Asperger Syndrome and the Recruitment Process Q&A

This Question and Answer feature is conducted with Lisa Gorry, a post-graduate student in psychology in Ireland who is looking at intelligence theories and their effect on the recruitment process for someone with Asperger syndrome and recruiting organisations.

MJ. It is only in the relatively recent past that Asperger syndrome (AS) has realised some degree of awareness in the public domain. Could you comment please on how much is known, and what the perception of it is, from the perspective of employers currently?

LG Lay people’s interpretation of psychological theory is often uncertain – take for example, the work of Freud. His work has influenced modern society, with terms such as ego, libido, repression, rationalism and fixation being as familiar to laypeople as academics and clinicians. However, these terms are often misused by laypeople to the extent that they have been included in many dictionaries with slightly different definitions. The reason for this, I think, is because since its publication, Freud’s work has been reported by many non-psychologists, or non-scientists, and the terms were lost in translation, so to speak.

The same can be said of the reporting of AS to the general public. From my experience of talking to laypeople about AS, I have found that the majority of those who are aware of AS have heard about it through the media. They have read about it in books like Mark Haddon’s Curious Incident of the Dog at Night-time, or seen it on TV, namely a show called America’s Next Top Model, where a contestant has AS.

However, the majority of employers who I’ve spoken do not know what AS is. I interviewed a man with AS who has found this to be true. He said that when he has tried to explain AS to employers, they conjure up images of Dustin Hoffman in Rainman, and a complete lack of intelligence. The respondent went on to say that trying to explain AS as ‘a form of Autism’ or a ‘disability’ has many effects on employers- such as associating AS with low IQ scores and requiring constant supervision which affects responsibilities given to the individual. When employers do try to learn more about AS, it’s generally on the internet, where they find every stereotype of AS, which do not always focus of the positive aspects of having an individual with AS in the workplace or of the spectrum nature of AS.

MJ There are some conditions that have acquired non-negative connotations with the public. Dyslexia being one example; people seem to accept that it is a condition that some people are just affected by, but that it is not stigmatic.

My impression is that this is still not the case with Asperger currently, largely, I believe, because of ignorance; indeed you talk about lay people’s misconceptions of individual’s with intellectual disabilities. Do you concur with this view about AS from the prospective of potential employers?

LG I don’t agree entirely that there isn’t a stigma attached to dyslexia, as when it is explained as an intellectual disability, many people would again associate it with low IQ scores, however the prevalence of dyslexia among the general public may have caused many non-negative connotations

I think that in general, employers are not aware of the positive aspects of employing someone with AS, and I would like to investigate further the different types of misconceptions regarding different disabilities. I read a study that found that employers expressed greater concerns over employing individuals with mental or emotional disabilities than employing those with physical disabilities. In the same study, the researcher found that issues such as attendance, safety and productivity have been identified as positive attributes of employees with disabilities by some employers, but have also been cited as concerns by others. An additional study of the general public found that the majority of people surveyed expected that the inclusion of individuals with intellectual disabilities in the workplace would result in more accidents on the job.

The difference between the general public and employers is education- employers are required by law to promote equal opportunities in the workplace. In theory, employers should have the information about individuals with disabilities. Whether this is actually the case is worth investigating. There are also likely to be misconceptions regarding HFA and AS due to the varied nature of the condition- an employer may have experience with an individual with HFA or AS and may expect similar work performance from another individual with HFA or AS, who may have completely different abilities.

MJ Moving on to your definitions of intelligence and the assertion that it is composed of many elements. When I think of intelligence, things like solving numeric equations, foreseeing future events or verbal comprehension immediately spring to mind. However, your research concentrates (rightly I feel) on implicit forms: memory, perception, judgement, adapting to the environment, ability to learn. Obviously, all of these things apply, and are highly relevant to, someone with AS, especially in a work context. How widespread is evaluation of these facets by organisations, what techniques are involved and how effective are they when conducting recruitment?

LG Implicit theories of intelligence are influenced by the research, and can change from person to person. They can be defined as what individuals mean when they use the word “intelligence”. They are the informal theories by which individuals, from laypeople to psychologists, use in the everyday assessments of intelligence.

Intelligence is a much debated subject in psychology, of which there are many theories. There are several prominent theories of intelligence, for example- psychometric theories [such as Spearman’s (1904) two-factor theory and Guilford’s (1967) structure-of-intellect model]; cognitive-contextual theories [such as Sternberg’s (1985) triarchic model and Gardner’s (1983, 1999) multiple intelligences]; and emotional theories [such as Goleman’s (1995) theory of emotional intelligence].

