When stuck in an awful job, an interview for a new job is like an oasis in a desert, a fresh taste of water amidst overwhelming thirst. The glimmer of hope that bubbles up is breathtakingly refreshing in contrast to the dull monotony of traipsing each day to a hated job. It was this breath of hope that filled me last week when I received a call to set up an interview, the first call of the sort I’ve received in quite some time. Rather than being nervous as many expected I would be, I was filled with excitement and anticipation.
When the day of the interview rolled around yesterday, I was calm and self-assured. I knew that I was as prepared as I could be and was confident I would do well. It was a different setup than I was used to. The position is listed through a staffing agency so before I went to the actual interview, I had a pre-interview with the staffing agency. I arrived on time to the agency, was looking great, had an impressive list of references in hand, and was calm and collected.
Upon sitting down with the interviewers, I was asked the usual questions like “Tell me about yourself” and “What is your greatest strength?” I answered to the best of my ability and felt sure of my answers. Yet, part way through, one of the interviewers stopped to ask if I was nervous. Confused, I told them that I wasn’t. Yet through the rest of the interview, they kept telling me to calm down and take a deep breath. They emphasized that I needed to appear confident not nervous which was baffling to me because I wasn’t nervous at all.
I made my way on to the actual interview which turned out to be a confusing journey. I had no idea where I was going and once I got to the building it was huge. With the help of several people, I finally found my way to where I needed to be. Despite the hiccups, I was still calm and collected, confident that I would do well.
I sat down with the actual interviewers and was asked many of the same questions. Then again, almost like an echo, I was asked if I was nervous. Yet again I assured them that I wasn’t, though I was even more baffled now. The interview continued on and seemed to go fairly well before I was sent on my way.
Upon returning home, I recounted my experience to my husband and best friend. I expressed my confusion as to why I was perceived as being nervous. So we did a mock interview so that they could try to figure out what was making others think that I was nervous. After the mock interview, the feedback I received was that I was too stiff, my voice to monotone, my speech too fast, my face not expressive or inviting enough, and my speech to clinical and cold.
I did my best to take the criticism in stride, but it sat with me, flipping over and over in my mind. The more I thought about it, the more distressed I grew, finally crumpling into a heap of depression and self-hatred. You see, everything that was mentioned, all the reasons that I might appear nervous or interview poorly, are things I have little control over. All the things mentioned are aspects of being autistic.
I sit too stiffly in an effort not to stim. There is no in-between for me. I’m either stimming and moving constantly or I’m stiff and rigid. I don’t know what my voice sounds like most of the time and have no idea how to sound less monotonous. I speak quickly because I think quickly. It’s hard at times for my mouth to keep up with my brain. When I slow down to speak, I struggle to keep track of what I’m trying to say. My face, like my voice, tends to do its own things and I’m typically unaware of what facial expression I have on. When I try to control my facial expressions they look strange or strained. Finally, I speak intelligently. I use big words naturally and tend to default to a more scientific way of talking about things. This is how I am in conversation with friends. I have no idea how to change that, particularly for an interview. In an interview setting, my speech is scripted and I struggle to speak spontaneously or with any kind of emotion to my voice.
All of these things are aspects of myself that I don’t think I’m able to change. How do you change your voice or facial expressions when you don’t even know what they’re doing to begin with? How do you change the very way that you speak? How do you become something that you’re not?
The depression that overwhelmed me in response to all of this was spurred on by my frustration. I became overwhelmed by the realization that this is how people see me, that this is what people must think of me when I meet new people. How am I ever going to get through the interview process when all of these factors are counted against me and I’m unable to change them? How am I ever going to escape my current situation when I have to pass as neurotypical in order to get a new job? Because that’s what this really comes down to. I don’t pass well enough as neurotypical. I can force eye contact. I can stop myself from stimming. I can answer questions and speak eloquently. Yet none of that will matter because my face and voice still give away my neurodivergence. I’m still marked as weird or cold or not personable.
For autistics, interviews are like the master level passing test. It’s a time to get graded on how well you can hide and contort yourself into the image of a neurotypical. For many of us, we are destined to fail this test because no matter how hard we try we will never seem neurotypical. We can put on fancy clothes, force ourselves through painful eye contact, make mouth words happen fluidly, and avoid stimming, yet it’s not enough. There are still things that mark us as different. Things that we may not have any control over.
It’s so frustrating that even for a job in which social skills don’t matter or would matter very little, we must make it past the gate of social skills. We must prove that we are NormalTM and can socialize and seem totally relaxed while being tested on our abilities to destroy ourselves. Job interviews as a standard of employment is ableist. It’s a giant fence around employment with a sign reading “Autistics Keep Out.”
Autistics are a many varied and very talented group of people. So many of us have so much to offer. Yet many of us will never get the opportunity to make use of our skills because in order to get to a job in which we could excel, we must first pass the test of neurotypicality. Job interviews work to keep so many talented autistics from meeting their full potential or even from working at all. I know that I am lucky to have a job at all, let alone be searching for a better one. Yet, I am so frustrated by all of this.
As long as job interviews are the standard for hiring employees, ableism will always be at play in our work force. In order to reach a more equal society, we must find other methods for determining employment that do not disadvantage so many people. I hope that one day, autistics entering the workforce will not have to face the same challenges that so many of us face today.