Working While on the Spectrum
How to help someone with autism or Aspergers find employment
Watching your child struggle with a job search is stressful. But for parents of high-functioning children with autism or Asperger's, it can be an especially painful process.
"It's important to appreciate how confusing and anxiety-producing the job search can be if you have Asperger's or autism," says Barbara Bissonnette, a certified coach and author of "Helping Adults with Asperger's Syndrome Get & Stay Hired: Career Coaching Strategies for Professionals and Parents of Adults on the Autism Spectrum."
If you are the parent of a child on the spectrum, it's only natural to want to step in when your child struggles. But you might not know how best to assist, especially if your child tends to ignore your input. So, for guidance, I turned to Bissonnette and interviewed her by Zoom from her home in Quincy, Massachusetts. Here are highlights of our conversation.
"The key is to target jobs that emphasize their strengths while minimizing their areas of challenge."
Next Avenue: What are some common challenges people with Asperger's or autism face during the job search?
Barbara Bissonnette: Everyone is different, but many people on the autism spectrum are very literal thinkers. That makes it challenging to interpret the core requirements needed for a job.
Even common job search terms like "entry level" or "self-starter" that are obvious to most people can be a source of confusion. An effective job search requires managing time, prioritizing tasks, organizing information and sustaining motivation — all of which can be challenging for this population.
What tips do you have for helping people with autism/Asperger's succeed with the search?
The key is to target jobs that emphasize their strengths while minimizing their areas of challenge. Focus on jobs that are in demand, and that fit the processing style of people on the autism spectrum. It's a mistake to place too much emphasis on interests.
If your child has difficulty with identifying suitable jobs, ask them to share four or five job posts that they think are a good fit. Then, have them write down the requirements of the job in one column and their corresponding skills and qualifications in a second column. Talk about where there is alignment versus a mismatch. Seeing it in writing can make it easier for them to evaluate if the job is suitable.
Try to help them to understand the interview process from the employer's perspective. Ask them to think about what the employer is looking for when they ask different questions. What is the information they really want? Why is the employer asking this? Then, have them write down and rehearse their responses. Practice is really important.
What if my adult child resists my help?
Talk about how lots of people find the job search process nerve wracking. It's not just people on the spectrum who struggle. If they challenge your advice, consider using third-party sources, such as blog posts or magazine articles, to make your point. Sometimes it's best to enlist the help of a third party, such as a career coach or advisor skilled at working with people on the spectrum.
Should my child disclose his autism/Asperger's?
There's not one right answer, it depends on the person. If your child has never interviewed before, they might do better than you expect, so give them a chance, before assuming a need to disclose. However, if someone has behaviors that are really hard to control — such as avoiding eye contact or excessive anxiety — it might be best to disclose. Sometimes disclosing when applying to the job can be useful. Here is the last paragraph of a sample cover letter that I worked up for one of my clients:
"I am eager to arrange an interview. To that end, I want to disclose that I have Asperger's Syndrome. This means that I may need a little extra time to formulate my responses to your questions. However, it will not impact my ability to do the job. In fact, it gives me two things that are critical for an analyst: an eye for detail and strong logic!"
How can I help if the job search drags on for a long time?
It's challenging. Activities like job search support groups and job fairs can be difficult environments for many people on the spectrum. I've had a few people who did OK with them, but most people find them anxiety-producing.
Strategic volunteering can be a smart way to acquire relevant skills and experience. It gives them something to talk about with employers and can help to improve their morale. There also might be certifications, such as those offered by LinkedIn Learning, that could boost their marketability.
"Strategic volunteering can be a smart way to acquire relevant skills and experience."
Finding the right job match is often a process of trial and error. I worked with a young woman who was a certified veterinary technician. She has been let go from three jobs. In each one, she had trouble keeping up with the fast pace and varied tasks. The chaotic environment was very stressful, and it took her too long to learn certain processes at veterinary practices. She is now exploring possibilities in writing and proof reading.
Your blog has an abundance of resources for people on the spectrum, including a newsletter and downloadable guides. What other resources do you recommend?
State vocational rehabilitation offices can be helpful. Qualified individuals can receive aptitude and other employment testing, assistance with the job-search process and help on the job. Services vary by state.
AskJan.org is a website run by the Job Accommodation Network. You can look at possible accommodation requests by disability type.
The Neurodiversity @ Work Employer Roundtable is a community of employers committed to providing opportunities for neurodivergent employees. The corporate partners are mentioned on the site so this can be a good way to identify companies that value different thinking styles.
"Autism at Work Playbook" is a practical guide to hiring and managing people with autism. It grew out of a collaborative research project led by Hala Annabi, an associate professor at the University of Washington Information School.