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Jeanette Purkis author of new title The Wonderful World of Work discusses her own experiences of employment and why she feels its important to help teens and young adults build up their self confidence before entering the workplace.
I have a diagnosis of Asperger syndrome and I’m employed in a full-time, responsible job with the Australian Public Service. My job is unimaginably wonderful: I have great managers, colleagues who I like and respect, I am valued for my unique thinking style and experiences and the work I do is interesting. The pay and conditions are fantastic too. It’s almost like I died and went to work heaven. Naturally, I would love for all people on the Autism spectrum to be as fortunate as I have been in finding such a great job.
My work life hasn’t always been so good. When I left home at the tender age of 17, the only job I could find was in a fast food restaurant. The work was unpleasant and the only benefit I gained from the job was the small wage it paid.
I also spent many years either unemployed or doing jobs which were similar to my first: low-paid, low-skilled and onerous. I was too anxious to do any at all job for many years, but I never gave up. When I was 25, I decided that I was going to gain an education and get a professional job. I enrolled in a university course and set about improving my skills. I gained a Bachelor, then an Honours and finally a Masters degree. I started a small business and worked as a volunteer receptionist in a gallery. Somewhere in all of that I wrote an autobiography, which was published. My confidence in my abilities and my value as a potential employee just kept on growing.
In the last semester of my Masters degree I applied for a number of graduate jobs in the public service. I saw these advertised and thought to myself ‘I could do that.’ After an exhaustive selection process I was offered a graduate job in a big Government department in Australia’s capital, Canberra. I was anxious about moving to a new city where I did not know one single person and starting a job which was unlike anything I’d ever done. Despite my concerns, the job in Canberra was an overwhelmingly positive thing. It was my ticket out of poverty and it meant that I would be using that incredible Aspie brain of mine to its full capacity.
I loved my public service job as soon as I started it. The hierarchy and structure made sense to me and the work was engaging and challenging. Seven years later and I”m still in the Australian Public Service. And I still love it. I’ve now been an adult and part of the workforce (on and off) for 22 years. I’ve learned a lot about how I can use my unique Aspie skills and attributes to my advantage in the world of work.
I wrote ‘The Wonderful World of Work’ to give young people on the Autism spectrum the benefit of all my knowledge and wisdom about the world of employment. A book like this would have been immensely helpful when I was transitioning from school into the workforce. I firmly believe that everyone has the right to a rewarding and engaging job and that people on the Autism spectrum have qualities that can make us exemplary employees.
One of the major stressors affecting young adults on the autism spectrum is finding and keeping a job. In this post Been There. Done That. Try This! mentor Anita Lesko gives her top tips on how to get the process started and make a good impression at initial interviews.
The employment market is tight and very competitive because of where our society is at this point in time. Unfortunately that makes finding and keeping a job all the more difficult. Then toss in being on the Autism Spectrum to complicate matters even more! This might sound impossible, but it’s really not. There are things you can do to maximize your potential for securing a job you want.
Everyone is familiar with the term ‘Curb Appeal.’ Yes, it’s referring to a home, what a potential buyer first sees the instant they pull up to a home for sale. That first impression will determine how they view the rest of the property. Well, in effect, you are no different than the house for sale! What a potential employer sees the moment you walk through the door sets the tone of their impression of you. This is a key point that you have the opportunity to achieve a positive first impression.
When I meet with Aspies to run my support group, there’s a common trait I see in each and every one of them. They walk in hunched over, head down, shoulders rounded forward, eyes staring at the floor. What does that convey? Low self-esteem is the first thing that comes to mind. If I were a potential employer, would this type of body language appeal to me? Absolutely not.This might sound harsh, but that’s reality. You, and only you, can control what your body language speaks about you.
Following are some very simple steps to help you start off on the right foot in your quest for a job. First, I tell people to have someone like a family member, take a photo of you standing and one of you sitting. Just exactly how you normally stand and sit. Print them off to have as your guide. Next, while you are standing, take a nice deep breath, stand up straight and tall, lift your chin up, and shoulders back.Don’t do it to such an extreme that you look unnatural. Then let them take a picture of you standing proud and tall.Make sure your chin is up, and your eyes are up, looking ahead, or at the person whom you are meeting. Now do the same sitting. Put your back against the chair, shoulders back, chin up, eyes up and looking ahead or at the person you are meeting. Have your helper take a photo.
