As the old saying goes, “It is not what you know, but who you know that matters.” This is very true in today’s job market. There are more people looking for work than there are jobs available. Employers feel more comfortable hiring someone if they receive a recommendation from someone they know. So, networking is more important than ever. Where does that leave people on the autism spectrum?
Those on the spectrum do not necessarily have the social skills needed to form relationships, whether personal or business. Communicating can be a daunting task that leads to anxiety. It is no wonder that those on the autism spectrum dread the prospect of networking.
The good new is there is no “normal” way to network with others. Normal is an illusion following the premise that people think a certain way. Reality is far more complex! Even people who do not have autism experience difficulty with networking. Many people who are introverted dread networking activities as much as those who are on the spectrum. I have close friends who are not autistic and still feel anxious about networking. While I am both introverted and on the spectrum, there are two things I have done that I think would help others on the spectrum as well.
The first networking tool I use is the professional social networking site, LinkedIn. When I was first introduced to LinkedIn about three years ago, I was intimidated by it. After all, I had only worked at a grocery store at that time and was not sure what connections I could form on LinkedIn. I now have 116 connections and three recommendations. LinkedIn members can give recommendations to other members for jobs they worked at together, even in school. Those recommendations add credibility to your LinkedIn profile. It might take time to get recommendations but that’s okay.
My second source of networking is a friend of mine. This friend is in a position of influence in an autism awareness organization, and he always introduces me to new people and helps me to form connections. In the year and a half I have known her, my friend has opened up so many doors. She is empathetic, outgoing, and very accepting of autism spectrum disorder. I would not have many of the connections I do without her. If you are someone on the autism spectrum who has difficulties forming connections with others, a good thing to do is to find someone who can do what my friend does for me. It took a lot of effort to first approach this person, but I have no regrets. She inspires me every time I speak with her.
It is easy for those on the autism spectrum to become intimidated by the networking process, especially considering how vital networking is to achieving success in today’s job market. Try to remember that if you are a person on the spectrum, you might learn differently than those who are not on the spectrum, and that is okay. Different is not bad. Wouldn’t it be boring if everyone was the same? What I am saying is that networking for those on the spectrum can be done, and it might take more time for someone on the spectrum and might also require the help of another, and that’s perfectly alright. Just do what is best for you.
In today’s busy world, many employers do not have time to arrange face-to-face interviews with potential employees. For them, phone interviews are far more practical. For those on the autism spectrum, phone interviews present unique challenges. While eye contact is not a concern during a phone interview, someone on the spectrum must be aware of his tone of voice. There is already sensory overload to consider. The sudden phone call could create a spike in sensory input, putting an individual on the spectrum on edge, right from the outset. Try to do everything possible to reduce that sensory overload; if a smartphone is used, put it on vibrator or silent mode.
Also, a potential employer might say that he will call at a certain time, but things happen. He might call late, or he might not call at all. This delay may cause anxiety for those on the spectrum. An employer with whom I phone interviewed last year said he would call at 9 am but did not end up calling until 9:45 while I sat at my kitchen table, trying to contain my anxiety. I tried to occupy myself by researching the company to keep my anxiety at bay. After that one phone interview, I did not hear back from that organization again.
A second interview for a marketing internship position took place a few weeks after the first. I received the call as I was walking into work at my retail job. I talked to this recruiter, who was actually in a different state, about my marketing experience I had received up to that point, and we talked about what my responsibilities might be for that position. One thing I encountered is that it was very difficult for me to tell what this person thought of me based only on their tone of voice. After ten minutes, I told the potential employer that it was time for me to punch in for work at my retail job. They told me they would be in touch in the next week with a decision. I didn’t hear back from them either.
Neither of those phone interviews led to an offer. I wondered for a while whether autism was a factor in the decisions, because I did mention autism during both phone interviews. However, there are many possible reasons why I did not receive an offer. They could have already had someone in mind for the position. It is impossible to tell at this point, but a few weeks later I had an in person interview for a marketing internship position that I have written about previously. That interview led to an internship that I still have. An unsuccessful interview is not necessarily a failure. It is experience that can be used during the next interview.
