Should You “Act Normal” During a Job Interview?

As you can probably well imagine, someone who is socially awkward, who has social anxiety, and communication problems of various sorts isn’t going to do well in a job interview. Think about the issue of eye contact. This article lists 8 reasons someone might not make eye contact with you. Here’s the short version:

  1. Social anxiety
  2. They like you
  3. They aren’t interested in what you’re saying
  4. You aren’t very visually appealing
  5. Low self-esteem
  6. They are hiding something
  7. They are having a bad day
  8. They don’t want to come across as flirty

Now isn’t that a delightful list? The first one comes closest to saying “because you’re autistic.” Most people interpret lack of eye contact as being at least 6 or 3. Can you imagine how your interview is going if the interviewer(s) are thinking you aren’t interested in what they are saying, or that you’re untrustworthy? It’s just as bad if they think you’re not looking at them because you think they’re ugly. And who wants a potential sexual harassment suit (2 and 8), or want to hire someone with low self-esteem?

Of course, we can learn we need to make and maintain eye contact, but then we get into the issues of not actually knowing how to do so properly and thus run the risk of staring or making the interviewer uncomfortable. So that may seem like a solution, but it may not in fact be one.

To many think that if they tell an autistic person they just need to be trained to interview, that that will solve the problem. But that’s essentially telling them that they need to be taught not to be autistic while they’re being interviewed. Even if that were possible (some of us can fake it long enough to get through an interview), what happens when you get the job?

If we could simply learn to not act autistic, we probably all would have done so by now–at least, during work hours. But when you ask us to not “act” autistic, you are asking us to stop being natural in our behavior. And I’m not talking about excusing bad behavior. It’s not “natural” to be a rude little jerk. And I’m not talking about mere cultural or subcultural differences. I’m talking about complaining that your cat isn’t acting like your dog. That being the case, let me ask my neurotypical readers something: why not learn to act autistic? Try it for even an hour. See how well it goes. See how it feels.

Of course, asking us to try to act normal during an interview is just a subset of the larger problem of people thinking we can act normal if we just wanted to do so. We act the way we act because it’s normal according to our neural structures and neurochemistry. Those elements inform the way anything with a nervous system behaves, which is why there is such a wide variety of behaviors in nature. Are gorillas or orangutans inferior chimpanzees because they don’t behave like chimpanzees? Or might they have different neural structures, resulting in different behaviors? Even more obviously similar to the situation I’m talking about would be the differences between chimpanzees and bonobos. Only the specialist can tell these species apart, but their behaviors are completely different. A chimpanzee among bonobos would appear to be “socially awkward,” to say the least.

Further, asking us to fake it during the interview only delays the problem. How are you helped if you get a job with people expecting one set of behaviors, then finding out they are getting someone with completely different behaviors? And this of course ignores the issues of when and if one should disclose being autistic.

I know people think they are being helpful when they make these suggestions, but the problem is that these issues are much more complex than simply doing well in an interview. Quite frankly, if we could just disclose up front without any negative consequences, and be accepted for who we are and how we behave, most of our social anxieties would disappear, and we’d actually be much more delightful to work with.

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On (Not) Getting Disability When You Have the Hidden Disability

Over the past several months, I have been trying to get Disability from Social Security. Today I have been denied for the second time. Let me quote the most recent rejection letter:

You said you are disabled because of autism, aspergers, hip displasia, flat feet, anxiety, sensory integration disorder, and memory loss. However, your current symptoms are not severe enough to be considered disabling.

Apparently being unable to stand for long periods of time because of ever-increasing pain from flat feet, being unable to do physical labor because of constant and ever-increasing pain from hip displasia, being diagnosed with general anxiety disorder by the psychologist they sent me to, and all of the issues associated with autism/Asperger’s, including short term memory loss issues and sensory integration disorder, doesn’t make you disabled.

Those who have been following this blog know many of the problems I have had with getting and keeping jobs. If I even get a job after the interview, I cannot seem to hold on to it for long. Literally, the longest I ever had a job was a little over a year and a half. I had two such jobs. One of them I left because I was moving from Hattiesburg, MS to Dallas; the other was at UNT-Dallas, where my contract wasn’t renewed.

