The art of attending a job interview when you have Asperger’s
I left school in 1994 and had my first job interviews in the same year. I was, like most Aspies both then and now, full of nerves fueled by a strong desire to make the right impression. What I hope to do here is outline what I did to overcome them and what helpful advice I was given, which will hopefully also be of use to you.
My very first interview was in a hotel in my home town. My mother had a wee word with me the night before. Mum’s advice was very well-intentioned — keep your answers short, don’t mention any of your difficulties and make yourself come across as the best person for the job (some kind of receptionist-cum-general-dogsbody). So, off I went, smartly dressed, quite nervous and determined to make a good impression.
I was greeted at the door of this place by someone whom I can only describe as a vamp, who swept me in and then proceeded to tell me all the reasons why I should not want to work there! I left what seemed like hours later, still not quite sure what the hell had happened. I did, however, learn a very valuable lesson that day. Always keep a little bit of your brain aside to expect the unexpected (I know that’s a big ask for an Aspie and may even provoke more anxiety but it’s a fact of life and we can all handle the unexpected with the right coping strategies).
Experience Number Two —a café in Edinburgh, where I went for a job as a cleaner. I will, no doubt, in the fullness of time, devote a full and frank article to my many and varied experiences in this job. Suffice it to say that it was not a happy experience, but I learned a lot from the interview. Closed question followed closed question. Have you done this kind of work before? Are you able to work the hours as advertised? When can you start? Danger signs should have been flashing, but, as usual, they were not.
I was not picking up on the signs being given to me by my interviewer. This is most definitely not a good thing. I got the job. What I also got was one very valuable lesson — pick up on the bits in-between the words of your interviewer. How desperate are they to get someone — anyone — into the job? Why are they so keen to have it filled quickly? How interested are they in you and what you can bring to the job? The best interviews, as I have discovered subsequently, are conversations, subtly steered by the interviewer, to test you and get the responses they want. You need to be prepared.
You also need to be prepared for the unexpected. What should happen? What should be asked? Why didn’t certain things happen? These are all questions you need to keep in mind before, during and after an interview.
Now we are going to move forward 14 years. I am now 30. I have worked in an office environment for 11 years. I have much more experience in interviews. I have relocated to be nearer my parents. I am looking for a new job in this area. I have filled out nearly 200 job applications. Finally, I get an interview. The money is good. The job sounds just right for me. The interviewer asks me to reel off my relevant past experience. He tells me I am fantastic. He keeps telling me I am fantastic. This is what I want to hear. Later that day, I get a call asking me to attend a second interview the next day, because they were so impressed with me. Again, alarm bells should be ringing. But this is what I want to hear, so they are not.
Needless to say, I soon found out the next day that I was being led up a blind alley about the job. This brings me to another important point — watch out for interviewers who speak more than you do and tell you how wonderful you are. They will tell you as little as possible about the job. They are trying to sell an illusion. So, the important points I learned from this painful experience are:
- Don’t be fooled by flattery. People telling you how great you are is very nice but it doesn’t get you any further forward. And it won’t get you the job you want.
- Make sure the interviewer asks you as many questions as you ask them. And expect a direct answer to a direct question. If you don’t get one, this is when alarm bells should start ringing. Don’t be frightened to rephrase the question and ask it again. It might make the interviewer squirm but it will firm up your resolve and increase your confidence.
Thankfully, the experience which followed was a very positive one. It was for the job I am still in just now. I had done my homework; I knew, right from the start, what kind of position I was going for. I went in feeling confident. The interviewers put me at ease. They very quickly got the back-and-forth nature of an interview’s conversation going. This means that they made statements to which I could respond in a friendly and open manner (“It’s a nice day, isn’t it?”; “Have you been down here long?”; “Did you see that thing on TV last night” and so forth).
Their interview questions were all along the lines of “Describe a time when you have dealt with a difficult customer”, “Can you give an example of a time when you went above and beyond the call of duty to deliver excellent customer service?”, “Give us your definition of excellent customer service” and “So, what do you know about us as a company?”. All fairly standard questions, but each led to a development in the conversation which meant I could reveal more about myself and, most importantly, tell them why I was the right person for the job. When you are given a chance to sell yourself, grab it with both hands.
What are you nervous about? Is it the social interaction? Do you think you may not be able to cope with the job? These are all natural and normal nerves to have. So, let’s take social interaction first. I always find talking these things through with someone close to you very helpful. Someone who can be open and honest with you and in whose company you will feel relaxed. Mention to the friend who’s helping you prepare for the job any bad experiences you have had in the past. Be totally honest with both them and yourself. Why was it a bad experience? Talk through how you want to come across, why you want the job and — most important of all — why you think you are the right person for the job. Websites such as www.tonyattwood.com for those of you job seeking in the UK and Australia and The National Autistic Society (www.nas.org.uk) for those of you job seeking in the UK and (find the USA equivalent of the NAS website and put it in here) for those of you doing likewise in America are particularly valuable resources here.
