From the desk of Melanie Whetzel, M.A., CBIS, Principal Consultant, Team Lead
Interviewing for a job can be a very stressful experience for anyone looking for employment, but for job applicants on the autism spectrum who may have social difficulties, the experience can be paralyzing. This kind of social anxiety could cause individuals to freeze up and be unable to think on the spot, and ultimately be unable to respond in ways that communicate their knowledge and experience.
This article is intended to assist job applicants on the autism spectrum in positively representing themselves and their abilities, and to help employers understand the kinds of accommodations that can be made during the job interview process so that these applicants can do their best to represent themselves and their skills. The information and tips included here will also be useful to employment specialists, job coaches, parents, and anyone else who is involved in assisting people on the autism spectrum to do their best when it comes to job interviewing skills and practices.
One interviewing question that job applicants who are on the autism spectrum have relates to disclosure. Disclosure is the divulging or giving out of specific, personal information about a disability. When disclosing as part of an accommodation request, it is important to provide information about the nature of the disability, the limitations involved, and how the disability affects the ability to participate in the interview process.
It is a good idea for job seekers to have a strategy, which simply means that they will want to think about disclosure ahead of time and have a plan about when and how much information they are willing to disclose. This strategy could also include having the medical information from their doctors or health care providers so that the accommodation request and disclosure can be substantiated with the facts. Applicants should provide any accommodation suggestions that they have as well.
Some individuals feel very strongly that a disability should be disclosed as early into the process as possible, while others believe that the disability should only be disclosed if an accommodation is needed for the interviewing process. Disclosure is a personal decision and one that individuals should make based on their own beliefs, needs, and comfort level.
Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), job applicants, interviewees, or employees never have to disclose a disability until an accommodation is needed (EEOC, 2002). If no accommodation is needed for the application or interview process, then there is no need to disclose the disability. However, if an accommodation is necessary in the application or interview process, applicants should disclose as early as possible. Just as someone who uses a wheelchair should not wait until showing up at the interview site at the appropriate time without knowing if the site is accessible, people on the autism spectrum who need an accommodation during an interview should not wait to see what happens before requesting a specific accommodation.
The following situation is a real-life example of an accommodation that can be requested and provided during the application process.
Situation: As part of the application process for a library tech position, the library required applicants to take a timed written test that consisted of alphabetizing authors and book titles, identifying the Dewey Decimal numbers for books, and then writing the responses. Due to a fine motor difficulty that limited his handwriting ability, the job applicant asked for an accommodation of extended time to get the lists written.
Solution: Since the actual work of shelving books is not done under a particular time constraint, the library would not be reducing a qualification standard by extending time for this applicant and agrees to accommodate with extended time during the test.
Applicants on the autism spectrum may benefit from various accommodations, depending on their specific limitations. Below are several suggestions that might be beneficial.
Requesting fewer interviewers may be an effective accommodation, especially for the first interview when there are social skills limitations. Sitting across the table from even two, let alone three or more employer representatives can strike fear in all of us, but this type of situation could be debilitating for people on the autism spectrum. If the employer is able to limit the number of interviewers in the room to one or two at the most, applicants will likely have an opportunity for a more successful exchange of information.
Requesting that the first interview be conducted by phone may also be an effective accommodation to ease the discomfort of meeting face-to-face. If the job involves customer service and telephone interactions, then a telephone interview may be very appropriate and doable for the first interview. If an employer is creative and tech savvy, an interview could even be done through an online chat. If the first interview is successful, the employer would then proceed to a face-to-face interview.
Requesting a copy of the interview questions to be provided in advance may also be a reasonable accommodation. Questions that applicants hear for the first time may produce anxiety that could limit their ability to think on the spot, and ultimately limit their ability to respond in a way commensurate with their knowledge and experience. Providing interview questions in advance of an interview should not be a problem unless the applicants’ ability to think on their feet is a job qualification the employer is assessing. Requesting that the interview occur at a specific time of day can also be an accommodation. If the disability involves limitations in concentration, focus, or energy and fatigue, the time of day the individuals are at their best may vary. Interviewing at the time of day applicants are at their optimum is a great idea, and can give them the confidence and self-assurance they need to do their best.
The following situations are real life examples of accommodations that can be requested and provided for the interviewing process.