Now, line up the photos and see for yourself what your body is saying! The ‘Before’ photos would not be what you want a potential employer to see I’m sure. The ‘After’ photos will be the ones that say you are confident about yourself, and you can do the job you are being hired for. When I have people do this experiment they are quite shocked at the difference in the two sets of photos. Your body language speaks volumes about you. Whether going for a job interview or a first date, you want to make the best first impression you possibly can.
This is a simple start to a complex process. What is most effective is to practice your new body language in front of a mirror. There you can make any adjustments necessary to ensure you look natural yet effective. Continue to practice this until it is a normal way of life. It will make you feel good about yourself and have positive effects far beyond seeking a job! Think positive and keep trying. You can and will achieve the results you want! And always remember to smile!
It’s January, for some of us this is a time of hibernation – preserving energy and warmth after a busy Christmas. For Suzie Franklin and Helen Sanderson it is a time for reflection on all the good things about 2013 and to look forward to what lies ahead in 2014.
We asked Suzie what was the best thing about 2013? “Lots of great things happened last year but the thing that I am most proud of are the achievements of my daughter Jennie, the success of her Circle of Support and the launch of our book which captures this journey.”
Suzie co-wrote the book Personalisation in Practice with Helen Sanderson and they launched it at a Community Circles event in November last year. Jennie officially launched the book by cutting the cake and to her delight receiving a rapturous round of applause from on-lookers.
Jennie’s story of transition from school to living independently describes how person-centred practices, a personal budget and a Circle of Support have enabled her to live the life she chooses. Jennie is a bright, independent young woman who has autism and learning disabilities.
Suzie explains why they chose to launch the book at an event for Circles of Support: “Jennie’s Circle of support is made up of a small group of people that care about Jennie; her health, happiness and wellbeing. We meet about every two months and discuss the areas of Jennie’s life that need support. We use our collective knowledge and networks to ensure that we have the very best information and that Jennie has access to whatever support she needs. Since forming, Jennie’s Circle has supported her through leaving college, getting her own personal budget and moving into her own – rather lovely – flat. I have no doubt that Jennie has achieved everything she has achieved because of the powerful way that her Circle works, the way it supports her and our whole family. Helen is also in Jennie’s Circle and I describe this in detail in our book so it made absolute sense to launch it at this event.”
Helen Sanderson is CEO of Helen Sanderson Associates and co-founder of Community Circles, a small and passionate group of people using person-centred practices to develop Circles of Support at scale so that more people can benefit. We asked Helen who should read the book Personalisation in Practice? “We wrote it for anyone supporting children and young people with disabilities as they approach adulthood, including parents and carers, SENCOs, teachers, social workers and service providers. As well as describing Jennie and Suzie’s personal journey, which I’m sure many will relate to, it is a great informative resource for those seeking a better understanding of how personalisation and person-centred planning work in practice.”
So that’s what was great about 2013, we ask Suzie what the future holds in the year ahead? “More of the same I hope! Jennie is going from strength to strength and this year her Circle is supporting her to ensure she is truly connecting with her friends and community, continuing with her job (dog walking which she loves) and looking at setting up a social enterprise so she can make and sell some of her artwork and home made gifts and cards. My own personal ambition is to show what can be achieved through Circles and to support other families through things like personal budgets and transition by sharing with them what we have learnt in our book. I hope that people find the book to be a useful resource but also that they get comfort from it, that they are not alone in this journey. Having the sole responsibility of supporting your child, who has autism and/or learning disabilities can feel very lonely and there is often a fear associated with what the future could hold. It doesn’t have to be this way though – and that is my hope for 2014 – that more people feel as positively about the future for their children as I do.”