All of the problems I have had with remaining employed have stemmed from my autistic behaviors. The problem is that, if autism is a hidden disability, it seems to be so hidden with me that for the longest time very few people, except those who knew me very, very well, would even believe I as on the spectrum When you meet me, I’m often articulate, I can be charming under the right conditions, I’m highly educated (Ph.D.), and I’m highly intelligent. I can fake it for a fair amount of time. Enough for many to think I’m merely a little introverted.

The problem is what happens over the long term, or if I’m not in ideal conditions. If it’s too loud, too bright, too crowded, I start to feel overwhelmed. My anxiety–which I have learned really never goes away, but only waxes and wanes like the tides–increases, and as my anxiety increases, I become increasingly irritable. Over time, you will see me “goofing off,” which really means I’m writing something down to get it out of my head so I can continue to concentrate on work. But of course, you can’t do anything non-work-related on company time (except gossip, of course, which I don’t do and which takes up far more time than it did for me to write the one line of poetry I needed to get out), so I get in trouble. What they don’t realize is that I’m actually doing what I need to do to ensure I can dedicate the maximum amount of time and concentration to work. But how do you explain that to anyone?

The letter I received goes on to state that

Although you said you have various limitations caused by your symptoms, the evidence does not show that your ability to perform basic work activities is as limited as you indicated. We do not have sufficient vocational information to determine whether you can perform any of your past relevant work. However, based on the evidence in file, we have determined that you can adjust to other work.

I find all of this very curious. And it indicates there is something wrong with the way disability is determined, such that autism is almost always going to be discounted as disabiling. The fact of the matter is that my “ability to perform basic work activities” such as editing, proofreading, and writing is not limited at all. I can do that kind of work, and likely similar work, such as data entry.

But work isn’t just “show up, do your work, leave.” If work were like that, the unemployment rate among all but the most severely autistic would be 0%. Rather, depending on how it’s measured, the unemployment rate among autistics is 20%-80%–the latter for all autistics, and 20% for people who are “mildly” autistic. Why is that? It’s because work is primarily social, and when the requirements of employment are being able to be social and not be “socially awkward” that autistics face high unemployment.

My disability only becomes apparent over time, and few would even recognize it as “disability.” It gets interpreted as inattentive, goofing off, having a bad attitude, and sometimes even lazy (I was always working on projects growing up and was always told I was lazy). Each of these are neurotypicals misinterpreting the way I think and behave. In other words, my disability is only invisible to the degree that non-autistics misinterpret my expressions and actions. And even if I tell them what to expect, can we really expect them to always remember not to interpret my interactions with them through the same lenses they use for practically everyone else?

In other words, how can I get Disability if my disability is invisible? How can I get Disability if the people who are giving it out don’t really believe it’s a thing, but is just made up, is just problems with your “personality,” or whatever else they may believe when faced with someone who behaves as I do?

And I know it’s not just me. My guess is that most autistics face these issues on a daily basis, and not just when it comes to work. But where are the advocates for us? I know there are advocates out there, but I’m talking about public advocates, someone people know, out there talking about these things.

Here is where my articulateness, intelligence, and education may be able to come in handy. I’m actually a good public speaker. Perhaps, if I could find the right venues, I could use these very traits that make me an even more invisible member of the invisible disability bring greater visibility to these very issues.

Unless someone does this, how much of a chance do we have to thrive in this world?

 

Autistic Bonding

Friday, when a family friend was over, Daniel asked our friend to watch Nausicaa with him. So we arranged for Daniel to visit our friend’s house Saturday so they could watch the movie together. Anna tried to make it very clear to our friend just how important watching this movies was for Daniel, because for Daniel the two of them watching the movie together was a bonding moment (or bonding 2 hours, more or less). Daniel was showing he cared by sharing his favorite movie with our family friend.

This is also something I do. For me, sharing something I like is a primary way I bond. If you want to bond with me, I recommend reading Oedipus and Antigone by Sophocles, Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand, The Unbearable Lightness of Being and The Book of Laughter and Forgetting by Milan Kundera, Time, Conflict, and Human Values by J.T. Fraser, and The Culture of Hope by Frederick Turner. Each of these have been central to my thinking and aesthetic. I may not agree with everything each author says or believes, but that’s not the point. My love of tragedy, the realization that one could use fiction to investigate ideas, the depth and breadth of styles that could go into fiction, and the ideas that helped form my world view and aesthetic (respectively, by author) are important to me. And if I’m important to you, I think they should be important to you. Or you should have at least read them all.

