Why I'm Reluctant to Disclose My Autism at Job Interviews
I recently encountered a quandary in an interview: whether to self-disclose my autism diagnosis or not. I’ve only been aware of my own diagnosis for about a year at this point, but the path to better self-understanding has helped me take vital steps forward in terms of self-compassion and self-esteem, and also in practical ways like managing “symptoms” and needs more successfully. I’ve been blogging about my journey of understanding and working on myself, but I tend to keep this part of my life and whatever challenges and growth I’m striving towards separate from my professional life. I don’t talk about my diagnosis or difficulties with anyone at my job, partly because I worry the stigma and stereotypes surrounding autism would pollute their impression of me and my work, and partly because I make a concerted effort to not allow my autistic-related challenges to affect my work as an employee.
With that said, in a recent interview, I felt the extremely perceptive employer was welcoming me to discuss my diagnosis in the way he specifically worded a question, probing me to explain something about my character or struggles that is not represented in my application materials. The moment he asked it, I panicked. While the interview had been going quite well before that, as soon as the question was posed, my brain froze.
My face instantly glowed a hot red, like when you’re using the Paint app and select the “fill” or “dump paint can” icon and the entire figure is flooded with color. Don’t blow it, I pleaded. My entire operating vocabulary was suddenly locked up and the only words floating within reachable grasp were those most hopeful job candidates would keep far from any resume: autism, anxiety, weirdo, PTSD, raped-and-ruined, depression. With each half-second that passed, I could feel my mutism mounting an aggressive offensive, so I picked the least “incriminating” of the limited options still available to me.
“Depression!” I blurted out as if it were the solution to the final puzzle on “Wheel of Fortune.” Say something else, I begged of my brain. “Uh, I have chronic depression.” That doesn’t sound good, I thought. I was afraid to watch his reaction on the screen, but forced myself to make momentary eye contact with his video. He shifted, perhaps uncomfortably, and waited to see if I was going to say more. Nothing. “Oh,” he added, as if hearing awkward news on a first date when you’re trying to be polite but secretly disappointed or disgusted.
The energy from the entire conversation plummeted and was swallowed by each of our computer screens, leaving a vacuous and stale hum of the remote connection. Whereas before we were volleying eloquent ideas and relaying enthusiasm with each pass, the silence now was stifling. I seemed entirely unable to even formulate a coherent sentence to thank him for his time and end the call. I considered simply x-ing out of the window and blaming technical difficulties, but God threw me a bone. I took a few deep breaths, aware that my back was now sweating under my sweater, and found my voice: “Yeah, I have chronic clinical depression and it’s something I battle on basically a daily basis, but I’ve learned to cope and keep it at manageable levels.” Good start, I thought. “It’s like any problem. It’s simply a challenge I’ve been dealt, but it makes me stronger and as I’ve matured, I’ve discovered productive ways to handle it.”
Give an example, I encouraged myself. “Like my dog,” I offered. “I’ve found so much joy in spending time with her and I feel like I connect with her in a meaningful way. There’s something very grounding about pets, and caring for her brings me happiness.” Call in the generators. It was as if I summoned the energy back and resuscitated the conversation enough to at least give it a moonshot of a surviving chance. “I love my dog too,” he offered. “What kind do you have?” “A golden retriever!” He said. “Awesome!” I said, which, although not the most prolific response, was better than nothing.
The whole experience made me wonder why it’s so hard to share personal information about the struggles we face. Everyone has some challenge, so I’d think it would feel more natural, or at least less mortifying and self-sabotaging, to admit them. I partially blame my self-esteem and imagine it’s never as opportunity-killing as I imagine it to be, but I think the stigma surrounding mental illnesses and autism is still a reality, and such information can hurt one’s chances for a job or a second date or whatever the objective might be (save for therapy?).
I have vowed to be more upfront and try to increase awareness, so I’m hoping that if this job doesn’t pan out, or even if it does, down the road I can be more open with any self-identifying questions and not fret so frantically about the implications. Especially if I wait until I’ve demonstrated my value and command of the position, it shouldn’t hurt my reputation and instead, hopefully would dispel some of the incorrect perceived weaknesses or conflicts with my viability and merit as an employee and person.
