© 2019  Ashlea McKay

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An autistic UXer seeks assistance

November 25, 2018

This might seem a little strange but I’ve never really done anything in a manner that might be classified as usual. I’ve lived a life in shades of odd and I’m quite comfortable with that. I’m a late diagnosed autistic person — I was born with a differently wired brain. I found out almost 3 years ago and I’ve spent my entire 8+ year career working in UX specialising in user research, content design and information architecture (IA).

 

I’ve been working as a contract user researcher for over a year now and I’ve been on the hunt for a suitable permanent role since November 2016. In the past 2 years, I’ve tried a lot of different things to land a permanent role and none of them are working. I need some help.

 

I left my last job in October 2017 for contractor life after a long-winded decision process (mine) in early 2017 led me to the conclusion that consulting roles weren’t the best possible fit for me and my disability. Although it has to be said — I pretty much have been a consultant the entire time that I’ve been contracting and by all accounts, I’m doing well! Perhaps I was wrong. Or perhaps the timing just wasn’t right with everything I had going on while I processed that life changing news and sought to find my place in my new world. Maybe I just needed to do it on my own or in my own way for a little while. To be clear, I am not saying that there was anything wrong with the way my former employer was doing it — just that maybe the me at that point in time couldn’t do that in that way. I guess anything is possible now — except there is one thing that I am absolutely certain of.

 

I cannot be a contractor forever.

 

My clients are lovely, wonderful, kind, smart people that I will be friends with for life but there are inherent unsuitable elements of contractor life itself that none of us have any control over. I’m talking about the legal side of what it means to be a contractor rather than an employee.

 

I don’t have any leave entitlements and I’m not paid superannuation. If I get sick, I lose my weekends until it’s all worked back. I keep my vaccinations up to date and I’m rarely sick — it’s been at least 2 years since caught the flu — but I recently lost 7 weekends in a row due to a series of rolling infections caused by severe hayfever and multiple bouts of tonsillitis.

 

Holidays are unpaid time off and are crammed in between contracts. I have to decide between money or downtime — one of those is always in higher demand.

My tools and technology are restricted to what I can afford — it took me almost a year to save up for a mid-range MacBook Pro. Before that I was working on a 9 year old laptop dating back to my university days that was 100% dependant on mains power, had a busted inbuilt keyboard and had nowhere near enough power to run everything I needed it to.

 

I work from home and random public places because I can’t afford a coworking space membership on top of all my other contractor related costs.

I also don’t have the same rights that employees have — my contract could legally disappear at anytime and there’s no guarantee that there will be another one when it ends.

 

If I want to learn something new or develop my skills through training or short courses, I have to fund those myself. There’s no L&D budget for me and guess what, paying rent, bills and buying groceries will always come before paid professional development opportunities.

 

You might think that contractors get paid a lot more to make up for all of the above. That’s not always true for all situations. There are so many variables and it’s impossible to get them all lined up. For example a high paying contract might be with an organisation that isn’t inclusive or mature enough to accept me for my autistic differences and might just terminate me within a week or two because I unintentionally offended someone or because my disability was mistaken for a performance issue.

 

Besides, no matter how well a contract pays, there’s one part of it that is completely unavoidable.

 

Contractor life is also lonely, limiting and culturally isolating by nature. There’s no escaping the fact that I am an outsider and every day, my feelings about that break my heart a tiny bit more.

 

There’s no end of year party for me to relax with colleagues sometime in the next month. There will be no small but meaningful employee gift or greeting card designed to make me feel valued for a year of hard work and there will definitely be no Christmas bonus to soothe the sting of that December grocery bill.

 

At this time of year, it pains me to hear permanently employed friends and family complain about how their Christmas bonus wasn’t high enough or whine about how they’ve never won some kind of corporate or employee recognition award.

 

I’m an oddball weirdo that has never been afraid to create her own path, but I’m still human and this human needs these things from her working life.

 

None of this is anyone’s fault. This is what contractor life looks like. Some people absolutely love it and thrive within it. I’m happy for anyone who finds happiness in this lifestyle. I’m just not one of them.

 

So, it’s time for me to ramp up this now 2 year long effort to find a work home that I can belong to, grow in and help others grow in. I need to leave contractor life behind me.