Of course, the same could be said of my favorite films, including Casablanca and Rear Window, or my favorite T.V. shows. Watching a T.V. show together, having a shared attention, is important to me–just as it is for Daniel.

I suppose this is part of our autistic object-orientedness. I can also bond over orchids, though honestly, I’ve probably forgotten half of what I used to know about them. But you never know–get me talking (as Daniel has about sharks), and I might surprise us both with what I remember. More likely, I’ll talk to you about self-organizing network processes and emergent order. Most people bond over people and relationships; we bond over objects and ideas. While T.V. shows and movies may seem common ground, you may find that our idea of bonding over a favorite movie is a bit more intense than what you’re used to. But understand that that intensity comes from wanting to connect with you through our common interest. That’s just how we do it.

Connecting and Communicating on the Spectrum

If you have a verbal child on the spectrum–or adult, for that matter–you are likely familiar with the phenomenon of obsessive interests, and the seemingly intense need for the autistic person to share everything they learned right this very minute. And Heaven help you if you’ve been away a while while they have been learning about their interests, because you’ll be sure to be bombarded with information the moment you see them.

Now, before I address what is going on, I want to make a point by addressing my autistic readers (neurotypicals: keep reading, because this is really mostly for you).

Austistics, if you have a neurotypical person in your life, you are likely familiar with the phenomenon of that person coming home and wanting to share with you everything they did that say and every social interaction they had. While you couldn’t care less about any of that stuff, you need to understand that those things are important to them. They think sharing such information is an appropriate way to create social bonds. While we bond over knowledge, designs, and ideas, they bond over gossip and complaining about what other people do. That is their passion, and that’s what they get excited and emotional about. So please be patient with them about their interests. It may seem silly or superficial to you, but it’s not to them. So let them have their say; don’t try to solve their problems (they hate that and only want to express themselves), even though you will likely come up with a clear and obvious solution; and try to at least feign interest by acknowledging them, asking questions, and demonstrating empathy for their position. The best course, too, is to take their side no matter what, even if it’s clear to you that they are in the wrong, or could be wrong–especially close friends and spouses, coworkers and bosses. Remember, they only want you to listen and take their side; anything else will offend and upset them.

If you do not have autism, this is how you appear to us. You think it’s ridiculous to talk about the application of complex network theory to understanding the economy, designing better slaughterhouses, or blowing up the Death Star, the behaviors of basking sharks, or what happened in Nausicaa (Daniel’s latest obsession); we think it’s ridiculous to talk about what Bob did to Sally at work, that George is having an affair with his boss, and that Mary is being mean again.

The point is that we’re both wrong; neither is in fact ridiculous; both are vitally important to the person; each is desperately trying to connect to the other through their interests. Neurotypical people are primarily interested in people; autistic people are primarily interested in things and ideas. Autistic people, by sharing their interests, are trying to make a connection with you. They are trying to be social. They’re not being social wrong, they are being social different. And when you rebuff them, you discourage them from trying to be social and you hurt their feelings. They then retreat into themselves and are less likely to try to be social in the future.

At the same time, if we were to treat the way you connect the same way, you would consider us to be anti-social, rude and arrogant. In fact, we are often considered to be all these things. This is reinforced by the fact that what we want to bond over is typically intellectual, nerdy, and/or geeky. You think our interests are stupid and annoying, and we feel the same about yours. But it is we who have to adapt.

In short, it is the responses and reactions of neurotypical people to our attempts to bond that contribute as much as anything to any sort of unsocial behavior. When our family sits at the dinner table together and Daniel wants to tell us something, we express interest in the topic, asking questions or otherwise contributing to the topic at hand. As a result, Daniel has been talking more and more. And he’s grown more interested in us as a result. Imagine that! We express interest in him, and he expresses interest in us.

Neurotypical people develop their identities through their interpersonal social networks; autistic people develop their identities through their interests. They identify with their work and interests, meaning if you dismiss their topic of conversation, you are dismissing them personally. That, at leas,t is how we interpret it. It is similar to if someone told you that your friends were all stupid and hateful and they didn’t understand why you would like those people. My guess is that you would distance yourself from that person. Because when they insult your friends, they insult you. For us on the spectrum, our obsessions are our friends. We listen to you talk about your friends; we only ask you listen as we talk about ours.

