The problem with not being the problem

“Thank you for your application. Unfortunately we regret to inform you that you have not been successful…”

“Your application has been unsuccessful…”

“I’m afraid you wasn’t successful…”

“Our company is always expanding and we had so many applications we don’t have time to call them all back. If you haven’t heard from us in 48 hours that means you haven’t got the job…”

Or even sometimes nothing. Not even an acknowledgment of your application. It all boils down to one thing. Rejection.

Now rejection with job seeking is expected, of course. However, people on the spectrum can often struggle with rejection more so than the average person and I’m no exception to that. Going through applications, and then trying to plan for interviews and handle the final choice can be exhausting for a person on the spectrum because they generally take a lot more work and planning. Wading through application language that can sometimes be a bit vague in explanation and vary application to application, working and reworking what they might say then finding and planning (because transport and getting to new places is a struggle in itself for many of us) to go to an interview and finding interview friendly clothing that doesn’t cause any sensory overload…and that’s all before even getting to the interview! and I know that you may think to yourself “well these things take time, its not instant and can take a while but eventually you’ll find something!” which is true for many people, except its not always the case for people on the spectrum. As little as 15% of people diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) are in full-time work; and considering the dark number statistically speaking of people who are autistic but without a formal diagnosis (either because they are in the process of diagnosis, fighting to get a diagnosis or don’t even realise that they are on the spectrum) that number would possibly be even lower.

I am not in the 15%. I have been looking for work for two years now, and whilst I have periods of temporary work here and there, I have lost count of the amount of rejections and flat out being ignored for all my applications meanwhile I can probably count on one hand the times I got to the interview stages and then been offered the job. It’s exhausting. It’s overwhelming. It’s made me cry more times than I usually admit because I feel helpless, with no end in sight to applications and job sites and every spam email list you could find yourself on. You see, the times I can get feedback from companies and interviewers about my application; where I maybe didn’t perform so well and where I could improve…according to them there is nothing.

“You didn’t really do anything wrong per se it’s just…someone else did a bit better.”

“You was actually really strong on all areas actually they was really happy with you so…I don’t know why they rejected you.”

Vague, unspecified and admittedly unhelpful. Boiling down to “good but not good enough” which can be crushing to feel, but on the practicality side…how do I improve on that? but it also highlights a point that needs to be made. Yes I am struggling, but it’s not because of my Autism- I have employers quite literally telling me in my feedback there’s nothing wrong and whilst some of you may quip the old “its not you its me” cheesy break-up line…it may in fact quite literally be that point. If I have companies telling me I am a good candidate, and recruiters telling me this and even the employment support from my university all telling me that I’m a solid candidate who is already doing everything they would recommend (and more, in some cases) to help myself find work…then it’s not me. It’s them. It is a world of employment where the expectation is that a workplace shouldn’t change to help their employees but that an employee needs to just bend and meld to the static models of workplace (ironic when we on the spectrum get stereotyped as unwilling to compromise!). It’s the world of work that demands people all work in an environment which could literally cause distress, anxiety and even pain with the risk of sensory overload rather than attempt to help someone explore working from home at least part-time, when we now know from lockdown that working from home is actually viable for a lot of jobs. It’s a world that as tried to tell me that my degree was “a bit pointless, have you considered manual work?” despite the fact that I also explain that manual work, whilst being very good work, would likely cause problems with my physical condition because I won the genetic lottery at birth and have two different conditions which would be problematic for manual work! It’s a world where I have literally sat in an interview not long after lockdown eased, and I had a socially distanced interview where we all sat apart on a 12 seat table and all wore a mask and no one had any issues…but last year I faced a regular interview where the interviewer (not naming names of the company for obvious reasons) actually leaned away from me upon hearing that I was on the spectrum.

Let me repeat that: in the midst of a terrifying pandemic of an illness that has proven to be hard to detect and deadly people were still comfortable around me. Yet telling someone pre-pandemic I have the “noticeable if you know how to look” but distinctly non-deadly (and certainly not contagious!) condition that is ASD…and the interviewer leaned away from me despite their already being a 3ft gap between us.  Now do you understand why I’m not the problem? and I face this obvious difference time and time again despite many workplaces boasting “diversity friendly” staff and I now even worry sometimes announcing my conditions because it has reached a point where I can no longer insist their must be something else they take issue with.

Yet I endure. I endure even when I feel like I can’t take it anymore. I keep going because my whole life has been struggling to fit into this world not built for me, because I have a right to be here and to be who I am no matter the condescending, ignorant or outright snide comments I have received. I keep going not just to show people their perceptions are wrong but because I deserve to have the same chance as everyone else, and if doctors once told my parents that I would never walk unaided only for me to do just that then who are the lean-away’s and the “what problems would this cause in the workplace?” folk to say I cant work? but everyone I meet who hears this and hears everything I’ve done they always try to cheer me on and say they’re hopeful for me and its lovely but the problem with being the underdog of your own story is that whilst everyone loves a good underdog story…not many people want to take that chance on the underdog.

I live with my partner and one of my biggest goals right now is to be able to save up with him so we can buy a house of our own. For some people it will truly be a shock to think someone on the spectrum can even date let alone want a house and a family and the stable job; but that can only come WITH a job so I need to be given that chance. That in itself isn’t even something specific to Autism it is one of the most human feelings; the need, the want to be given a chance. My goals are not so different from a lot of people (granted, some people have said I want these “sensible things” very young…but Mum always did say I was born middle-aged!), and realising that in some ways we- people on the spectrum and Neurotypicals- aren’t so different after all is the first step to truly accepting and including us.

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