ask the readers: job searching with Asperger’s

I’m throwing this question out to readers to answer, since I don’t have much expertise with this but I suspect there are people reading who do. A reader writes:

My son (who’s still a number of years away from even thinking about working) has Asperger’s Syndrome, an autism spectrum disorder. Like many other people with Aspergers, my son has a number of social issues, and is terrible at navigating interpersonal relationships. But, also like many other people with Aspergers, my son is very intelligent, and when he’s interested in something, his unusual viewpoint and extreme ability to focus helps him see things that others miss and he easily comes up with highly original observations or solutions. From an employer’s standpoint, an employee with issues like this can be both a burden and an enormous asset, and sometimes both at the same time.

I’ve taught my son to be a strong advocate for himself, so I’m sure that once hired, he would be able to explain what specific accomodations he might need, and help his coworkers understand why he is a little bit different than they are. But I often wonder about how he will be able to get through the interview process when so much of it tends to rely on social interactions like building a strong rapport and recognizing the hidden subtexts of interview questions. What are your thoughts? Have you seen any successful strategies that other people with similar issues have used for presenting themselves in interviews? In some ways, my son’s issues can be “invisible” at times–if you met him on a good day, you might not even realize that anything was different about him. But he definitely will need an employer who is understanding long-term about the occasional impact his condition will have within the workplace, and I wonder when is the appropriate time for an applicant to discuss these concerns.

I know that in my son’s case, he’s still got plenty of time before he needs to think about these questions, but I know there are plenty of other kids with similar issues that are already looking to enter the job market. I’d love to hear what you would recommend they should do!

What advice do you have for this reader and her son?

Read an update to this letter here.

{ 101 comments… read them below }

  1. Pez*
    “Specialisterne Denmark, which translates from Danish as “the specialists”, is a social innovation company providing IT consultancy services, where most of the employees are people with autism.” This is might be a good resource for the OP.

    1. Eva*

      I was going to mention Specialisterne! It’s so awesome to see a company capitalizing on the unique skillset of the Asperger people – such a win-win for everyone. Don’t know if the OP’s son can find a similar company where he is located, but hopefully it can serve as inspiration to keep searching until someone sees his strength and not just his weakness.

      1. Dude Dudeson*

        As an American, I have not seen anything similar to Specialisterne Denmark in the United States.
        I, myself, have Asperger’s, and job hunting is very difficult. I’ve determined that many employers (looking back on my past work history), never quite understand my quirks.

        I wish we did have something like Specialisterne Denmark in this country, as right now, I am out of work, and would love to be working again. Although, an IT business actually wouldn’t work great with me. I’m more of the artistic minded high-functioning-autistic. Music and painting/drawing are so totally me, while IT is a “not-so-much”.

  2. Harry*

    I don’t have any particular advise but I once met a man who precisely fits the description. I tried to talk to him but he would avoid eye contact. He was able to mumble a few words and I could see he was making the effort to carry a conversation. He was completing his graduate or doctorate degree at CalTech and had a job waiting for him at Bell Labs. He was with a few of his classmates at CalTech so he did have somewhat of a social life I assume.

  3. Anita*

    Encourage your son to follow his interests and form meaningful friendships with people in his peer group and community. Depending on his age, organized activities like scouting and Odyssey of the Mind could be a good fit. If you share more about your son’s age and interests I’m sure lots of commenters could leave very detailed feedback.

    1. OP*

      I know scouting is quite popular with many kids facing the same challenges as my son–I think they respond well to the rules and clear goals of obtaining badges. Karate is another environment that can be quite beneficial. For my son, we’ve found that he tends to do better in less organized pursuits that highlight creativity. We’ve been looking into local robotic teams where there’s a good deal of focus on problem solving and encouraging him to explore different forms of artwork.

  4. Anonymous*

    I worked with a man a few of us suspected had Asperger’s. Although, he didn’t announce it, after working with him for a while, many of his behaviors did fit the Mayo Clinic’s description of it. Prior to this revelation, I did had a less than pleasant encounter with him. I took the issue to his manager, who encouraged his employee to apologize to me, and he did, and I accepted his apology.

    Honestly, if I had know he had this condition from the get-go (if that really was the case), it would have been easier to understand his quirks. However, once we assume he did have Asperger’s, I was able to understand him better, and was able to shrug off any odd social interactions from then on.

    Unfortunately, some of my other co-workers weren’t as understanding. :(

    1. Anony-M*

      But at the same time, when someone announces their syndrome, then others just categorize everything they do, for better or for worse, under that diagnosis. There was a reality show where a girl had asperger’s, and whenever she would do something that any other person would do, like sit in her room to read, the other contestents would be like “Sarah sits in her room reading all the time. Must be because she has Asperger’s.” Although I am not someone with that syndrome, I was a bit put off by others’ reactions and how they were always blaming anything on that.

      It reminds me of a study I read in my sociology class once, where a few perfectly healthy reporters went undercover in a mental ward to study the conditions and how they were being treated. They obviously would be writing things down in their notebooks all the time, and the nurses and doctors (oblivious to the study that was being conducted) would note in the “patients'” files that they were obsessively writing down notes, hyper-observant, etc. But the truth was that they weren´t mentally unhealthy, they were just doing their report. But because they were admitted into a mental ward, people judged them on supposedly normal actions, since they were technically mental patients.

      I also worked as a camp counselor and there was a child with Asperger´s. Being a young boy, he sometimes got into fights just like any of the other campers. And just like some of the other campers, he would hit or bite. But when he did it, other counselors would say “Oh, but he has Asperger’s, that must be why he is biting/pushing/screaming/hitting.” It would bother me because it almost seemed like this child would get away with the same actions that would require a time out or a call to mom/dad for any other camper.

      The point I am trying to get at is that once someone is pegged in a certain category, their actions can be said to be part of something else, even when it is not.

      Yes, it would probably be good to know in some cases, to make others understand and such, but I also wonder if it would also make people judge him wrongly.