It took us some time to find an attractive title for our book on autism. Every time we were in the car, on our way to an interview, we discussed it. And suddenly: bingo! We knew this is the right title because the book is about the power of people with an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and their success in life and work. Success? Yes, that really is possible. We have talked to many people with an ASD, obviously, all have had a difficult time. However, they managed to create a happy life. As Jaap… despite his doctorate in Mathematics, struggled to keep many jobs before realizing that his intense attention to detail was making him a slow worker. It became his strength once he learnt to set goals and communicate his progress.
What was our motivation to write such a book? Well, that’s easy. First of all we wanted to write a positive book. We discovered that there are only a few books about autism in which the power of the people is shown. It was and is our goal to make clear the abilities people with an ASD have and how they can use these abilities in work and life. We really hope that AutiPower will empower people with an ASD. We also hope that employers, managers and teachers will read the book so they learn to recognize people with an ASD in their organizations and help them to get the best out of themselves… and thereby: out of the organization.
People with an ASD, are just one side of the ‘story’. After all, people with a form of autism are reliant on autism professionals, career coaches and employers. Let’s take the last group: employers. We have encountered that it still is difficult for them to see the value and great talents that people with an ASD bring to the workplace. If you are an employer and you want to know how to adapt and support workers with an ASD? Well, first of all, it’s important to learn how a mind of a person with ASD works. The book AutiPower will tell you all about it. Read it and ‘go into the mind’ of Mark, Wendy, Barbara and all the other people with an ASD. Once you know how their brains work, take measures to ensure these people feel comfortable at work. Maybe it’s necessary to create a separate room, or take care that they always have a colleague, someone to talk to when they have questions or when they feel uncertain. And yes, all of this costs you some time, but we are convinced that it is worth investing in these people. People with an ASD are hard workers, accurate, faithful and intelligent.
Many people asked us to give some tips for successful living and working with an ASD. Well, in the beginning we did not know much about autism but as all of the people with an ASD we interviewed were pretty open to talk about their life, we now dare to say that we are kind of ‘experts’ on this subject. So, our tips? Focus on what you can do and don’t focus on what you can’t. That sounds pretty easy, but – look in your own environment – mostly people emphasize their negative rather than their positive skills. Also very important is to be open minded and to talk about your disabilities and problems. Accept coaching in work or at home. It helps, really. Our last tip and maybe the most important one: stay positive. Every day you can and will learn. Take step after step, don’t be impatient and… enjoy life!
We really hope that our book AutiPower is an instructive book for people with an ASD and also for anyone who really wants to gain a better understanding of the thoughts and feelings of people with a form of autism. So, let’s give the last words of this blog to Robyn. In AutiPower she says: ‘I am lucky with the job I have now. I like it and it allows me to make my own choices. And that is very important to me.’
Christy Oslund, Co-ordinator of Student Disability Services in the Dean of the Students’ Office at Michigan Technological University, shares helpful tips for parents on preparing students for a new school year and future independence.
Preparation for Independence
As students gear up for another year of school—perhaps even their last year or two before heading off to college or other independent goals—families tend to get caught up in last minute preparations. Do they have adequate school supplies, is it time to buy a scientific calculator, what will the schedule look like for classes and for after school activities? It is easy to get buried in details.
We need to remind ourselves to step back and remember the big picture. We need to help our students be prepared not just for the immediate school term but for the future when they will be required to live more independently. Consider the following questions:
- Is my child able to take their medication reliably without reminders?
- Does my child know how to wash their own laundry?
- Could my child go shopping alone and find their own basic necessities?
- Have we practiced the child getting up and ready for school without assistance/wake-up calls?
- Has my child learned to shop for and cook a few simple meals?
- Can my child wash up after preparing a meal?
Until a person has had the opportunity to practice all these steps towards independence, he or she is not really ready for life away from home, whether that be in a trade school, college, university, or first job. Particularly with high functioning children who are very smart, we can easily forget how important these other day to day life skills are for the young person to grow into a successful adult. Rather than trying to take on teaching all of these skills at once, consider working on them one at a time. It will depend on your child which of these steps will come easiest and which will require the most work.