I think the driving force behind my reluctance to self-disclose in this context was the stark incompatibility between the nature of the position I was applying for and the prevailing stereotypes about autistic people. It felt too risky to divulge. Had I been interviewing for a position that was likely unaffected by assumed autistic weaknesses or one where typical autistic traits would behoove one’s aptitude for the job, I likely would have been more inclined to be forthcoming. Unfortunately, this was far from the case in this situation. Since it is a job I am actually interested in, the risk of misconceptions counting me out of consideration seemed much greater than the reward, which was simply the ease of sharing my diagnosis honestly and avoidance of the anxiety that ensues from needing to cover it up.
I believe one of the hallmark symptoms society associates with autism is a lack of empathy and people skills. I wholeheartedly disagree with this stereotype and continue to find that the pendulum actually swings to the far opposite side of the empathy trajectory for myself and many of the autistic women I communicate with. (I don’t know enough autistic men to weigh in on them.) We are often overly empathetic to the point of discomfort. That said, one of the reasons this stereotype prevails is that it used to be a deficit included in the traditional diagnostic criteria.
Lacking empathy doesn’t bode well for a position in the customer service industry, or for any position that involves interacting with or caring for people. A potential employer may not be aware that being on the autism spectrum doesn’t automatically mean the candidate lacks empathy, is an ineffective communicator, or will not be able to show compassion and understanding toward customers or other employees. While the employer may know someone on the spectrum whose presentation contradicts these assumed deficits, it’s less probable than the likelihood he or she does not. Again, had I been applying for a job that required meticulous fact-checking or number crunching, it would have been a different story and I would have felt freer to disclose without incurring undesirable fallout.
Autistic individuals aren’t generally thought of as people persons, so a position that requires this aptitude at the forefront may not be seen as the best fit. In a pool of other qualified applicants, an autistic person carries the stigma of a significant disadvantage and might be immediately rejected unless there was some coveted skill or otherwise notable advantageous aspect to their candidacy. Such standout benefits and accolades do not apply to me or my application. I’m qualified and a good worker, but it’s unlikely that I’m more so than anyone else.
The irony is that I am great at delivering customer service aligned with the mission and values of a company with timeliness and care. While I’m not ashamed to admit I’m a terrible communicator in many regards (particularly as it pertains to social chitchat and interpreting the meaning of verbal and nonverbal messages within their context), I’m quite adept at professional communication and adhering to and mimicking the “voice” of a company, which enables me to interact in a manner consistent with the tone and message of a company in a clear and compassionate fashion. This is one skill I’ve honed over years of dedicated observation and practice; I’ve memorized rules, patterns, and expectations surrounding the language and structure of cordial professional communication. Equally important, I’ve learned to recognize or anticipate when I need help with a necessary interaction; I’m not afraid to reach out when the situation confuses me or necessitates guidance.
In this interview, disclosing my autism diagnosis felt unnecessarily risky and likely to compromise my chances at landing the position I really wanted. It seemed the justification and explanation requisite to dispelling the myths and stereotypes associated with autism to defend my qualification would be far too extensive than the video interview warranted. Like opening a can of worms, it would usher in a lengthy discussion that just felt overwhelming.
I don’t know if I’ll get the job or not. Likewise, I won’t know if failing to disclose will have affected the outcome. In this particular situation, I have a hunch the employer seemed to know I was on the spectrum or there was something “different” about me. Whether this was because he somehow was informed through careful research (my publicly-accessible information does not make it easy to deduce) or through my mannerisms or answers during our video chat, I also don’t know. There’s certainly a chance he had no idea and I read into his question and ascribed this meaning, but the way he asked it felt otherwise. So, I will wait in hopeful anticipation and I will consider how forthcoming I want to be with my diagnosis in the future.
In a perfect world, I’d self-disclose without fear of negative ramifications, but we aren’t there yet and I’m not sure I’m always ready to be a trailblazer, at least not when I really want the job. I’m hoping to experiment in the future and gain confidence in owning who I am without undesirable consequences. More importantly, I hope to dispel the myths of autistic character flaws by striving to embody the best qualities, address my weaknesses, hone my deficits into strengths, and live, work, and interact as the best version of my authentic self.
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Thinkstock photo by Fizkes.