There have been various intangible variables floating on my horizon, and they have been draining my reserves. I usually use those reserves to share and enthuse, and I have missed doing that.
I’m going to share something difficult. I am a perfectionist and hate to get things wrong. I am going to share a failure of mine, because if I only share my successes, I’m not a whole person. We always learn more from our failures in the long run. I haven’t chosen all that I will learn from this yet, more will emerge in the days ahead.
My tale begins with a decision to apply for a graduate programme in public services at the beginning of the year. I graduated a thousand years ago, and always wished I had gone for something like this way back when, in the distant past, when I was fresh-faced and full of the joys of Spring.
I couldn’t have done it then. I couldn’t for the same reason that applying this time took so much from me even though I have so much more self-knowledge now. The tasks would be interactive, the spaces would be new and difficult, my resilience would be tested – my resilience is always being tested, I am resilient to a fault. My autism would be incompatible with some of the testing for the job specification.
I decided to reveal my needs early on. Why not? This is an official situation, there have been statements made about their wanting more autistic people in their upper echelons. Why not apply for the graduate leadership programme? Why not do it as an openly autistic person?
Of course I had my doubts about the wisdom of revealing my autism, but this is why I was applying. The job talked about bringing your specific passions to the workplace, about building things, about change. What a fantastic platform to promote inclusivity! If I don’t, then who will?
The first test was online, made up of situational, “What would you do?” questions with multiple choice answers to rank in order of preference. Closed questions are helpful.
I got through. Whatever it was I said produced a neat, unbiased strength analysis. All well and good in the safety of my sensory haven.
The next stage would be group interactions and a written test. This was where I would need to ask for more. The day in question fell delightfully on my birthday. It was a long drive away, so I would need to leave early to get there on time.
I asked for pictures of people who would be present and the location, if possible, and a more detailed breakdown of what would actually happen on the day, and if I could wear my noise cancelling headphones for the written part of the test.
They happily obliged with the pictures, and they were happy for me to wear headphones as long as I brought my own. They gave a slightly less-brief rundown of the day, and I was assured that this was enough information, it was all the information that would be needed. No one needed to know more.
It wasn’t all the information that I needed. It was enough for someone else, not for me. I didn’t need anything to be given away, but I cannot see why I couldn’t have been told that we would all be given different information to read and present and discuss. That needn’t have been a secret. I cannot see why I couldn’t have been given a set timetable of all events to reduce my variables and help me to plan.
I felt dismissed. I knew they were trying, and I wanted to give them the benefit of the doubt, but I felt unable to state what my needs were more clearly. I felt enough of a burden for having to ask in the first place. Welcoming accessibility is possible.
Later an email was sent to everyone with the details they had given me. Perhaps they decided I may have been given an unfair advantage. Fairness is important, it is not the same as inclusiveness. I’d have been far happier if all information was available to everyone from the beginning.
Time passed and then I received another message. This one asked if I would be happy to come in an hour early, to discuss my adjustments. That would mean needing to stay over the night before, an additional expense, but at least it felt like they were taking me seriously at last, and that they wanted to offer support.
The day came and I compromised my preparation time to get there early. Being autistic, I usually wake early to spend time planning my day, and settling where I will be. The more I can process beforehand, the less I have to process later. It’s a good method and can be invaluable for preparation for changes that could otherwise affect me badly, but I had no time for it. In a strange hotel room after a poor night’s sleep, I skimmed the emails, glanced again at the photos of people and places, grabbed my certificates, and off I went.
Happy Birthday to me.
I was met by a lovely man who made me a cup of tea, and I was taken to the room where the assessment would take place. This was helpful. I was able to claim the space and make it my own. I was filled with hope that they might be flexible in their approach to my needs. I waited patiently, no stimming, no movement, I was in full mask. I wish I could have taken it off, it was heavy and painful. Perhaps I looked too normal. How were they to know how being left alone in a new space with infinite variables would affect me?
Time passed. Someone else came in, I knew her from her picture, she was friendly and clearly passionate about the new scheme. She gave me more information about it – always a good thing – and assured me someone would be along shortly to discuss adjustments.
More time passed. I didn’t have a watch. I didn’t want to pull out my phone for fear of looking unprofessional. That’s one of my rules for such situations. Hard and unbreakable when under stress.
I used visual stims, tracing patterns around the hooks on the wall opposite me, swooping over the backs of the chairs. Movement called to me, but I slammed the door in its face.
Finally she came. I was asked if I needed more time for the written assessment. That was the question that needed an hour. I said that my issue would be in my ability to process language, if it became too much, in which case more time wouldn’t help. What would help would be situations that were designed to alleviate the stress.
“We all get like that when we’re stressed.” She replied.
