Autism and The Job Market
It was the summer after sophomore year of college. I had moved into my first apartment, a small basement level spot only a couple blocks from the western blue line stop. I was splitting rent with a friend, but if I wanted to stay in the city for the summer, I needed a job. I had been checking Craigslist, walking into every establishment in the surrounding neighborhoods, but I kept coming up dry. One day, I came across a small bakery and coffee shop near the bustling hipster neck of the woods, Wicker Park. The place seemed friendly, close knit, possibly family-owned? Best of all, they were understaffed. I filled out the application, got a call later that day, and got up early for an interview the following A.M.
It was seven in the morning as I walked the half mile to their shop, the weather was dreary, and the air was humid, but I felt well rested. I was confident, dressed appropriately, and had practiced in the mirror. I walked in with a smile, and over a cup of coffee I held my own in the interview.
No, I don’t have experience as a barista, but I’m a quick learner.
Yes, I had to handle plenty of unhappy customers at my on campus job. I’m well versed in how to deal with them.
The stars seemed to be aligning, I felt like the job was mine. As the owner shuffled through her stack of papers, she looked up at me and said,
“You seem like you might have….”
She had paused, mid-thought. What was she going to say? Did she Google me before the interview? Does she know? I began to fill up with anxiety and dread. I had to say something. I let out a casual and dismissive laugh,
“Yeah, I was diagnosed as autistic as a kid, but it doesn’t really affect me day-to-day, and it certainly won’t affect my performance on the job.”
“Oh,” she said, “That’s not what I was going to say, but okay.”
It was horribly awkward, but I did my best to dismiss it. They gave me a free brownie on the way out, and I walked home in confident bliss. But, after a few weeks, it had become clear I wasn’t going to hear from them again. I’ll never know why they didn’t hire me, the store is gone now, along with the identity of the woman who I interviewed with. I do know how it felt afterward. I felt insecure. I obsessed over that one moment, the one goof that I believed lost me the job. She didn’t need to know that about me, she probably wasn’t even suspicious. I usually keep my autistic identity close to my chest, but all the evidence of my advocacy work as a teenager is only a Google search away. How could I have been so rash? I could rail against the system, how stereotypes of autism both harmed her perception of me, as well as my own self image, which caused my slip of social conventions. I could mope about how much my diagnosis actually does affect me, and has made parts of my life more challenging. But the reality is, I had committed a faux-pas for someone with autism and someone perfectly neurotypical; I showed my true self.
People have to hide who they are in a job interview, no matter who they are. Introverts pretend to be people persons. We list moderate Photoshop skills as “proficient” on our resume. Dress conservative! Talk white! Act normal! It’s all the same thing. Advertise yourself. Not the best version of yourself, their concept of the best version of yourself. It’s an unspoken rule that the real you and the job interview you have only a passing resemblance. While we dance around saying this out loud, you can see a sort of collective acknowledgement of these kinds of truths in meme culture. But what if the quirks you have to bury are simultaneously central to your identity, your personhood even, and also generally frowned upon in the workplace, much less the job interview?
The unemployment rate for young adults with autism is absurdly high, even when compared to other mental disorders. There’s a marked 25 to almost 40 point difference. Only 58 percent of ASD-identifying twenty somethings are holding down jobs, according to a 2015 NPR article.
Certainly, there are career fields that being on the spectrum puts you at an advantage. Nobody needs to be reminded the prevalence of our kind of thinkers in the world of engineering and programming. Whenever I meet someone with a diagnosed family member, said family member usually is an engineer. It taps into the oft-voiced but rarely heard truth, that there are positive differences between people with autism and neurotypicals. Outside of skills suited for complex mathematics and problem solving abilities, skills ripe for engineering, we have a notable tendency for tunnel vision, and we are usually quick, tactile learners. But not everyone wants to be an engineer, or a programmer, or a scientist.
I grew up convinced I’d be working in physics or paleontology, or some other equally lofty or adventurous scientific field. But in high school, I fell in love with art. Creative endeavors like writing and fine art have proven a purposeful path for me to take, but the field isn’t befitting for my identity, even as a particularly passing Aspie. The art world, as with many career fields, is one built on knowing the right people, being able to network, and rub elbows. The arts community is supposed to be one of the most progressive and accepting parts of society, but has many times proven otherwise in this respect. Even in the arts people react inappropriately when I open up about my disorder. They still say things like “you don’t seem autistic at all”, they still talk to you differently, and they still try and set you up with their friend’s sister who they think is on the spectrum. Being autistic in the art world means hoping people will find your quirkiness and strange personality endearing, or attribute it to me being one of those “artist types.” Without that hope, it’s easy to get ostracized by accidentally breaking social convention, making one curator or gallery director uncomfortable. I, along with many others in many fields, have chosen to hide this part of my identity. I’m lucky that my autistic traits are subtle enough for me to pass for neurotypical, but it doesn’t make the masquerade any easier. A friend whom I’ve told about my disorder once told me how strikingly similar these issues were to his as an in-the-closet teen back home. The main difference being he can’t be fired for being gay.
When I graduate in a couple months, my Bachelors in Fine Art will essentially be a degree in barista-ship. Most people in my field work hard on their writing or paintings or sculptural work, but make ends meet employing those networking skills behind the counter of the local coffee shop or as a waiter. Jobs that are high pressure, multitask oriented, and heavily social aren’t always the most healthy environments for people on the spectrum. Worse yet, there are no accommodations required or expected from employers for this issue. The Americans with Disabilities Act mostly covers on-the-spectrum customers and patrons to public and private spaces, but when it comes to holding down jobs, it defends the employer. If someone black or gay is working for a restaurant in a particularly conservative part of America, and the customers don’t like said employee, the business can’t do anything about it. But if that same employee is autistic, or deaf, or burdened with any disability really, the business only needs one complaint to fire them, on the grounds that their presence is hurting the bottom dollar.
Working for smaller businesses that have closer, less corporate, relationships with their employees is one way I’ve found circumvents this issue. It makes it easier to develop an understanding relationship between you and your employer. There are people out there on our side, that want us to succeed. Getting a job isn’t impossible, and those parts of you that you have to hide to get that job will help you in the workplace. But know what you are up against, the only way to overcome this issue is by pushing autism advocacy and getting your voice heard until the legislation is changed. This isn’t a call to arms, it’s just something nobody seems to be talking about.
I know that at my next job interview I won’t mention my autistic Identity. But if they do figure me out, and they bring it up, I’ll wear that badge proudly.