Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Improving Employment Prospects for Aspies - Part 2 (What the Aspie can do)

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 tends to be quite tolerant of children with differences. Unfortunately society seems to have forgotten that children eventually 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 don't 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 doesn't know me particularly well contacts a friend, to offer them a position they haven't 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 seeking a new job, not a promotion), you won't even know what has happened. In those cases, it's simply a big blow to your self esteem.

You need to recognise that this is very common behaviour. Quite often, your failure to secure a job won't be your fault at all. It will simply be that there was no job available. Don't blame yourself for these failures if you've given it your best shot. You shouldn't 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 organisation. 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 customary to start at the bottom regardless of your level of education. I don't 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 isn't possible if they have higher level qualifications hence employers may look for people without them.

Assuming for instance that you have two prospective employees. One has a Computing Degree and a Doctorate 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 don't 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 don't 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 won't 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 don't 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 doesn't 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 don't leave any gaps in your resume.

Limit your expectations
Most people go to work to earn money. They don't necessarily 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 didn't think that maybe they wanted to spend time with their families.

My conversations with them were all about computers. I was stunned to find that several of them didn't 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 realising it.

The other thing to watch out for is the fact that because your work and hobbies can sometimes be inseparable, you'll naturally get better and better at your job. Eventually you'll pass your supervisor's level of expertise. When this happens, they usually won't be proud of you, they still won't 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 assumptions and expectations. Not everyone is the same as you. Other people have different things which are important in life. They don't like being corrected and they don't 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 don't require experience but they're low-level and menial. They're below your interest and you obviously don't want to do them.

Unfortunately we all have to start somewhere. You wouldn't be the first person to take a job well below your mental capacity and to know much more than your supervisor. It might surprise to know that this situation almost never changes. It doesn't 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 don't 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. Eventually, 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
So now, after telling you to be less picky, I'm telling you to exercise restraint when selecting jobs. It sounds crazy but I often find that people choose jobs on the basis of salary or recommendations from friends and family but it just doesn't work that way.

One of my friends kept telling me that he wanted a job in IT because he'd heard that it was good money. That's entirely the wrong reason to choose a career. You need to choose things that you're interested in and things that you're naturally good at.

After all, you could be stuck in that career for a long time.

Choosing suitable jobs isn't just limited to a sphere of interest though. You also need to consider yourself as a person with Aspergers. What things push you to the point of meltdown? What things are socially uncomfortable? What issues do you think you could improve on with work and what issues can't easily be changed?

If you have massive social issues, then don't take a job which puts you into constant direct contact with members of the public.

My first real job (after a stint of making dog food) was in a library. It's a common job for aspies because it offers reduced sensory conditions. You do have to be careful though because often library jobs involve connecting with the public. In my case, I slowly improved on my social skills because of my work at the library - but not without a whole heap of embarrassing social faux pas.

Once we had a staff meeting where we were told that our staff toilets were off limits to the public unless it was an emergency. A few days later a lady came up to me and asked if she could use our toilets. I asked her how badly she needed to go - and the head librarian got very upset with me.

Try not to make waves
Wherever you work, there will always be the office b****. The person whom everyone else refers to as "the dragon". You'll find that the office tends to polarise around that single person with a few people supporting them and the majority of people complaining behind their back.

Office politics are almost impossible and there's only one solution - "duck and cover".

Usually the "dragon" wants to promote themselves by stepping on the heads of everyone else. They like to hand blame for their failures down the line.

When you first start a job, you hate being blamed for someone else's failings. It's the sort of thing that tends to get you riled and often you find yourself lashing out. Don't! You'd be surprised how easy it is to accept blame and move on. Bosses usually know exactly how the "dragons" on their team work. If you're a good worker then they tend to know who really is at fault. You don't need to fight these accusations. Just let them be - unless of course it looks like your job is on the line as a result.

In my jobs, I've always gotten on well with dragons because I don't fight back. I just accept and get on with the job. If you fight back, the dragon will always win. They're usually in positions of power and they are usually conniving and sly enough to get you caught on a technicality.

Don't make waves. Just let things be and you'll find that the dragon will actually begin to support you.

Consider your interests
The most powerful thing in the aspie world is the special interest. Take advantage of it!

Whenever possible, choose jobs which lie along the special interest - even if they're menial. It's sometimes better to start at the bottom and work your way up than to choose something you don't enjoy and then try to change jobs later.

Just remember that not everyone will share your special interest.

Next Time
I'll look at some of the things that employers need to do to address the aspie employment issues.


Lisa said...

Woot, Gavin! Thank you from the parent of an aspie boy just heading into his final semester of high school.
Chemistry is his special interest, and research reports his special weakness...

Keri said...