Ah yes, nothing like starting a day with, ‘We all do that’ to make me want to bang my head against the wall in all my autistic glory. I didn’t respond, there was an awkward pause and then a hurried, “But I imagine it’s worse if you’re autistic.” I nodded and smiled.
Nod and smile.
Nod and smile.
I have written about why “I do that too” isn’t helpful here. When you’re on the sharp end of an assessment, it’s not the time to explain things, it’s not the time to be difficult, so I nodded and smiled instead.
I wanted to ask if she’d ever not been able to link the word ‘bag’ to its meaning. I wanted to ask if the simplest of connections had not been available to her. I wanted to explain the depth of loss in that moment, when the words that you trust to be there for you, fly away to warmer climes. I nodded and smiled some more.
Other candidates began to arrive soon after, so that was the end of my hour’s adjustment. I don’t know why they needed that hour. I don’t know why they wanted to see me and then left me. It was… not pleasant for me.
But I already knew that I was dealing with a situation not built around me. A situation that had already demonstrated a clear lack of understanding. Saying you are a disability-positive employer, does not magically make it so. There was no malice involved; some real effort had gone in to providing what I had asked for, these were people who wanted to get it right, but who instead were demonstrating that they didn’t get it.
My ability to process language went downhill abruptly after another seventeen applicants entered the room. Small-talk was inevitable, it was loud and crowded and brash and went on for far longer than it needed to.
I joined in. I communicated in their ways, and mirrored like enchanted glass. I remember thinking that there was no way that I could have done this as a fresh graduate, it would have broken me. Flight reflex told me to run. Stubbornness sat me firmly down and had me join in a discussion about a stranger’s new car. I probably joined in wrong; my car is a 2001 Toyota Landcruiser, it wasn’t quite what they had in mind. I have no interest in new things.
Finally we were split into groups, and this is where my first failure blossomed. The instructions were written, but read out by the moderator. I struggle to process spoken language at times, reading is easier. I thought I’d taken it all in.
Halfway through the actual exercise I realised that my assumption that we had all been given the same information to quietly read after the spoken instructions was incorrect. We had all been given different things to talk about. I had not presented my information as clearly as I would have if I’d known. My fault. My mistake.
‘Fool,’ I thought as I felt my heart crash and clash its cymbals, ‘Why can you not just know the things you need to know?!’ I couldn’t berate myself for not listening, I had listened intently, but with no stimming and too many variables, the words wouldn’t flower with meaning.
I did what I could, recovered where possible, tried to bridge the gap.
Next was the written test. My brain was burnt already. An hour of performance interaction, with three moderators circling like vultures had taken its toll. My mistake was to mask, but I had not been made to feel safe. I was not somewhere that wanted me to be autistic, no matter how many times they may say it. The mask stayed.
There was a brief pause. We, the candidates, were left in the room to chat. A break for everyone else, more work for me. More variables, more small-talk, more exhaustion.
Somehow (and really, what are the odds of this?) they got onto the subject of autism. I had not mentioned anything to any of them. One of the women worked with surgeons, and she raised the point that a certain type of surgeon is often autistic.
It’s probably true. I don’t actually have a problem with statements like this. When attention to detail and hyperfocus are important to a job, it rarely surprises me that autistic people find their calling.
It was the next statement that whipped me across the face and left me stung.
“We’ve got some of those where I work.” came the conversational response.
‘Some of those’; I held my breath for a moment. There followed a list of rudeness and bluntness and how difficult ‘those’ are. I kept my mask up as ‘some of those’ were ripped apart. There couldn’t possibly be any of ‘those’ here, not in this place of properness.
I couldn’t have argued it if I’d wanted to, I was exhausted already. The conversation moved on, but I didn’t.
I’m ‘one of those’. One of those people whose clarity and wish to get to the point is interpreted as blunt. One of those who when she can’t deal with more small-talk, is interpreted as rude. One of those who is difficult, because she asks for adjustments and needs things to be certain.
There was no time to recover, the next bit came soon enough. For a moment I considered not wearing my headphones. They would unmask me. Reveal my soft underbelly of otherness.
I looked at the words on the page, and they danced daintily for me. I needed them to be still. Headphones on. Funny looks clocked. The words became words again and I buried myself in the task. I always liked exams; a time when interactions stop and it’s all about you and your ideas.
Eventually I escaped. It was not a good birthday, not how I would choose to spend the day, and then of course there was the price – exhaustion and migraines. I managed a honey ice cream in Aberaeron on the way home. I had to celebrate somehow. It all tasted too strong, I was a fool for thinking this would ever suit me. Migraines rumbled over me, a result of bad environment, I hoped that the recruitment process did not reflect the work environment. It was not doing a great job of demonstrating itself as a positive workplace for someone like me.
I unexpectedly passed the second stage. I was unhappy with my level of performance, but had somehow exceeded expectations on two of the criteria, and met all others.