Consider starting with the step that is likely to be the least difficult for the individual child you are working with, so that your student can build on success as they approach the next goal. If for example, your child is naturally starting to get up in the morning for school, allow that to become an independent activity where he or she is responsible for getting out of the home on time. Realize that this may mean that your child will be late a few times; this is the price that has to be paid in helping your student work towards independence. Once your child leaves home, there will not be anyone getting them out the door on time and this is a skill that is best learned before they are expected to act like an adult.
On the other hand, if your child has shown an interest in cooking, help them identify a few simple meals they would like to cook. Take them shopping and walk them through the process of choosing ingredients for the meal, paying, taking home the shopping, and preparation. For young people who find that process very involved, you may want to make clean up after the meal a separate lesson and learning opportunity.
Remember that almost everyone finds the most effective way to learn is to be given a chance for practice, with necessary explanation/information being provided by someone who has more experience with the skill being learned. If one wants to learn to milk a cow, one would look for a dairy farmer who has experience with milking; if one wants to learn to cook a meal, it helps if the person teaching has cooked before.
At the same time, parents and guardians can show the willingness to learn new skills themselves. If no one in the home is practiced at cooking a meal then helping the child prepare by learning this skill together—perhaps in a basic cooking class, or from a beginners cook book—demonstrates that learning new skills is always possible, and often necessary, no matter what stage we are at in life. By learning side by side with your child, you can demonstrate how to solve problems along the way:
- How will we prepare for shopping?
- How do we choose ingredients?
- How do we decide which pan to use?
- How can we tell if the heat we are using is too hot or not hot enough?
When more mature family members demonstrate how to solve problems as they are encountered, they also set another example that the child can learn from and call on later in life.
A new school year is an exciting, anxiety producing time of year. It is also a reminder that a child is continuing to grow towards eventual independence. Being mindful to include education and practice with the life skills needed outside of school is just as important as helping a child academically prepare for their future. Just as we wouldn’t expect a child to spontaneously start reading without previous education just because they have left home, we cannot expect them to suddenly know other life skills such as cooking, or getting up without reminders, just because they’ve moved. Use each day to practice these steps towards independence and you can ensure that your child has all the skills necessary to be successful.
Christy is the author of Succeeding as a Student in the STEM Fields with an Invisible Disability: A College Handbook for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math Students with Autism, ADD, Affective Disorders, or Learning Difficulties and their Families and the forthcoming Supporting College and University Students with Invisible Disabilities: A Guide for Faculty and Staff Working with Students with Autism, AD/HD, Language Processing Disorders, Anxiety, and Mental Illness both published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
Career coach and author Barbara Bissonnette shares helpful advice from her forthcoming book, Asperger’s Syndrome Workplace Survival Guide: A Neurotypical’s Secrets for Success, on how to succeed in the workplace.
Why You Need a Work Buddy
Many years ago, I read that someone had figured out 200 different ways to wash dishes. This underscored that there are many different methods for achieving the same result.
This is also true in the workplace. Every organization has unique systems and processes. Even if you have the same job at a new company, there will be differences in procedures, policies, and equipment. The reporting structures may be different. Certainly the people will be, and they will have different expectations, preferences and communication styles. The company culture might also be a departure from your previous experience.
The unique way that “things get done around here” can only be learned on the job, and from your co-workers. This is why I believe that one of the most important employment success strategies you can implement is to find a “work buddy.”
A work buddy is a colleague, preferably a peer or someone in your department. This should not be your supervisor or a human resources representative. This is someone who can help you to understand and learn the many specific details about how to do your job and interact with others in the company. Sometimes, this is a formally established partnership with a designated mentor or trainer. More often, a work buddy is someone who you like and trust.
There are many benefits of having a work buddy. He can translate unspoken workplace rules for you: what is a priority, how your supervisor prefers to get information, whom you can trust and whom you should avoid. He can explain office politics—who in the organization really has power, how decisions get made, what qualities are valued, and how various departments or divisions interact.
