Case Study: Helping a client with autism improve her interview skills
Vague concepts such as finding the ‘right fit’ for the team can make it difficult for a prospective employee on the spectrum to present as a desirable candidate
In this recurring Careering feature, career professionals share their real-life solutions to common problems in the field
Cindy is a recent post-secondary graduate who lives on the autism spectrum. Since completing her diploma in business administration six months ago, she has applied for approximately 130 jobs, been on 42 interviews and received zero job offers.
Upon first meeting with Cindy, her inconsistent eye contact is noticeable; it is difficult to feel a sense of connection with someone who doesn’t look at their conversation partner. Cindy also has trouble connecting through small talk. She hates to talk about the weather, lacks interest in sports and tends to want to “get to the point” of any verbal exchanges. In interviews, this may read as cold and distant.
Cindy also tends to begin interactions with others by saying “Greetings” rather than with a more common “Hi” or “Hello.” This tendency, paired with her unusually quiet voice, provides insights about some of the interview challenges that may be holding her back.
However, Cindy is completely closed to the idea of disclosing her invisible disability in a job interview. Her past experiences of bullying and trauma have led her to believe that disclosure creates more challenges in her life than it solves, and that people will think that she is stupid or incapable if she tells them she lives on the spectrum.
As her employment counsellor, what can you do in your work with Cindy to help her experience more interview success?
This case study is one that I wrote for a workshop for career development professionals. Although Cindy is not actually a client of mine, her profile represents some of the challenges commonly experienced by people who live on the spectrum and by the career development professionals who serve them. The increased emphasis in today’s workplace on emotional quotient vs intelligence quotient, social vs technical skills, and vague concepts such as finding the “right fit” for the team can make it difficult for a prospective employee on the spectrum to present as a desirable candidate.
In fact, a 2013 study on autism and employment published by the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry found that approximately 85% of people living on the autism spectrum are unemployed or underemployed. These results represented the lowest employment rate among disability groups even when controlling for impairment severity, household income and social demographics (Howlin, 2013). To further complicate the issue, many “high-functioning” people who live on the spectrum attempt to hide or mask their symptoms, fearing stigmatization. So, how can we as career professionals help? For a Cindy or a client who presents with similar issues, I would first recommend focusing on interview skills.
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The spoken and unspoken language of interviews is highly complex and has many nuances that may not be obvious to a person who has a diagnosis of ASD or another invisible difference. It is important to break down the questions one can expect, the answers they should give and the unspoken elements of connecting with the interviewer.
One of the most effective ways of doing this is to record mock job interviews and review the recording with your client. Typically, when I am working on a four-week timeline with a client to get them interview ready, I try to do a baseline mock interview (e.g. at the very beginning of my time with a client); another one two weeks in, after we have done lots of teaching, workshops and worksheets about the interview process; and lastly at the end of four weeks with an interviewer who is totally new to my client (i.e. a colleague assigned to different clients). This works well because it creates an opportunity to show the individual behaviours that the client might not be aware of. I once had a client comment during this process that although people were always asking her to speak up or repeat herself, she never realized until reviewing her interview footage how inaudibly she spoke. Recordings pick up word timing, intonation, eye contact, interruptions, excessive fidgeting as well as the content of the answers. All of this is extremely beneficial to a person who may lack innate social awareness.
“The spoken and unspoken language of interviews is highly complex and has many nuances that may not be obvious to a person who has a diagnosis of ASD or another invisible difference.”
Secondly, I would recommend helping Cindy create a what I have come to refer to as a “self-advocacy script.” Self-advocacy is a way to explain autism spectrum traits using a template that appeals to the neurotypical way of understanding information. It provides a positive or neutral story for interpreting behaviours that may seem unusual or could be easily misunderstood.
A great example of how Cindy could do this is to write a script to explain her impatience with small talk. It might sound like this: “I’m the kind of person who is so interested in getting to the meat of a discussion, I’m not always paying attention to small talk. I’m not trying to be rude or disrespectful; I’m just excited to get into the interview.” This script provides an explanation for behaviour that a client with an invisible difference may not be able to change and offers that safety of “disclosing without disclosing.” Although there are various opinions on when and how to disclose a disability, I think we can all agree that there are inherent risks to sharing very personal information with a complete stranger – or worse yet, a panel of strangers. If an individual is not ready to do that, we can assist them by providing a non-threatening way to disclose some information related to their disability.
Overall, assisting people who have invisible differences and different ways of thinking in improving their interview skills is challenging, rewarding and doable.
Sarah Taylor began her career in autism treatment in 1996. In 2014, Taylor made the switch from working with and advocating for children and youth with ASD to designing and implementing a federally funded program, Next Level ASD, which provides employment supports for adults with autism and coaching support to partner employers.
Howlin, P. (2013). Social disadvantage and exclusion: Adults with autism lag far behind in employment prospects. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 52 (9), 897–899.