        1. Anony-M*

          Thanks for posting the article! It´s been several years since I read it, but I remember the overall idea. It’ll be nice to read again, because I remember finding it quite interesting.

    2. Ben*

      I have Aspergers, and I do not ever tell my employer that I have it. It still has many, many negative connotations which far outweigh any social benefits I would get from this.

      To wit, when my last employer found out about my Aspergers, I was sidelined nearly immediately, and fired for “performance” issues a month later. Illegal? Probably. Provable? Probably not.

      My current employer doesn’t know, and I’ve worked there for over two years with no issue at all. My condition allows me to really focus on my tasks, which makes me good at what I do. I suspect I am not thought to be the friendliest of coworkers, but I can live with that so long as I can do my job with no unwarranted negative stigma on me.

      1. Anony-M*

        When you keep that info to yourself, any “quirks” you may have generally get categorized into your personality or style, as opposed to being “blamed” on the Asperger’s.

  5. Kate*

    One thing that springs to mind is the types of jobs that the OP’s son could target.

    It might help if he were to focus his applications on roles that play to his strengths, and which don’t focus so much on interpersonal skills. That way, interviewers would place less of an emphasis on them anyway.

    Sounds like the type of role that might suit him is one that is largely autonomous, and which involves a lot of lateral thinking, problem solving and attention to detail. Depending on what his interests are, maybe something research-based might be a good fit.

    1. fposte*

      Exactly. It’s a version of what all of us do. We all have some jobs that we really can’t do, even with reasonable accommodation.

      People are talking helpfully about career paths in general, so I’m thinking more about how this particular Bob handles the career ladder. I’d say it could be beneficial to collect predecents on what kind of accommodations Aspies have found helpful in workplaces and workplaces have been able to make, so that he’s ready with a solution as well as a problem–it’s always better to say “How about this instead?” instead of “No.” I think the challenge in most workplaces is to understand that it’s about the people as well as the work, but that’s something that can be rehearsed for and studied.

      I can see it going either way as far as mentioning Asperger’s during the interview, but it’s certainly something that could come up, especially during the challenges-you’ve-faced line of questioning. And if his interview manner might be better received with that piece of context, then it’s usually a good idea to be up front about what people are already noticing.

  6. Clobbered*

    People with Aspergers are not unusual in computing. Not only do their strong abilities to focus pay off, but technical projects often are run using computer-based communication platforms (email, chat etc) which level the playing field considerably in terms of issues like inability to read body language and so on. If he has an interest in computing, you will find he will not have much explaining to do to an employer , especially if he builds himself a track record ahead of time, which is not hard to do these days. It is no different than for any other student – get the kid to gain experience ahead of time in the field they want to be in.

    Frankly, if I had a kid with Aspergers I would be more worried about romantic relationships. My Aspie friends have big difficulties caused by their inability to pick up social cues, especially telling when someone is actually interested in them. I think if you have a kid who from the sounds of it is, or nearly is, a teenager, you might want to (if you haven’t already) work on finding some specialist coaching in that area. Improved ability there would also translate well in managing social interactions in the workplace.

    Good on you for thinking ahead and good luck.

  7. Michael*

    A common strategy for people with autism spectrum disorders is to use “social stories” to prepare for new social interactions. This involves walking through what is going to happen in a new situation, anticipating the outcomes, and practicing what to say and how to act.

    One of the best things you could do is practice interviewing with your son. Think of questions that might be asked and responses to them. Discuss how to shake hands, establish eye contact, speak confidently directly at the speaker. Make a list of good topics and bad topics to discuss. I realize these are things that your son is probably going to be working on his whole life, but here you’d have a chance to focus on them for a specific interaction.

    1. MaryTerry*

      I was going to say this. Just as you may have had to teach social cues to a young child with Aspergers, these are new “social” situations that he will need to learn: things most people eventually understand and pick up without being taught (but not everyone!).

    2. jennie*

      I absolutely agree – practice practice practice! Use the job description to come up with plausible questions and prepare responses based on those, plus a few other responses as backups.

      I interviewed a candidate with aspergers once and I could tell he had practised his responses and even practised making eye contact. He seemed relaxed and was not at a disadvantage compared to other candidates.

    3. Evan the College Student*

      Yes, definitely, practice interviewing. I’m not autistic/Aspergers (well, I think I’ve detected a few tendencies in that direction, but nowhere near enough to merit a diagnosis), but my parents practiced interviewing with my before I went off to college. It’s really helped me to think through responses in advance.

    4. The gold digger*

      I just read the book The Journal of Best Practices: A Memoir of Marriage, Asperger Syndrome, and One Man’s Quest to Be a Better Husband. He rehearsed his work conversations. He was quite successful in his job.

    5. A Bug!*

      Something that was useful for a relative of mine with Aspergers was to participate in an improv acting group. It can provide a wide variety of opportunities to practice social interaction in a non-judgmental, hopefully fun, setting.

      It might also introduce the participant to other people who might be willing to assist with interview-specific practice on a one-on-one basis. It’s great to practice with your family and friends, but getting practice with lots of different people will help make the transition from practice to real-life a little bit easier to handle.

    6. Ben*

      I do this prior to every business and personal interaction. It works well. I strongly recommend it.

      Since I don’t really “get” body language (as I have Aspergers as well) it helps me understand their likely motives and helps me navigate a lot of settings. IF OP would do this with her son it would help. There is also occupational therapy specifically for those with Aspergers that makes a real difference.

  8. SalesGeek*

    Yes, go for it. IT jobs are great for Asperger types (yes, it’s a spectrum). I’m in a sales job and one of the sharpest guys in my unit is a classic Asperger personality. Customers love him…there is no question he can’t answer and he follows up on *everything.* He loves his job and is making a darned good living. And if you can get through to him on a personal level he’s a sharp conversationalist.

    Personal life for him has been difficult, though. He was married and is divorced now although it’s hard to tell if it’s his personality or like many of us who travel for a living just a casualty of the job.

    Keep trying, Mom. There is a place for your son where he’ll be happy, productive and wanted.

