Why Conventional Interview Techniques Tend to Exclude and Unintentionally Discriminate Against People with Autism

Of all the challenges autistics have to overcome in order to acquire a job, it is needing to make a good impression during a job interview that is the most challenging, and where they’re most likely to fail. The fact that autistics are assessed using the exact same criteria and methods as that their non-autistic peers means that autistic candidates do not compete on equal terms and as such, are at a significant disadvantage. What follows is an attempt to explain why.

All job-seekers are expected to demonstrate a high degree of competency in performing tasks that are exactly the sorts of things autistic people are especially bad at:

  • dressing properly or at least as expected;
  • looking someone in the eye for the appropriate amount of time;
  • engaging in small talk;
  • shaking hands with the right grip;
  • feigning enthusiasm when in fact you’re nervous as hell and have every expectation that you won’t be offered a job;
  • smiling even.

Now imagine trying to enter a professional environment where you need to quickly need to establish rapport with someone. An inability to make small talk is an immediate barrier.

Individuals with autism are “neuro-atypical.” Thanks to their unusual brain structure, they struggle to cope with fundamental differences in the way they perceive the world, including (but not limited to):

  1. Sensitivity to the environment (lights, noises, smells, touch, etc.);
  2. Problems with social skills;
  3. Difficulty with empathy and understanding another person’s point of view;
  4. Repetitive behaviours and strict adherence to routine;
  5. Oddly enough, clumsiness;
  6. Literal use of language, inability to process or understand nuance or subtle signals/body language.

When one thinks of how nervous many interviewees are, if you were to couple that feeling with any of the challenges listed above, it’s easy to see why autistics do so badly in interviews.

Maybe you’re wearing a formal suit and tie and the fabric is extremely uncomfortable to you due to your sensitivity to certain types of fabrics and textures. Meanwhile, as you wait nervously in reception area, the harsh fluorescent lighting is painful to your eyes and you can smell the heavy perfume of the receptionist. Suddenly, your senses become overwhelmed and you experience something akin to a migraine, and you feel ill throughout the interview, causing you not to perform well. Asperger’s Syndrome (a form of autism) sufferers describe it as a painful “red band” across the eyes that can take hours to subside.

During the interview, you tap your leg, rub your head and look extremely disinterested and preoccupied throughout the conversation. Your apparent lack of interest (almost certainly not true) causes problems in the interview and you don’t get the job. Or maybe the interviewer is running behind schedule and the company changes the format and timing of your interview. Suddenly you’re waiting an extra 30 minutes and seeing a different person for the interview. Because your brain is so focused on routine and repetition, the change in schedule is very, very upsetting to you. You become angry when a staff member notifies you of the change, and your attitude causes the prospective employer to reject you. Maybe you’re so angry that you lose your temper, not understanding why the change is happening. These sort of scenarios might seem on the face of it to be extreme reactions but they are typical for autistics.

By default, autistics assess people at face value. It is extremely perplexing to them that the majority of people in this world doesn’t actually operate or even think like this. Therefore, placing an autistic into a situation where one is required to prove oneself – i.e. that you’re basically a nice person who one can easily get along with – is not only baffling, it’s positively frightening.

In addition to failing to meet the basic expectations put upon them, there are a number of immutable truths associated with job interviews that non-autistic people intuitively understand and which autistics simply don’t. Namely, that the interview process isn’t actually about determining if the interviewee is the right person for the job at all. It’s about affording the interviewer an opportunity to gauge the character of the candidate. Moreover, that answering any questions put to you in a totally honest manner is not advisable.

What is being assessed is not whether the candidate can actually do the job, but whether the interviewer likes them and would want to work with them, and this necessarily entails developing a rapport. Because autistics are not party to this knowledge, both their thinking and their behaviour during an interview is not directed towards achieving this goal. In addition, the form that many interview questions take are extremely confusing for literal-minded individuals with autism.

Autistics tend to answer interview questions put them in a very literal (honest) manner and have no idea as what the correct – this is, the expected – type of answer is. Indeed, the very notion that more often than not, an interviewer isn’t wanting a literal answer is baffling to them and serves to offend their sensibilities. Why would you ask a question at an interview if you didn’t want an honest answer? What is it that you actually want to know?

To give an example, within the context of a job interview, “tell me about yourself” is an invitation to summarise how your skills and experience match the employer’s need; perhaps sharing some personal information about where you grew up or your hobbies. However, it means the autistic is left asking himself, and indeed needing to know: “what is it that you really want to know?” and “why are you asking me this?” “How does asking me this help you to determine if I’m the right person for the job?

Assuming a would-be employer is aware of the fact that their interviewee is autistic, and they’re aware of the specific difficulties autistics have, is it unacceptable that the employer doesn’t seek to accommodate them when it comes time to inviting them to an interview? For the reasons I’ve outlined, it virtually guarantees they will remain unemployed.

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