I wanted to comment on the "be less picky" and "choose suitable" and ALSO "it's who you know" parts of your post.

When I graduated high school and needed a part time job while attending university, I didn't know about my asperger's. But I DID know that I had serious problems with social interaction (the worst was getting too overwhelmed too easily). I decided to get a job at the mall to force myself to learn. I both regret and am glad that I did so - I regret it, because it was really stressful and I had far too many meltdowns and problems, but I was lucky that my managers understood that I couldn't work on the busiest days (particularly after I started shutting down in the middle of the store the day after Christmas and couldn't do anything but wring my hands together and sob!). I also did learn a lot about interacting with the public and the tendency towards learning everything about something helped a lot with selling clothes. I was there 6 years, which was too long, and mostly because I was afraid of change.

When I quit that job, mostly because the new manager didn't seem to like me and was basically cutting my hours instead of firing me, I decided I'd never work in a job that dealt with the public again. But! My current job is as a receptionist as a museum, and I love it *so* much - I even really love that I'm dealing with the public all day. I think that if I hadn't worked in the mall, I wouldn't be able to do this job. And the only reason I even have it (since I wouldn't have sought it myself) is that the hiring manager is my mom's friend and told me about the vacancy when I was really desperate for work...

I still find loads of people to be too much to handle, but the regular stream of patrons at my museum is a lot lower than my meltdown point, and again, my tendency to be really enthusiastic about sharing information is a great asset - I truly love the museum, and I love my city, so I naturally have learned a lot of things to share with visitors, should they ask. In fact, if I could get a living wage from it, I would gladly continue doing this indefinitely. As it is, I'm only doing it until I can move to another state to work on my graduate degree (which will allow me to work as a museum curator).

So, related to your post, I think the be less picky is really important, because it's possible that it'll lead you to a job you hadn't considered as being good. Also, it'll give you experience to know your limits, and maybe let you expand those limits through acclimation, so that you can do more. It'll also make it possible to find a suitable job, which might be unexpected (no one in my family thought receptionisting would be a good fit for me, until I started at the museum - I only applied out of desperation, thinking at the very least, it would be temporary until I found something better). Also, asking your family and friends to pass on info about jobs is a really good way to find one - especially since these days, a lot of them don't get advertised publicly, because of so many applicants.

(I'm really upset that in order to do my graduate courses on-campus, I'm going to have to quit my job. It's only 3 days a week, but it's the best job I've ever had!)

Stephanie said...

You have some interesting recommendations and an interesting perspective.

Consider your comments on "fake jobs," for example. These positions may be only vaguely open--but the jobs aren't fake. It also seems unlikely that the scenario you've described is as frequent as you suspect. Hiring people--the process of getting resumes, perusing them, interviewing candidates, ect.--is very expensive. A moderately well-run business wants to avoid that expense, especially if they already have a candidate in mind. If a business is doing this, it's a clear sign of unethical behavior and the business would not make for a good employer.

On the other hand, your advice not to take being passed over as a blow to your ego is spot on. Especially in the current employment climate in the U.S. many positions are 100 to 1 or higher, meaning that there are at least 100 applicants to every open position. This means 99 people are going to be passed over, and some of them will be equally qualified for the position. It doesn't necessarily have anything to do with prejudice or how you came off during an interview. It's a numbers game and the numbers are in the employers' favor.

In specialty fields this will be lower, but it's still higher now than usual. And I've heard of some positions where the ratio is closer to 1,000 to 1.

I disagree with the limits you placed on education--some fields require Master's degrees just to enter the field. Some require doctorates to actually practice in the field. On the other hand, I agree wholly with the importance of work. Internships and work-study programs are a great middle ground. You get work experience, and you might even get a valuable supplement to your education.

Stephanie said...

Your observations regarding people being threatened by your, um, dedication were also interesting, but come across as somewhat biased. Your statements suggest you have a very low opinion of your co-workers and supervisors. That attitude tends to show in people's behavior and that will affect your relationships with co-workers and supervisors all by itself--they don't need to feel threatened by your knowledge to be offended by your contempt for them.

Lisa said...

@ Stephanie
But... if you know it all, and can't resist sharing what you know, enthusiastically and unstoppably, and aren't particularly good at picking up on social cues, or knowing just the right words to use, it's all too easy to 'appear' contemptuous.
Or, if you do feel contempt for you co-workers (which I'm sure everyone does sometimes), you may not be particularly great at hiding it.

Just another Mom said...

