After earning a Bachelor’s degree in political science, Steven* turned his attention toward a job in public policy. He figured that his knowledge of government, interest in research, and 3.8 GPA would make it easy to find an entry-level position. Instead, he discovered a competitive field where employers expected applicants to have internships or related volunteer experience under their belts. Most of the opportunities were in the Washington, D.C. area, and Steven did not want to move. So he continued visiting job boards, sending out resumes, and hoping for interviews.
Eleven months after graduation, Steven wasn’t thinking about a job shaping public policy. His priority (and that of his parents) was any job that would provide steady income. Two warehouse jobs were short-lived because he couldn’t work quickly enough. Most administrative positions required proficiency with word processing software. There were many jobs in the healthcare field, however they required specific training. Steven was understandably discouraged and concerned about his future.
A life-long fascination with how things work led Alex to pursue an engineering degree. He did well in his classes, but did not develop relationships with professors or fellow students, or even try to find an internship. Six months after graduation, he had one telephone screening interview. Alex would not ask his engineer father for contacts, declaring it nepotism. He was not interested in basic networking or in learning how to answer interview questions.
And then there is Tom, who, after majoring in communications, decided on a career in journalism. Tom has solid writing skills and enjoys interviewing people for articles. He lost a series of jobs because he did not follow instructions, and had conflicts with supervisors and co-workers. He desperately wanted steady income so that he could have his own apartment. Although he didn’t want to “waste” his degree, Tom was considering a return to assembly work, which he did part-time during high school. Among the desirable features: knowing exactly what he needed to do.
Early diagnosis and services beginning in grade school are making a college education possible for more and more young people with Asperger’s Syndrome. Yet as these stories illustrate, finding a job can be a significant challenge, even with a degree in hand. Increasingly in my coaching practice, I see graduates who are floundering, months and sometimes years after graduation. Some have no idea of what positions they are qualified for. Others discover that they are not suited for jobs in their field of study. Nearly all are anxious and confused about the entire process, from writing a resume to interviewing and creating an effective plan.
Assisting individuals who are seeking competitive (not sheltered or supported) employment requires a pragmatic approach. Personal interests must be balanced with the realities of the job market. Knowledge of a subject cannot be confused with having the capabilities to succeed in a field. Job search strategies must be explicitly explained before the individual can apply them to his particular situation.
There are people with Asperger’s Syndrome who create rewarding careers based on their special interests. However, interest in a subject area doesn’t necessarily mean that a person will be able to make a living at it. While this is also true for neurotypicals, the more specialized abilities of Aspergians limit the number of possible career paths.
Holders of liberal arts degrees, in particular, may not know how to sort through the career options to find a good match for their abilities. It was only after Scott earned a Master’s Degree in Anthropology that he realized how very few job openings there were in the field, and that most teaching positions require a doctorate. The entry-level jobs that he did get only lasted a few months. Scott was easily overwhelmed and needed explicit directions for every assignment. When stressed, he either became mentally paralyzed or made impulsive, poorly thought out decisions. When we first met he was working as a data entry clerk, frustrated at not being able to use his intellect.
We explored Scott’s other interests, which included writing and technology. After several months, he decided to pursue technical writing because the content is highly structured, and he would be able to work alone for extended periods of time.
It can be quite instructive to ask an individual what he envisions himself doing once he is employed. When I ask this question, many say that they don’t know. Others reply with inaccurate ideas about job qualifications and their own abilities. Jim wanted a job related to his love of sports. He spent months interviewing for sales positions, the usual entry point for sports business management careers. When we met, it didn’t take long to see why he wasn’t getting offers. Jim spoke in a monotone and showed almost no facial expression. He initially did not want to accept that he needed to work on his nonverbal communication, and even with that, might not be suited for a job in sales.
Career assessments should be taken with a grain of salt, since they have been developed by and for neurotypical people. I have found an up-to-date neuropsychological evaluation to be more useful than knowing a client’s personality type. Understanding cognitive abilities in areas such as attention, memory, and visual-spatial processing can steer individuals toward occupations that emphasize areas of strength, and away from those that emphasize weaknesses. Despite her intellect, Suzanne lost a customer service job because she could not simultaneously listen to customers and type their comments into a database.
The job search itself can be fraught with confusion, particularly when the focus is on the wrong details. Laura developed a mathematical formula to determine whether she was qualified to be a technical documentation writer. The formula was based on statistics about the average number of resumes that must be sent to get an interview, and the average number of interviews it takes to get a job offer. Laura concluded that if she sent a certain number of resumes and did not get an interview, it would mean that she was not qualified.
Literal-mindedness can result in missed opportunities. Adam couldn’t seem to find any jobs to apply for, even though he had skills that were in demand. When we reviewed some job openings together, I discovered that he disqualified himself from positions that called for “good people skills” and the “ability to multitask” – pretty much every job! After defining these as relative, not absolute terms, many more possibilities appeared. In a similar vein, Josh didn’t apply for an opening requiring 2 years of experience because he had worked for 19 months.
Interviewing is a complex social event infused with subtlety and nuance. Simply greeting the interviewer involves making eye contact, smiling, shaking hands and delivering a friendly greeting all within the space of a few seconds. There is small talk to make on the way to the interviewer’s office; a decision to be made about where to sit. One man, who has a Master’s Degree, was confused about why he should be prepared to discuss previous jobs, since they were listed on his resume.
Even interview questions can be ambiguous. Does, “Where do you want to be in 5 years,” refer to geography? How honest should one be when discussing weaknesses? Definitely not as candid as these clients who volunteered, “I’m not a morning person;” “my self-confidence is low;” and “I can’t make small talk.” When an interviewer wanted to know, “Why should I hire you instead of the other candidates?” Bill said, “I don’t know how to answer that, because I haven’t met the other candidates.”
Getting a degree does not guarantee employment. What these individuals need is specific guidance on how to choose realistic jobs or careers, understand the perspective of an employer, communicate their capabilities, and follow through on a plan. Some will need to improve critical skills, such as those related to interpersonal communication, before they are ready to pursue employment. Others need to ease into the workforce with a part-time job (paid or not) in order to learn the job skills needed to develop a career or maintain steady employment, so they do not wind up educated and jobless.
* Names and identifying details have been changed, and in some cases, composites have been used, to protect the privacy of individuals.
Barbara Bissonnette is the Principal of Forward Motion Coaching (www.ForwardMotion.info) and author of the Asperger’s Syndrome Workplace Survival Guide. The College to Career: Asperger’s Syndrome Employment Intensive is an 8-week program she developed to guide individuals through every step of the job search process.