Common Barriers to Employment for Individuals with AS
by Barbara Bissonnette
Autism Asperger’s Digest | May/June 2011
Nearly two years after receiving his college degree, John had still not been able to find an entry-level graphics job. “I keep sending out resumes,” he sighed, “but I never get called for interviews.” Anna, on the other hand, was averaging two or three interviews per month. Nine months into her search for an administrative position, she couldn’t figure out why she wasn’t getting past the first interview. “Do you think I’ll ever get hired?” she asked. Week after week, Richard didn’t send out any resumes. “I’m not qualified for anything,” he explained.
In my coaching practice, I work with a lot of people like John, Anna and Richard. They are bright, college educated and skilled. They want to work. Yet they struggle on, month after month, without success. This article describes the most common employment barriers I encounter among individuals with Asperger’s Syndrome and high functioning autism (AS/HFA), and suggests what to do about them. If you have been struggling to find work, see if one or more applies to you.
Barrier #1: Missing key qualifications. If you are responding to lots of job openings but not getting interviews, you may lack critical skills or experience. Job ads contain a mix of required and desired criteria. The non-negotiable items are usually indicated with phrases like: “extensive/verifiable experience required in …;” “must include;” and “do not apply unless you meet these requirements.” Negotiable skills are described with phrases like: “the ideal candidate will have;” “xyz experience preferred/desired;” “is a plus;” and “should be familiar with.”
One way to determine whether you have the needed skills is to perform a discrepancy analysis. Print out four or five job openings that interest you. Read through each description, and circle all of the requirements that match your background. If there is a requirement for a four year degree and you have one, circle that item. If you have experience using a specified piece of machinery or software program, circle that, too.
Then, read through each ad again, and this time, underline the requirements that do not match your background. Review the underlined items carefully. If the discrepancy is a minor one, such as not having a “preferred” skill, then you should apply. But if you lack significant requirements, you need to broaden your skill set or look for a different line of work. After doing this exercise, John realized he needed to learn Web programming to be employed as a graphic artist.
Barrier #2: Being too literal or inflexible. Richard took job listings so literally that he disqualified himself from nearly every opening! For example, if a job required good people skills and the ability to multitask, Richard would not apply. Yet the definition of good people skills and multi-tasking can be very different depending on a particular job and company. Richard and I began looking at the context in which these skills would be used. He agreed he would not have trouble communicating with co-workers in a warehouse, but that interacting with customers at a cash register would overwhelm him. Similarly, Jill realized that multitasking at a small, local real estate office would probably be manageable, whereas multitasking in the marketing department of a major software company would not.
Flexibility is also important. Rejecting jobs that do not match your ideal 100% probably means you won’t be working. Steven didn’t apply for an editing position because “occasional evening hours” were required. “I eat dinner at 6:30,” he explained. More than a year after getting his degree, Steven was still unemployed.
Barrier #3: Responding only to posted job openings. According to the US Department of Labor Statistics, only 5% of people find jobs by submitting resumes for posted openings. Yet many people make this 100% of their job search strategy! A whopping 48% of people find jobs through networking; 24% via direct contact with an employer; and 23% through employment and other agencies. You will greatly increase your chances of getting hired by adding even one additional strategy to your job search plan.
Job search strategies include posting your resume on Internet job boards; contacting a recruiter or employment agency; strategic volunteering to gain experience and make contacts in your desired field; joining a professional association; and the most important one of all, networking.
You probably shy away from networking because it involves social interaction with people you don’t know. Yet this is how most people find jobs. Rather than avoid it, make networking manageable by meeting people one-on-one and online.
Informational interviewing is an effective way to network if you are new to the job market or want to change careers. This is not a job interview. It is a way to learn about a career by talking to people who are currently working in the field. You can ask questions about what the work is like, how to break into the field, where the best opportunities are, and ask for the names of other people to contact. Sarah left one informational interview with five new contacts. One will be hiring several researchers over the next few months.