  9. Anonymous*

    I worked with a person who had Asperger’s; he worked in the company’s Web Development Department. He had disclosed this to the hiring manager when interviewing, and the manager respectfully kept it to himself and allowed the employee to disclose this as he saw fit (I think he eventually told most he worked with when he was comfortable).

    For a time we did not know he had Asperger’s, however our HR department was full of Psychology majors so we had some lingering suspicion. One day he nonchalantly disclosed to his us that he had Asperger’s, and his father was actually a famous Psychologist specializing in the autism spectrum who wrote a book about the employee, and it was really quite fascinating. He later brought his father in to meet our department.

    We also had an intern with Asperger’s, and he as well was open about his diagnosis. Unfortunately, in college, he did experience some brutal stereotyping and stigma (complained that people left him out and did not want to work on projects with him, picked on him, etc). In the workplace, however, I did not see this happen to him as his role in the workplace was better suited to his strengths.

    Honestly, I think disclosure helped their interactions in the workplace and definitely in the interview process. I think the disclosure gave a depth of understanding and allowed for the necessary accommodations.

  10. Lora*

    I work in biotech/engineering, and we have a few Aspies at my current company. I supervise one and work closely with another.
    Agree with the advice to play to his strengths. The employee I supervise is exceptionally sweet and helpful after you get to know him and you have his respect as a fellow science geek. If he thinks you are not as smart as him, if you expect him to follow orders because you’re the boss and you’ve given him orders, forget it. He just won’t do stuff and will constantly question the project and simply ignore the assignment. He gets away with this because he is an absolutely brilliant engineer and his projects, when he accepts them, always work quite well even compared to the efforts of much more experienced and educated engineers. We’re a small company of about 100 people, and it was easy for his accomplishments to gain management respect–I can imagine in a larger company where there is more politicking and more layers of management, those accomplishments might have been drowned out.

    My colleague is similarly focused on her work, and seems to have arranged her projects so that she can do the ones that are most interesting to her first; that way, her success rates earn her some forgiveness for her ignoring the less-interesting stuff. She has a PhD in her field and was carefully instructed by her boss and her PhD adviser never to say anything negative in a professional setting ever. On occasion we’ll be in a meeting and she’ll suddenly become very silent in response to a direct question. Then, again, because we are a small company, everyone knows the answer is something bad.

    Both are doing fine work-wise and have built reputations around their impressive expertise. My colleague’s interview involved a formal presentation of her scientific work, which she loves to talk about, so that went fine. My supervisee read quite a bit about common interview questions for specific jobs, their meanings and what appropriate responses would be, then practiced them with friends and family until he got feedback that he was doing it right. Actually, at least partly due to the Asperger’s, nobody could tell when he was being sarcastic–much later we found out that he was in fact being quite silly, but I guess it worked out in the end.

  11. Accidental Recruiter*

    I used to work with individuals with Asperger’s as they searched for jobs.

    As I think someone mentioned above a lot of our job search consisted of finding roles that had repetitive tasks as that seemed to be a match for the people I assisted. Their ability to have a strong focus on a task is a real asset in these types of roles.

    The other thing that I really saw a pay off on was a lot of practice with mock interviews. Although you can never know for sure the questions that are going to be asked in an interview, covering some basic ones made them feel more at ease. It was also a great way for them to get used to keeping/maintaining eye contact which can sometimes be a challenge in uncomfortable situations like an interview.

    Hope that helps.

    1. Ellen M.*

      I totally agree with this – practicing with mock interviews with specific feedback. It can help greatly when the interviewer knows that the interviewee has Asperger’s. I direct a graduate program and we have some current students who have Asperger’s who are getting ready for interviews for internships or jobs following graduation and I always suggest mock interviews. The students say that they benefit from them and are much more comfortable when they are facing a real interview. (I recommend mock interviews for everyone, actually.)

  12. Anon*

    I think the best strategy would be to choose a career path that plays to his strengths, thoroughly prepare for interviews (most employers will chalk up some mild awkwardness to nerves anyway), and be careful about choosing employers that are likely to be a good fit. No one needs to know up front he has Aspberger’s, but if issues do arise during his employment, he should let HR know about his condition and discuss any necessary accommodations with them and his manager at that point.

  13. OP*

    OP here! Thank you very much for posting my question for discussion! In our case, my son is only nearing his teens, and still has some time before he will be thinking about any of this. As his mom, however, I try to think a few steps ahead of him because I’ve found that he responds best to advice given out in very small doses over a long period of time, rather than trying to talk something through all at once. I also was thinking of many of my friends’ kids, who are in their late teens and will be facing this much sooner than my son.

    The question that Anony-M brought up about labeling is one that we wrestle with quite often. In my son’s case, he was already being labeled as “weird” and “bad” by both kids and adults, so the realization that there was actually a name for why he acted differently was a major improvement. For my son, it gave him an understanding of why certain things were harder for him or why certain environments bothered him more than his classmates. And for his friends and teachers, being able to frame my son’s actions in a broader context helped them respond more tolerantly and respectfully. But, at the same time, the labels can be just as much of a burden as they are a blessing. It’s very easy to dismiss a complaint by saying “Oh, that only bothers him because of his Aspergers.” Not only that, but I’ve also caught my son trying to hide behind his Asperger’s as well. I am always quick to point out to him that the condition is an explanation, not an excuse, and that he can’t simply act obnoxiously because he knows he has Aspergers. But it’s very tempting for him to try to blame anything negative on the Aspergers.

    From a societal standpoint, conditions like Aspergers are becoming far more diagnosed. (Note: I don’t believe they are more prevalent, I just believe our society is better at acknowledging them–for example, my husband is almost certainly an undiagnosed Aspie, but he was simply left to struggle on his own) What makes it interesting is that these challenges fall into a grey zone. Unlike obvious physical impairments, a person with an “invisible” condition has the option to pick and choose when and how much they reveal to others. But, especially after seeing the improvement in my son’s environment once people understood what was going on, it also seems to me that setting up reasonable accomodations at the outset benefits both the employee and the employer. It definitely makes me wonder which approach will bring a job hunter the most long-term success. I also wonder if candor during face-to-face interviews will (generally) help or hurt a job hunter, especially if they know they respond unconventionally in certain situations, such as having poor eye contact.

