Employment Issues for people with Asperger’s – a first person perspective

Troy graduated with a law degree yet is having difficulty finding a job as an attorney
Troy graduated with a law degree yet is having difficulty finding a job as an attorney

The average interview will force an AS person to simultaneously study themselves and the interviewer(s), deal with typical interview stress (and special anxiety from being in a new area and around a new person who is judging them), and think of good answers to hard questions. All this mental and emotional exertion, all at the same time, for the duration of the interview, for a much-needed job, can be overwhelming…

By Troy Crumrine, JD
United States Department of Justice

In my experience, the main employment issue faced by people with Asperger’s Syndrome (AS) is all too often, “What employment?” I have read that a large percentage of people with AS are un- or underemployed and, looking back, I believe it. It was two years after passing the Pennsylvania bar exam and literally dozens of interviews, even more applications, and being turned down by the military (I was told that autistics are excluded from all branches, period) that I was able to find my current temporary job as a paralegal).

Frustration doesn’t begin to cover how I have felt. Realizing my need for experience, I juggled two full-time jobs for three months after graduating from law school – volunteering for a legal municipal office by day and working at a junk mail envelope factory at night. Experience or not, though, I believed there had to be something better. So to find it, I applied to every job I thought I had even a slight chance of getting. I know I was qualified for many of those jobs, because I was granted interviews all over Pennsylvania, but still no job offer. I was even willing to volunteer at different offices without pay just to gain more experience, but no one would even return my call. Particularly for someone like me, with a self-image tied to work, this was hell, especially because I knew I could do the work. As proof, my last evaluation at my current job was excellent.

I feel that interviews are a big reason for my unemployment, and by extension probably for many people with AS. Personally, I was turned down for at least one job explicitly because the interviewer decided I wasn’t charismatic enough. The skill of reading another person in even the most basic social interaction, let alone an interview, is for most people an intuitive process. For someone with AS, it is an intellectual process, requiring conscious study of posture, tone, expression, and other cues, which then must be mentally processed as quickly as possible to gauge what the other person is thinking or feeling. People with AS are also often described as naturally awkward and shy, some even having trouble making eye contact. This requires a second conscious effort to correct and appear normal. Thus, the average interview will force an AS person to simultaneously study themselves and the interviewer(s), deal with typical interview stress (and special anxiety from being in a new area and around a new person who is judging them), and think of good answers to hard questions. All this mental and emotional exertion, all at the same time, for the duration of the interview, for a much-needed job, can be overwhelming and thus lead to a presentation that seems less than stellar, especially when compared to applicants without AS. Oh, and don’t forget: “Just relax.”

Employment itself can pose issues too. People with AS often need things explained differently to them, and a lot of bosses don’t have the time or patience to answer questions. I had one boss who got visibly frustrated when I asked for clarification, which wasn’t provided. And then he got mad when what I handed in wasn’t what he wanted. This boss also, despite knowing I had a disability, thought “sink or swim” would be an effective teaching method (and again got mad when he got back what he put in). I was bullied, sometimes physically, by coworkers at another job. And, since I was just a temp, talking to the supervisor wasn’t an option. These are just a few of my experiences. I could tell more stories, and even some about other people with AS, but those are their tales to tell.

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Article courtesy of Medical Law Perspectives. Medical Law Perspectives provides monthly reports on medical litigation topics in the news, and a weekly newsletter on CDC and FDA warnings and alerts, with new case decisions on medical topics.

3 Comments

  • I went eight years without having paid employment, seven of them post diagnosis (in 2006 at the of 31, after many short term jobs and periods of unemployment) before getting my current job in 2013. I can empathize with your situation, having lived much of it myself.

  • A related issue is that, once you have been hired, you are unlikely to be promoted because you are perceived as over-strict following rules, you are far too candid when asked your opinion, and you cannot “chat.”

    With regard to getting jobs as an attorney, I was lucky because I graduated from Harvard Law School (then 80% male) cum laude, and I was an attractive female at a time when Wall Street firms needed women to meet diversity goals.

    And of course, nobody had ever diagnosed that odd but sexy girl as Asperger’s.

    At the prestigious Wall Street firm that hired me from HLS in 1978, much of my oddness was ascribed to my being female. After five years at that firm, I had only a little trouble finding an in-house counsel position before it was “up or out.”

    I was further lucky because my main extracurricular activity from grade school onwards was acting. IMO more youngsters with Asperger’s should become thespians, because they can learn to play roles on stage that are useful in real life, too.

    However, I still had ongoing difficulties at work because of my continuing failure to understand, much less exercise, tact with bosses, subordinates and clients (I finally grasped the concept of white lies only after I had children in my late thirties). I also flatly refused to break rules when my clients wanted me to do so, which rendered me highly unpopular with many. That refusal also got me fired from my first in-house position.

    I was also unlucky in my Aspie obsession: horses. It both puzzled and frustrated my employers when I got upset at the very possibility of travel that prevented me from riding. Somehow, I managed to ride on every business trip that lasted more than two days, even in Europe.

    However, it was clear I would never make Partner at the NY firm (one evaluation noted that, despite my outstanding legal acumen, I did not have the capacity to be “a leader of men”) or be promoted in-house. And I got used to being described as “an acquired taste,” “not like the other kids,” lacking “EQ” (emotional intelligence), and “not trying hard enough to satisfy” business unit Vice Presidents.

    Now that I am finally following my plan to retire early and write, I am ambivalent about suggesting a legal career to other Aspies. The people aspect is beyond exhausting, leading to depression and PTSD. However, “back office” practice, like Tax and Patents in big firms, might be more rewarding than debilitating. Appellate work in a firm also involves much less “people” contact than most other specialties; however, it does require affirmatively flattering judges and at least withholding comments about what you really think from bosses, clients and colleagues. Finally, pure web-based practice, though less financially stable, of course requires the least in-person interaction. I, personally, find it much easier to be “tactful” in writing than in person.

    My two cents.

  • Marianna Bond says:

    My adult daughter with AS recently graduated with her MLIS but can’t seem to get past an interview for jobs that she is more than qualified for. I don’t know where to turn or how to help her learn how to do well at the interview stage. I know one f the major issues is her lack of eye contact. Any suggestions? We are in Texas…

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