Despite the difficult situation, the tasks themselves were possible. I enjoy discussion, I don’t take disagreement personally the way I have seen some people do, I enjoy finding solutions, and I strongly believe that everyone needs to be heard to get all angles.
I enjoy problem solving, the written task required a certain amount of data analysis and a plan. It wanted me to present the information in a way that didn’t suit me (requiring executive function), but we had been told that we could present things in our own ways, and that was crucial.
I was down to the final few. Next would be the interview.
Standardised interviews don’t suit me. Open questions where you expect me to guess what it is you want from me. Set structures to answers that require executive function that I don’t have. There would be a presentation – that would be fine, it’s just more public speaking, but then the questions would come. They would not be linear, they would be open and ranging and require my weakest ability to access the correct response.
Part of the issue was that there was no clear way to prepare. Instead of the usual set of required experience and skills, the interview was to be based on abstract personality traits, just as the previous section had been. The successful candidate would be these things, not necessarily have experience of these things. That was my foolish assumption.
They would be Adaptable – I am highly adaptable in style and substance, but do badly with unexpected change in the short term.
They would be a Challenger – I like things to be clear and right and don’t mind speaking my mind when it means disagreeing.
They would be a Collaborator – I am a strong believer that it is only through connections that you get to see the whole picture. Contact can be difficult, but not when it’s purposeful.
They would be Driven – I want to change the world.
They would be Inclusive – I really do believe that inclusivity is the only option that makes sense.
They would be an Influential Communicator – I am a writer, poet, public speaker and playwright. I like to think this is one of my strong points.
They would be Passionate – I believe that we can make things better, I believe in people.
They would seek Personal Growth – I’m always growing and learning about myself, it is one of my drivers. I’ll stop growing on the day I die and not before.
This is where the communication gap becomes a chasm. Their questions based on specific experiences failed to explain to me what they wanted. I thought they wanted to know about me, and not link to specific historical points, that would take me on a journey through all my variables. I remember that panicked thought of, ‘I don’t know what they want.’ I felt like I needed a translator present to explain what they wanted from me.
The questions seemed phrased as wide hypothetical situations, rather than specific things that I could problem-solve. My mind became slow and cumbersome as it tried to process too much all at once. My gears squeaked and ground to a halt.
Suddenly it clicked, this was not an open door that anyone could step through, this was a door for ‘people like us’ with experiences we can understand.
If my feedback for ‘Passionate’ can be a comment about ‘excited body language and expressions’ and ‘No real examples or specfic (sic) connections’, then there is no bridge in the world to help me reach the other side.
‘Excited’; that word really grinds. Not enthusiastic or animated… excited. It has a tone to it that I don’t like. It is on a parr with ‘Special Interest’ over ‘Expertise’. It is a poor choice of words for a professional setting. I’m pushing forty, I’m not a King Charles Spaniel. I can’t help but hope that that word was used for other candidates, and was not reserved for me alone.
Of all the qualities, I only demonstrated ‘Driven’ and ‘Personal Growth’ to the required standard. A lifetime of School Reports reading ‘Must try harder’ flashed into view. There was no understanding of what trying harder meant, or that for all my cleverness there are things I find hard that the average person doesn’t even register.
I didn’t get any further. I failed at the final hurdle, and my first response to that was enormous relief. Did I really want to work with people who I would need to battle and argue with for every tiny thing? Did I want to be the guinea pig?
My second response was, “WHY DON’T THEY WANT ME?!” Am I not marvellous and fabulous and everything anyone could hope for?! (Joke)
There were many obstacles along the way, and all of them were unnecessary, but when I received that final feedback. It was… confusing. Feedback from previous stages had been productive and helpful, this was… uncomfortable. I have never had feedback on my body language and expressions given before (what was its relevance?). I apparently hadn’t given examples of things I am passionate about, and yet my presentation was about inclusivity (specifically autism) in the workplace; something I am genuinely passionate about.
Do I think that I gave an interview that would have got me on the placement? No. In all honesty, the way they needed me to process and present information is not compatible with my brain. I cannot do it. It is beyond me. I do not fit in their tick boxes. I have had my weaknesses revealed to me, but they are not on that list of qualities. They are mired in Executive Function and Communication Incompatibility.
I spoke in my interview about the need to understand the source of problems – the need to understand ‘why?’ before you can think about solutions – I couldn’t see the ‘why?’ in the questions. I couldn’t understand from the method of presentation. I couldn’t bring my problem solving to bear.
I do incredibly well with the practical problem-solving, “What would you do in this specific situation?”, and utterly terribly in the executive-function-needing, excessive-variable-creating, “Tell me about a time when you were in this vague situation.”
You’d think that the former would be the more desirable skill, but it rarely is.