    In regards to the comments about social relationships being far more important, that is definitely our primary focus with our son. He has come a long way in the years since his initial diagnosis, and he does have a few long-term friendships, so I am hopeful that he will take after his father. My husband may miss blatent social cues at times, but he is very forthright and open, and I find that it is quite easy to have a deep and meaningful relationship with him. I’m am very happy that my son is growing up in a time where there are so many resources available to us–even just 10 years ago, there was far less understanding and support than there is today!

    Thank you all once again, and I look forward to reading the different responses and opinions! :)

    1. Anony-M*

      It´s nice to see that you encourage the “explanation vs. excuse” with your son. I am sure it is also a relief of sorts to have some diagnosis to be able to explain certain behaviors.

    2. Lemon Meringue*

      By the way, it sounds like your son’s very fortunate to have such a great mom. I’m impressed!

  14. Natalie*

    A good half of my dad’s family is somewhere on the spectrum, and none of them have had difficulty finding work in engineering, IT, or, somewhat oddly, the military.

    1. Elizabeth*

      I don’t find it odd for people with Asperger’s to thrive in the military – it seems to me like the highly structured environment where expectations are made very clear would help people on the spectrum. Something like business negotiations, where you have to read between the lines a lot, seems like it would be a bigger challenge.

      1. Natalie*

        I think what makes it odd to me is it’s not a stereotypical ASD career. But it actually makes a lot of sense, so I’m surprised in a way that it isn’t a stereotypically ASD career.

  15. Cruella*

    I think I’ve mentioned before that one of my children has Aspergers. Aspie’s are excellent in all detail oriented careers. Someone dedicated to helping them find what they enjoy is the key.

    I always refer to the book “Look Me in the Eye” because I gained quite a bit of understanding about Aspie’s from it. It’s author, John Elder Robinson, has had a host of successful careers despite dropping out of school: sound engineer for KISS and Pink Floyd, designing video games and restoring antique cars. That also gave me hope that my child could grow up to be productive, functioning adult. (What’s “normal” anyway?)

    To OP…start now looking for things that your son enjoys. One of them may one day become his career. It may take a while for you to hone in on one, but in the long run, it will be worth it.

    1. Ellie H.*

      I love, love, love John Robison’s book. I haven’t read all of his more recent book yet, but it seems really good too, and includes more practical advice for learning “scripts” for social situations, how to react appropriately to social cues, learning from observing other people, etc. I think John Robison is such a cool guy, his career is so impressive and I love his blog too.

      1. kristinyc*

        Oooh, that’s one I’ve been meaning to read…. he’s Augusten Burroughs’ brother, and Augusten mentions him a lot in his books.

  16. Charlie*

    Penelope Trunk is an example of a serial entrepreneur with Asperger’s. She talks about it a bit on her blog – actually she talks about *everything* there. I’ll tweet her a link to this and see if she has anything to add, but you can see her blog here:

    1. Jamie*

      IMO her career advice is – how can I put this nicely? Not always what I would consider correct.

      Her logic requires a tremendous amount of caution, much of the time.

      Thank Goodness we have Alison to provide a counter balance to the career advice segment of the internet.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        Penelope and I do indeed disagree on career advice! Sometimes I wonder if that’s because she’s had a very unusual career path (and hasn’t managed people, as far as I know), and talks about what works for her, through the lens of her own experience, not realizing that it won’t (in my opinion) work well for the majority of other people. That said, she is an absolutely beautiful writer, unusually so.

        1. Jamie*

          I used to like her writing, she could be quite witty and wrote in a relatable way. Over the last year or so when I would read one of her posts at BNet I’ve been put off by the unpleasantness of the tone. I love snark, but it seems like she’s combative and controversial just for the sake of it. It’s a shame – she is talented, but not enough for me to wade through the histrionics.

          And yes, her career advice is VERY specific to what worked for her – I’m sure it works for her but I think the audience for whom most of it applies is a minuscule subset.

          I have no problem with her opinions – it’s when she advises or seems to state those opinions as fact that I cringe – and hope people use caution before following her lead.

    2. Ellie H.*

      I agree that she’s an excellent writer, I agree with AAM, though, that pretty much everything she says is quite removed from typical experiences so I don’t think it’s a good place to look for advice of any kind about anything. I had to stop reading her blog because I could spend literally hours clicking through and being fascinated/horrified/exercised over some controversial issue or another.

    3. moss*

      I hate Penelope Trunk and her advice especially to working women is horrible! Please don’t hold her up as an example of ANYTHING except how NOT to live!

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        Some of her advice to women is really troubling. I would like to see her stop writing career stuff entirely and instead focus on what she does well!

  17. Anonymous*

    I work in an advocacy field for disability/health conditions. We always let people know that “when to bring up the disability” is always a double-edged sword. Generally, you do not talk about your disabilities in the interview process. But in cases where a condition – or the symptoms of that condition – have some kind of visual/social impact, that advice may not be the best.

    Admitting you have Asperger’s in the interview process CAN help you, because it can help the employer understand where you’re coming from. Instead of thinking, “This person fidgets and makes no eye contact because he is lying,” the employer will attribute that behavior to Asperger’s. It might also help explain some other things that come up as question marks – gaps in employment, negative references, lack of group-based social activities on the resume for a recent graduate.

    Admitting you have Asperger’s in the interview process can HURT you, as well – especially if your employer is in the “It’s a made up thing for kids these days” camp, or if they don’t understand what it means to hire someone with a disability. “Ohhh, it’ll be too much work to accommodate them.” Although it’s illegal, unless you have something in writing that says, “We didn’t hire you BECAUSE you had Aspeger’s,” you will pretty much never be able to prove discrimination in a court case.

