© 2019  Ashlea McKay

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What it’s like to be a late diagnosed autistic person looking for a job in Canberra, Australia

October 28, 2018

 

It’s been a little over six months since I last wrote about my job hunting challenges as a late diagnosed autistic person in detail.

 

I wish I could say my experiences have changed for the better but that just wouldn’t be true. Job hunting with an invisible disability and one that carries so much stigma is still proving to be incredibly difficult. My autism diagnosis is still a massive barrier to even getting my foot in the door when seeking meaningful professional full-time employment.

Overall, employers continue to appear to be quite reluctant to even consider an autistic candidate because I rarely make it to the initial interview stage. I am still failing to make it to the point of an actual conversation when I apply for jobs that I’ve made certain I meet or exceed the criteria for and have spent 8+ hours carefully crafting my response to via the cover letter, addressing selection criteria and writing a tailored CV for. Like many people in my industry, I’m plagued by imposter syndrome and will only ever apply for a job if I can tick off every single attribute listed in the job advertisement. I’m still receiving a one way ticket to the reject pile for jobs that let’s be honest here, I could probably do in my sleep. You might be thinking, well maybe you’re just plain terrible at applying for jobs? I used to think that too (I did just say I experience imposter syndrome). But I work hard to refine and evolve my process and seek feedback from the organisations that actually bother to contact me regarding the progress of my application through the office shredder. These awkward conversations tend to be very brief with the HR person who clearly drew the short straw often fumbling over what to say and audibly exhaling in relief when I tell them about all the other job applications I currently have in my pipeline. The feedback I receive on my failed application is usually pretty vague too. I know this person is usually just the messenger and likely had absolutely nothing to do with the decision to axe me so quickly.

 

The disclosure dilemma is more real than ever. I am continuing to find that if I disclose my autism to a recruiter or prospective employer, more often than not, they will end any and all discussion with me. I can count on one hand the number of recruiters who haven’t behaved this way and to them I say thank you. As for the others, the second I disclose that deep-seeded part of my identity, I either get sent on my merry way with a sickly sweet farewell or I start hearing crickets. Without having even met me, emails go answered, calls that were promised never come and yet the desperate pleas for applicants on social media persist! I’ve considered keeping my diagnosis to myself just to make it past this bias hurdle but honestly, the idea of hiding it makes me feel sick. Why should I have to cover up my identity so as not to taint the value of my talents in their eyes? Nevermind the quick Google search that would out me and my autism activism in all its glory.

 

I’m still finding that employers don’t really understand autism — and that would be OK if they actually wanted to learn more about it and grow their understanding but I’ve found that they usually don’t. Many organisations will say that they’ve seen the light in regards to the value of hiring people on the spectrum but it doesn’t always happen in practice and not in a way that actually makes a difference. They see us as the stereotypical super genius, they’re think we’re all men and that we’re only capable of performing in highly technical roles. If you’re female, articulate, spent 30 years of your life passing as a ‘rude’ and ‘weird’ neurotypical and are experienced in a creative field that sees you spending your days researching human behaviour to guide great design — forget it.

 

I still haven’t found an autism hiring program that I fit into. I respect the work these programs do and I am happy for anyone who finds a suitable role through one of these programs, but overall in their current form, many are not really inclusive. I am yet to find one that wouldn’t require me to completely start my almost decade long career all over again and in another field like software testing that would honestly bore the shit out of me. Nevermind the fact that my pay would be halved or that my skills and experience to date would be rendered worthless — all in an effort to get an employer to not look at me like I’m a problem waiting to inconvenience them. Any job at any level in any field should be open to an autistic person as a position that supports their disability. It’s a spectrum. We come from all walks of life, all backgrounds, we have diverse interests and we could be diagnosed at any life stage. Anything that limits our choices is just another layer of inequality that we have to fight to peel back. I understand that these programs are having to tread very gently around the fragile minds of those in the lofty corporate world who can’t handle a whiff of difference, but more needs to be done. They need to be educated beyond ‘Hey you can get autistic people to do the (highly technical) jobs your employees hate doing (oh and it will be so good for your image)’.