Gardner’s theories appear to have filtered through to the public to a greater extent than the other modern intelligence theories. According to Gardner, individuals have 9 intelligences- linguistic, logical-mathematical, spatial, musical, bodily-kinaesthetic, interpersonal, intrapersonal, naturalist and existential. This is commonly used in schools as a framework for a pedagogical tool; therefore, many people in education will be familiar with Gardner’s theories.

While the prominence of Gardner’s theories will certainly have an effect on individuals’ implicit theories of intelligence, emotional intelligence has permeated into the business world. Human resources departments have incorporated theories of emotional intelligence into their policies with regard to employee recruitment, employee development, and employee relations in general. Goleman is the prominent emotional intelligence theorist. In his theory of emotional intelligence, he refers to 5 emotional competencies. They are: the ability to identify and name one’s own emotional states; to manage them; to enter into emotional states at will; to read, be sensitive to and influence others emotions and; the ability to enter and sustain interpersonal relationships.

There are many techniques used to evaluate job candidates- assessment centres, the interview, work simulation tests, bio-data, aptitude tests, and personality tests among others.

Assessment centres have the highest predictive validity of all selection techniques. A comprehensive picture of the candidate is built by the results of a combination of tests over time- these tests can include interviews, psychological and personality testing, work simulations and exercises. They are commonly used in graduate recruitment.

Interviews are the most commonly used selection technique. There are different types of interviews and any combination of the following types can be used. The biographical interview explores the interviewee’s past experiences and allows the interviewer to predict future behaviour based on past behaviour. The behavioural interview is also based on the assumption that past behaviour can be used to predict future behaviour, except that all interviewees are asked the same structured questions. The questions regard specific behaviours that are relevant to successful job performance. Each interviewee is then evaluated against a rating scale for the relevant behaviours. The situational interview involves evaluating answers to hypothetical job-related questions (e.g. What would you do if….? How would you feel if…?).

Work simulation tests closely match the tasks involved in vacant position(s). Biodata tests are not widely used but can be used to predict work-related factors including performance, absenteeism, job tenure and income. Employees fill out a wide-ranging questionnaire, and correlations in answers that differentiate the good and bad performers are highlighted. These answers provide the basis upon which to short-list applicants.

In a study of the predictive accuracy of selection methods, assessment centres received a score of 68%; structured interviews 62%; work samples 55%; ability tests 54%, biodata 40%; personality tests 38%; and unstructured interviews 31%

MJ Many of the interviews and recruitment processes that I have undertaken have revolved around implicit testing but in an informal way. In a simple one-to-one interview for example, the other person is simply “getting a feel” for you.

Where something like psychometric testing is deployed, many of the questions are seeking to ascertain personality traits via a formal process.

Both methods are clearly probing areas where someone with AS is likely to encounter difficulties, or may highlight areas where a person with AS is less adept – inter-relating with others for example.

Given this, would you automatically advocate disclosure of one’s condition beforehand to enable the recruiter to factor the AS into their implicit intelligence testing process?

LG I think that all individuals with disabilities should disclose their condition. Firstly, candidates are protected by law in the recruitment process and can request to review their evaluation form or interview script if they suspect that discrimination has occurred. Secondly, if the employer or recruiter researches a condition (from a reputable source) they can factor the condition into their implicit theory of intelligence and importantly, adapt the testing process accordingly. This is especially important with regard to intellectual disability.

However, the Irish Times reported that while approximately 60% of Irish graduates with disabilities get jobs, 80% do not inform prospective employers in the application process. The Irish Economic and Social Research Institute found that individuals with long-term disabilities are 42% less likely to be in employment than their able-bodied counterparts.

MJ I’d like to probe a little more about how something like judgement can be gauged outside of real life situations.

In a work context this is hugely important; often, quick decisions have to be made. I can think of one case where an ad agency was trying to secure a deal with me and I was insufficiently inquisitive and too trusting of their motives. I am fairly good at judging things providing I have time to reflect; however, this is often impossible in a business context. With the agency I took them at their word – literally – as they were pressing for a decision there and then. This caused problems later.

How can a recruiter gauge this ability in an artificial context – indeed given the personality traits of someone with AS is it even possible – and should someone with AS inform a recruiter that it would be impossible to answer such a question given the difficulties in inferring, especially where no time for reflection (in an interview) is possible?