    Waiting until you get the offer letter has its ups and downs – if your symptoms make you awkward around people, you may not get to that stage. On the plus side, if they make an offer and then withdraw it, you have a better case for a complaint. Waiting until you get to the office has its ups and downs. Trying to do work without accommodations until you really need them has its ups and downs.

    It’s a lot easier when you work within the field (in this case, health/health advocacy/behavioral health/advocacy) to talk about this in early stages (interview). Even if you’re applying for a job at another health (ex. Diabetes) organization, having a real-life background with any chronic condition is generally seen as a plus. “I also understand what it’s like to have to manage a lifelong condition; I have Asperger’s.” Part of this is that what you learn in school and what you actually experience in the real world in the health system is completely different. (In school, you learn the signs and symptoms of Asperger’s and diagnostic criteria. In real life, you learn what having Asperger’s means – choosing doctors, coordinating systems of care, appealing schools for accommodations, trying to find stimulating activities for your child, etc.) Our most effective health advocates have personal (either them or their close friends/family) experience with the health system.

    The downside of this is that we see a lot of people with disabilities who want to get out of their field but can’t because people drive them to disability-specific groups. “Oh, you want to be a lawyer? Well, that’s silly, why do that when you can just be a health advocate?” “Oh, you want to be a teacher? Well why don’t you teach employment classes at the local center instead?” I’m not saying that something like Specialisterne is bad (I think it’s great!!), but I would warn against exclusively pushing anyone to that area. It’s an option, but having a condition doesn’t mean you have to spend your entire life working with that condition.

    For example, I would want to know in the interview phase, and your son’s diagnosis will help him, not hurt him. I work in health advocacy, I walk the talk, I value his real-life experience and the contributions he could bring in addition to what is on his resume, and it would help me connect better.

    For others? Your mileage may vary.

  18. Emily*

    I work with a temp at my company who has some socially awkward quirks (like lack of eye contact). She is on her way to being hired permanently because of the quality of her work. This made me think of temp-to-hire as a possibility for your son (if he’s not into computers, a career choice many commenters have already mentioned). (Side note: I have no idea whether this temp would interview well, I just noticed her lack of eye contact immediately and found it strange and off-putting. Now that I’ve seen her high-quality work, I notice the eye contact issue a lot less!)

    Others have mentioned practicing interviewing – in addition to that, can you practice social things like mirroring? That’s something I decided to work on when I wanted to work on coming across as more charismatic, and I have gotten a very positive response. Improving/practicing the little things could overcome a slight awkwardness that otherwise would show through in an interview.

  19. Dan*

    OP —

    Well, as someone who probably has an undiagnosed version of it (and works with others who also may) the best I can say is to teach your kid self awareness of his disorder. If he’s smart enough to recognize “oh I do this because I have aspergers” then he’s smart enough to recognize that it’s not an appropriate reaction for the situation.

    1. Jen*

      Dan, from what little I understand of Aspergers, it’s not about being smart enough to recognize an appropriate or inappropriate reaction. The kid can probably recognize that what he just did was inappropriate based on the reactions of the people around him, problem is, he can’t absorb and process what exactly about his reaction was inappropriate enough to avoid doing it again.

      1. OP*

        Dan, that is a very good description of one way the Aspergers can get in the way of my son. Another way it occurs is like this: Imagine being out of shape. You know you are supposed to be able to pick up a heavy weight and carry it, and maybe you can even do it for a short distance. But the second your muscles decide to give out on you, you can’t pick it up no matter how you approach it. When my son is doing well, he totally understands how he should respond–for example, this afternoon he apologized to me because he realized he’d said something rudely without me having to point it out. But when he is overstimulated, whether it is environmental like noise or light, or whether it is emotional like being upset, he has trouble responding appropriately. That is when meltdowns occur. The worst part is that many people assume that because he can appropriately respond at other times, he should be able to respond at all times. But, much like the person who can only hold the weight a brief time, he’s not always capable of that.

        Luckily, as we’ve learned more about his condition, we’ve been able to help him manage his reactions better. Getting older and gaining maturity has helped him as well. But it’s still not a skill that comes naturally to him, despite him knowing that he should be able to do it.

        1. Dan*


          Welcome to my life :) Working with your heavy weight example, after a certain point, you’ve got to be able to recognize that you will have issues with that weight, no? I don’t care what that weight represents in real life — at some point, anybody with some reasonable amount of intelligence has to know that that weight may pose difficulties. Just knowing that is a start. You also presumably know when you’re on your game and when you’re off your game, and when it’s appropriate to tackle those challenges or give them a pass. Those are starts. Some days, the right choice is to avoid them altogether. Other days, the right choice is to try a bit.

    2. A Bug!*

      Your self-diagnosis of Aspergers Syndrome aside (seriously?), it’s not a matter of recognizing that “oh I do this because I have Aspergers”. It is a matter of simply not being able to recognize a social cue when it arises. Just being aware of this difficulty does not make it easier to recognize a social cue fast enough to respond to it appropriately, if it’s recognized at all.

      You can’t just pull yourself by your bootstraps out of an autism spectrum disorder severe enough to be professionally diagnosed, and the suggestion that it has anything to do with being “smart” is really insensitive.

        1. Natasha*

          Being able to recognize patterns and or self correct does not exclude you from having Asperger’s and never has. If that was the case there would be no one with Asperger’s who learn to adjust to their condition and would be completely unable to function in society as an adult. Also all therapy techniques would be useless since therapy relies on recognizing patterns and adjusting.

          1. Anita*

            They’re teaching in schools that you probably don’t fall on the spectrum if you can adjust to social norms without directed coaching. Everyone becomes socialized through observation.

            1. Dan*

              But that’s missing the point. Unless the shrink is standing over his shoulder telling him what to do, the kid will be self-correcting.

              1. Anita*

                How is it missing the point? Someone with ASD needs to be taught those things differently from people who aren’t on the autism spectrum. If you can intuit social cues through observation without professional help – and judging from your comment, you can – it’s pretty unlikely that you have a spectrum disorder. Self-diagnosis is problematic because there is generally a level of impairment associated with these things.