So that’s why we on the spectrum want to share our interests. It’s how we try to bond with you. In addition to that, we want to share when we want to share because what we want to say is present to mind. That means we can remember everything and communicate it well. If you make us wait, we may not remember in that moment, and it’s likely we will have to search for everything we wanted to say. That means we’ll be full of long pauses, uncertainty, and frustration. Frustration you will probably share since you don’t understand why we’re so hesitant now when we were so enthusiastic before. You need to understand that when the moment passes, it is impossible to recover. And we’ll be likely to forget half our points even as we know we forgot half our points, making us more frustrated–and more determined next time to get it all out.

So now you know why it is that we on the spectrum want to talk about the things we want to talk about, and why we feel such an urgency to do so. Part of the urgency is the way our memory works, but part of it is the same kind of urgency you feel in wanting to tell your friends and loved ones about what the other people in your life did. And that’s something we should both be able to understand.

Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind

To date Daniel has probably seen Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind at least a dozen times. He’s watched Spirited Away twice, and Princess Mononoke only once (he keeps saying he doesn’t like it because of “all the blood,” but I suspect there’s something else he doesn’t like about it that he just can’t quite articulate, given all the battles that take place in Nausicaa), but he cannot seem to get enough of Nausicaa.

For those unfamiliar with Miyazaki’s first film, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind takes place a thousand years after a great war that practically destroyed the earth, polluting the soil and killing off most of humanity. Giant warriors had been created that destroyed entire cities, then turned to stone when they were no longer needed. The story opens with Nausicaa investigating the Toxic Forest, where the plants produce spores that will kill humans who breath them in. She has to rescue Lord Yupa from a giant insect called an Ohmu, and the two return to the valley where they live. For more on the story, there is a great summary in an article at Patheos.

The long and short of it is that Nausicaa is the hero of the story, able to communicate with the giant insects that protect the Toxic Forest, smart and curious enough to discover why the forest is toxic and how it can and will become detoxified, compassionate toward others, and yet a skilled and dangerous warrior when necessary. Her father being the king of the people of the valley, Nausicaa is a princess. Which prompted Daniel to first ask me to not tell anyone that he “likes a princess movie,” and to later say that he likes Nausicaa because “she doesn’t just sit around and do nothing, like those other princesses.”

Indeed, Nausicaa is no Disney Princess (though more recent Disney princesses have gained more agency than have past princesses). She is brave, intelligent, curious, wise, compassionate, thoughtful — she has both killed and wept over killing, and her desire to no longer kill and to prevent more killing, whether human or insect, drives even greater bravery on her part. This is Daniel’s hero.

And Daniel’s love of Nausicaa has even managed to elevate Rey from Star Wars Episodes VII and VIII to being his favorite character (a place previously held by Kyo Ren). After all, if it’s okay to admire one female hero, it’s surely okay to admire another.

In any case, Daniel has found the movie he happily watches over and over and over and over and over. And he’s even gotten to a point where he’s memorized entire sections of dialogue. But this doesn’t necessarily mean he’s not watching other things. But, as we learned last weekend, when I asked him if he wanted to watch Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, the answer is “yes” — if he can watch Nausicaa afterwards.

Please Don’t Touch My Wrists

Today I was a SpEd substitute teacher in a class with a nonverbal student who is a known biter. I have subbed in this class before, and so far I have never even witnessed him bite anyone, let alone try to bite be, but that’s certainly no reason not to be cautious around a known biter. Especially when the biter is 18 and almost twice your size.

So when, after this young man started getting a little overly excited, the paraprofessional in the class broke out the forearm guards, I put them on.

Understand something. I wear short sleeve shirts almost exclusively. This past week when it was in the teens and twenties, I wore short sleeve shirts. I’m fine wearing a coat because it fits loosely on my forearms, and the cuffs touch my fingers, but long-sleeve shirts with cuffs tight on my wrist drive me crazy. A watch? You’ve got to be kidding me! Before we started carrying around clocks in our pockets as part of our phone-internet-texting-clock-calendar system, I carried a pocket watch. Well before the hipsters made it a thing.