I’m looking for a permanent full time role that is based in Canberra or one that can be worked remotely. I’m a user researcher and I’d like to keep doing that but also open to other ideas too like social change based roles that will enable me to bring my two worlds of UX and Diversity & Inclusion together.

 

I know that there aren’t a lot of these types of roles out there and to be perfectly frank, in the last 2 years, I’ve found that there aren’t too many employers open to the idea of an autistic candidate. At least not one that has popped up randomly in a traditional application process.

 

I’ve had a really hard time with traditional job application processes. Despite the tailored, iterative, feedback driven approach I take to evolving my resume and cover letters, I rarely make it to the initial interview stage. I work hard to put my best application foot forward and all it seems to do is give me a one way ticket to the shredder. And I didn’t have this problem before my diagnosis.

 

In the last 2 years, I’ve had just one interview and two meetings. One meeting looked like it was going well and then discussions about potentially creating a role for me fell apart because the HR manager resigned. Another meeting went well and we parted on good terms after I determined that the role itself wasn’t right for me. And the one interview I’ve had in the last 2 years was the beginning of a horrifying experience that I have discussed in previous articles.

 

The interview went well and I heard back on a Friday afternoon that I had been successful in winning this particular permanent full time role.

 

The following Monday, they revoked the offer and changed it to a contract role after they sneakily obtained a contract rate from me by telling my recruiter (a really lovely person who was not responsible for this debacle) that they “might need to make me a contractor temporarily in case there was a delay in getting the paperwork in order”. Then they told me they were only offering me a contract because they “didn’t know how my reduced (and disability supporting hours) would suit them” — despite a lengthy discussion during the 90 minute interview about it!

 

After being called out on that and asked to explain their thinking, they then claimed I was being offered a contract role because they couldn’t guarantee work beyond a specific timeframe. Given that UX tends to be an ongoing need, this was really strange but not entirely unheard of e.g., organisations with resource gaps or those with low UX maturity.

By this point though, I couldn’t trust this organisation anymore and I turned it down. It wasn’t fair and it was simply too far removed from what I’d applied for. I also felt quite cheated because I’d lowered my contract rate in good faith to match the salary I thought I would be getting after a few weeks of paperwork drama. The rate I gave them did not account for a lack of superannuation, conditions and security because I didn’t see the harm in foregoing those things for 2–3 weeks if it meant I’d be building a good long term relationship with my new employer. I’m flexible, but revoking an offer in favour of lesser conditions and then behaving like untrustworthy jerks is not OK. And that wasn’t even the end of it.

 

Two days later the role was back on the market as a PERMANENT role. Either they were less than truthful on the new job advertisement in the hopes of baiting some new unsuspecting person or maybe it just wasn’t permanent for me.

 

I find these experiences simultaneously laughable and deeply depressing. I’ve been autistic my entire life and now that I’m aware of it and disclosing it, my skills, talents and experience are now suddenly not even worthy of a conversation? I have considered not disclosing it but to do that would be to deny the absolute core of my identity and additionally disregard the main event of my value proposition.

 

My different brain is an asset. It essentially runs on a different operating system which means I think and approach problems in ways that others do not. I’m something not all employers have. I could be the missing piece an organisation has been searching for. A secret weapon. I am an autistic UXer and it’s fucking awesome!

 

Interestingly, through this job hunt, I’ve noticed a pattern.Employers tend to bolt at the word ‘autistic’ when they only see it on paper, while those who have met me-the-actual-person, almost always come to realise it’s actually a really positive thing.

 

Reading it and seeing it walking around are two very different things. Autism related stigma, stereotypes and myths are a nightmare to navigate. There are so many misunderstandings and misconceptions about what it actually means to be on the spectrum and how much diversity exists within it. I feel sick to my stomach when people make a point of using terms like ‘high functioning’ in regards to autism. It’s marginalising. It implies that those of us who fit that messed up term ‘aren’t autistic enough’ to be afforded common decency and it also says that those who don’t fit it are damaged beyond hope or value to society. None of that is true. All autistic people are autistic and we’ve all got valuable contributions to make.

 

And yes, some naughty people have viewed the positive side of a brain like mine as an opportunity to unfairly take advantage of me through reduced conditions, rights or renumeration but they’re not all ableist uncaring jerks.

