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Are Employers Looking Past Autistic Job Candidates?

Good body language is important in a job interview, and we're taught the basics of body language from a young age. Sit up straight. Sit still. Stop fidgeting. Don't talk with your hands. Smile, don't smirk.

Our body language can make us or break us in a job interview, and a new survey reveals 30% of job candidates give off negative body language. OfficeTeam recently surveyed 300 senior managers for their thoughts on what constitutes poor body language during job interviews, and lack of eye contact topped the list of negative body language behaviors. Lack of eye contact was followed by facial expressions, posture, handshake, fidgeting/habitual movements, and hand gestures.

Lack of eye contact is where I see a looming hiring issue regarding job candidates on the autism spectrum. Some autistic individuals can have difficulty maintaining strong eye contact. But could looking away cost him or her a job offer?

Yes, I Hear You
We live in an age of autism awareness, but not necessarily an understanding of autistic behaviors. In American society, we view eye contact as a sign of respect, and engagement. Eye contact means the other person is paying attention. Eye contact is also considered to be a sign of empathy, honesty, and trustworthiness. If we're not looking somebody in the eye, then we must have something to hide.

For some autistic job candidates, however, momentarily looking away lets them hear what is being said without having to take in myriad visual distractions. They might also look away while they're speaking so they can focus on what they're saying. Gazing deeply into someone's eyes can feel like a very intense experience for autistic individuals. Here, watch this video. It is excellent.

Managers could be turning a blind eye to incredibly high-caliber talent if they get too focused on eye contact. Do you know that Einstein, Mozart and Tesla would probably be diagnosed as being on the spectrum today? That's what the awesome Temple Grandin said in her TED Talk.

To avoid looking past these highly-talented job candidates in the coming years, managers can ask themselves these questions:

Is the job candidate actively participating in the conversation, and asking spot-on questions?

Is there a back-and-forth dialogue that reveals a keen knowledge, interest and understanding on the applicant's part?

Does the job require strong eye contact to deal with customers, etc.?

When I listen to this job applicant, what do I hear?

Is this job candidate showing me they've heard what I'm saying?

In other words, the main focus is on mind engagement. For some autistic job applicants, maintaining constant eye contact can be not only uncomfortable, it isn't how they engage. Even with years of practice, maintaining eye contact might still be a challenge for some autistic individuals, and this needs to be better understood as Generation Z enters the workforce. The CDC estimates that 1 in 68 children in the United States have some form of autism. We owe it to these future job candidates to get better at engaging them, and to understand how they will navigate job interviews.

A full 70% of senior managers in the OfficeTeam survey didn't report seeing negative body language in job interviews. But for the 30% who report seeing it -- and rank lack of eye contact number one on the no-no list -- it might be time to see things in a new way. Just because somebody isn't looking at you does not mean they aren't listening to you. In fact, some job candidates might be hearing you much better that way.

Perhaps this post will open a conversation about how managers should view eye contact in the age of autism awareness, and how the unspoken rules of body language in job interviews could evolve in the coming decade to make sure these highly-talented job candidates get a fair hearing. It's one issue where the modern workplace shouldn't look the other way.


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