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How can jobseekers with autism communicate their skills?

The Guardian
What do recruiters really mean by communication and interpersonal skills? And how can people with autism prove they fit the bill?


How often do employers say they want "good communication skills" in job specifications? While these loosely-defined attributes are the holy grail for many employers, they're one of the biggest barriers to jobseekers with autism; difficulty communicating is one of the main diagnostic criteria for the disorder.

HR departments need to define what they want, says Rowan Hotham-Gough, who has Asperger syndrome, an autism spectrum disorder. A freelance web developer and former research officer at Plymouth University, he's exploring how universities might be deterring people with autism from responding to their job adverts.

"Recruiters aren't consistent in the way they use phrases such as 'good communication skills'," he says. "They don't seem to share an understanding of what these phrases mean or how they relate to interpersonal skills. Do communication skills mean solely speaking or writing? Are interpersonal skills broader? There's no consensus. Some recruiters group communications skills within interpersonal skills, while others use them interchangeably or list them separately. Be cautious as these may be empty stock phrases that just get rubber stamped on to job adverts."

Someone with autism might not know if they have the necessary skills, he argues, and are left wondering whether they're suitable. "If [a job seeker's] understanding of communication skills is different to the recruiter's they could talk about skills that might not be relevant [at interview]," warns Hotham-Gough.

Only 15% of adults with autism in the UK are in full-time paid employment and 26% of graduates with autism are unemployed – by far the highest rate of any disability group. Many fail to get a job because they just simply can't get past the interview stage.

Richard Crouch, president of the Public Sector People Managers' Association (PPMA), has a particular interest in urging the public sector to tap into autistic talent as his 13-year-old son has autism.

"Numbers of people with autism in work are pitifully poor," he says. "Someone with autism looks just like anyone else – it's a hidden disability and it's difficult to articulate their needs." But it needn't be so. With careful preparation and a change of tactics, people with autism can approach job seeking differently.

"The key is to be extremely well-prepared for an interview, far more than you ordinarily would be," says Crouch. Research the employer in advance, either through a recruitment agent or by contacting the HR department directly.

Before applying, give prospective employers a direct link to the National Autistic Society (NAS) and information that shows how autistic people can enhance their workforce. Employers benefit from the high productivity and low sickness rates of workers with autism and save time through less social chit chat, according to Crouch.

Recent examples of high-profile employers, such as German software company SAP, who have recruited hundreds of people with autism precisely because of their traits, have boosted awareness of how people with autism can benefit businesses.

People with autism work particularly well in structured and organised workplaces; they work accurately, have a good eye for detail and are reliable and meticulous at routine tasks, says the NAS.

Crouch advises jobseekers with autism to take a trusted friend or helper to the interview. A companion can help to articulate what the candidate wants to say and can support and build confidence. "As an employer I'd have no issue with this," Crouch says. A friend could also act as a live testimonial to what's being said in the interview. An extra person could explain communication differences – such as how people with autism have difficulty making eye contact – and how people with autism process information differently.

People with autism often have better pictorial than verbal reasoning and Crouch urges interviewees to spell out their abilities in other non-verbal ways by bringing a short video clip of them carrying out some task related to the work they're applying for – be it driving or computing, for example.

"It's about having a more honest exchange, rather than a 'them-and-us' situation, just to help the panel get under the skin of what's an artificial process," says Crouch.

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