I AM Profiles: Michael Andrews 2

As part of I AM’s mission to celebrate autism with the wider world, we’re happy to present the latest in a series of our ’10 questions with…’ series, featuring Michael Andrews whom we initially interviewed last year about his life following diagnosis. This time we ask him about the challenges of finding employment.

1. How long have you been unemployed? 

I had a mix of emotions. I was relieved that finally, I found this label that defined me. Having done some research on the internet prior to my diagnosis I was coming around to the fact that I could have autism. But then I started thinking, “What if it is decided that I do not have autism? What next?” I always knew I was different by the way some people treated me and the fact that I never mixed like other kids when I was growing up. What else could it be? My diagnosis came at a very difficult time in my life. I was having trouble in employment. I just literally crashed and burned which is what prompted me to have a diagnosis. I was at perhaps the lowest point in my life. I had what was described as a mental breakdown. However, what I read on the internet ticked the box for autism burnout. I was in a very desperate state. From my experience, it’s not the way to find out you have autism. Early diagnosis is important. If I had known earlier I could have avoided this if I had learned the signs. I was not looking for signs. That train was hurtling at top speed right over the cliff edge. I count myself lucky to have survived.

2. What do you think are the biggest challenges to getting employment? 

Autism is just a label for me. My biggest challenge is sensory impairments and I have suffered migraines since I was 11 years old. When I started work in the mid-1980’s I got migraines quite frequently sometimes every week and they can be very debilitating. I progressed from over the counter painkillers to prescribed painkillers. It was a downward spiral which seemed to have no end. The worst time of the year for me was autumn and winter when there was more reliance on fluorescent lighting with that annoying buzzing sound and sometimes flickering. Then there were the old cathode ray tubes (old computer screens) which played havoc with my eyes not to mention the heat that was generated from them. Already on prescribed painkillers, I went back to my GP for stronger painkillers and that’s when I came to a crossroads. I can hear my GP say “You cannot go on like this.” It was discussed whether it would be practical for me to work at all. I still wanted to work. I was given advice about how to approach work. Part-time or full time flexible that will enable me to work around my condition. It means being sick in my own time which I did not mind I just wanted to work and not worry about a disciplinary from my employer about a poor sickness record. Having a flexible approach to work I am more relaxed which means fewer triggers.

There are those jobs, so I have read where they specifically want someone who is on the autism spectrum. I have not come across those jobs but it would be great if I did. What I would like is for an employer to put his hand up and say I think this job will be the right job for you. In the 1990s when I was mainly doing contract work I had an employment agency on the high street that would find me something, anything just to get my foot in the door. I remember one time this employment agency gave me a simple filing job at a company. I was doing this filing job for about 2 hours when someone from upstairs (must have read my CV) whisked me off to some IT project where I stayed there for 2 years when I completed the project. It was getting jobs through the back door rather than the front door where you go through a formal interview. I cannot do that now. The employment agencies on the high street have long gone and I am now left with the only option the front door which I struggle with.

I have a Bachelor of Science in Computing but I still struggle with technology, especially social media. It’s not my thing. When I see the endless list of jobs on the screen it’s just one huge blur. I would like just one of those jobs to reach out an arm, tap me on the shoulder and say this one will suit you fine. When can you start?

3. Do you think employers understand autism? 

Most employers over the last 30 years, on the whole, have been very supportive and this approach has meant the difference between being at work and not being at work at all. There have been jobs that I have just walked away from while others I have managed to go full contract. It’s been hit and misses but over that time I have learned which jobs work and which ones don’t. Some employers have allowed me to go for a walk and get some fresh air should I feel a trigger coming on. Today most employers encourage their employees to take regular breaks if only to stretch their legs.

The rules for requesting adjustments are not helpful for me. You have to be in employment for six weeks before you can ask the employer for adjustments. If you need them from day one, that first six weeks is going to be a challenge. What if after six weeks the employer does not agree to the adjustments? My own experience when starting a new job is that I am more likely to get migraine triggers in the first six months. A new workplace. A new work environment having to know my way around. New people getting to know them. A new routine I need to adjust to. A job that I have to learn. All these stresses are potential triggers and I am more likely to get clusters; more than one migraine in a week. Then what if after that six weeks I cannot get that flexibility to work around my condition? If I get a debilitating migraine I cannot work. I cannot even think, it’s too painful. I have to shut down. The recovery time could be anything up to 72 hours and even then I can still feel groggy. I would have to go off sick. After more than seven days of sickness and I am on a disciplinary which is the first stage to being shown the door. The disability Act requires employees to be allowed time off either paid or unpaid to support their condition. Is this act effective enough?