With the right help, I changed my habits, and now I’m going to change the world
On Saturday, December 15th 2012, I walked across the stage at Oakland University andreceived my Bachelor of Science in Business Administration, with a major in marketing, and a minor in English. Not only do I have a college degree, but I also have done four internships and worked six years at a retail store. The journey to reach this point in my life was not an easy one. You see, I have autism.
In sixth grade, things began to go downhill for me. I was very compulsive at that time. None of my pencils had erasers on them because I would rip them off and chew on them. I would also rip the corners off pages in my books and eat them. Classmates could hardly fail to notice when I played with spitballs. My habitual phrase when it came to homework was “I forgot.” All indications at that time were that I would not attend college. I hit my all time low in seventh grade, when I failed a computer class because I was compulsive and did not do the work. During seventh grade, my medications and classes were changed, and I slowly began to improve.
A year later, in eighth grade, I made the honor role for the first time, in special education classes. In tenth grade, I began to mainstream into general education classes and continued to excel academically. Socially, I excelled as well through the help of marching band and my musician friends. My bad habits gradually disappeared. When I was a senior in high school, I made the National Honor Society by sharing my story of overcoming challenges related to autism spectrum disorder. I graduated from high school with a 3.84 GPA. When I started college that fall at Oakland Community College, I finished my first semester with the same GPA of 3.84.
My overall GPA at Oakland University when I finished college was a 3.35. I graduated as a member of Alpha Mu Alpha, a marketing honor society. In order to enter this society, I needed a recommendation from one of my college professors, and a minimum GPA of 3.25. People I have met over the course of my college experience find it hard to believe that I ever struggled in school. My experience goes to show that people on the autism spectrum should not be counted out, no matter what limitations they might seem to have. The bad habits I had at age 11 are now memories that I have tried hard to forget. You see, my problem was never that I wasn’t smart enough; I have always been capable of succeeding. It’s just that I needed the right help. I strongly believe that under the right conditions, someone on the autism spectrum can literally change the world. My college graduation is the result of finding the right conditions. Now, I am going to use my degree and my future to change the world.
Holiday excitement is anticipated by many throughout the year. There are retail sales, holiday parties, and many family get-togethers to attend. However, the holiday bustle can be very difficult for those who are on the autism spectrum. There are sensory issues to consider, as well as a dislike of changes in routine. By understanding how a family member who is on the autism spectrum might react to the holiday excitement, a family might avoid potential meltdowns and headaches.
Sensory issues are the reason behind many autistic behaviors. Since I am on the spectrum, I can relate a problem from my own experience that is sensory related. Mashed potatoes are one of the most popular holiday foods, and yet it is my least favorite thing to eat. There is something about the texture of mashed potatoes that makes me gag. I find the taste and feel of mashed potatoes to be repulsive. It took me a while to recognize that this is a sensory issue related to my autism spectrum disorder.
Many people on the autism spectrum experience sensory difficulties, such as the intolerance I have of mashed potatoes, on a day-to-day basis. It does more harm than good for parents to force a child on the spectrum to eat food that they have sensory issues with. Apart from mashed potatoes, many children and adults on the spectrum might also be lactose intolerant or gluten intolerant. Unlike those who are not on the spectrum, many autistic individuals do not know how to communicate the difficulties they have to others. An autistic meltdown is a result of a failed attempt by an autistic individual to communicate a need to someone else.
The most helpful hint for including those on the spectrum in holiday gatherings is to be aware of how individuals on the autism spectrum may act in a party setting. It may not appear so, but people on the spectrum are very aware of what is going on around them. If the party environment is causing a sensory overload, then individuals on the autism spectrum may react in a defensive manner. By understanding the needs of individuals on the autism spectrum, parents can help to make the holidays fun for everyone, including those on the autism spectrum.