            2. Natasha*

              I guess that’s new then. When I was diagonised 6 years ago by my therapist (I don’t know if he was a psychologist or a psychiatrist) the thing seemed to be to push heavy observation of what you were doing as best you could combined and how others reacted as best you could combined with therapy instead of therapy alone. That’s seems really detrimental to both people newly diagnosed and people who now will get diagnosed out of their disorder because they cope too well.

              1. anita*

                Hey Natasha, you’re totally right – another commenter pointed out that some Aspies are able to self-correct to varying degrees. I’m taking issue with Dan’s assertion that smart Aspies should be able to somehow think their way out of it, based on his experience as a self-diagnosed Aspie.

                I don’t think “diagnosing out” is really an issue, because generally, these things are only diagnosed when they’re causing some real, functional impairment. It sounds like you saw a clinician because this was causing issues in your life – people who have a disorder often wind up seeking treatment. People who don’t have a disorder can afford to be nonchalant about the need to have it diagnosed and treated – “sure, I get depressed sometimes, but you’ve just gotta think positive!” “I’m pretty sure I have chronic fatigue syndrome because I need so much coffee, haha.”

                I’m sure that there are folks out there on the spectrum who are able to piece things together pretty well without therapy. But let’s not forget that Temple Grandin, for example, had serious early intervention. And there are many, many other things that can look like ASD – ADHD, for example. So, I think Dan’s assertions kind of trivialize ASD and the challenges unique to it.

      1. Dan*

        Seriously? Yeah, seriously. Do you have to go to the doctor to figure out your leg is broken? No, you see symptoms that something isn’t right and then you read up on it. I’m not one who likes running to the doctor for everything, so I’ll read up on something and then decide if I need to go or not. So, who cares about an official diagnoses? It’s not like I can just go to the doctor and take a pill that makes it all go away. People are who they are, and we all have to learn to live with it. Yes, you have to tell an aspie things that should be obvious in social situations, it’s just part of life.

        Second, I’m not being insensitive. I get the difference between not knowing when you’re going to offend someone and recognizing when you have done so, I really do. But, are you telling me a smart person with some self awareness can’t detect trends and make some educated guesses that X behavior is not appropriate for a given situation? He’s never going to get it perfect, but with self awareness and smart choices, he’ll figure out something that works for him.

        The OP’s kid can fake his way through an interview, I wouldn’t be too worried about that (which is her original question). But what he’s going to have to figure out is how to find an environment that he can fit in. That is easier said than done. My advice? Really smart people have all sorts of social issues anyway, so finding a company/industry that hires lots of those types will be the way to go. That way, he’ll fit right in :) (Meaning that everybody has their quirks, and he won’t stick out in any terrible way.)

        1. Laura L*

          Really smart people have all sorts of social issues anyway.

          People of all intelligence levels can have social issues…

        2. Anita*

          No. Intelligence is irrelevant because spectrum disorders are not that simple. Many people with ASD can identify appropriate behavior in certain settings, but outside factors – flickering lights in an office, loud noises from a construction site – can really interfere with their ability to choose appropriate behaviors in the context of daily life. Can people learn to manage these things, absolutely, but the nature of the disability is such that no one who actually has it is going to be able to take the approach you described in your original comment, which is why people are taking issue with your self-diagnosis.

          1. Natasha*

            I guess that is something new then which is a bit sad really. When I could afford to see someone about my problem and got diagnosed about 6 years ago with Asperger’s the biggest thing he brought up was learning how people react to what I am doing by paying very close attention to both what I am doing and how I am reacting. I still miss a ton of things but I have learned alot over the years without someone standing at my shoulder going “That’s sarcasm, that is a wry smile, that was a sign they are getting bored.” I wonder what caused the switch between self learning combined with therapy to just therapy and getting diagnosed out of the disorder if you have learned to cope too well.

            1. anita*

              I left a pretty lengthy comment above but I hope I haven’t said anything totally off-base or that devalues your experience. I really appreciate you taking the time to engage with me on here. I think we’re saying the same thing in different ways – I don’t mean to imply that people with ASD can’t learn or self-correct, just that people who really do have ASD will likely end up with a diagnosis at some point.

              1. Dan*

                What part of my comments are you actually beefing with? I never said aspies don’t need a shrink. What I did say was that someone that smart has enough brains to have some self awareness that they’re in challenging waters. Heck, it might be just enough awareness to know that they need to avoid those waters, whereas a shrink might help them be able to navigate them.

                Here’s the difference: I don’t always know that what I’m about to say is going to offend somebody (inappropriate joke, telling my wife her butt looks big in those jeans when she asks) but I can generally figure it out that I have when they react negatively. When that happens, I think, “if I knew they were going to be offended, I wouldn’t have said that.” In the case of the jeans, I think, “If you might not like the answer, why did you ask the question? ”

                Heck, I can’t tell the difference between a woman being nice and when she’s hitting on me… I never said I could read everybody’s body cues all of the time. But I’m not 100% oblivious to them all of the time, and I’d be surprised if there are many aspies who are. Because what you’d be telling me is that there are significant amounts of people who cannot read any emotion at all. If that’s true, I’d love to observe them.

  20. Elizabeth*

    I hire students to work in the library at a large university. We had one student who I think may have had asperger’s. He showed many of the signs, although I can’t be certain. He was one of the best student workers we ever had. We gave him a position labeling books. He actually wanted to sit and do repetitive, detailed work and had sought out this job. Many students are disappointed that they don’t get to do something more fun or can’t do their homework on-the-job and leave after a semester or a year. He worked for us for 3 or 4 years. So I would be glad to hire someone like this again. A lot of public libraries will take volunteers. If he is just wanting to try out something to get a sense for a work experience and a reference, he could try shelving, labeling books, etc. IT is also a good suggestion.