 

There are still good people out there.

 

I have to believe there is, otherwise what is the point? If there’s no hope left for me in the workforce, I might as well pack it in and abandon my almost decade long career and do who knows what until the end of time. There are people who would love to see me do that but I’m not ready to give up and give in. I’m not ready to let the bastards win. I’m trying my best to be positive here and just keep putting one foot in front of the other.

I’ve also met some of these good people. They’re people who didn’t have an open role to fill when I spoke with them. There have been people from organisations that had roles that didn’t match up with my experience or would have required me to move away from UX research into something that just wasn’t right for me.

 

There are autism hiring programs that unfortunately don’t have room for someone with my skill set unless I’m willing to start my career all over again, return to graduate level pay and retrain in a completely differently field that would honestly bore me to death. I don’t think it’s fair that I have to abandon 8 years of hard work to be considered valuable and useful in the eyes of professional level employers. Especially since they never had an issue hiring me before my diagnosis.

 

I’m a little reluctant to work with 3rd party recruiters. I have nothing against them and have worked with and met many wonderful recruiters in the past. I’ve just found them to be primarily focused on placing people in contract roles. Permanent roles don’t often cross their desks and Canberra is a contract heavy market. It’s not their fault. They can’t control which roles they are given to source for.

 

So here’s where you might come in.

 

The question I’m currently grappling with is:

How might I stop the good-but-in-need-of-educating employers from bolting in the first instance so I get the chance to show them I’m not so scary/challenging/difficult/expensive/risky after all?

 

Or, maybe the question is:

How might I meet and build productive mutually beneficial relationships with these open-minded employers in a way that doesn’t involve a faceless piece of paper submitted via an application process?

 

Maybe it’s something else entirely.

 

I’ve got a few ideas up on the wall, but let’s face it, I’ve been at this for 2 years and I’ve come up with nothing. I’m also just one person. I’m a UX professional — I never do anything completely on my own for this very reason.

 

Over the last month, I have been slowly and carefully iterating my LinkedIn profile content and updating my resume while brainstorming ways I might be able to solve this problem. A handful of people have reached out and provided their support, feedback and guidance. To these people, I am eternally grateful for your kindness.

 

I don’t currently have a mentor. That’s rare for me — it may even be a first. It’s been this way for more than a year. I’m certainly not asking for anyone to put their hand up for that time consuming role, but maybe there’s a way for multiple people to contribute little pieces of that role? I’m a firm activist for equality but I have no idea what I could possibly contribute in return. I guess that would probably depend on you and what you need at this point in time.

 

If after having read this, you think there is a way that you might be able to assist me, let me know.

 

Maybe you have a contact and you feel it would be mutually beneficial for me and them to connect.

 

Maybe you’re aware of organisations that hire remotely located people as employees. Maybe it’s your organisation.

 

Maybe you have an idea for how I might overcome this issue of being blocked at the application stage — an idea that doesn’t involve me hiding my diagnosis.

 

Maybe you can provide insight into how best to communicate the value of neurodiversity (different brains) to potential employers?

 

Maybe you’ve got an idea for something else that I haven’t thought of yet.

I am currently contracted until the end of March 2019 and beyond that, I’m not sure where I’ll be. That’s the current timeline that I’m working within. Land that permanent role before or around April — May 2019. My current contract client is aware of my job hunt and has been nothing but supportive.

 

Please also know that it took a lot for me to write this.

 

I’m more fearless than most and some people may even use the incredibly irritating term ‘brave’ to describe me, but just know that me pouring my heart out on page like this doesn’t come easily. I am afraid of what people might say but I’m more afraid of what may happen if I don’t publish this. I’m staying as positive as I can but I feel like I’m running out of road. I feel like my options are close to being completely depleted and I’ve reached a point where I simply don’t know what else I can do.

 

Trolls, devil’s advocates and anyone who doesn’t have anything positive to add can just keep on scrolling. I’ve been on this road for 2 years now and I can assure you, my inbox has seen more than its fair share of hate, abuse, condescension and mockery.

 

To everyone else, thank you for taking the time to read this and thank you to everyone who has supported me every step of the way so far.

 

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