The Internet also offers networking opportunities. Join industry-specific online networking groups and connect with people in your field. Establish connections by asking questions, responding to posts, and starting discussion threads of your own. LinkedIn (www.LinkedIn.com) is a large, business-oriented networking site with hundreds of online groups. Andy joined two groups for meteorologists and within three weeks found out about a job opening in his area.
You can also create a LinkedIn profile, at no charge, that describes your background and career interests. Once you create a profile, you can invite individuals you know to join your network. People may invite you to link with them as well. Increasingly, employers are searching LinkedIn to find qualified candidates for jobs.
Barrier #4: Ineffective resume. The purpose of a resume is to demonstrate how your talents, skills and experience will answer an employer’s needs. Your resume should include information relevant to the position you are seeking now. It is not a review of every single task you performed at every job you have ever held. Whenever possible, include examples of how you saved money, improved efficiency, increased sales or otherwise made an outstanding contribution. Bill’s old resume described his experience at a museum like this: “wrote newsletter articles and Web content.” His new resume says: “Selected topics and wrote feature articles for monthly newsletter distributed to 3,000 museum supporters; developed new Web content that increased traffic by nearly 25%.”
Barrier #5: Poor interview preparation. I have had clients who are veterans of 20, 30 and even 40 job interviews, but receive no job offers. Clearly this is a sign of inadequate interviewing skills.
Your goal at an interview is to demonstrate that you have the right skills and experience for the job. It is not aggressive or boastful to talk about your abilities and accomplishments—provided you are not monopolizing the conversation while doing so! You must also show you can “fit in” and interact effectively with others. This translates into having certain social skills that are sometimes difficult for individuals with AS/HFA. Pay particular attention to your body language. Making eye contact, smiling, sitting up straight in your chair, and other nonverbal gestures convey interest and enthusiasm for joining an organization. If you are not comfortable talking one-on-one with another person in a business setting, learning to do so is your first priority.
Practice how to respond to anticipated interview questions in a way that focuses attention on your abilities and minimizes your challenges. When asked to describe his weaknesses (a common interview question), Tim would reply, “I can’t make small talk and don’t like working in groups.” Although these statements are true, within the context of a job interview they create a negative impression. Now when Tim is asked this question, he explains that he can be a perfectionist, but has learned that meeting deadlines is more important than fussing over every detail. This answer is also true, and fits within the context of an interview. (Notice how Tim applies some marketing savvy by explaining how he manages his weakness so it won’t interfere with job performance.)
There are many books and Web sites that offer advice about how to answer interview questions. If you are uncertain about how to apply that advice to your situation, get some help from a knowledgeable friend or a professional career counselor or coach. Be sure you understand the purpose of common questions. “Where do you want to be in five years?” refers to your career, not where you want to live. The social challenges inherent in AS/HFA can make it difficult to glean the “hidden” meaning behind certain questions an interviewer asks. This is why practicing mock interviews is so important, and helpful. It may feel uncomfortable at first, but with practice, it will get easier and you will feel more confident. Use bullet points to remind yourself of the things you want to say. Memorizing answers word-for-word can sound disingenuous.
Barrier #6: Not spending enough time on the job search. Finding a job requires consistent effort over time. Spending two or three hours per week surfing Internet job boards is not an adequate plan. To be successful in finding a job you will need: at least three different search strategies; a daily plan with specific actions; three current references; a cover letter template that can be customized for each job you apply for; an up-to-date resume; and a plan for following up on job leads and interviews. You should also set aside time to practice interviewing.
Looking for a job is a lot of work. Eliminating these employment barriers can make the process faster, easier, and more successful.
Barbara Bissonnette is the Principal of Forward Motion Coaching and specializes in career development coaching for individuals with Asperger’s Syndrome. She is the author of Asperger’s Syndrome Workplace Survival Guide: A Neurotypical’s Secrets for Success, available at www.ForwardMotion.info.
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