LIFE ON THE AUTISM SPECTRUM: NICE WORK IF YOU CAN GET IT
By Brian Lafferty
February 16, 2012 (San Diego) – A few years ago I wrote an essay that was published in the anthology book Voices of Autism. I was unaware of the significance until I saw how impressed my college professors, friends, and family were. Shortly after, I was featured in a piece by my alma mater.
My film studies professor, who was responsible for helping me land this writing opportunity, suggested I put it on my resume. I was thrilled. At the time I was hoping to become a screenwriter. Even though it wasn’t a screenplay or a work of fiction, at least I had a solid writing sample. After all, it’s insanely difficult for anybody to get published in a book today and get paid for it.
During my last semester at college I had to do an internship with an approved entertainment industry company. Before I could begin, the university’s Career Center had to approve my cover letter and resume. Thinking it would help me stand out from the crowd, I mentioned the essay in both.
My advisor, who specialized in entertainment careers, wrote back saying that the part about the essay was well written. However, I became disheartened when she said it had to be left off the cover letter. Even though people aren’t supposed to prejudge, they do and she warned that they would “shy away.” She advised me to find something that would present me in a positive light. I was, however, allowed to mention the essay in the resume.
I was stunned and disappointed. When I read that e-mail it was the first time I truly realized the scope of the negative perception most people have of Autism. I eventually secured an internship, but to this day I can’t stop thinking her e-mail.
Of course, not all companies and industries are prejudiced. Last year I read about a software company called Aspiritech that embraces neurodiversity by hiring only people with Autism and Aspergers. While exploring new career opportunities last year, I happened upon the Media Access Office, a program by California’s Employment Development Department that helps people with mental and physical disabilities find entertainment industry jobs, among other things.
But not every Autistic person wants to work in the technology sector. Some wouldn’t even benefit from it or even be good at it. I love computers, but I don’t have the skills and technical know-how to work with them or with software. I could learn the skills, but a career in this field would be unsatisfying for me.
Last year I became a certified paralegal. I chose this career path for two reasons. For starters, I’ve always had an interest in the law. This interest originated in my United States government class during my senior year in high school. What fascinated me the most were landmark Supreme Court cases like Gideon v. Wainwright and Miranda v. Arizona. This interest was cemented in my second semester of community college, when I took a course in Administration of Justice. Eight years later, it remains one of the few college general education courses in which I’ve fully retained what I learned.
The second reason is because the required job skills are those that I’m not only good at, but also enjoy doing. I love to write, and as a paralegal I would be doing a lot of it. There’s not a day that goes by that I do research for fun, whether it be about history, film, television, music, or any topic that catches my fancy. Research is a major task of a paralegal. I would be spending a great deal of time researching relevant case law or statutes to aid in helping my supervising attorney’s cases. Finally, reading has always been a favorite pastime of mine ever since Kindergarten. Paralegals do a lot of that, too.
Now that I’m looking for work as a paralegal, that e-mail from my career advisor three years ago burns now more than ever. A lot of the time people would never guess that I’m Autistic. I tend to “hide” it pretty well. I can practice voice modulation, eye contact, enthusiasm, and other traits that can make me look good.
Unfortunately, there comes a point where I’m no longer myself, but someone else. Other times hidden negative traits can “bleed.” The interviewer cannot ask me if I have a learning disability or why I act “differently”; doing so would result in federal fines of thousands of dollars. They can, however, make unfair assumptions. Appearances are everything in a job interview and I’m not merely talking about dress and cleanliness. For Autistic people like myself, there are struggles with maintaining consistent eye contact, processing thought (it takes a lot of it whenever I form sentences, but that’s a topic for another column), and personality (enthusiasm and outgoingness is hard for me to externally express).
That’s the problem with job interviews for Autistic people. On the outside I look unenthused, boring, and lacking a personality. My body language and facial expressions usually indicate someone who isn’t necessarily incompetent, but is someone who would be unable to perform his duties adequately.
Appearances can be very deceiving, though. On the outside I may look blank-faced and lacking confidence. On the inside, I’m full of emotion and happiness. I possess an outstanding visual memory that never ceases to impress people; one favorite Lafferty Family story is the time I memorized – at age seven – all fifty states, their capitals, and their nicknames in the span of two to three days. Ever since elementary school, family, friends, and teachers alike have commented to me how well I write. I attribute this to being a voracious reader growing up.
My career center advisor at Cal State, Fullerton said companies prejudge, even though they won’t admit it. This is a big mistake. There’s a huge difference between social deficiencies and job deficiencies. The two don’t always correlate. Just because someone looks “different” or doesn’t look “normal” doesn’t mean they’re incompetent or won’t be able to do their job well.
Right now I’m looking to volunteer at a law firm to gain experience. It takes a lot of courage for me to drop off a cover letter and resume at a law office and even more to follow up. A million things run through my head. I want to look like I want to work. I need to look confident. But at what point does expressing these traits turns into contorting myself to fit other people’s preconceived notions of normal human behavior? There is no easy answer to that question. All I know is I need to do what I have to do to get a job and navigate the best I can the choppy seas of job searching.
Brian Lafferty is an adult living with High-Functioning Autism in Escondido. He graduated from Cal State Fullerton with a B.A. in Radio-TV-Film, and is also the film critic for East County Magazine. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also follow him on Twitter: @BrianLaff.