Your buddy can also provide concrete ideas about how to work efficiently. Paul was overwhelmed by the weekly volume of patients that he had to manage in his job as a physician’s assistant. He couldn’t determine whether he was processing paperwork too slowly or simply had too many patients to see. Paul asked his buddy, a fellow physician’s assistant, to review his case-management methods. The co-worker showed Paul short cuts that saved four hours of administrative time per week.
Dan’s buddy was able to give him excellent advice about how to handle various conflicts and frustrations. Once, he stopped Dan from sending an angry email to the director of the IT department. “He talked me out of something that could really have damaged my reputation, or gotten me fired,” Dan said.
We all need a reality check from time to time, and this is another way that your work buddy can be of great value. This person can provide feedback about things such as: Is my supervisor critical of just my work, or of everyone else’s, too? Are other people confused by the new system, or it is just me? Is everyone overwhelmed or am I the only one who can’t keep up? Was that comment a joke or a put down?
Your work buddy needs to be someone whom you explicitly trust. You may or may not decide to tell him about your Asperger’s Syndrome. Signs that a co-worker will make a good work buddy include:
▪ Patience when answering your questions: they don’t say, “I’m surprised you don’t know that;” or “It’s obvious;” or “Weren’t you paying attention?”
▪ Volunteering information that is important for you to know, such as: things that annoy your supervisor, who is trustworthy, or who to go to with questions.
▪ Introducing you to other people in the company.
▪ Making sure that you are invited to lunches with your department or team members, or to social events outside the office.
Once you have identified a colleague with these characteristics, it is not necessary to ask that he or she become your work buddy. This will happen naturally over time. Be careful not to overwhelm this person with too many questions and requests for advice. Build the relationship through interaction and becoming friendly.
Express gratitude for the assistance you receive: “Thanks, Bill, for filling me in on the situation with Steve.” Be alert for ways to reciprocate, such as offering to pitch in if your buddy has a lot of work, bringing him a cup of coffee, or taking him to lunch. You do not need to “keep score,” that is, do something for the person every time he does something for you. If you are uncertain of appropriate ways to show appreciation, talk the situation over with someone outside of work.
Excerpted from Asperger’s Syndrome Workplace Survival Guide: A Neurotypical’s Secrets for Success, © 2013, Barbara Bissonnette. Coming in May from Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
In this extract from The Complete Guide to Getting a Job for People with Asperger’s Syndrome, career development coach and author Barbara Bissonnette translates some common interview questions to help literal thinkers understand what is actually being asked of them.
To answer a question well, you must understand what is being asked. This may not be readily apparent if you are a literal thinker. Josh was completely confused when he was asked, “Why should I hire you instead of the other candidates?” After thinking about it for a few seconds, he said, “I don’t know how to answer that, because I haven’t met the other candidates.” The interviewer knew that Josh had not met the other applicants. The intent of his question was for Josh to summarize why he believed that he was the best person for the job.
There are several types of interview questions. Some assess your abilities, depth of experience, and knowledge of a job function or an industry. Others are designed to tease out how well you work with others. Behavioral questions look at past actions as indicators of future performance. They typically begin with a statement like, “tell me about a time when,” or, “give me an example of,” or, “describe a project that…”
Here are some common interview questions, and suggestions about how to answer them. Even if you are not asked all of these questions specifically, you can use the information to respond to similar inquiries about your background, hard skills and soft skills.
1. Tell Me About Yourself
Translation: Summarize your relevant skills and experience.
This question is often asked early in an interview. It is not an invitation to share your life story. A good answer summarizes, in five to six sentences, the skills and experience that make you a good fit for the job. Mention your most relevant general and job-specific skills, as well as personal characteristics that are important for the position. An accountant could summarize experience in basic accounting principles, discuss proficiency with computer spreadsheets, and give examples of accuracy and attention to detail.
A bit of humor, if you are comfortable using it, can relieve nervousness and get the interview off to a good start. Accountant Todd could say, “I’m a numbers geek!” But don’t overdo the levity. One or two bits of humor per interview is enough. You want to project friendliness, not goofiness. You are not interviewing to be a company comedian.
