Autism affects everyone in different ways
It is important to understand that once you have met one person with autism, you have quite literally only met one person with autism. This person might be extremely different to another person with the same diagnosis. Always ask the person how their condition affects them instead of forming assumptions based upon what you might have read or prior experience with another autistic person. There are many stereotypes about autism that can be harmful for individual people, such as the erroneous belief that everyone with autism is interested in computers or can’t work with people. Some people with autism might want to pursue a career in teaching, nursing or the caring professions. It is important that you support them to achieve their goals, and avoid assuming that a job is suitable or unsuitable just because a person has autism. Also avoid assuming that a person’s condition affects them in a ‘mild’ way because they are not displaying obvious autistic behaviour. A good point to remember is that ‘’mild autism does not mean that I experience autism mildly. Mild autism means that you experience my autism mildly’’. There can be a huge amount of stress and agitation inside the person with autism that you are not necessarily aware of because it is not always overtly expressed. By adulthood the person with Asperger’s may well have developed an incomplete sense of how to behave around people and what might happen if they behaved in a particular way. They might make eye contact and attempt conversation. However there is always the awareness that they are still quite unsure and uncertain in social situations, and that they might not get things right. This can make people with Asperger’s feel very anxious when they are around people because they are all too aware that they are missing a crucial social sensor that everyone else seems to possess. Nevertheless, Asperger’s is often ‘invisible’ to other people, because the person can appear to be very able and articulate and does not necessarily look disabled.
Special interests and skills
Many people with autism become intensely interested in one or two subjects. These interests can provide order and predictability and therefore they help the person with autism to cope with the uncertainties of daily life. Special interests can also be the key to fulfillment and potential in the world of work. Therefore, take time to find out what the person’s strengths and interests are because this will help you to ascertain what jobs are suitable. Interests can be very positive for people with autism because they can motivate the person to confront their anxiety. For example, when I was a teenager I became very interested in child development, which motivated me to volunteer at a nursery school for several years. I was also very interested in the actress Kate Winslet, and this interest inspired me to audition for a role with the Tour De Force Theatre Company after I saw Winslet’s sister perform in the previous year’s play. I attended weekly rehearsals and performed in front of a huge crowd of people. If I was not extremely interested in these subjects I would not have even contemplated going out of my comfort zone in this way, but the interests were more powerful than my anxiety. I am currently very interested in autism awareness and public speaking, and this interest has helped me to get a job with Aspie Trainers.
It is also important to be aware that many people with autism have an uneven skills profile. This means that they can be extremely skilled in some areas while really struggling with apparently simple tasks.There can be a massive discrepancy between their verbal and non verbal IQ. For example, in an IQ test that was administered by an educational psychologist, my verbal abilities were above average, but my non-verbal abilities were exceptionally low. This means that, although I have a 2.1 History degree, and am good at reading and writing, I really struggle with abstract spatial reasoning. For example I find it hard to do such practical tasks as loading the boot of a car, so that all the items can fit. It can also take time for me to learn how to operate a photo-copying machine, and I still struggle to fold clothes neatly.
Most people with autism are either over or under sensitive to noise, light, touch, smell or movement. People with autism often struggle to filter out sensory stimuli, and this means that it can be hard for them to stay focused on their work. The autistic brain can only focus on one stream of information at a time. For example, I feel anxious when I have to talk and walk at the same time, and it is much harder for me to think and be productive when there is any background noise that competes for my attention.
Bear in mind that people with autism can be bothered by noise that does not affect other people and even relatively low level or quiet noise can be distracting. For example, people chatting, the clicking of fingers on keyboards, car noise, and creaking floorboards, can all make it very hard for me to concentrate. Many work environments can be a sensory nightmare for someone with autism, with constant noise, strong smells flickering lights, crowds of people, and having to work under pressure. Some people with autism can be very productive and highly focused when they are working on one task at a time in a quiet, uncluttered environment. However, it important to understand that other autistic people might score well on an IQ test and have the intellect to work in an office environment but suffer from such extreme anxiety that they cannot focus for long periods. It is therefore important to find out what sensory issues the person with autism has, because this will help you to tailor the job search to jobs that don’t overwhelm the senses. Any work situation which involves high levels of stress is likely to be unmanageable for many people with autism because they are already dealing with elevated stress levels as part of their constant experience of life. For example, before I was diagnosed with Aspergers’s I got a part-time, temporary Christmas job at Next. I could not cope with the incredibly hectic and busy environment and the lack of clear instructions. Every Saturday my mum would try and persuade me to go to work while I screamed and cried because I felt so anxious. Entry level jobs such as working in a supermarket might be suitable for some people with autism, but they are not always appropriate, particularly if they involve a lot of social interaction and an overwhelming sensory environment.
