of dyspraxia. I never made the connection myself. I wasn’t like the autistic (always boys at school) people I knew. I was quiet and always polite; I wasn’t brilliant at physics. I tried very hard to fit in. Somehow I managed to graduate but with a lower grade than I wanted. Months later, I managed to get my first job in legal publishing.

Before this, I spent several months applying for various graduate schemes. The application process was tough. It included online tests: aptitude tests, verbal reasoning, situational judgement, logical reasoning, and inductive reasoning, among others. I needed extra time to complete these tests, but I was reluctant to let them know I have dyspraxia. Companies like to pay lip service to diversity, but I wonder if that is to just keep the newspapers and shareholders happy.

Verbal and numerical testing is something that an autistic person can do. After all, it’s something that can be studied for, and the autistic mind is determined and logical. However, situational or personality type tests are another problem. They are all based on the premise that there is only one correct way to respond to a situation. That only the gregarious need to apply. Naturally, this shuts out all autistics who approach problems differently from NTs.

Then there are the video interviews, phone interviews, assessment days comprised of tests, group scenarios, and one on one interviews. Video interviews were terrible. I hate watching myself on screen and feel very self-conscious. These interviews are timed and involve answering questions that you are presented with only a minute before. This would make me flustered and spurt out anything that came to mind. I would focus too much on how I looked and sound. As someone who always hated their appearance, it was awful. I also found it very distracting to be able to see and hear myself.

Phone interviews often went better as I didn’t have to see and hear myself, which I find unnerving. Only once did I manage to get through to the group interview stage. I was in a room with 30 others all day. It was exhausting, like a more civilized version of The Hunger Games. It relied entirely on the ‘winner’ having a loud and dominant personality, a person who can charm strangers and inveigle their way into a job. I am the opposite of that; I am entirely guileless and quiet, I can’t charm anyone, and I blend into the background. I’m too blunt and honest to ever succeed in a scenario like this. Being in a large group of strangers is very difficult for me. Add to this the need to act normal and somehow charm myself into getting a job, and I felt like I had run a marathon.

I eventually managed to get a job after graduating. Unusually enough, it matched my qualifications. During my interview, I mentioned that I had dyspraxia, but I said that it didn’t affect my work. In my first job, I had not been diagnosed with autism. Yet, in some ways, my differences helped me in this job. As it involved hours of repetitive and dull work, where I could listen to music and enter a working trance.

One issue I have found is that success in the workplace depends largely on being sociable and making friends, or at least being friendly, with everyone. I’m a very shy individual and find conversing with others difficult. Sometimes when my colleagues spoke about others in the company, I didn’t know who they were speaking about. I also think that my struggles with eye contact meant that I appeared aloof and snobbish when the opposite is true. During my time in this job, I tried to find another job. Eventually, the other members of the team left until only I was left. I found that my qualifications didn’t matter in interviews. What mattered was how well I sold myself. In all of the interviews, the feedback was that I didn’t have the right experience and seemed uncertain.

Eventually, my contract ran out and wasn’t renewed due to lack of money. I entered the new year unemployed and anxious, worrying that I would be forever single and unemployed. My only comfort growing up was that I did well at school. My poor university grade and inability to find a job made me feel very low. I realised that to find a job; I needed to change my approach. I researched the most likely interview questions and used the STAR (situation, task, action, and result) technique to plan my questions. I practiced looking people in the eye and looking to the side every minute so that I didn’t stare too much. I even practiced how I sat, with my hands on my knees and my feet flat on the floor so that I couldn’t fidget as I normally do. I spent three months applying for jobs and spoke to several recruiters. Most were very unhelpful and patronizing if they ever took notice of me. I refused to apply for jobs that I felt were below my qualification and experience level. My personal situation meant that I had somewhere to live and food to eat, so I could afford to be picky. I knew that once I was underemployed, it would be nearly impossible to reach the appropriate level again. If you can be stubborn, know that your qualifications and experience are worth more than what recruiters are telling you.

I was very lucky that I stumbled upon the best recruiter for my industry in the area. She persuaded me to apply for a position that matched my qualifications and experience. I found that preparation was key to my interview success. I even planned my exact route and got to the interview early. This gave me time to calm down and prepare in a coffee shop. The interview involved a test beforehand. Later I was told that I had the best result. It helps to apply for positions that require specialist skills, which really allow you to shine. I made sure that I shook the interviewer’s hand, maintained eye contact, and didn’t fidget. I used my prepared questions. I researched the company beforehand and prepared three questions I would ask them at the end. I made sure that I didn’t ramble or go off on a tangent. When the interview ended, I shook their hands and ‘made small talk’ in the lift to the entrance. I even said goodbye to the receptionist and the security person at the reception desk.

