Anything to declare?

I’m thinking about applying for a new job. It’s technically a sideways move in my organisation, but it comes with opportunities to learn new skills, meet new people and work in new ways. I’m excited by the prospect, and I’m certainly ready for a change! (There: when did you last hear an Aspie say that?!)

But new opportunities come with new challenges. And job applications present their own, special problems. Right now, when I should be studying the work of my (potential!) new team, presenting my strengths in writing in the best possible light, and preparing for the likelihood of an interview, there’s that inevitable, distracting question dancing naked at the forefront of my mind.

Should I declare my disability?

Job applications, when you are autistic, are a bit of a minefield. First of all, they’re pretty much impossible to understand. Your average job description and application instructions are a mishmash of imprecision and context-dependent details the likes of which a schoolchild would quite possibly be failed for; and the system is unforgiving towards mistakes or misunderstandings. Filling in an application form or submitting a CV and cover letter then becomes an act of almost pure faith, and not without fear. But necessity dictates: and so straight out of university, I applied to dozens of jobs, and was interviewed for almost every one of them. On paper, I had excelled at every level. But at interview, I failed, repeatedly, and increasingly painfully, and I never could understand why. Now I know. It’s because I’m different. It’s because I’m naive. It’s because I intuitively answer the question as asked rather than the question meant. It’s because I look strange and nervous and I don’t make eye contact. It’s because people aren’t comfortable around me.

But now I know more than that. Autism isn’t just about interpersonal skills. I understand where lack of executive function can hurt me, placing me under unbearable stress and distress dealing with sometimes the simplest of tasks. I see that my “excellent” organisational skills have always been a function of careful control and painstaking self-discipline in every aspect of my life, to keep on top of the incomprehensible jumble of activities essential to independent adulthood. I read “essential” and “desirable” criteria and things jump out at me, warning flags that I’ve always noticed but learned to ignore, because there are simply no jobs that exist without them. Now I know what those flags mean, and exactly how I may fall short. I also know how to do a good job, given supports for those things. It’s certainly better to know. But that doesn’t make it easy.

So I sit here writing my application, and thinking. I haven’t been underperforming at work recently – but I haven’t been overperforming either. I know how much the issues of the past two years – an autism diagnosis, the journey that goes with that, and the “interpersonal problems” in my current team – have affected my output, and that they all resulted directly from my being autistic. What might my application look like if none of that had happened? How does it look now? For a hiring manager, would that make a difference? Enough that I won’t make the cut?

There’s a box on the application form I can tick to say I’m disabled, which will guarantee me an interview. Should I tick it? If I tick it and I don’t “need” it, maybe they’ll think I’m abusing the system, just trying to get ahead. But if I don’t tick it and I do…

Of course, an application form is just the beginning. What if I get an interview? I’ve done a lot of reading about how to make effective applications and prepare for interviews (particularly at Ask a Manager, which is honestly brilliant and has taught me so much!). I’ve thought about how to describe myself, how I work and how that might fit in well with the culture of the team. I’ve couched my differences in terms of strengths and weaknesses. But where does the line fall, between a “weakness” and disability? Should I mention my autism at all?

What if they ask about my “greatest weaknesses”, or bring up something I can’t do? I mean, there are things I can do, but not without certain supports. An employer of course is legally required to make reasonable adjustments, but when I’m trying to stand out against other candidates, how can I safely draw attention to an obvious “con” of employing me against a non-disabled person? To say that I am autistic, and to talk about how I would approach those tasks and what supports would need to be in place for me to achieve them, seems to me the best line to take. And I have practised in conversation mentioning my autism off-hand, as “business as usual”, without making a big deal of it. It’s just part of who I am. But there is always the fear that that’s not what the interviewers will see. I’ll be weighed in the balance, as it were, and found wanting.

But then, of course, there’s how to tackle the “appearance” of autism. The nervousness and inconsistent eye contact. The bits that my interviewers have so often read as “red flags”, although they couldn’t necessarily articulate why. I’ll do my best to play “normal” on the day, but there’s always the chance of something unexpected throwing off my plans. So on the one hand there’s danger in explicitly mentioning my disability. But on the other, can I realistically hide it? And if I did hide it, and then (heaven help me!) actually succeeded in getting an offer, what would my new manager be thinking if I brought such a crucial aspect of my personality and working style so “late” to the conversation? What would that do to the mutual trust so badly needed for the relationship to function?

I don’t think I will tick the box on the form. I can demonstrate to the essential criteria, enough that I ought to make the interview stage. Hopefully by then I will have decided. Do I have anything to declare?

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