4. You said you are classed as economically inactive, could you explain what that means? 

I do not get means-tested benefits so I am very much left to my own devices when looking for work.

5. What support do you get to help you find employment?  

None. Solihull Council since November have been giving me support to help me back into work. No disrespect to those that are helping me but without real support with regard to my condition I cannot see my circumstances changing anytime soon. I did have a meeting with an advisor from the council that is supposed to support people with disabilities but she was not very helpful. Autism is an invisible disability.

Universal Declaration of Human Right Article 23.1 – Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.

Without the right support to help me back into employment the chances of me be able to work again look very slim. This is one human right I do not feel I have.

6. You have done some work for Momentum Skills, could you tell us more about it? 

I started attending one of their group sessions which help people recovering from brain injuries or strokes or they may have other neurological conditions such as autism. When the group sessions came to a close I stayed on and volunteered helping them with their paper work. Momentum Skills had already decided to pull out of their UK operation before the pandemic struck and they closed in March 2020.

7. How is the increase in the cost of living impacting you? 

I have a budget which is tight and the cost of living has made that budget even tighter and having an income would be very helpful right now. If I could have an income I was hoping to engage in some social activity even if it gets me out for a couple of hours each week.

8. Has the Covid pandemic impacted your ability to find employment?  

I find on-line interviews unhelpful. I would much rather they be conducted in person. I had an interview at ALDI. I had not done on-line interviews before so I did not know what to expect. I began the process for the interview. I was advised to have the camera at the top of the screen however I could not clip it to the top because I have a thin screen so I had to keep it beneath the screen. This all happened just before the interview was about to start which sent me into panic mode. There was nothing I could do about it and let’s just say the interview could have gone better. I did not get the job. It has put me off doing on-line interviews.

9. Do you think employers understand autism? 

You have asked this question before question 3, however from my previous question, question 8, I would just like to add I applied for a job at Morrison’s and it was the second job I applied for at Morrison’s. The first job I applied for was 12 months before but I had no response. The second job I got a response saying there was a problem with my application which took me by surprise. The application required me to upload a CV. This CV I have uploaded for other job applications and it comes up with a screen with the transposed data. A part from a few tweaks the CV loaded without any problems. However with Morrison’s I loaded the CV and that was it, there was no other screen. So I took it that my application was complete. What I did not realize hidden away somewhere after a bit of searching I found a transposed copy of my CV and it was an absolute mess. I was not very pleased and complained to Morrison’s. The application process for me was not very clear and I asked Morrison’s what the correct format for this CV should be for it to transpose correctly. The response from Morrison’s was not very helpful stating…

“So because the format of your CV does not work with the format of the site, and you do not want to take the time to manually fill it out (like many people most likely do), you find this sabotaging, discrediting and humiliating? “

The transposed CV did look like it had been sabotaged and it was in such a mess that the easiest solution was to delete it all and start again. I did feel humiliated and I could not help but feel it had been done deliberately. They did not volunteer the correct format for this CV and without that information the chances are it would do the same and not transpose correctly. I was clearly wasting my time. Again it’s this on-line approach which does not work very well for me. I would have happily filled in an on-line form but that option was not available.

10. What do you think of the traditional panel interview process, where candidates see multiple interviewers?

I do not recall being interviewed by a panel of interviewers. Most of the jobs I have had I got through the backdoor and circumvented the interview process. If I got moved to another job within the company I may have an interview then by which time I would be familiar with the managers and I would be more relaxed. Maybe that’s a way forward to helping people into work. Get to know the workplace first and the people there before having an interview. A bit like a probation.

I recall my best interview was going back over 30 years ago, I was in training and I went to an interview at a big company in Coventry. Just before I left the house for the interview a letter arrived and I opened it. It was from the company where I had my interview stating that my interview was unsuccessful. My mother was disgusted. I still went to the interview just for the experience. I did not let on that I had already received the letter. However, I will confess it was the most relaxed interview I had ever been to.