Most jobs these days require multiple interviews. It’s important to prepare for all of them and think of new questions to ask for each. Also, wear different clothes for each interview.

I’ve found that competency in your job isn’t enough. You also need to engage with your colleagues. Whether through luck, the industry I’m in, or a general change in social attitudes, I have found that colleagues are accepting of my quirks. One manager praised my ‘quiet determination,’ and others find my blunt witticisms amusing. It may be that the publishing industry attracts quiet types. One reason I chose to go into publishing and not law, despite having a law degree, was that I didn’t have the personality for law. I looked at my lecturers and those on my course who were trying to get into the industry and realised that I wasn’t loud, argumentative, or connected enough to go into law. I have been told over and over again since school that connections are everything. But when you struggle to talk to strangers and connect with them, how can you make connections? Socializing after work is important. I force myself to go. I find that by joining in with a small talkative group, I can inject the occasional comment without the pressure of maintaining a one on one conversation. I also use my commute as an excuse to leave earlier than others. Yet, even during these situations, my differences show. One colleague noted that I am more engaged but still struggle with eye contact. This was a surprised, I thought I was getting better!

So, why haven’t I told my colleagues about my autism? I started seeing a psychologist who specializes in autistic women several months after starting. By then, my colleagues had accepted me and praised my work. It is the same reason that I didn’t tell recruiters I had dyspraxia when searching for a graduate role. There is a small but fearful part of me that says people are still wary of differences and will treat me differently, whether they intend to or not. I’m also aware that without an official assessment, some may not believe me. I know that I don’t fit in with the stereotypical perception of autism. I’m a woman who likes to take care of their appearance and has an interest in fashion and culture, not astrophysics. I understand sarcasm and can tell if people are genuine, an ability I have gained through years of subtle bullying and also due to how autism manifests differently in each person. I would like to put aside my reticence and tell them. I struggle with depression and have missed a few days of work, blaming it on the flu. Being open about my mental health and diagnoses will help my colleagues understand and make arrangements for me.

Fortunately, due to the nature of editorial work, I and others in my team can work from home or in a meeting room during big projects. I can work from home one day a week. I can work without the distractions in the office and take a break from my commute. The office can be loud, but I can listen to music, which helps me to focus. When my headphones are on, others have learned that it is difficult to get my attention and just leave me alone. Modern open-plan offices are noisy. I know that I am not alone in finding it challenging to work in these types of offices. The high rents in London mean that companies are reluctant to change from this, so headphones are the way forward for me.

If I did tell my current and future colleagues about my autism, I wouldn’t request many adjustments, just to be able to listen to music and to occasionally work from home, something that is already becoming increasingly acceptable. As I am on the milder end, I don’t require many adjustments; however, I want more understanding. I want people to understand that if I say something that offends them, it’s not meant in that way. That loud pubs and parties are overwhelming, and I find it difficult to follow a conversation when there is background noise. That new tasks terrify me, but I still want to do them and push myself.

I have a few suggestions for autistics in regards to employment. If you can, don’t settle for a role you are overqualified for. It will bore you and ruin your confidence. However, I know that for many, this just isn’t possible. So I ask that employers look past the label and see the person in front of them. If possible, try to take part in social activities; attend after-work drinks for five minutes, and when things become overwhelming, blame your commute or cat and leave. If you have understanding colleagues be honest and say that it is too much and you need to leave. Just trying can help you and your colleagues understand each other better. I’ve found that jokes can help, but keep them clean and safe! Though it’s easy to say, stand up for yourself, show, and tell others what a good worker you are.

You can succeed by putting forward and occasionally embellishing your achievements, whether through your CV, cover letters, or internal reviews. Take any new opportunities, whether they are tasks or training, and note them down in your CV, LinkedIn, and internal reviews. Also, have a LinkedIn account where you can add anyone you meet through work. Research and preparation are key for interviews. Practice maintaining eye contact and shaking someone’s hand. Choose appropriate clothes; a trusted person can help with this but play it safe; plain office wear is usually best. Most of all, just try. Hopefully, society is learning that different does not mean defective.

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