I’m still being advised to apply for jobs below my skill and experience level because it will be ‘easier’ for me. That I should apply for graduate and junior positions or only apply for entry level government jobs because it will be ‘easy’ for me ‘to get in’. That is unbelievably ableist. The idea that I should just be grateful for any job and that it’s ‘good enough for someone like me’ is offensive, demeaning and an incredibly sad reflection of those who think that way. This isn’t a case of me just finding any job — I’m just like you or anyone else. I deserve to find a role that is right for me. I’m not worthy of less and my choices shouldn’t be reduced because I have a disability. It’s not OK for you to say I should aim low and just take whatever comes my way because I’m disabled. My life, my skills and my experience are worth as much as anyone else’s and underemployment is NOT good enough. I’ve worked damn hard to achieve what I have and I am valuable. And don’t call me ‘picky’ either. I make compromises and sacrifices just like everyone else — society’s inherent belief that I should make more of them than my peers because I’m disabled is bullshit.

 

I’m still struggling to get my questions answered when I’m reviewing position descriptions and job advertisements to see if I might like to apply for them. I can’t tell if recruiters and prospective employers think they’re being trolled or maybe my questions are so unusual that it’s taken as an indicator of my overall competence and therefore value? My questions are genuine and are part of my process to determine if I should even apply in the first place. I don’t apply for jobs unless I’d be willing to say yes if a reasonable offer were to be made. I don’t like wasting people’s time — an employer’s, a recruiter’s or mine.

I say ‘reasonable’ because I have a consistent track record of employers low-balling me on the salary offer or switching the role type from permanent to contract because they think they can get away with it. Because it’s just far too risky from a business perspective to treat me like I’m a human being. I’ve had lengthy discussions with recruiters who have watched in horror while employers barely being able to contain their excitement ask if they’re entitled to pay disabled employees less because you know, they’re disabled.

Disability employment organisations and websites haven’t improved with many still offering little to no more value than one of the more traditional job platforms like SEEK or even LinkedIn. Employers advertise their roles on multiple websites and I’m yet to see any evidence on how applying through one of these disability employment websites is any different to applying for that same job through other platforms or the employer’s own website for example. How many of these employers are actually hiring candidates that applied through a disability employment website as opposed to the other advertised channels? I understand that these organisations can be really helpful in onboarding successful candidates into new roles, but how do we even get past the front door? I’m still quite skeptical about their value beyond helping employers be seen to be ‘doing the right thing’. While some do it better than others, overall my experience has been quite disappointing.

 

Day by day I am learning more and more that publicly sharing my diagnosis has come with a hefty price tag.

 

A price I never imagined I’d have to pay on top of every other moment of discrimination and marginalisation I experience just going about my day. Sure, I get speaker gigs without having to apply for them, I’m regularly approached for quotes and comments for other people’s books/essays/thesis’/presentations and I have more article requests than I will ever be able to fulfil but there’s one basic thing, I just can’t seem to get. On paper, I look fucking fantastic — that is until they see one six letter word.

 

I have started to notice a bit of a pattern though.

 

I’m beginning to wonder if this cultural phenomenon of treating autistic candidates as garbage bin fodder is linked to my current geographical location. I live in Canberra, Australia.

 

I really enjoy living here in our nation’s capital — this is NOT a Canberra-bashing post — but I can name 3 cities where I can say with absolute certainty that the barriers to employment that I’ve been experiencing in my home town of almost 20 years don’t exist. I can say that because I’ve been offered multiple jobs in those 3 other cities without even having to apply for them. In all my job hunting experience, Canberra is lowest common denominator in so many appalling ways. Canberra is my ground zero for employers behaving badly towards autistic candidates. I am absolutely sure there are many cities out there where other people are experiencing exactly the same thing but I can only speak to my experiences.

 

You might say, “Great! Why don’t you just move to one of those other cities then?!” Firstly, that’s none of your business. Secondly, why should I have to? Why should I have to completely uproot my life so I can have the financial security and stability a full time job brings? It doesn’t matter where I live, I’m still me. I still have the same brain and the same skills and experience.

 

And as a friend recently reminded me, I’ve had jobs in Canberra my entire working-age life. Funny thing is, pre-diagnosis, I never had any issues getting a job. None. Another funny thing that really isn’t funny: autism is a lifelong difference that I was born with. I’ve been autistic my entire life! The diagnosis didn’t change a damn thing about my abilities or value and yet somehow it did.