The job centre itself can be a very anxiety provoking place for people with autism during the interview and to answer questions if they are not expected to make eye contact. Secondly people with autism can struggle with the use of language in a social context, and how they should adapt what they say and how they say it to the needs of the listener. A lot of communication is dependent on deciphering non-verbal signals, which can be completely overlooked by someone with autism. Consequently they might ramble during interviews and give a lot of unnecessary detail, and be unaware that the interviewer is confused or wants to move on to a different topic. Some people with autism will speak in a monotone voice that does not convey enthusiasm, even if they really want the job.
People with autism will also struggle to answer abstract, hypothetical and open ended questions because of their difficulty with social
because it can be busy and noisy. There was a time when I could not wait inside a job centre for appointments but had to wait outside. If possible find a quiet space for the autistic person to wait before appointments, because they might not be able to sit in the public waiting area.
Time keeping and dealing with change
People with autism need structure to feel safe because the world can be so confusing and chaotic. Try your hardest to stick to the time that you agreed to meet someone with autism. If a change has to take place, ideally let them know in advance, with the reasons for the change, and provide the full details of what will now happen instead.
Jobs that involve a lot of change and require flexibility, such as zero hour contracts, are unlikely to be suitable for most people with autism.
How do they prefer to communicate
As mentioned, some people with autism will find it very difficult to enter a job centre. Find out from the person how they like to communicate. It is possible that they will prefer appointments to be carried out by email or skype instead of telephone calls or face to face contact, which can be very stressful for some people with autism.
When speaking to someone with autism, it is important to remember that, although many people with autism can be verbally articulate, they can become overwhelmed by a lot of verbal information. This can result in a processing delay. For example, it can take me some time to work out what someone is trying to explain. This processing delay is more pronounced when I am in a busy and noisy environment. I am far more likely to understand what someone is trying to get across if they write down the instructions or key points from a conversation. I can then refer to what was talked about on my own, at my own pace, when I am less anxious and overwhelmed. It is important however to take account of the person’s learning style. Other people with autism might prefer pictures or diagrams.
Also it is important to use exact language, and avoid sarcasm or metaphors which can be taken literally by people with autism
As mentioned earlier, many people with autism have an uneven skills profile. They can really struggle to carry out simple, everyday tasks that are often taken for granted. An executive functioning impairment is one of the reasons for these difficulties. The frontal lobes, or control centre of the brain, is responsible for regulating, managing, and organising thoughts and actions into a coherent and meaningful whole, in the same way that a boss or executive would get an overview as to how a company is operating. Nearly everything that we do relies on executive functioning, and people with poor executive functioning are often wrongly labelled as lazy, incompetent, unmotivated or lacking self-discipline. However, they cannot help having these neurological difficulties. If they are given the right support people with autism can be enabled to reach their full potential.
The executive functioning impairment results in a paradox. Although people with autism crave structure, organization and order because of the extremely fragmented world in which they live, it can be very difficult for them to create this structure and to organize their lives without assistance. The stereotype of autism would have you believe that everyone with autism is neat and tidy and super organized. In isolated and narrow areas this stereotype can carry a grain of truth. People with autism can be very methodical and systematic when pursuing their interests. For example, I spend a lot of time preparing talks and presentations, and I am very organized in this one area, but in other areas, such as keeping my room tidy, I am incredibly disorganized and require a lot of support.