Gavin, you were spot on with "Fake Jobs". I have seen this first hand in School Districts, and the Hospital that I worked at time and time again. Before a position is even posted the manager has someone either in-house or out in mind for the job. Yes, as a poster commented it is an expensive and time consuming process to post a job and do all the interviewing etc., but a manager that is doing the hiring is not footing the bill. It's not right, you can only imagine my shock at the dishonesty that occurs in the work place being a black and white thinker myself. "Dragon" person, lol...I've personally known too many. Yep, insecurities abound in the work place, too true. Being over qualified..my mother was actually told in an interview that she will have a very hard time finding work because she will most likely be over qualified and that is not attractive to an employer. The thinking is that as soon as something better comes along the over qualified employee will move on to greener pastures. If they are just qualified or barley qualified for a job they are more likely to be a long term employee. She had to dumb her resume down to get a job. I agree with your advice in getting some job experience under your belt. As a former manager, I cared more about actual work experience and dependability as most people can be trained,then I did about tons of education. Highly educated people often times do come off as know-it-alls and that is a huge turn off to an insecure person be it a co-worker at your same level or higher. We are human...with that comes a whole multitude of flaws. I found every word of this post to be accurate and potentially very useful to the Aspie that is already in the work place or will soon be. Thank you for doing this series!

Anonymous said...

There are great points made in this post. I'm an NT with some Aspie traits, and I have definitely learned useful tips after reading this. Thank you for writing it!

Caitlin Wray said...

Gavin, have you considered compiling your blog posts, especially those aimed at giving insider tips and insights into Aspie life, into a book? I know blogger has a feature that allows you to do this, and you could sell them yourself via your blog...

I think you would have a lot of buyers. Myself included. Seriously. :)


Stephanie said...


"But... if you know it all..."

Okay, first, you don't know it all. Nobody does. You probably don't even know "it all" about your specialized field. Second, in an organization there is more going on than whatever your job is. Say you're an IT professional and your boss isn't. Your job is, essentially, to know and do the IT stuff, so that your boss can do other things for the organization. In that sense, "knowing it all" would be knowing about all the different activities in the organization, how they fit together, and how you can improve the functioning of the organization by doing your job better than anyone can tell you how to do it. Knowing the present and future needs of the organization proceeds knowing how to do your job the best it can be done.

" and can't resist sharing what you know, enthusiastically and unstoppably,"

Resisting this urge can be very difficult, but as far as job skills goes it's something to work on. Keeping the bigger picture in mind helps--both in the sense that the entire organization isn't "about" your particular job and in the sense that many people prioritize their private lives more highly than their professional lives.

Sometimes the reasons things aren't being done the way you'd recommend aren't logical or sound (bad organization, bad management). Sometimes there are reasons you might not understand, because you're not looking at the big picture (good organization, good management). And sometimes what you want for your position just isn't a priority for the organization.

"and aren't particularly good at picking up on social cues, or knowing just the right words to use, it's all too easy to 'appear' contemptuous."

Again, by understanding that's how you appear and that it makes your life and the lives of your co-workers more difficult than it has to be, you can adjust the situation. If you cannot adjust your behavior, then at least be upfront about the difficulty.

"Or, if you do feel contempt for you co-workers (which I'm sure everyone does sometimes), you may not be particularly great at hiding it."

And that's a problem. Whether the contempt is felt or if your behavior is misinterpretted, co-workers are not going to work well with you if they feel you have contempt for them. It's human nature.

Furthermore, by having contempt for someone, you are disrespecting who that person is. Demanding equal treatment, fair treatment, or accommodations when you feel you're better than other people is hypocritical. They have to adjust to and respect your Autism/Asperger's, but you don't have to adjust to or respect their priorities, strengths, and weaknesses?

Just another Mom said...

I second what Caitlin said!

Lisa said...

Stephanie, I feel bad about hijacking poor Gavin's blog, but I have one more thing to say:

The first time I read your comments I read them as an attack.
The second time I read your comments I read them as a lecture.
The third time I read your comments and mine, I see the many and varied pitfalls (and wonders) of communication.

Stephanie said...


My comment was definitely not meant as an attack. It wasn't meant as a lecture (though I can see how it could be construed that way). It was meant to provide information that isn't obvious to some people. No superiority or harm was intended.

Expressing contempt in a working relationship is an effective way to make the working situation unbearable. Respecting others for who they are and what they do is a big step in curtailing contempt.

Along the lines of Gavin's previous post about not using Asperger's to excuse bad behavior, being socially challenged does not excuse displaying contempt for your co-workers and expecting them to just take it in stride.

Bailey said...

Sounds like you have sussed out work politics - something Aspies are typically blind to. I feel into the overqualified trap and never reached my career potential. Only when my son was diagnosed with AS, that I learned I had AS too, and that was why I had such difficult experiences in employment.

Stephi said...

