What I Require as an Autistic Jobseeker
I had my first paid job in 2007, aged 24. Three years prior, I had my first work experience placement – at a Christian bookshop – thanks to an excellent organization called Mencap. They give specialist support to people with learning disabilities and autism (I have Asperger’s syndrome) so they can achieve the same quality of life others in society may take for granted. I appreciate their support enormously; their staff were so pleasant, kind and understanding.
However, after two years at the Medical Records department of my local hospital, I decided I had my fill and I wanted to quit. The work was quite stressful, and there came a time when I needed to let go and “take back my life.” So I quit in 2010, and later I found my calling as a volunteer at a charity shop. It wasn’t paid work, but it was work I enjoyed immensely and found rewarding and satisfying. I spent the subsequent six years helping out at various non-profit organisations, including Cancer Research U.K., British Heart Foundation, Scope, Oxfam and The Salvation Army.
In 2016, I realized I had a new hunger for paid work. So I went to my local Job Centre and they referred me to an organization named Remploy, which I heard had the same function as Mencap’s employment support service. However, when I walked through the door of Remploy’s office, I had no idea I was walking into a nightmare. My initial assessment was with a “gentleman” who spent 70 percent of the time making jokes of the politically incorrect variety, talking about subjects that were completely off-topic, and inviting his co-workers to join in the teasing. In the small print it said “We promise to treat all our clients with respect and dignity,” but I just wasn’t getting it. I felt like I was at a circus that looked like an office. The most they did to help me was rewrite my CV, help me apply for jobs online and stage mock job interviews. It went no further than that. After six months, I dispensed with their services, leaving with even less motivation than I had originally.
In January of this year, I was referred to another service called Work Routes. This was just as disastrous, if not more so. For most of the time, I was treated the same way as my school bullies treated me – like an entity from another planet. The woman who worked with me claimed to have had experience with autism and familiarity with the condition and its characteristics, yet she thought nothing of making a joke that I was “mad.” This offended me in the extreme. Another time, she made a call to a charity shop I previously worked at to ask for an email address, after which she described the person she talked to as “sounding rude.” Yet this “lady” thought nothing of using a swear word – beginning with S – to describe a nasty customer I told her about whom I once had a brush with at Oxfam.
Neither of these organizations seemed fit for their purpose. They seem unable to see us – autistic people who consider themselves as able and willing to commit to employment – as we see ourselves. They just reinforce the stereotyped view from far too many neurotypical people that autistics are “morons from outer space” who can’t think, act or reason the same way as Earthlings. Let me tell you something. I’m not an “alien,” I am an Earthling who was created in a different way. I can do things “normal” people – as the neurotypical sometimes refer to themselves in comparison to us – can do. I want the same chance to achieve something in life, to contribute to society and make a difference. Toxic attitudes render us even more disabled than we already are. Negative perceptions of autism represent a wall between what we are and what we want to be. We need to demolish that wall and put up a bridge in its stead. Let awareness, understanding and tolerance be that bridge.
In our journey to the world of work, we do not need humiliation; we need help. Adequate help. We need eyes that can see our potential, not our disabilities. We need ears that can listen to us compassionately and non-judgmentally. And we need voices to talk to us tactfully, choosing words carefully.
Then we will be halfway to employment equality.
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Thinkstock photo by Zimmy TWS.