Situation: An applicant for a retail customer service position asked to be accommodated by a phone interview. Although the job entailed some telephone service to customers, the employee would spend most of his time working face-to-face with the public if hired for this position.
Solution: The employer did accommodate the applicant by conducting the first interview over the phone. Since the phone interview went well, the employer wanted to move on to the second interview in person. After a discussion with the applicant about how the in-person interview could best be done, the employer e-mailed the interview questions so the applicant would be a little more comfortable and reduced the number of management personnel involved in the interview from three to two.
Situation: A job applicant was applying for a position in a prison where he would work directly with the inmates. The applicant asked for an accommodation of having the interview questions sent to him so that he could submit his responses in writing in lieu of an interview.
Solution: Because the applicant would be working directly with the prison inmates in a counseling position, the employer required the applicant to be interviewed in person so they could adequately evaluate his skills. The employer provided accommodations in the form of a two-person interview panel instead of three, and allowed the applicant to come in before the interview to look over the questions that due to security reasons could not be mailed out to him ahead of time.
Situation: A job applicant was called to schedule an interview after she had submitted her resume to the employer. The interviewer asked the applicant about the time she would like to come in for the interview from a list of available time slots.
Solution: The applicant is able to focus and pay better attention in the morning hours and feels her responses to questions will be better thought out early in the morning. Because there are multiple interview slots available throughout the day, the applicant does not have to disclose in order to request an early time slot.
It is vital for applicants to know their strengths and weaknesses. The more they recognize their strengths and the areas in which they are weak, the better they will be able to represent themselves in an interview. Many individuals with disabilities have been able to accommodate themselves in educational as well as employment situations. While some of these individuals are able to continue accommodating themselves, many others are not. Therefore, it is very important for individuals to know and understand how they learn and work, and to be able to recognize when they might need assistance.
It is important for individuals to know how their education and experience relate to the position they are applying for. They should compare their qualifications to the ones required for the job. Titles can be misleading, so the more applicants know about the actual tasks involved, the better they will be able to see how well suited they are to the position. And the more they know about the position and the specific job tasks, the better they will be able to answer questions, tell about themselves, and relate to the employer how they might be the best person to fill that position.
It is also crucial for applicants who are on the autism spectrum to know the environments they are comfortable working in, and how well they will be able to work with others, as a team, or on their own. If job applicants prefer to work in an enclosed area where they might feel a bit more secure, working in an open office with a multitude of others may not be the best setting for them. Similarly, working in an area that is very quiet may be a just the type of setting that is suitable. A job working from home may be a great fit for individuals who are more easily distracted in the workplace and can better control their environment in the home, but it may not have as much interaction with co-workers as others may desire. These are all factors for applicants to consider when looking at the environment of a job and deciding which one is right for them. Job seekers must be honest with themselves about environments where they thrive, and those they may not be able to tolerate.
The following situation is a real-life example of what applicants may need to consider when going through the interviewing process in order to determine what positions may and may not be a good fit.
Situation: A horticulturist interviewing for a position at a university lab was concerned and more than a little stressed about the function of the position that would require her to conduct tours of the greenhouses. She called JAN for assistance.
Solution: A JAN consultant helped her to look at the essential functions of the position that were listed on the complete job description. Knowing that she could probably do the larger part of the job that required answering telephone and e-mail inquiries about plants, the applicant was able calm down and determine what questions to ask about the tours – like how often they occurred, how many people might be in a group, and how long the tours lasted. Sorting this out ahead of the interview relieved much of the stress and unease she was feeling, and helped her formulate the specific questions she needed to ask during her interview.
Role playing will likely be the most effective and successful way to prepare for various interview situations. Applicants will build social skills through the practice, and in turn build confidence. If role playing was not a part of the transitional skills individuals received through a guidance counselor or student placement office, there is no need to worry! It is not too late to work at building those interviewing skills. When applicants learn more about themselves and build stronger interpersonal skills, they will feel more at ease in social situations and be able to better represent themselves. These are truly lifelong skills that we all work at improving upon.
It is vital for applicants to find someone they trust and can work well with. The job specialist, coach, or parent can be of enormous assistance in this area. Applicants need someone they are both comfortable and can be honest with to assist them in this preparation process. Most importantly, applicants need someone who will be able to view their performance honestly and objectively, and who can offer good constructive criticism.