You, as the Aspie, need to know how you are coming across. Your role play partner needs to be completely open and honest with you about how you come across. Go through the whole role play with them and then, over a nice cup of tea or coffee, discuss it with each other. Be prepared to take on board constructive criticism. If you are not sure about something or still a little nervous, ask your partner about it. Take notes of all advice given to you. Particular pointers and bits of advice which I have found useful are:
- Eye contact Remember to blink regularly, firstly so your eyes don’t dry out and secondly, so that your interviewer knows you are paying attention to them. Looking down at your shoes or to the side can easily be misread as a sign of dishonesty. Also, if you maintain easy eye contact with your interviewer, it will help your voice remain strong, which always counts in your favour. The surer you look and sound about yourself, the more people will warm to you.
- Bad past experiences Why were they bad? What could you have done differently? How do you feel the interviewer reached to you? Why might that have been the case? What do you think it was (if anything) that the interviewers did wrong? Make a note of each of these and, again, talk them through with your role play partner. This will, I assure you, make you feel better about yourself.
- Do your homework To succeed at interview, you must do your homework on both the job you are going for and the company concerned.
- Marry the skill set to the job what skills have you got which you would use in this job (include transferable skills gained in other roles)? How have you used them well in the past? What evidence do you have to support this?
- Others working in the company Who do you know (if anyone) who works in the company? What do they have to say about it? What can you learn from this?
- What type of position? Is this a temporary or permanent position? What hours will you be expected to work? What salary is being offered?
These are all very basic things but it is surprising just how many people overlook them.
And now, another good area to focus on — what questions should you expect to be asked? Typical interview questions I have come across include:
- What attracts you to this position?
- Why are you looking to leave your current job?
- What would you bring to this position?
- Describe yourself to us.
- How would friends and family describe you?
- What would you say are your flaws?
- So, what do you know about what this position involves?
- What do you know about the company?
Be careful how you answer these. The answers you give will depend on whether you get the job or not. Also, remember this is a two-way street. What questions do you have ready to ask? Some good questions are:
- I see you’ve been at this company for quite some time. What has made you stay?
- I see one of this company’s recent major achievements is xx. What part did we play?
- What are this company’s main targets for the next six months?
- What kind of social activities does this company/department organise for staff?
- What skills do you see an employee gaining whilst in this job and can I expect on-going training?
- Is there opportunity for advancement and what kind of roles do people here typically progress to?
These will, again, show you have done your homework. They will also show you have taken an active interest in the company. Both of these always go in your favour. They don’t guarantee you the job but they’ll get you one more step up the ladder.
And so, finally, to physical presentation. Dress smartly. It should be appropriate to the role but err on the more presentable, tidy side. In my case, I have an office job, so suit and (business-like) tie with white or light blue shirt and business (dark) trousers; suit jacket and black or dark blue (at least knee-length) skirt with (again) white or light blue blouse for ladies. Dark, clean and well-polished shoes are the order of the day for both sexes. And when you’re in there, remember to breathe!
A strange thing to say, perhaps, but these things matter. Regular, shallow-to-mid breaths will slow your heart rate, stop you from sweating as much. You will, therefore, appear relaxed and in control, in front of your interviewer. This is good. This is what you want. Sit up straight and remember about eye contact. Practise this many times in your role play. You may be nervous at first, but I, from experience, assure you, with practice, in a short time, this will all start to feel and become very natural.
And very last, but not least, don’t overthink or overplay the interview in retrospect. Arrange and have in place something you enjoy doing afterwards to take your mind off it. And always ask for feedbackonce you’ve been told whether you got the position or not. It shows willing and will be most useful for you for future interviews.
ROBERT LAING BIOGRAPHY
Robert discovered he had Asperger’s at the age of 20, quite by chance. His mother had been given Tony Attwood’s first book and recognized within it characteristics and situations similar to these encountered by both Robert and herself as a parent.
Robert has felt moved to write about Asperger’s – both his own experience with it and also the help that is available out there to others – now, because there are more people both being born with it and also being diagnosed with it retrospectively, in later life. He wishes to offer help and advice to others, just as others have done for him.
Aside from Asperger’s Syndrome, Robert also writes for a variety of website and print publications on subjects such as music, books and the local area in which he lives.
Robert has done a considerable amount of research into the average Aspie diet. He is sure that both parent and Aspie alike will find something to relate to in both this and future articles and welcomes feedback from both. He can be contacted for this and other writing matters at firstname.lastname@example.org