Do you remember your first job interview? That feeling of butterflies in your stomach, the sweating palms, the racing heart, and the whirl of rehearsed responses to possible questions swimming around in your head? Do you recall how vulnerable you felt as a fresh-faced young adult sitting opposite a seasoned executive who, quite literally, held your life in their hands?
Even if it’s been a long time since you’ve sat in that proverbial “hot seat,” interviews are always a bit nerve-wracking, no matter where you are on the corporate ladder.
Once you get your foot in the door, your ability to continue paying bills and maintain your current social status all comes down to a resume, a handshake, and your talent for remaining professional while ingratiating yourself to your prospective new boss with a well-timed joke or two.
But what happens to someone whose brain doesn’t allow them to “ingratiate themselves”? What happens to someone whose brain isn’t built for nuanced jokes and subtle sarcasm?
We don’t get hired.
Even if we are the most educated and experienced of the candidates in the running, we don’t get hired, because we didn’t speak, act, and socialize like a neurotypical candidate would.
This is why neurodiversity hiring initiatives are crucial to reducing autistic underemployment and unemployment–because they put the focus on what autistic people can bring to the table, not what we can’t–and that makes all the difference in the world.
Here is a list of dos and don’ts for autistic-friendly interviews:
What to Do
- Offer clear expectations before the interview.
A few days ahead of the interview, provide clear expectations and a list of questions in email or letter form. Include the questions you plan to ask, clear and concise instructions about the location and where to meet you in the building, dress code expectations, and a list of items (if any) that your candidate is expected to bring with them.
- Be open to follow-up questions and answer them.
Autistic people are bottom-up thinkers, rather than top-down thinkers like neurotypical folks. Therefore, we need lots of details to be able to form a complete picture in our heads. Provide essential accessibility by being open to follow-up questions and answering them clearly and concisely.
- Educate yourself on autistic facial expressions, body language, and vocal tone.
Another really important factor in providing accessibility for candidates is to educate yourself on autistic facial expressions, body language, and vocal tone. If you’re not aware of how your autistic candidate may present upon first meeting them, you may misinterpret their intentions and automatically cross them off your list of hopefuls before they even sit down.
- Ask clear and concise questions about education, experience, and ability.
Instead of focusing on bantering with your prospective new hire, skip that unofficial social evaluation and ask clear and concise questions about education, experience, and ability as they pertain to the job you’re offering.
If you really do want to get your candidate to open up on a more personal level, ask about an interest or hobby, but be warned, our passionate interests are something we can talk about at length, and we can have difficulty reigning it in after we get going. Save this for a second or third interview, if you do it at all.
What to Avoid
- Avoid using a lot of ‘corporate speak’.
I gave the same advice when I wrote about how your job descriptions may be discouraging autistic candidates, and I’ll say it again here. Avoid using a lot of corporate speak during the interview process.
For example, if you were interviewing me, and you said, “We’re looking for a rockstar!” my brain would immediately conjure an image of me wearing dark shades and riffing on a guitar. Even though I would know that’s not what you meant, my ADHD would take that unbidden image and run with it, and I might miss out on a critical detail or question about the job.
Your best bet, for both our sakes, is to be literal, direct, and clear.
- Limit unclear, open-ended questions.
The best way to get an autistic candidate to blush, stutter, and dart their eyes about helplessly is to ask those dreaded open-ended, getting-to-know-you questions such as, “Tell us a little about you” or “Tell us about your strengths”.
These may work fine for the neurotypical candidate, but for the autistic one, the questions are just too vague, and each second that ticks by that we are unable to formulate a response can feel like an eternity where we sense the job prospect slipping further and further away.
Instead, be more specific. Something like, “Name two of your best personal characteristics. How have you used those characteristics in a business setting?” or “Name two main things you are good at. How have you used these strengths in a professional setting?”
- Avoid joking, bantering, idioms, and sarcasm.
It’s not that all autistic candidates are incapable of joking, bantering, using idioms, and understanding sarcasm. Personally, I can do all of these things. However, if I’m not used to someone else’s humor, I will have difficulty knowing when the other person is kidding around.
Plus, if I’m in ‘professional mode’, it’s difficult for me to gauge how friendly and personable I can be or what information I should share before I unintentionally cross an invisible line in the conversation and tank my chances of making a good first impression. Your best bet is to leave the humor out until after you’ve hired and gotten to know the person as an individual.
- Avoid loud, distracting, sensory-averse environments.
Lastly, location is important. When interviewing an autistic candidate, be mindful of the location. Is the area quiet, or is there a lot of ambient noise that might cause distress? Are there minimal distractions, or will you be interrupted by phone calls and employees popping in and out? Could the lighting be too harsh for sensitive eyes? Taking these factors into consideration before an interview can help your autistic candidate feel more comfortable and relaxed, which will minimize sensory reactions that could be misinterpreted.
The effort you put into making the interview process more inviting and accessible to your autistic candidates will always be worth it. Inclusivity is not only important to the candidate sitting across from you but for everyone on your team and your customers. When you employ different thinking, you’re not just filling a quota, you’re taking the first step to fortifying your business for the long haul through innovative thinking, increased productivity, and out-of-the-box problem-solving skills that are the hallmark of the autistic mind.