Avoid long, rambling responses that contain irrelevant details: where you grew up, a list of classes you took to earn your degree, or your recent divorce. Don’t mention achievements from high school and earlier, unless they are truly significant. Earning the designation of Eagle Scout, for example, requires personal characteristics that include persistence, leadership, and teamwork. These are valuable in any job.
2. Why Did You Choose This Field?
Translation: What excites you about this work or this industry?
A strong response highlights aptitudes and abilities that are related to the job in question. For example, “Engineering appeals to me because I enjoy applying mathematical principles to solve real-world problems. During college, I did a project…”
A weak response focuses on your personal preferences instead of what you can do for the employer, “I like computers,” “There are lots of jobs,” or, “It pays well.”
3. What Are Your Greatest Strengths?
Translation: What makes you good at this work? (Be ready with three examples.)
It is not boastful to discuss your abilities and accomplishments at a job interview. This is your chance to describe knowledge and personal attributes that enable you to achieve results for the organization. Choose strong points that demonstrate your ability to perform the job well. An engineer might say, “I can form detailed pictures in my mind and see how design changes will impact product performance.”
Empty, self-serving answers are those that offer no benefit to the employer, “I’m a fantastic writer,” “I’m a genius at math,” or, “I live to write code!”
4. What is Your Greatest Weakness?
Translation: Do you have insight into your limitations and have you learned from your mistakes?
This is a tricky question. Everyone has weaknesses of some kind, so saying that you don’t have any is clearly not true. On the other hand, being too honest can disqualify you as a candidate. Think about a weakness that is also a strength, or a limitation that you have overcome. Aaron said, “I can be a perfectionist, however this has helped me in accounting because my work is accurate. And, it is always delivered on time.” This answer works because accuracy is important in this line of work, and Aaron added a sentence to let the employer know that his thoroughness would not get in the way of meeting deadlines.
Unacceptable responses are those that communicate a fatal flaw. This refers to an attribute that makes you unqualified for the position. Describing yourself as introverted and a little shy at first would be a fatal flaw for a salesperson, who meets with new prospects. It would not be a fatal flaw for someone, like an accountant, who works mostly with information. Some answers are fatal flaws for any job. Fatal flaw answers include, “I’m not a team player,” “My selfconfidence is low,” and, “I don’t like taking the ideas or direction of others.”
5. Describe Your Worst Boss
Translation: What type of manager have you disliked working with (and am I that type of manager)?
This question is not as simple as it may first sound. I’ll begin with the wrong answer, since it is the one so many of my clients choose. Rob is a good example. I could hear his agitation as he began describing a former manager. “He wouldn’t give me clear instructions, and then blamed me for everything that went wrong,” Rob began. “Once I asked to take a Friday off before a holiday weekend. He was so mean, he said no, but then let one of the other associates take Friday off.”
I’ll bet that you, like Rob, have a story or two about an unreasonable, jerky boss. However, sharing these anecdotes at an interview makes you look bad. Blaming problems on someone else, or making negative judgments about a person’s character, makes you sound like a complainer, and an employee who is difficult to work with. Companies do not want employees who are difficult. Avoid comments like, “He didn’t listen to me,” “She criticized my work,” and, “He was disrespectful and yelled a lot.”
When a hiring manager asks this question, he wants to know whether you will be comfortable with his management style. A manager who gives staff members a lot of autonomy would be concerned if you describe this style as difficult. Obviously, you cannot know a manager’s preferences in advance. If your styles are different to the point of incompatibility, it really means the job is not the right fit, and it’s unlikely that you’re going to get hired.
The right response to this question focuses on professional (not personal) characteristics, and frames negatives as differences in preference or style. For example, “My last supervisor preferred group brainstorming sessions. This was a challenge sometimes because I like to think about a problem on my own, then present my ideas to the group. We worked it out so I could contribute my ideas the next day.”
For more essential advice, tips and strategies for getting a job in the neurotypical workplace, buy your copy of The Complete Guide to Getting a Job for People with Asperger’s Syndrome by Barbara Bissonnette.
Copyright © Jessica Kingsley Publishers 2012.