Common interview questions can be found on several online sites. Applicants will want to look over several lists of questions to get the most rounded idea of the kind of information they may be asked to provide about themselves and their abilities. The greater variety of questions applicants are able to answer, the greater their ease will be during the interview process. Applicants will want to feel calm and relaxed, knowing that they have done their best to prepare themselves for the questions that may come their way. There is no way to prepare for every possible question that an employer could ask, but by becoming familiar with as many questions as possible, and being practiced and comfortable answering them, applicants will have a greater chance of positively representing themselves and their abilities.
Written responses to the most common interview questions, or the questions each applicant feels that they would have the most difficulty answering on the spot can provide an extra step towards preparation. Answers should not be memorized so that interviewees recite the answers they have worked on, but rather they should be familiar enough with the questions that the responses will flow with ease. Having to provide answers to questions applicants never saw coming could be paralyzing. Both practice and “overknowing” the answers can alleviate the fear and uncertainty and will enable the interviewees to provide a more natural response. The better they know themselves, the better they will be able to provide complete answers to the interview questions.
Applicants should practice the process from start to finish with appropriate greetings at both the beginning and the end of the interview until both partners feel satisfied with the responses. Practice making appropriate eye contact. Applicants may be able to work on answering the interview questions independently, but the social aspects of the interview will need to be practiced with a partner. Practicing with several different partners may be an option for more positive results and can assist the applicants in feeling more at ease with a variety of people.
Applicants may be asked to answer tough questions that could take them out of their comfort zone. Employers well often inquire about applicants’ backgrounds, work history, education, and maybe even their grade point average. Applicants should look to providing information about their strengths, what they have done, and what they are able to do. If the employer asks about gaps in an applicant’s work history, the applicant can talk about what they were doing during those times – such as life experiences, caring for children or a parent, going to school, or volunteering. The key here is not to be taken by surprise.
Applicants must do their homework and find out as much as possible about the position and the employer before the interview. The Occupational Outlook Handbook can be used to find good descriptions of jobs and what they entail. Online searches for information about the employer can be helpful too. Learn as much as you can about the industry as well. Applicants can take notes on an index card to help them remember facts that they might want to mention or ask about.
See the following example of how a job applicant enlisted help for practicing interview skills.
Situation: A job applicant who received services that included interviewing skills from his school placement office had been out of school for some time, and had not participated in an interview since the practice ones. With one scheduled in a few weeks for a very promising position, he decided to get assistance.
Solution: Enlisting the help of his uncle, who was a high school principal and accustomed to interviewing teachers and school staff, the applicant practiced until he was comfortable with the social skills he would need to exhibit, and was given a passing grade by his uncle.
Interviewees should keep their answers brief and succinct. If the interviewers need more information in a certain area or topic, they can ask.
Applicants should understand that when they are asked to tell about themselves, the interviewer is not asking for a personal story about the applicants’ life, but rather information about their education and experience as it relates to the job. A brief summary will do. If applicants have the perfect background in education or experience, or both, they will want to make sure that they present this information to the interviewer, but at the same time will want to be careful about revealing too much personal information that does not relate to the job.
Applicants will want to explain why they are a good fit for the position, keeping in mind to only tell about their traits, education, and experience that directly relate to the job requirements. If the employer and the job are a great match for their background, experience, goals, and ideals, applicants will want to mention that as well.
If applicants are not clear on how to respond to a question, they can repeat the question back to the interviewer and/or ask for clarification.
If asked about interests or favorite activities, applicants should remember to keep their responses to a minimum. It may help applicants to have a small index card prepared with some of the points they would like to make if asked these questions. They will want to show that they do have some outside interests.
The following example demonstrates how an applicant prepared himself for this exact situation.
Situation: An applicant on the autism spectrum was interviewing for a position in the IT department and was sure he would be asked to tell a little bit about himself.
Solution: Because the applicant knew he had a tendency to tell too much information about himself and his love for computer languages, he wrote a brief biography about himself that included his education and experience with programming that he carried with him to refer to during the interview.
Once job applicants have prepared as thoroughly as possible, and they feel self-assured that they will be able to perform to the best of their ability, it is time for them to relax, go into the interview confidently, smile, and most importantly, be themselves.