Job Applications: To Come Out or Not?

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One of the big questions our autistic students wrestle with is the question of coming out. Even today there are many misconceptions about autism. When we disclose our autism, we’re often met with ignorance and judgment.

Perhaps the most frustrating thing is the widespread denial of intelligent articulate autistic people’s existence. “You’re a William and Mary student,” so-called experts say with authority. “You had to be sharp to get into a place like that. You can’t be autistic!”

Or the ever-popular, “My friend has an autistic son, and believe me, compared to him, you are not autistic at all. No way!”

One of the goals of our school’s neurodiversity initiative is to change harmful and wrong ideas like that. As much progress as we’ve made on campus, we recognize we’ve a long way to go to reshape the ideas of the broader American public. Many of our students see themselves carrying the neurodiversity banner out into the wider world on graduation. As they do that, they have to think about their careers, and what to say to prospective employers. Is this a case where discretion is the better part of valor?

If people are that misinformed and judgmental, students reason, I’d be crazy to disclose that I’m autistic in a job interview.

In many cases that is right. We cannot know what the recipient of a resume feels about autism, but it’s safe to say that most people view it as a disability or employment challenge.   At this time, for most jobs, I’d say it’s better to focus on what exceptional skills and interests we have, and leave the autism word unspoken.

There’s a practical value to that. A human resources person might have no idea how to interpret a statement like, “I’m autistic” in the context of a job interview. Contrast that with this description of autistic focus: “I have a really strong ability to zero in on details, and I am a really dogged and determined researcher.” That would perk up the ears of many recruiters.

When you think about applying for a job, think about the things psychologists say about autistic people. Remember that childhood disabilities can (though not always) become adult gifts. The focus thing is an example of that.   Also consider how our traits might shape our optimum job placement. Shyness or social anxiety might better translate to “Really good at working alone,” or “comfortable taking the night shifts when no one else is here.”

Obviously the strengths, weaknesses, and answers will be different for everyone, but the point remains that we can emphasize how autism suits us for a job, without necessarily mentioning autism at all.

What if we need to disclose disability issues that need accommodation? That is another matter, but it needn’t always come up. What if we need to wear earplugs, or have gut issues that require frequent bathroom breaks? My thought is that those are bridges to cross when we come to them. Frequent bathroom breaks or earplugs could be deal breakers for some jobs but non-issues for others. See what’s offered before volunteering a possible issue. Even better, choose to apply for jobs where the fit seems most obvious.

There are some companies where a different thinking may apply. For example, the European software giant SAP has publicly stated that they want to hire autistic people. So if a W&M student saw an SAP job that seemed a fit, I’d think describing the reasons for the fit and saying that may be because of autism could be of benefit.

We are also seeing smaller businesses that are headed by openly autistic people, and disclosure may be beneficial there too.

As time goes on more and more companies may announce autistic hiring goals, and the disclosure landscape may be very different by the time today’s freshmen graduate

This is something we should be monitoring in our neurodiversity groups on-campus, and discussing as it evolves.

John Elder Robison is an autistic adult and advocate for people with neurological differences. He’s the author of Look Me in the Eye, Be Different, Raising Cubby, and the forthcoming Switched On. He serves on the Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee of the US Dept of Health and Human Services and many other autism-related boards. He’s co-founder of the TCS Auto Program (A school for teens with developmental challenges) and he’s the Neurodiversity Scholar in Residence at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia.

The opinions expressed here are his own. There is no warranty expressed or implied. While reading this essay may give you food for thought, actually printing and eating it may make you sick.