Graduate view: Job seeking with Asperger Syndrome

Finding meaningful employment after graduating can be difficult for many people. However, for graduates with certain disabilities, this process can be particularly challenging writes 'ASD Grad'

Finding meaningful employment after graduating can be difficult for many people. However, for graduates with certain disabilities, this process can be particularly challenging. I was diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome as a teenager. Asperger Syndrome is a condition that can affect communication and social skills, and also lead to certain unusual behavioural patterns, such as an obsessive interest in narrow or obscure subjects. I enjoyed a fairly successful academic record, gaining several good A-levels and a degree. I fully expected that my success as a student would translate into a successful career in a meaningful, interesting and well-rewarded job. After all, everyone from my parents and my teachers through to Tony Blair had told me that the road to career success lay through hard work and good grades as a student. This proved to be far from true in my case.

Many new graduates struggle to find work immediately after university, but my experience was perhaps even more difficult than those of my peers and certainly more drawn out. Some of these problems seemed to be similar to those experienced by many other recent graduates who are not disabled, but others were closely or directly related to my condition.

The first thing that I discovered to my surprise, in common with many other recent graduates, was that most potential employers were not as impressed by my academic achievements and qualifications as I had hoped and expected. The next issue was that they also seemed to be preoccupied with the fact that my work experience was limited to having worked in bars and supermarkets. Again I was surprised by this, since I had not been successful in gaining a place on one of the extremely competitive summer internship programmes I had applied to, for the most part I considered that gaining both my academic qualifications and the kind of experience that I now apparently required were largely incompatible. It is of course very difficult to gain full time work experience when studying full time, especially if you study a very academically focused degree which does not include anything like a sandwich year.

As well as this, in hindsight it was probably also the case that the nature of the jobs that I applied for did not really help my cause. I mostly applied for prestigious graduate schemes with "blue chip" corporations, whose entry standards seemed to be commensurate with my academic achievements. In hindsight, this was a mistake and I would have been better casting my net wider.

So far, the experiences that I have described could have been those of any recent graduate. However, it became apparent that my condition was also the cause of some quite specific problems. The combined effect was that while most of the people I had graduated with eventually found employment, my increasingly desperate and dispiriting job hunt seemed to continue indefinitely. I was unemployed for nine months and I eventually drifted into very low-paid temping, often on the minimum wage. This was some time before the financial crash caused the current graduate unemployment crisis and as a result the economic climate was, at the time, far more benign than it is now.

What, then, were these specific problems related to my condition that so hampered my search for graduate level employment? In general, they seemed to relate to the interview and assessment process. I applied for dozens, possibly hundreds of jobs during this period, and while I was immediately declined by the majority of them, I was invited to a fairly large number of interviews.

This was the stage at which the problems specific to my condition became prevalent, and it is significant that I never got beyond the first interview stage for any of the assessment processes that I undertook. I noted at the start of this piece that Asperger Syndrome impacts upon sufferers' communication and social skills. As a result, I found interviews to be particularly difficult. Many people find interviews to be challenging and daunting, but as a result of these difficulties, a person with Asperger Syndrome can have particular problems surrounding extreme nervousness, understanding questions properly and expressing their meaning.

I can recall some dreadful experiences in interviews, and often received some very negative feedback about my interview technique, my communication skills and my personal presentation. As an example, I can recall one of my first graduate job interviews, which was with a high-profile industry regulator. I prepared for the interview in much the same way that I used to prepare for exams, reading a great deal about the industry and the regulator and making copious notes. I even read the relevant Act of Parliament which gave the regulator its statutory foundation, which was doubtlessly a reflection of my past life as a politics student. In the event, I was not given the opportunity to convey the vast amount of facts and data I had learnt during the interview.

Instead, I was asked a series of standard "competency based" interview questions, for which I had not prepared. As a result, the interview was a complete disaster, as I struggled to think of times when I had worked as part of a team or displayed leadership skills, often trying to draw on my limited range of experiences linked to my studies. When, for example, asked for an example of a situation in which I had worked as part of a team, being unable to think on my feet I gave the example of a time when I had done a group presentation at university. Needless to say, I was not invited back for a second interview.

Finally, I should also say that many of these difficulties that I experienced were in part the result of the fact that I never actually disclosed my disability to potential employers. I had believed that disclosing that I had a disability would not be helpful and that potential employers would not look favourably upon this, especially since I believed that my condition would present particular problems in the workplace. However, I subsequently learnt that this was a mistake, and that employers are generally very happy to accept applications from disabled graduates and to put reasonable adjustments in place, both to the interview and assessment process as well as to your daily working life if your application is ultimately successful. For example, the kind of adjustments to the assessment process that were later made to account for my condition helped solve many of the particular problems that I faced with interviews. For example, when I disclosed my condition to potential employers they were able to seek advice as to the kind of questions that were appropriate for an interviewee with Asperger Syndrome.

After more than two years of this increasingly unhappy experience I returned to what, at that stage, I knew best by returning to university to study for a Master's degree. This proved to be an extremely good move, as when I declared my condition the disability office at my new university put me in touch with organisations that could provide both help with study support but also with the future transition from academic study to employment. Subsequently, my experience of leaving study to enter the world of work would prove to be much more positive and successful than it had been when I first graduated.

In my next piece, I will explain how I came to overcome many of the challenges that I had faced, with some help from others, and endeavour to explain how other graduates with autism or other disabilities may learn from my experiences.

The GuardianTramp

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