I applied in January, and have finally finished my journey in May. The variables have cleared from the horizon. You could say that the role would not have suited me, so it did a good job of weeding me out, and that’s fair. Perhaps the variables would have been too much, but the recruitment process is not the job, and it is designed around choosing a certain candidate that does not have a brain like mine. If you want inclusivity, you have to be adaptable, and this process is not.
Today I am disheartened. Tomorrow I shall pick up that torch again and carry on with changing the world. The interview may not have succeeded in unearthing my passion for change, but that just makes me feel sorry for the ineffectuality of the interview. Had I felt that I had performed at my best, and not succeeded, I would be at peace with a rejection. Knowing that that is not the case, brings my strong sense of fair play to the fore.
Interviews are just one more thing set up like that because “That’s the way we’ve always done them”, and that is regressive and unequal thinking. I am proud to be ‘one of those’, and I’m so sorry that so many of us have to face a lack of understanding and unthinking obstacles in the workplace.
Communication is the responsibility of both parties, but nowhere makes me feel more deficient than standardised interview questions that cannot adapt to meet me in the middle.
What might solutions look like? Time before the interview to read through the questions and make notes, would help. Clear and specific questions with flexibility around their phrasing and repetition would help. My greatest annoyance is this is not indicative of my ability to think on my feet – I am good at that, I demonstrated that ability in the group task, but I cannot produce that style in that way at interview. It is not the same skill.
There is a chance that something will come of the process, and that it may lead to other opportunities. I have questioned the wisdom of writing this, as it may well close doors further down the line, but I have decided to go ahead anyway. Why? Because a closed door for me could mean an open door for someone coming after me. If we don’t speak out for fear of consequence (which is utterly valid, since our opportunities are already narrower, and reducing them further is a difficult decision) then things cannot change.
No one in this process saw reasonable adjustments as anything beyond ‘How to get you through the door’. I cannot express just how much of my time this process has taken from me. Not the hours at the centres, the travel, the waiting, but also the planning and recovery time I needed. I gave it freely, but the cost will linger for months.
Is that cost a justification for not having someone like me in a leadership role? You could argue that, but I would argue that the rigid thinking of what makes a good leader is the reason that so many of those roles are filled by stereotypical caricatures of a leader, and are not reflecting the diversity of our communities at all.
That level of cost isn’t a necessary part of the process. I have seen assessment packs handed out to everyone as standard, that contain more than enough information for the likes of me. No reason to feel a burden for asking for extra detail, no need to question the fairness of giving one person information over another. Everything fair and equitable. No reason to be Oliver asking for more at the table of the gatekeepers.
I don’t want to have to ask for reasonable adjustments, I want a process that has the flexibility to include me at my best. I came out of each scenario frustrated by each new layer of chains wrapped around me.
I did not overcome my autism to get so far, I overcame the system. I was bound and gagged and misunderstood. My first reaction is always to feel frustrated at who I am, but that path is useless and painful. I cannot change it, I have created many coping mechanisms, but there is only so far they can go, and autism is not the obstacle; procedures that don’t take into account the communication styles of autistic people, are the obstacles. Extrinsic and changeable, but only if you mean what you say about diversity.
I have followed the pattern of many autistic women in employment; many jobs in disparate environments, a confusing path from sector to sector. I have worked in public, private and voluntary sectors. I have worked with the public, in private companies and alone. I have worked in inner-city public libraries, a rural mine, schools, local councils, nature reserves, farms, my house alone with a computer. I am a writer, blogger, Playwright (come and see my play, The Duck! Shameless plug), Essayist, Poet, Creator. I am a spread-sheet and data lover. I am a pattern-finder and solution-searcher.
Finding the one answer to an abstract question in the mishmash of my autistic patterns doesn’t come naturally to me. My spiderweb thinking darts out in every direction, sifting through everything, as the long, echoing pause drags on, and I eventually blurt out something you didn’t want from me.
Recruitment scenarios that don’t fit, feel like trying to perform at your best with both hands tied behind your back. It does not feel like a fair and open interview process, but an exclusionary and closed one.
I haven’t written this to criticise the body involved, I truly believe that they want to do better, I truly believe that they want to be inclusive. I am writing this in the hope that I am right, and that Personal Growth is something that we all want.
I am going to try very hard not to learn the wrong lesson from this. I am going to try not to learn that my way of doing things is the wrong way. I am going to reflect on the things that I can change, and accept the things that I can’t. I hope that the successful candidates bring with them a passion for change, and a desire for adaptability and inclusivity. The future doesn’t have to include me to be bright. I am ever the optimistic pragmatist.
I’m going to keep hoping, keep trying, and keep moving forwards. The world is my mollusk of choice – though I’m not entirely sure why I would want it to be: I suppose there could be something wise to learn about a craggy exterior that protects the soft inner-world, but I think I’d rather not build a shell. I’ve tried that, and it doesn’t work. More dismantling of masks is needed, not more hiding.