    1. Nichole*

      This brings up a good point- continue to encourage your son to be involved in activities, and as he gets older, guide him towards things that have “job” qualities. He will learn what will be expected of him at work, how to navigate the challenges in a lower stakes setting, and build a set of references who can speak to his strengths and how he manages his weaknesses-and he’ll have a chance to find some of the things he’s really good at and could make into a career. Good advice for anyone, but crucial for someone with Aspergers. My son seems to be about this age, and concerns from when he was younger about possible low grade Aspergers are starting to resurface due to some bad behavior at school (at home, he’s so sweet and unassuming that sometimes I wonder who he’s been paying to go to school for him). This discussion made me think maybe he needs to be reevaluated as part of trying to get him back on track, so thanks to the OP, Ben, and others for sharing your stories.

        1. OP*

          I definitely noted that suggestion! I think he might *really* like that type of work as a starter sort of job. :)

          1. Ask a Manager* Post author

            That was my starter job, actually! My mom made my sister and me volunteer in the summers before we were old enough to get jobs, and I volunteered at the library. It was pretty great, actually.

  21. Aspie Mom*

    I am the parent of a 20 yr old Aspie. The biggest thing is to encourage him in anything he does. The one thing my son had done was as soon as he was able to work, he got a job in a local gas station. For an Aspie, this is good since there is social interation, however you don’t really HAVE to look for clues and it gave him a really good start in the working world. He is currently working at Wal-Mart and made it through the interview without any problems. We went over a few possible questions and his answers were spot on. He has also taken their supervisors test and of course aced it and will be moved into a position as soon as one opens. At that point my son did mention that he has Asperger’s and asked if he can be placed in electronics since he is a gamer and knows alot about the products already and it would be easier for him to deal with the public.

    The fact that the OP is looking into this already is awesome. Having an early DX and being able to understand your child’s “quirks” makes it so much easier to explain to others. My son also played PAL Baseball and then traveling. We had never told his coaches until he had a melt down on the field and shut down, ignoring everyone. Once I explained to the coach why, he was able to better talk to my son about why they change was made at the time, and my son was able to explain why he was upset.

  22. ChristineH*

    I have a lot of personal and professional experience with disabilities, and all of the advice here is spot on, particularly what anonymous-9:59 a.m. wrote.

    OP – I love that you are thinking well-ahead about your son’s future. Disclosure of an invisible disability is a dilemma for many people. I definitely encourage you to help him to better understand his condition, as appropriate. I think too many people with these type of disabilities don’t have enough self-understanding, which I think is very important for self-confidence and for learning to self-advocate.

    Best of luck!!

  23. M.D.*

    I’m mildly socially awkward and somewhat introverted and I can’t find a job / get through the interview process. I think its great your looking for ways to help him now. Why not ask his therapists / counselors to direct you to any of their older past clients? Some may be successful and some may not, but getting to speak with (or getting your son to) will probably generate even more ideas.

    Buy your son some books about networking (like Why Should Extroverts Make All the Money) for introverts and help him work on skills and role playing to get used to these situations.

    Also, see if his high school has Academic Decathlon, FBLA or FFA clubs. Part of the “Decathlon” includes public / impromptu speaking and interviewing, while FBLA and FFA both have impromptu speaking events. If your son is really into math or economics or really good and memorizing lots of facts (or Roberts Rules of Order!) he would be eagerly welcomed into most programs. Even if he didn’t compete in speaking events he could do practice events, or do the practice and training. (In Decathlon he’d have to be able to do all events, but FFA and FBLA are more a la carte as it were.)

    While my own difficulties fall well within the realm of “neurotypical” I understand the frustration of knowing I’d do great if I could just get past having to convince people I’d do great. Your son is certainly facing a common difficulty and there are lots of resources out there!

  24. GOVHRO*

    Your son may want to consider applying for a government position under Schedule A hiring authority. This hiring authority allows federal agencies to hire individuals with (1) severe physical disabilities or (2) mental disabilities. More information can be found at opm’s website regarding requirements for Schedule A certification. This is a wonderful program, where hiring managers understand the need to provide reasonable accommodation under the ADA. Further, most federal agencies have Schedule A hiring goals, which encourages hiring under this authority.

  25. Anonymous*

    You say that your son is years from entering the work world. It’s good that you are thinking about his future now. Many people with Asperger’s lead normal lives. Within the next few years, maybe the both of you can discover his true interests and talents. People with this condition make good accountants, etc.

  26. Elizabeth West*

    This was helpful. I have a learning disability (math – I think it’s dyscalculia. I have all the symptoms but I can’t afford the testing, and it’s not covered by insurance). It keeps me out of jobs where I have to do a lot of math, like accounting. Problem with being a clerical chick is, more employers are consolidating accounting with their other admin positions. Kind of limits what I can apply for.

    It’s usually not necessary to disclose this in an interview, since I don’t apply for jobs where it would be an issue. But on the job, if I suddenly get assigned something that is difficult for me, I’m not sure what to say at that point without sounding like I just don’t want to do it.

    1. Anonymous*

      I have dyslexia which, for me, predominantly impacts writing and math. Dyslexia manifests differently for different people, and each individual will have some days that are worse than others. Since there is still such a stigma about it, I have yet to disclose it in an interview, but I would disclose it in the event of a written exam (because it would become obvious and I would want to manage the information) or it if became clear that the job tasks would be negatively impacted. I do, however, disclose on the job as necessary and I have practiced breaking the information down into four key pieces that I use as needed: definition (1 sentence); what it means for me (sometimes I don’t see what you see on the page); clear, and situation relevant, examples of how it impacts me (I won’t be able to transcribe what’s written on a flip chart with accuracy); and a clear explanation of the needed accommodation for the task (I will need to transcribe using a computer instead of by hand). Usually, this information is shared informally and in a matter-of-fact manner in conversation as I begin to trust my coworkers and/or if I think that they may have noticed me using a coping strategy. Occasionally, I have been assigned a task which I know will be very difficult for me so I clearly explain what the specific challenge is (I won’t be able to meet that deadline because I need more time to proof-read), and how I suggest that we solve it (I can submit my draft to you today if general content not accuracy is the priority, or I can submit it tomorrow after I’ve had more time to review and edit for accuracy). My experience with this has been positive. I think that most good managers are interested in helping an otherwise high-performer but are often inexperienced with assisting people with special challenges so suggesting a solution usually solves the problem.

