This article was written for USEP by a freelance writer who is a Masters Graduate on the autism spectrum. The Author has requested to remain anonymous, but if you would like to get in touch for writing engagements please contact us.
Job Interviews aren’t fair.
If we’re serious about fixing the autism employment crisis, we must admit that traditional job interviews discriminate against autistic jobseekers.
When I say ‘autism employment crisis’, I’m referring to ABS statistics showing that autistic Australians have a labour force participation rate of 40.8%. I’m referring to the survey showing that those diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome have an employment rate of 54%. I’m referring to Alpha Autism’s finding that it takes autistic jobseekers an average of 35 applications before they are offered an interview, and between 5 and 15 interviews before that interview becomes a job. At worst, they could be applying for 525 jobs.
Interviews are essentially social tests to see how well you can engage socially with potential employers, involving all those essential neurotypical niceties like eye contact, ‘professional’ body language and answering questions not relevant to the role. Even if your only reference points for autism are The Big Bang Theory or The Curious Incident of The Dog in The Night–Time, it should be obvious that interviews aren’t going to be where autistic jobseekers shine. This isn’t exactly rocket science.
What is science is the recent research showing that neurotypicals take an instinctive dislike to autistics. Noah Sasson’s recent article, Neurotypical Peers are Less Willing to Interact with Those with Autism based on Thin Slice Judgments, shows that the only way for an autistic person to make a favourable first impression on a neurotypical is to interact with them through text. Another study from Sassoon shows that neurotypicals perceive autistic voices as unnatural. Now you can quibble on whether cover letters or interviews counts as the first impression, but this research suggests that the autism employment crisis is a story of neurotypical bigotry, not autistic failure.
Rejecting an autistic candidate based on an interview may contradict the Disability Discrimination Act. The Act covers recruitment and mentions indirect discrimination, requirements that apply to everyone but disadvantage certain groups. We know that job interviews disadvantage autistic people, so they should count as a form of indirect discrimination. I’m no lawyer, but if I could afford one I’d be more than willing to test that argument in court.
What should employers do once they realize interviews are unfair? Victim-blaming is the recruitment industry’s default response to criticism, so I’d expect their solutions to revolve around training autistic jobseekers to impersonate neurotypicals in interviews. This is an unhealthy approach because it sets the expectation that the jobseeker will pretend to be neurotypical in the workplace, and masking can eventually result in autistic burnout. I have a few suggestions for how employers can take responsibility for their treatment of autistic jobseekers.
The more your recruitment process resembles the daily business of your organisation, the fairer it is. So if you’re paying people to flatter authority figures, interviews make sense. But if an autistic jobseeker applies for a job that doesn’t involve talking to people, it’s not reasonable to judge their suitability for how well they talk to people. I’d pay them to do a half-day trial, doing some of the tasks you’d typically assign to entry-level employees. Small businesses would need to ask the candidate’s DES to fund the trial, but there’s no reason why larger organisations can’t recruit autistic people through this method.
Finding ways to make interviews accessible would be easier than replacing them altogether. You could give autistics a chance to prepare by emailing them the interview questions a day in advance. If you’re really committed to accessible interviews, you could let autistics answer those questions over email and hammer out the finer details in person, or even let them read prepared statements at the actual interview.
I’d warn employers away from asking autistics behavioural questions. These questions operate on the assumption that past behaviour is the best predictor of future behaviour, going along the lines of ‘Describe a time you adapted your approach to a problem?’ Compared to neurotypicals, autistics have less opportunities to participate in sport, work or academia. That means they’ll have less anecdotes about when they displayed a desirable attribute in a context employers take seriously, so these questions will give their neurotypical competitors the advantage. Situational questions, which are asked in future tense, are fairer because they relate to hypothetical scenarios, but unless you provide the autistic with concrete details they are likely to try to describe their behaviour in each possible variation of the scenario. Or at least, that’s what I do.
Autistic candidates should be allowed to invite an observer, maybe a trustworthy DES consultant, to ensure that the interview is carried out fairly. Before the interview, this observer would tell the interviewer how to conduct an ethical interview and what autism means to the candidate. During the interview, they will watch for unfair questions or ableist comments from the interviewer. Afterwards, the observer will contact the interviewer to learn what they make of the candidate and how they decided whether they were worth hiring. All this will be communicated to the candidate. If the candidate is rejected for what the observer determines is a discriminatory reason, the observer will encourage the organisation to offer the candidate a meeting with another interviewer. Otherwise, the observer, with the candidate’s permission, will publicise the organisation’s unfair hiring practices or complain to the Australian Human Rights Commission. It would be nice if employers faced some actual consequences for their ableism.
No matter how employers try to solve the interview problem, they must chose not to be bigoted against autistic candidates. They should remember to judge candidates on their ability to do the job, not irrelevant criteria like body language or how deferential they are to the receptionist. Probably the easiest way to overcome anti-autistic bias is by learning about autism from autistics. You can start by reading this blog post on how traumatic job interviews can be for autistics.
To learn more about USEP and graduate employment for students with disability in Australia, begin by reading: Improving employment outcomes for graduates with disability.