11. How could employers support you better during the interview process

If they already know who they are going to employ do not put the unsuccessful candidates through an unnecessary stressful interview process especially for autistic candidates because they need more time to recover from the ordeal. If the interviews can be in person that would be better. However if it has to be on-line give clear instruction and make no last minute surprises like having to move the camera to a different position.

12. What do you think of the questions interviewers ask in interviews?  

I cannot think of any particular questions however my hero to helping me with this is Columbo. I liked his small talk and I found it useful for those times when I am asked a question that I found difficult to answer. Small talk provides the filler for those times when your mind goes blank and you try to think of an answer. How many times have you heard a politician in answer to a question by reporters say “That’s a good question”. Sometimes I would say “Now that’s an interesting question.” Sometimes I do come out with a bit of humour because if you can get a laugh then it breaks the stillness of the air which enables me to relax. Interviewers worth their salt will get their humour in first to make everyone present relaxed. I try to be myself and some interviewers help me to relax. Small talk gives me time to take in the question being asked and formulate my words. If I can give an answer straightaway then that’s fine I’m even more relaxed. However, I am not afraid to say “I’ll need to think about that one. I’ll get back to you on that one.” and go on to the next question. Sometimes while answering subsequent questions I’m able to answer a previous question more fully. Employers should and I am not just speaking for those on the autism spectrum but sometimes we need to be allowed more time to answer some questions. We are all human.

13. How could employers improve the questions they ask? For instance, avoid asking vague questions?  

If a question is unclear then I would ask them to clarify what they are asking. Another filler while I am thinking of an answer. It demonstrates to the employer that you are listening to the question. If they are still vague then it can leave them open to an own goal because that’s when my imagination kicks in and I give the best answer I can. If it’s not the answer they were looking for then it’s up to them to be more specific.

14. What do you think of the language that is used during interviews?  

A vague question. Body language or verbal language? Both are important however we would expect verbal language to be cordial and good etiquette. I need to remind myself to speak loudly and clearly. I have natural quiet voice.  Now body language that’s the tricky one. It’s a hidden language that can snare me unexpectedly. I struggle with it such as eye contact or an occasional fidget. Then there’s the attempt to avoid sneezing at the worst possible time and the facial expressions which could be interpreted as something else. If I’m nervous when seated I could be as stiff as cardboard sat up right and looking false. That’s when good introductions at the start and again a bit of small talk to help me to relax and fit into the curvatures of the chair.

15. How could the language used by employers be improved?  

That’s a good question. As long as employers are courteous and perhaps understanding of the human condition we can be nervous from time to time then that’s all that’s required. Questioning should be specific and perhaps relevant to the job. I recall one interview many years ago, I was asked what I thought about drink driving which after being questioned about information technology completely threw me. I didn’t even drive then. I knew it was a bad thing but was the interviewer keen for a tipple before getting behind the wheel. Had he been convicted of a drink driving offence? Had he lost a family member through drink driving? Which is why I wanted to know the reasoning for that question. He just wanted to know what my thoughts are. Could I offend this interviewer or be on his side. Such questions require careful answers to which my response was that I disapproved of driving while under the influence, however the law does allow a certain level of alcohol in the blood when driving and that it is down to the responsibility of the individual when deciding their fitness to drive.

16. What do you think of the room or environment where you have had interviews? 

If I could I would try to visit the place where the interview was to take place. Even just practicing the journey can reduce anxiety on the day if you know exactly which bus stop to get off and roughly how long it takes. Familiarity is essential for me staying calm. If I could get a feel for the building inside, the layout and the room where the interviews are conducted then that’s another less thing I’m getting anxious about. Employers could hold a pre interview gathering to get to know the people there before the official interview.

17. Is there anything that employers could have improved and have been more accommodating?  

Most of the employers I have had have allowed the flexibility that I needed and I have been lucky to be able to work from home with some jobs simply because they did not have the physical office space. The NHS started off well giving me the support I needed from the beginning but then towards the end they forgot and after successive managers the adjustments were taken away from me. I became very ill until I eventually got pushed out. Why changing a role from one that is productive to one that is unproductive is beyond me as it does not serve anyone’s interests.