 

As for why this might be happening, I honestly don’t know.

 

Is it the predominantly contractor market here where permanent roles are few and far between? Is it because Canberra’s market is smaller? Is the culture of Canberra leaning in more of a discriminatory and ableist way than the more diverse and inclusive attitudes of Sydney, Melbourne and Wellington? Is Canberra simply less mature in this regard?

I don’t know what is driving this pattern of behaviour but I know I can’t continue to exist within it anymore. I won’t survive.

 

I feel sick when I see social media posts encouraging people working in UX to give a Canberra a try. This apparent UX ‘boomtown’ just isn’t open to those on the spectrum.

I have good days and I have bad days. I have days where what I’m experiencing makes me feel completely unemployable.

 

There are times where I feel useless. I often feel vulnerable, abandoned and left out in the cold while everyone else is looking on and thinking ‘I’m so glad that’s not me’. I feel like a piece of human garbage. I feel disposable. Something to be thrown away.

Some days I ask myself, “How the hell did I get here?” I know everything in my life changed the second I got that diagnosis but I just don’t understand how I can achieve so much and have it all be worth so much less than the achievements of my peers all because of one differently wired brain.

 

With the support of my amazing family, friends and business contacts, I also have days where I know that’s not the whole story. I know there are bad, ignorant, selfish people out there that I definitely don’t want to work with or for.

I also know that there are good people out there whose actions and powers are limited beyond their control no matter how much they want to help me change this crappy world for the better.

 

An there are also people who are still learning how to do this and how to be better and be more inclusive. I know I am valuable and worthy of equality and respect.

And don’t get me wrong — it hasn’t all been bad. In the midst of all the stupidity and discrimination, there was one employer who operates out of multiple cities who didn’t see my brain as an issue and we only parted ways because the role itself wasn’t quite right for me.

 

I’ve also got the best possible contract role right now filled with good people who understand me and what I’m going through. They’ve been nothing but supportive of me in my job hunt because they understand that ultimately, contractor life is not for me. It’s unstable, stressful, expensive, isolating and at times, quite depressing. I cry a lot. I spend a lot nights awake staring at the ceiling and worrying about what will happen if I catch the flu because I literally cannot afford to be sick. As I type this, I have a very sore throat, a cough and next to no voice. I’m staring down a fourth weekend in a row where I have to work to make up hours. While I listen my friends and family gripe about their dwindling annual leave balances, I’m dreaming of a weekend that doesn’t involve work. I just want two days where I can catch up on housework, mow the lawn and maybe read more than a chapter of a book.

 

No matter how nice the people you work alongside are, the legal definition of a contractor prevents you from getting the full workplace experience and stops you from feeling like you actually belong somewhere. You’re not really ‘one’ of them or part of their world. You always feel like an outsider. It’s no one’s fault — it’s the contractor life itself. That’s what it is. Some people love it and I’m happy for them, but it’s not for me. Human beings are hardwired to feel like they belong and autistics are no exception. I’m not a robot. I’m a person and I need a place where I can belong, grow and learn. I need a work ‘home’.

 

So, where to from here?

 

Canberra in its current state just isn’t working out for me. Most of my life is here and otherwise things are really good between us but work-wise, we’re just not a good fit for each other right now. That may change one day. I really hope it does. But until then, I need to take a break.

 

But I also can’t move to one of the cities that would be a good fit, so I’ve decided to try something that falls in the middle.

 

I’ve decided to start exploring companies outside of Canberra that allow people who live in Canberra (or anywhere) to work as remote employees (not contractors).

 

I’ve been working remotely for more than a year now and while it has its ups and downs, I’m pretty good at it. I’ve gotten better at mentally switching off at the end of the work day — separate devices helps! — and I’ve found ways to combat the loneliness. I enjoy the peace and quiet, the minimal commute and the stability of returning to the same desk every day. I’m always reachable and collaboration across countries and cities has never been impossible. Technology and an abundance of travel options mean that people don’t need to be co-located 100% of the time to work effectively together. Remote working is only going to grow in the future and I’m right here at the face of it.

 

Thank you for all the kind words and support that has been landing in my inbox over the last few weeks. I really do appreciate it and will continue to keep you updated on my progress.

 

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