Executive functioning impairments cause difficulties in planning, sequencing, multi-tasking, initiating and inhibiting actions, organisation, and flexibility. Problems in these areas can make it very difficult for people with autism to search for jobs and fill out forms.
Job searching and application forms
Looking for work can be overwhelming for many people with autism. People with autism who struggle with planning and initiating tasks might find it hard to know where to look for jobs, they might struggle to identify the right type of job, and this means they might give up searching for jobs if they are not given the right support. You can help the person with autism to feel less overwhelmed by creating a checklist or to do list, which breaks down the apparently momentous task of looking for work into tiny steps. In the same way people with autism will often need help to fill out forms. Difficulties with social imagination can mean that people with autism struggle to read between the lines and to understand what information they need to disclose. Therefore, you might need to help the person with autism interpret questions and to organise their answers.
Because of difficulties with executive functioning people with autism can struggle to block or inhibit a thought or action, and this means that they can spend days hyper focusing on a special interest. They can also find it hard to concentrate on activities that don’t interest them. People with autism are good at focusing on one interesting activity, or on details, but they can easily lose sight of the bigger picture, such as the need to look for work. Therefore, don’t penalise a person with autism if they have failed to look for work. It is important to send them regular reminders and to be aware that disorganisation can be part of the disability.
Interviews can be really difficult for people with autism, particularly because of their social communication and social imagination difficulties, and sensory issues. First of all they will have to meet someone new in a new environment, which will mean that they will experience a lot of anxiety. One reasonable adjustment would be to give them a picture of what the interview room and building where the interview takes place will look like, as this will alleviate some uncertainty.
Problems with social communication can mean that people with autism fail at job interviews even if they have the necessary skills to do the job. Firstly, people with autism can really struggle to make eye contact or even look at someone’s face, and this could be wrongly interpreted as disinterest or dishonesty by the interviewer. However, there can be awareness that eye contact is expected by other people, and so the person might try their hardest to make eye contact. Nevertheless making eye contact, or even looking at the face, can be very distracting and painful because of visual sensory sensitivity. When I try and look at someone for a prolonged period of time because I feel that this is expected of me, I find it increasingly difficult to hear and make sense of what they are saying. Therefore, just because someone with autism appears to make good eye contact, do not assume that there are no difficulties in this area. They might find it easier to pay attention
imagination. For example, people with autism can find it really hard to project themselves into the future, so they might struggle to answer if they are asked ”where do you see yourself in 10 years time”. They might also struggle with self awareness and identity, and this means that they might not know how to answer questions that ask them about their strengths and weaknesses. They might also take interview questions literally, such as giving too much detail about what they are not good at when they are asked about weaknesses, and they will generally not be good at selling themselves.
Before a person with autism has an interview it can help if the interviewer is told in advance about their communication and social imagination difficulties. It can also help if you role play interviews with the autistic person, and provide them with a script to help them answer difficult questions. A reasonable adjustment would be to allow the autistic person to bring a supporter with them to the interview, who can rephrase questions. Another reasonable adjustment would be for the autistic person to have a work trial instead of an interview, because this can provide a better indication of their suitability for the job.
It is also important to remember any sensory issues that the autistic person might have. If they an interview, they will perform better if the environment does not overwhelm their senses. For example, it might be better for them to be interviewed in a room that has natural or dim lighting if they are sensitive to artificial light, and that has blinds to reduce glare. Some people with autism are very sensitive to touch, so the interviewer should be advised not to shake their hand.
Finally other neuro-developmental conditions and mental health problems often go hand in hand with autism. For example, I have dyscalculia, which is a specific learning difficulty that affects maths and numerical skills. Consequently my parents have to look after my finances, and I struggle to understand measurements. I also have OCD health anxiety, which means I worry about contamination and can spend a lot of time washing my hands. Therefore, certain jobs such as working with food money would not be suitable for me. It is important that you find out what other conditions a person may have as this will help you to assist them in finding a suitable job.
To sum up, people with autism can do a very good job, particularly if it is in an area that they are interested in. To ensure that they can be productive and make the most of their strengths, it is important to take into consideration their difficulties and to provide reasonable adjustments and support where necessary.