I would have liked to have stayed in one job. I have had many jobs and there were times when it got too much for me and I just walked away. Continuity is the main challenge for me. Sometimes it could be a change of routine, a change of personnel or a change of manager that does not accept me for being the way I am. I know that feeling when I am not wanted all too often.

I would like to see a mentoring scheme where a mentor that works within the company can mentor people that are perhaps vulnerable. They can help to look out for their wellbeing and listen to any concerns they may have on an informal level. This may help the continuity in their job.

18. Have employers asked you about autism?  

I just have to say no to that question. I was made redundant from the NHS soon after my diagnosis of autism and I have had no employment since.

19. Have past employers discussed with you how they will support you 

My last employer the NHS were aware of my sensory impairments before I started working for the NHS. I had a pre-start interview with Occupational Health regarding my migraines and I was given all the necessary support. I had successive managers over the time that I was there. I had a certificate for 100% attendance. Then 10 years later I was diagnosed with autism and in that same year I was given my redundancy. It just shows it can work if the right support is in place.

20. Do you use social media in your job search?  

I do use social media but I find it very difficult. Looking at the endless list of jobs on the screen it’s just one huge blurr.

21. Do you have a CV 

Yes I do have a CV. In fact I have many depending on what job I am looking for. I am trying to get a job at my local ASDA and I have a CV specifically for that on which I state that I am only 3 minutes’ walk away and that I am just a phone call away should a member of staff not turn up.

22. Most jobs are now listed online, with some requiring a CV and some an application form. Does either or both pose any challenges for you?  

With a CV it’s a bit hit & miss what the employer is actually looking for. Therefore I can only put my history on my CV which I have a lot of going over nearly 40 years. With an online form I only put on my recent history my last job for instance which I started 20 years ago.

23. What type of job are you looking for?  

I am still a professional member of the British Computer Society and I do keep a look out for IT work but perhaps not as stressful as I have done before. I am winding down now and stacking shelves at my local supermarket would suit me just fine.

24. Are you looking for a full time or part-time or flexible position? 

I am looking for part-time or a flexible position.

25. What would you say are your top 5 skills and attributes?   

I have a broad range of IT skills. I am good with Visualbasic, SQL, MS Access and Excel spreadsheets. In training I have learned COBOL, C, Smalltalk, Java and Universal Modelling Language.

I have a very good attention to detail. I have a methodical approach to work. I like to see my projects through to completion and to time and budget. I am a good listener.

26. Do you use social media in your job search?  

I do use social media but I find it very difficult. Looking at the endless list of jobs on the screen it’s just one huge blur.

27. Do you have a CV 

Yes I do have a CV. In fact I have many depending on what job I am looking for. I am trying to get a job at my local ASDA and I have a CV specifically for that on which I state that I am only 3 minutes’ walk away and that I am just a phone call away should a member of staff not turn up.

28. Most jobs are now listed online, with some requiring a CV and some an application form. Does either or both pose any challenges for you?  

With a CV it’s a bit hit & miss what the employer is actually looking for. Therefore I can only put my history on my CV which I have a lot of going over nearly 40 years. With an online form I only put on my recent history my last job for instance which I started 20 years ago.

29. What type of job are you looking for?  

I am still a professional member of the British Computer Society and I do keep a look out for IT work but perhaps not as stressful as I have done before. I am winding down now and stacking shelves at my local supermarket would suit me just fine.

30. Are you looking for a full time or part-time or flexible position? 

I am looking for part-time or a flexible position.

31. What would you say are your top 5 skills and attributes?   

I have a broad range of IT skills. I am good with Visualbasic, SQL, MS Access and Excel spreadsheets. In training I have learned COBOL, C, Smalltalk, Java and Universal Modelling Language.

I have a very good attention to detail. I have a methodical approach to work. I like to see my projects through to completion and to time and budget. I am a good listener.

 

Michael published his first book in 2021 and you can purchase it by clicking  here.

If you or someone you know is interested in taking part in I AM Profiles or needs helping with finding employment, please drop us an email at enquiries@i-am-autism.org.uk

To find out about how I AM can offer support contact us at admin@i-am autism.org.uk or give us a call on 0161 866 8483
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