What do you think about something less formal e.g., something that was paid for just a few months?
Its better than nothing. You and I know that but at what cost to somebody’s mental health? When we organised mock job interviews in Bristol and Bath we needed to stress that they weren’t going to lead to a real job. The autistic students were given a very realistic experience and could have convinced themselves that it was real and a job could follow. Similarly, if you create a short term contract and can’t offer them a job at the end, the employee must be brought down gently. If you don’t do this with autistic folk, they could have serious problems coping with the rejection.
So, if you wouldn’t recommend internships what would be the alternative? I suppose if you wanted to get an insight into what the person could do on a practical basis and wanted to spare them the job interview maybe something like a one-day assessment with tasks might be a good alternative. What do you think of that?
If it was the skill, they were actually required to do in the actual job then, yes. But very often its much wider than that. For example, a company might say we’re going to give you a group of colleagues to work with and you have to work together to create a bridge in the middle of the room with the material provided. They might have had a reason to do that but for an Autistic student that is discrimination quite frankly. So yes and no. A practical interview could work but it needs to be for the right reasons. A company might have in the back of their head that the skill set required for this job is that an individual may have to lead other members of a team. However, when you look at the job description leading a team might not be an absolute requirement for the role. Also, such a task could greatly disadvantage an Autistic candidate and it might put them in a tailspin so they won’t turn up to an interview as a result.
Does your organisation only deal with people who’ve just come out of education, or does it also focus on people who’ve graduated a while back?
We are focusing on individuals who are in university and who are very soon going to be graduating. We say very soon, but at the moment, no one knows if they’re going to be graduating. Traditionally it was going to be individuals who would be graduating and going to be looking for a job. We think that the careers services in universities are not particularly good for Autistic students. Part of the reason for that is Autistic students need to have more time, and the careers services don’t have that as a resource.
Do you help them at other stages, other than the interview stage?
At the moment, Aspireations is only offering the job interview experience. However, there are all the other areas involved in the job search process, such as career planning, building a CV and personal statement & then the job interview. The next stage for us is looking more into helping in these other areas. As I said at the start, we’re not a recruitment agency. However, we get people sending us emails asking us if we can find them a job. What I do in a personal capacity is tell them we can’t do that, but I am happy to offer you some help with your CV and your personal statement. I can tell you that from my experience that in general, their CV is pretty awful. Its generally because these are graduates who would typically be expected to work in very good jobs due to their qualifications. However, when you look at their CV, it generally says jobs in Mcdonald’s or stacking shelves in a supermarket. There’s nothing wrong with that. That’s not the point I am making. However, for a manager in one of the top companies expecting them to fit into a highly scientific department in a big company, that CV doesn’t quite look right. What I sometimes have to do is help them tidy up the CV as its badly formatted and there are misspelling and it doesn’t look anywhere close to what a CV should look like. Then I look at the content and ask them questions like, have you ever been on holiday, what did you learn about the time you were on holiday? Did you ever work at a charity shop, and what kind of responsibilities did you have there? So, we look at all of the personal statement, which hopefully gets around the CV problem.
There’s another problem, and that is the problem of social imagination. A lot of people on the spectrum can’t imagine things that they haven’t experienced yet. They can get quite fixated on an idea for themselves, which may or may not be realistic. This also applies to career path planning. We’ve got to do a lot of work with individuals to say, well, what are you looking for career wise? What kind of salary do you think you’re going to get? We’ve got to tell them I am afraid you’ve got no chance unless you go and live in Birmingham because that is where all the jobs are for that particular area. If they rule that out, then we’ve got to say to them, ‘right we’ve got to renegotiate your thoughts about career path planning, and that’s going to be a very, very hard thing to do. I think that is the critical missing bit at the meeting when we look at employment for Autistic folk.
I think there are other issues in terms of work. So, in my own experience, I am on the Autistic spectrum, but I also have dyspraxia. I qualified in Biomedical science and Neuroscience. However, I am appalling at lab work and programming, so I couldn’t use my qualifications. I am very good at writing it up, but I don’t know if its my Autism or my Dyspraxia, but I can’t do sequences if that makes sense (lab work is about following a sequence). My problem with programming is that it uses symbols for operations, and I find that hard; maybe it’s too much abstraction. So, I suppose it’s also about looking at transferable skills, it’s essential to look at someone’s skillset. So, someone like me might not be able to work in a lab, but they’d have some transferable skills from doing science.
We have contacts within the top UK companies, and when we’ve had the experience with a particular candidate, we might be able to say there is a match here. I am not saying we can do something across the board for every candidate, but we might be able to do something for a particular individual. What we might be able to do is look at companies and their job profiles and say that you are discriminating here as you’re insisting on this element of the job. Can we get rid of that element and very often, they say we don’t even know why that is there anyway we can take that out of the job description. I can’t say that across the board, we can certainly advocate for the candidate. An example is if a candidate came to us and said, ‘I’ve gone into this company, and I am looking at this particular role, but at the moment it doesn’t exist, but they’re not taking into account the conditions that I have.’ We might be able to get involved in being an advocate for that particular person because it’s all part of reasonable adjustments, and that’s a legal requirement; there is some wriggle room for change.
Any further developments with the job interview process?
We are looking to create what we consider to be an Autism-friendly mock job interview we might be able to replicate that for a company for a real job. We can then say the candidate has practised this way of doing a job interview; we can now set that up again for you as the real job interview. That would be extremely therapeutic because, having had the experience once, they should replicate it again in this scenario. Just doing a mock job interview is very generic, so a student might say ‘I want a job in the BBC as a newscaster.’ We can’t give them the job interview experience for that role, however, if we knew a bit about them before we came to Bath or came to Bristol, we could say the interviewer ‘can you please put a few questions in to make it feel like they’re interviewing for that particular role.’ We can make it much more bespoke for the actual candidate.
I was thinking about the actual questions that you should leave out. I remember at the event people saying that some questions in the job interview were problematic.
The thing is that no one knows all the questions and all the answers for the Autistic community. What I think was fascinating for us was that we created this experience. We had different elements come together; obviously we had Autistic students, or maybe I should say neurodiverse students, we had the careers service from universities, we had interviewers from some of the top companies in the country and we had mentors who was sitting in on the interviews to make sure that everyone was happy particularly the students and Aspirerations itself. All those constituents learned from each-other, Aspireations learned from it as well. It’s beneficial to everybody in that scenario. If it’s true, and I think it is that everyone on the Autism spectrum is an individual and it affects them differently, we have got a lot to learn about what would work best and what doesn’t work.
So as a part summary, different people on the Autistic spectrum deal differently with different questions.
Interestingly enough, I was sitting in on one of the job interviews in one of the universities, and the individual stayed with me at the end and was able to talk to me. He said to me he wouldn’t talk to his family, and he wouldn’t talk to his friends about some of the things he was sharing with me about his life experiences, which included a problem with faces. He couldn’t take in faces. This was new to me, and I wanted to understand what he meant by that. That was hidden from the interviewer, and I should imagine that it would be completely hidden from any interviewer in the future. But what is the implication for him in the work environment if he can’t deal with people’s faces? That was interesting for me, so if we could say to companies this is a condition related to Autism and might come in to play with one or two Autistic candidates that come into your workplace, and I think this is fascinating. An interviewer wouldn’t even consider this, and maybe a candidate might not even want to offer that information to an interviewer.