  27. KG*

    I would highly recommend the book Social Thinking at Work by Michelle Garcia Winner. Winner is a speech therapist who developed a “social thinking” curriculum for children and youths on the spectrum.

    The book is written for individuals on the spectrum who don’t inherently “get” the social cues that others do. It describes how people interpret behaviors, why they react the way they do, and how YOU should act to both avoid negative situations AND create positive ones.

    IMO, it’s also a great read for people who aren’t on the spectrum– “socially typical” workers present plenty of difficulties too, and we could all use a refresher in basic human interactions from this perspective!

  28. Natasha*

    I would say research as much as possible where he is likely to be working. As someone with Asperger’s I have found that reactions can be wildly different from place to place. I tend not to say anything until I am working since places often do screen out people with mental disorders of any sort though they find other reasons so give as well. Asperger’s thankfully can be adjusted easily to once you are working with the exception of people who like to think that because it isn’t obvious it isn’t real. Practicing for interviews really does help though. I tend to create a way to act at work though, a set of behaviors I follow so that while I may come off as overly cheerful I don’t irritate customers either. That’s just from my experiences though so take that as you will.

  29. K*

    In listening to everyone here, I would second the sentiment that large amounts of practicing for interviews will be helpful. But I also think of this. Depending on his chosen field, he may be subject to cattle-call/mass hiring situations that could lead to over-stimulation and intense competition. I don’t have Aspergers and I find these situations to be too much. Something that may be helpful would be starting to cultivate mentor-like relationships early. Help him learn to network with people he meets through various activities to build relationships on terms that are most comfortable for him. Start to build a network of people around him that start to see his good qualities through whatever social hurdles he may have. These people can then assist him in opening more doors to the opportunities he wants. This network an help him sell his competencies and do damage control for any “bad day” outcomes.

    Start to get to know people in fields in which he expresses interests, through the robot-building activities you mentioned, look at temp to hire or intern opportunities. Any strategy that will extend the opportunity for him to make an impression beyond a mere half hour interview.

  30. Chris*

    Help him with career management….there’s a few industries that take the top 5% of target schools and don’t care about your ability to socialize – only your demonstrated ability. Or push him toward industries that don’t require overcoming huge barriers to entry for a startup…that sort of thing check out the life and times of Mike Burrie (a hero of mine.) If interviewing doesn’t work, there are ways to develop a skill set to skip that part.

  31. Jeffrey Deutsch*

    First off, best wishes to your son! I’m an Aspie (person with Asperger Syndrome [AS]) myself, who was in his shoes years ago. To say the least, I had a wild ride on the career merry-go-round!

    Your son probably needs explicit guidance and practice in a wide variety of behaviors which are rarely explicitly taught outside the home (and not so often taught even inside the home). You may want to consider engaging a career or life coach for him, especially if the coach specializes in helping people on the autism spectrum.

    Note that medical insurance may not cover coaching, because it isn’t therapy or counseling. But even if you and he have to pay for it out of pocket, it could be a great investment.

    (Full disclosure: That’s exactly what I do.)

    Meanwhile, if your son isn’t doing so already he should do things like read career books and talking appropriate people – especially people who give no-nonsense advice and don’t mince words. Sounding nice, friendly and soft is nice…but not when you’re trying to help someone – especially an Aspie – who needs to learn the basics.

    I recommend Lona O’Connor’s _Top Ten Dumb Career Mistakes…And How to Avoid Them_. Smart people – Aspies and NTs (neurotypicals) alike – make dumb mistakes, and Ms. O’Connor helps people recognize them and know what to do.

    Good luck!

    Jeff Deutsch

  32. Anonymous*

    I know someone with mental issues and what has helped them develop their work skills is voluntering in a field they like. I have seen this person improve their communication, social, and time management skills. Maybe taking a volunteer position under direct supervision would help him. Have you considered talking with your son’s doctor about what would things would help him prepare for work? Sometimes the things that would improve his condition would improve his career as well.

  33. Diane Dennis*


    I don’t know for sure where you are but here in Washington they have a program that is the DVR (Department of Vocational Rehabilitation). It’s a state run organization that helps people to get employment.

    A representative from the DVR came to my son’s school and met with the IEP kids and their parents about work/school after high school.

    The DVR will have my son (he’s 18 now and will graduate this year) fill out a bunch of different evaluations and using that information they’ll determine what jobs would be best for Cameron’s special set of skills and needs.

    They will get him the job and they will provide him with a job shadow for 3 months. At the end of that 3 months then if Cameron likes what he’s doing and the employer wants to keep him on then Cameron “graduates” the DVR. If he doesn’t like it then they start over with another employer, until they get him in a position he can enjoy.

    Also, if at any time the job ends up not working out for Cameron, even after the 3 month time frame, he can go back to them and they’ll do the same thing over again.

    The DVR will also pay for him to go to community college (Cameron would apply for any grants available and then whatever he doesn’t get in grants the DVR pays) and he never has to pay them back. If the class he chooses to take requires materials or tools of any kind, the DVR pays for it and he doesn’t have to pay it back.

    And they provide transportation. :)

    Wherever you’re located, I don’t know if there’s that sort of option available but look into it if you think there might be. I was floored when I found out what these guys will do for him.

    I hope that helps!

    Good luck!

  34. Lee*

    Some of these US programmes seem very positive; there’s nothing comparable here in the UK.

    I’m fifty, recently diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, and still looking for my first job.

    1. Diane*

      Hi Lee!

      I jumped online to see if I could find anything in the UK. Here’s something I found that maybe might help?

      And for what it’s worth, here we are almost through February and the Washington DVR still has not found a job for my son. And I have since found out that they do not provide everything I was told that they do. So I guess our programs aren’t as good as they for whatever reason try to make them sound. :(

      I wish you the best Lee. And I wish I could be of some help.

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