How to interview job candidates with autism

Thursday, 15 April 2021

The interview process can be a stressful experience for anyone, but for candidates with autism, it can be particularly challenging.

Traditional recruitment and interview processes often inadvertently create barriers for hiring people with autism. People with autism might have a different method for communicating or processing information, and both can disadvantage their performance in an interview setting.

For autism awareness month we’re highlighting the simple things you can do to make your workplace more accessible, and this starts in the recruitment stage.

If you want to find the best person for the job, not just the one who interviews the best, there are several adjustments you can make as an employer to give every candidate the best opportunity to demonstrate their strengths and abilities.

Take note of where your interview is set

Many people with autism have sensory processing issues which, if aggravated, can distract them from answering interview questions to the best of their ability. Finding ways to make the interview process more accessible helps ensure that candidates with autism don’t face an unfair disadvantage during the recruitment stage.

Remove sensory distractions from the room

Something as small as the scent of permanent marker or bright lights can cause sensory sensitivity and distract candidates with autism from answering all the interview questions. Making the interview setting accessible could mean selecting a quiet space without visual distractions, heavy scents, or fluorescent lighting. Face the candidate with their back to the window to minimise distractions and remove unnecessary objects and clocks that tick.

If you notice any symptoms of agitation, ask whether there is something you can do to make the interview more comfortable, or if something is bothering the candidate. People with autism will usually answer very honestly. You may or may not be able to change the situation, but it makes you aware of what is impacting the candidate’s ability to answer the questions.

Step out of the workplace

Alternatively, consider conducting your interview away from the office. This could be over the phone or in another location of the candidate’s choice, such as a local park, coffee shop, or library. By moving the interview to a more casual and familiar setting, you can ease change anxiety and decrease the distraction of sensory processing issues.

Keep in mind: it’s not about changing the person with autism. It’s about placing them in an environment where they can thrive.

Whether this is in the office, in a nearby library, or on the phone, providing reasonable adjustments to the interview setting makes sure every candidate has even footing.

Limit the number of interviewers present

For many with autism, it can be both exhausting and challenging to focus on and interpret the communication cues of multiple people at once. There are a few different routes you can take to make the interview process fairer for candidates with autism.

Conduct multiple interviews with the same interviewers

It can take time for a person with autism to become comfortable talking to someone new. This means it may not be possible to gather all the information you need in one interview. Conducting several interviews with the same interviewer or two interviewers can help you build familiarity with the candidate.

Conduct sequential interviews

Alternatively, you can try sequential interviews. This is where candidates see multiple interviewers, but not all at the same time. Sequential interviews help minimise non-conscious biases in hiring, without exposing the candidate to a potentially stressful panel interview that could result in underperformance.

Invite a familiar person or DES consultant to join the interview

Interview questions are typically full of metaphors, idioms, and abstract concepts that can be difficult for many people with autism to understand. A familiar person or disability employment specialist can help translate your questions for the candidate so they understand them and can answer to their greatest ability. This may involve re-wording, providing examples, or breaking down the question into multiple parts.

EPIC staff members Trudy and Narelle stand with Josh in front of industrial washing machines
The Sheraton Grand Mirage Resort in Cairns partnered with EPIC Assist, a disability employment specialist, to help hire Josh, who has autism.

Consider the types of questions you ask

One key change you can make in your interview is to avoid situational questions that are hypothetical and ask the candidate to imagine a scenario. Instead, ask behavioural questions that reflect on the past or require anecdotes.

For example, instead of asking your candidate to imagine how they would solve a specific problem that might arise, ask them to describe a time where they adapted to overcome a challenge in the past.

There are some other simple ways you can modify your question process to help with full comprehension:

  • Use examples in your questions when possible to illustrate the intent of your question.
  • Ask open-ended questions and use follow-up questions to help candidates expand on previous answers.
  • Ask questions that are direct and literal rather than abstract. Avoid idioms and metaphors, and keep your language as clear and to the point as possible.
  • Adjust your rate of speech and allow for time to digest the question. A pause in conversation does not necessarily indicate a lack of knowledge. Rather, it may reflect the way the candidate with autism processes information.

It’s worth noting that people with autism are often taught to use “filters” to judge whether their responses are appropriate and if they might offend someone. For example, if you ask why the candidate is better suited for the role than others, they may choose not to answer this question because they believe it makes them sound vain which might be offensive. This is where having a trusted DES consultant working with you can be particularly helpful.

The candidate with autism may communicate differently

Be prepared that the person with autism may communicate slightly differently from what you would expect of a neurotypical person.

It’s important to reflect carefully upon whether any of these common attributes will actually interfere with their ability to perform the job tasks. Although they might not be “neurotypical,” in most circumstances they have no impact at all on their ability to succeed at work. Any discrimination or unfair dismissal based upon these attributes is illegal.

Here are some attributes you should be aware of:

  • Don’t expect or force them to make eye contact. Inconsistent eye contact may be a way of processing for the candidate.
  • The candidate may wish to hold an object to keep their hands busy during the interview. This might help them concentrate better on the questions. Removing the object may cause unnecessary stress and disadvantage.
  • Many people with autism can be hypersensitive and may wish to refrain from handshakes.
  • The candidate may have an unusual tone of voice or manner of speaking. This could include using an atypical greeting or phrasing sentences in irregular ways.
  • They may struggle to judge how much information is appropriate for the question. It is okay to tell them that they have said enough.

Do a work trial instead

If the candidate is applying for a position that does not involve talking, it may not be appropriate to assess their capabilities through a typical interview. It may be more telling to skip the traditional interview and consider an alternative method of assessing the candidate’s capabilities and job fit.

Work trials or samples of work can act as a better assessment of a person with autism’s suitability. These could be used instead of or even in conjunction with a formal interview.

A disability employment specialist can help you organise a half-day trial, or even a two-week work experience period, depending upon what is best for the candidate. Some people with autism take longer to adjust to change. This means that while they may struggle immensely on the first week of their work trial, by the second week they could be flying through their job tasks.

Robert, Liam and Darren stand together in front of the Construction Skills Queensland entry
Liam with his managers Robert and Darren. Liam’s managers opted for a job trial to best assess his skills. After one week, they weren’t sure he was the right fit, but as soon as the second week kicked in, Liam began to completely blow them away. He was hired soon after.

Get support from a disability employment specialist

If all the above seems a little daunting, there are free, disability employment specialists that you can partner with to help you find the perfect staff member. Working directly with a DES provider can help your business set up an interview process that allows candidates with autism to demonstrate their skills and capabilities in a comfortable, accessible setting.

EPIC Assist regularly works with businesses to adjust the interview process so that it helps you discover the best person for the job, not just the best interviewer. We help businesses line up interviews with job-ready employees with autism and other disabilities that are the right fit for the role and then help you break down barriers to hiring a diverse and inclusive team.

If you are ready to make diverse hiring a priority this autism month and need some help finding and onboarding the perfect staff member, contact EPIC Assist today.

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