Going the Extra Mile
Hi, it's Alex here. It’s been a busy seven weeks for us at Aspie Trainers. Since the start of June, four of us have delivered nine training sessions to over 200 people and our feedback, as usual, has been hugely positive (see the gallery, below, for some highlights). Personally, I was involved in six of those sessions, and on top of that, I’ve been attending job interviews (without success), socialising (with much stress), trying to clear out some stuff from my old family home (rest in peace, Dad), applying for a driving license (medical assessment pending) and I’ve had a chest infection (*cough*), just to make things a little more ‘interesting’. Then of course there’s the usual day-to-day stuff which takes its toll on those of us with executive functioning difficulties. As a result, I feel like I’ve got a lot to write about, but I’m not sure where to begin (hello uncertainty, my old friend)... Let’s start with JobCentres and job interviews.
I'm down with DWP (yeah you know me)
As can been seen from the chart, above, we've delivered three training sessions to West Sussex JobCentre staff recently. I say 'we', but it was actually me, since a lot of our trainers are intimidated by JobCentres and, more specifically, what/who they represent. Austerity Britain, re-founded by David Cameron et al. in 2010 and perpetuated ever since, has resulted in autistic people being fearful that they might lose the little help they receive because of first Atos and now Maximus (both of whom got/get bonusses for the benefits they cut). As a result people who claim benefits need advocates in order to understand what's expected of them, and to make themselves understood when attending assessments and meetings.
From personal experience, I can tell you that the resultant anxiety surrounding any interaction with the DWP is both debilitating and all-consuming. Every time I receive a little brown envelope through the post my stomach tries to evacuate through my larynx. Once I've deciphered the contents of the envelope I have to prepare myself to act, which takes time (think hours as opposed to seconds) to process, and only then can I respond with the information required. Meetings I've had at the JobCentre in the past - where I was often sneered at, sententiously derided, or just plain ignored by people who were at best intellectually my equal and, in most cases, academically less qualified - felt like, no matter how hard I tried to explain myself and my limitations, I wasn't being met half-way. It was exhausting and counter-productive; it led to my mental health deteriorating and was an unfortunate necessary evil. It was for these reasons that I wanted to deliver the training, as I had done in the past with some success.
Meetings I've had at the JobCentre in the past - where I was often sneered at, sententiously derided, or just plain ignored by people who were at best intellectually my equal and, in most cases, academically less qualified - felt like, no matter how hard I tried to explain myself and my limitations, I wasn't being met half-way.
Fortunately, it now appears that Work Coaches at JobCentres around the country are looking to place autistic people in roles to which they are suited on an individual basis; everyone with an autism diagnosis is different, and as such there is no single job perfectly suited to all of us. I feel that those who have received training from me recently can now begin to appreciate the difficulties autistic people encounter when looking for work - inexact job descriptions, ambiguous application forms, lack of time to prepare for interviews, communication difficulties and sensory differences, to list a few - which can make the process more tiresome, to say the least. I hope that by sharing my recent experiences of looking for work with them that they will be able to develop some cognitive empathy (the ability to mentalize, or see the world from another's perspective) with a view to developing some affective empathy (actually feeling what we feel) and finally compassionate empathy (being moved to do something about it to help us).
Interviews: preparation, pitfalls, and personal growth
Just getting an interview can be hard enough for autistic people; playing the application-form game, where it's important to use the right action words in order to sell oneself to the point where one appears to be an achiever, comes easier to some than others. It also doesn't help that I actually read the job descriptions, in detail, and only then proceed to apply if I know I meet all of the criteria. I wish I could be the sort of person who could chat/blag their way into a new role, but unfortunately I'm honest and tend to take language rather literally.
When applying through job sites: it's increasingly rare that the name of the hiring organisation is listed; there have been occassions where the location of the post is actually different to the one described; and there's the perennial vagueness that is ad hoc responsibilities. Then of course there are headhunters who spend a good ten minutes telling you two to three salient points over and over again, before asking whether you would be interested in the role and when you would be available to meet with their clients. Then, once you've consented, they will send your CV off to the employer with a 50% chance (in my experience) that you will never hear from them again. Sometimes, however, you might actually get an interview, with about 48 hours notice to prepare...
Interviews are supposedly an opportunity to sell oneself. The difficulty being autistic in this situation is that each one is held in an completely alien environment where there's little that can be done to prepare for the sensory onslaught - and that's just the office builidings! A couple of weeks back I went to interview for a role. I was met by an HR lady who said that I was early and that they were running late (of course), so I sat outside a small office cubicle in the middle of a corridor linking two open-plan offices and just bided my time (noisy - check, bright lights - check, random people walking past and staring at me - check).
When the lady from the interview panel (consisting of herself and a man in this instance) came to greet me (10 minutes late), the first thing she said was, "Take a seat." Here we go again, was my initial reaction (think about that literally, where did she want me to take it?). She then explained that her male colleague, who would be the successful applicant's line-manager, had a sore voice from doing all the interviews (I was six out of six), so she would be asking the questions. I consented, and then she proceeded to ask a lot of two-part open-ended questions (my working memory isn't the greatest and I struggle with ambiguity) whilst staring at my pecs (not my best asset, but unfortuantely I couldn't show her my glutes). To make matters worse, I wasn't getting any sort of feedback from my answers - there was a distinct lack of personality on show from the panel. Then I was asked about my attention to detail, so I described the room as I saw it (by this stage, I'd had enough); the lights were too bright, the floor was uneven, there were rows of distracting pictures on the wall opposite me, storage boxes piled underneath, and there were innumerable smudges and finger marks on display. I then switched off for the rest of the interview; I was done.
The next day I got some positive feedback from the lady over the phone. She said that they (both her and her colleague) could easily see me in the role and that my Excel and Outlook expertise was impressive. However, there were some very strong candidates... I asked her for some written feedback and she agreed, asking for my email. "I think you might have that on my CV", I replied (worryingly, the lady was supposedly an Managment Information Analyst...). In the end, I got some feedback from the man, whom didn't provide anything constructive from which to learn, and that was that.
Unfortunately, this kind of interview experience wasn't an isolated incidence; within the last eight monthes I've been first runner-up for job roles on no less than three occassions for obscure reasons, such as I needed "more current skills" and I had a "lack of experience" (that's not going to change until someone gives me a job). I was also told in one instance that I asked for too much money, even though I specifically said the words "ideally" and "willing to compromise", and was within the advertised salary range when making my request (not demand). Ironically, I've excelled where I had to do practical tasks in interviews, so I know that I'm capable of suceeding once I get offered a chance to prove myself on the job.
To sum up, employers are looking for people to add value to their organisations, and, in order to see how candidates might achieve this, some ask, "When have you gone the extra mile?", or questions to that effect. My very literal answer to that would be that I'm currently ascertaining the meaning of your question, since I find figurative language confusing. I'm also adapting to your culture of inexact "explanations"/use of language whilst trying to fit in with your abstruse expectations of the person you want for the role, despite not really understanding why it's so important, let alone necessary, to you. If I was to tell employers this then the chances are that I would be misconstrued as rude. The truth, however, is that it can be really difficult for autistic people to make themselves understood, and I don't really think we get the credit we deserve when we succeed in doing this. If employers were to ask the same question in a more literal sense, i.e. When have you delivered more than what was expected of you?, then they might receive a different answer all together, however. Ironically, these employers could benefit from receiving training from us, and if they were willing to pay for it, I wouldn't even need to look for work.