I'm making a jugdment about you basied on your comments, sorry if I offend, but you dont seem to get it. From an NT thought those jobs aren't "fake", but from a black and white, justice or injustice, those jobs are fake. They are reserved for someone. Thats unjust. Therefore its fake. As to an Aspi's oppinon of co-workers, its not baised or low. It's spot on. Apis' freak their co-workers out. They are often seen as "the weird guy who wont stop talking about computers" or that guy who's always "showing off". An Aspi can quickly become issolated, avoded and ignored because they make NT's uncomfortable in a wide range of ways. This is how it is for my boyfrind. He wants to interact and makes friends. He thinks the world of the people he works with but they end up shunning him. He never looks down on them. He never holds them in contempt. They are just on different pages.

Anonymous said...

I have to disagree about the "part time" advice while going to school. Aspies have EPIC problems with multitasking and executive functioning. I can't even *fathom* most Aspies being able to successfully juggle work and school for years, without having one go down in flames at the expense of the other (read: procrastinating one's studies all semester due to work demands, then getting fired during the final 2 weeks of classes because all of his attention then turns to the crisis of "avoid failing one or more classes for the semester".

In America, it's basically impossible for Aspies to get the kind of jobs we'll succeed in without a 4-year degree in *something*. It doesn't really matter what the degree is in, but lacking it as a checklist item will lead to a lifetime of disqualification by HR Departments.

An Aspie who graduates with a Master's degree (or PhD) and no practical work experience might be disadvantaged, but an Aspie who applies for a job without having a 4-year degree (or at least being IN school at the time... an excuse that won't work forever...) will get doors automatically slammed in his face for the rest of his life. And at the end of the day, is an Aspie who graduates with a history of getting fired really in a better position than an Aspie who graduates with no employment history at all?

IMHO, Aspies *need* to go go school full time, and *need* to live on campus... at least a hundred miles away from where their parents live. Preferably, in a dorm where they can have their own room where they can retreat at will, but have a small common area that's exclusive to a few (where they can hang out with their laptop if they feel like socializing by osmosis).

If they remain at home, college turns into "high school, part II", and it's easy for the Aspie young adult to just tire of chafing constantly with his parents over everything & quit.

If they go away to school and live off campus, they'll get overwhelmed by things like shopping for major appliances and furniture (spending weeks researching refrigerator features, agonizing over them, visiting every store within 50 miles, etc). I spent the first month of my senior year (when I moved off-campus) shopping for the perfect COFFEE TABLE. And it just got worse from there...

Living on campus, they're in just about the best Aspie support system possible... surrounded by fellow Aspies, with most of their daily housekeeping problems solved for them, in an environment where they can casually pick and choose social interaction like food at a buffet.

Dave Morris said...

Thanks for this Gavin. I am sitting here looking at a potential career move from one thing I like to do, but is becoming frustrating, due to process and industry changes, into something that I love to do, but I'm not very good at, and it will help people, which is satisfying in and of itself.

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Miguel Palacio said...

Displaying contempt can be as subtle as in ones micro-grimace or snarl or eye expression. These are things that many of us as Aspies are very unaware. Many of us find it hard to lie on top of that, or hide our disgust at something. Unaware, we may be emitting all sorts of micro-expressions that indicate our contempt, without outwardly meaning to do so. In such circumstances, when we perceive injustice, others might read us like a book and we might not even know it. And that's despite what many say that we are emotionless.

Miguel Palacio said...

I believe that Gavin graduated with honours from the school of hard knocks and that's why he's learned all this office bollutix.

Miguel Palacio said...

I respectfully disagree. I joined the Air Force after 3 years of college. I was growing exceedingly bored with theory theory theory and not enough practice. The practice helped me land a very good job once I completed my degree and set me way ahead of others who were pure school and no practice. I also went to school at my very own pace, knowing my limitations. It took me 10 years to get my bachelors. But when I got it I was leaps and bounds ahead of the curve than someone at the same level. Part of what helped me was that I was, contrary to the advice given here, I was very choosy with my first job.

I followed my grandfather's advice when joining the Air Force. I did extreme well in the placement and aptitude tests. But they wanted to make me a truck driver or security police. I told them that I wouldn't raise my right hand until they got back to me with a slot in Space Communications. They knew how to find me. I went back to electronics engineering school and four months later they got back to me with a slot and, as per my grandfather, I made sure that it was on paper before I signed in. I've seen too many people get stuck in a rut and typecast as the truck driver, security police or kitchen duty, all with a recruiter's broken promise that they could change specialities later but never could. My grandfather warned me about that too. He was right. And that's how I got into my speciality. I don't regret it. But I agree with Gavin that work/school is the best route, as long as you strike the proper balance, and go at your own pace, as I did, as long as you're perseverationsl about actually finishing school. Don't give up! ;-D eventually, when you least expect it, you'll be wearing that cap'n gown. -& you'll be that much more employable for it.