So when the para broke out the forearm guards that slip up to your elbow, fitting tightly across your entire forearm, with finger holes, I can only imagine the look I must have given her. What?!? Why are you handing me this Medieval torture device!?! Then she reminded me that one of the students was a biter, and he was excited. So, choosing between anxiously wanting to crawl out of my skin to escape those horrendous things and having protection from being bitten by a nearly 6-foot-tall man, I went for the protection.

And all I could think about was escaping those hideous things. They caused me so much anxiety I got a headache. Even after I was finally able to take them off, it took me an hour to get past the anxiety they caused me.

These are the sorts of things that no neurotypical person can possibly understand. Even if you tell them, since they have nothing to compare it to, they simply cannot empathize. So they don’t take it seriously. And we learn that they don’t take it seriously. So more often than not, we just grin and bear it when we are touched in a way that makes us highly anxious. But by doing so, we allow ourselves to be exposed to further anxiety-inducing contact. Of course, if the choice is to have so much anxiety it gives you a headache and getting severely bitten, you’ll probably just have to do like me and go with the anxiety.

Learning and Boundaries

There’s a phenomenon in people where your location or mental state affects what you remember. This creates a problem in the realm of education because, if learning is context-dependent, what you learn in school may be easily recalled in the classroom, but it may be less able to be recalled outside the classroom (some things, like reading, are obviously retained, but learning to read is a different thing than learning science facts). Another example, perhaps most appropriate for college students, is that if you study while drunk, you’ll remember what you studies while drunk, but you may not remember is sober–and it’s probably a good idea to show up to your test sober. This is also why homework does absolutely nothing whatsoever to improve your grades at school, or your test scores. What you learn at home stays at home.

This phenomenon is likely why children don’t learn anything from TV. All of the educational programming–such as PBS Kids–tends to be for naught because the children don’t recall the information in other settings, such as in the classroom. Within our classrooms, they are discovering that what children learn on iStation doesn’t transfer into the classroom itself. Math that children learn on iStation, for example, is recalled when taking a math test on iStation, but is not recalled when the same math is tested on a paper test. As a result, children doing well on iStation hasn’t translated to children doing well on standardized tests.

This phenomenon is actually much broader than learning and recall. People also tend to behave differently at work, at home, at church, among friends, etc. If someone saw you at work, they might not recognize you if they are familiar with how you behave among friends, for example. People compartmentalize their lives–and, as it turns out, their memory also gets compartmentalized depending on those varying contexts.

One of the issues autistics run into is our tendency to behave the same way no matter what the social context. That is, we have a hard time compartmentalizing. We tend to treat people the same for that same reason, ignoring social hierarchies others find important. If you want to find out how egalitarian someone really is, see how they react to the way an autistic person treats everyone the same. You’ll find few people who believe in egalitarianism to quite that degree.

I believe this also translates into learning for autistics. One of the things we noticed about Daniel is that, despite having read that children didn’t learn anything from education television, Daniel has learned a lot from watching his favorite shows on PBS Kids. I also suspect that what Daniel is learning on the computers and iStation travels with him outside of those contexts. I suspect this because he spent the evening telling us all about what he learned on his school computer learning games. So it’s at least transferring to our house. It seems his learning is decontextualized, which is actually a very good thing overall. That means what he learns will more easily be retained outside the context of school.

I believe this to be the case because I know that I retain everything I learn and can recall practically everything in practically every context. Of course, this means I can talk to you about my very well-researched obsessions whether I’m at home, at work, in a school, on a plane, at a party, or anywhere else you may be unlucky enough to be with me when I decide to tell you absolutely everything I know about the topic. My mind never ceases dwelling on my interests no matter where I’m at. But anything I learn I can recall–and apply–in any context.

A sample size of two is of course not enough to establish a general principle. But it would make sense since we don’t distinguish contexts in any other area of life (this inability to distinguish contexts is also why we on the spectrum have very high rates of interracial/intercultural marriages, since what would be too-wide cultural differences for neurotypicals are all the same to us). Anyone else notice this phenomenon of cross-contextual retention of knowledge? What may that imply for education for both neurotypical and autistic students? What may that imply regarding the tendency for autistics to be highly creative (I find it strange that autism researchers claim we’re not creative, but all the autistic people I know are highly creative–but that’s perhaps another topic for another time)?