LG I could be very wrong, as I am guessing, but I am not so sure that an employer would assess judgement in a candidate. This obviously depends on the job, but if an employer was to assess judgement, it could easily be assessed in a work sample test or an assessment centre. The employer could also speak to a candidate’s referee. Each of these methods allows the candidate to reflect. The final part of your question is part of the rationale for my study- why is the interview such a prominent force in recruitment given that it is an artificial situation which cannot accurately assess all of the relevant areas of suitability for employment. It is a stressful situation for any individual, however, someone with AS may enter the interview in a predetermined disposition. By its very nature it can be discriminatory to many candidates, regardless of adjustments that are made before the interview, or by the legal protection that candidates have.

MJ Moving onto the legal implications of recruitment and your comment “many of Ireland’s most reputable employers have found themselves in murky waters for the manner they’ve handled their recruitment activities in relation to recruitment of people with “disabilities” – “.

You can only comment of course from the perspective of Irish organisations, but it surprises me, given the comprehensive legal frameworks that have been developed over the recent past, that corporations are not adhering to the requirements. Why do you think this is?

LG I think that incompetence has a lot to do with it. Also, especially in the case of smaller companies, personnel may not have the expertise in certain situations. Some examples of discrimination cases in Ireland: a company failed to provide a wheelchair user with proper access to an interview, and another employer failed to adapt a workplace to the needs of someone with a disability. While the fact that some of Ireland’s most reputable employers have not adhered to the legal requirements regarding disability in the past is by no means something to be happy about, it is slightly encouraging that many are prosecuted by the disability provision of the Equality Act.

MJ My next question is slightly contentious and, I accept, possibly a difficult one to answer.

Despite legislation, the benefits of employing people with “disabilities” ( being seen as an equal opportunities employer for example) and an awareness within HR functions of being seen to be supportive in this arena, I still feel that indirect discrimination occurs. When faced with a choice between a NT candidate and a person with AS, the recruiter – for understandable reasons – will gravitate towards the former.

Do you concur with this and what are the factors that a candidate with AS can look out for which suggest that this is happening and how can they be overcome?

LG Its true. Despite legislation and the many benefits of being an equal opportunities employer, some level of discrimination still occurs in the workplace.

A section of my questionnaire requires employers to choose a preferred candidate from a pair of personas. The personas describe a N.T. person and an individual with A.S. The personas are to be ranked according to two criteria: who is likely to be hired and who is considered to be most intelligent. Employers are also asked to state why their highest ranked candidate was selected for employment and why their chosen candidate is more intelligent than the alternative candidate.

During the pilot testing, all three participants chose to hire the NT individual. One participant, an employer from a small IT company stated that he chose the NT person because someone with “social deficits” could negatively affect the success of a small company like his, in its infancy.

When I have finished my data collection I will have a clearer perspective on this issue, but it does not look encouraging from the preliminary studies.

Until I’ve investigated further the reasons why social interactions, or which aspects of social interactions are so vitally important to employers, I cannot give any advice on this matter.

MJ You later talk about candidates requesting alternative interview modes to compensate for the factors which limit their ability to perform optimally during the typical face-to-face interview process. Conducting an interview by telephone is one method you mentioned.

The attractions of this are self-evident. However, given that, if they do enter the workplace, someone with AS cannot avoid the need to interact with other people directly, do you not think that this would simply be avoiding issues that have to be faced anyway, thus making the recruitment process detrimental from an AS perspective?

LG That is an interesting point. However, in jobs where social interactions are not part of the job requirement, why is there a need to be assessed in this area in the interview? I think that the recruitment process for individuals with AS should involve work samples or test centres, especially in cases when the job does not require social interactions.

While I understand the difficulties in finding a job with minimal social interactions, there are plenty that do not rely on social interactions to achieve successful work performance.

MJ Your research introductory overview states that: “a candidate with AS may appear less intelligent when viewed implicitly” due to factors such as anxiety, inter-personal interaction when in an interview scenario.

I think that this is a real issue. Having an AS thought process has real intellectual advantages; I have a highly pronounced analytical capability which enables me, I believe, to generate real, unique insight for example.

Other than by direct reference to specific examples, I am not sure I can communicate this effectively, especially as I “may”, under certain circumstances, feel nervous or anxious which impacts upon my discourse and ability to “get the message across”.

If I divulge my condition, and explain and ensure that the recruiting organisation understands it, then this overcomes this issue.

Does this mean that, in your opinion, divulging one’s condition is essential if my implicit intelligence is to effectively gauged?

LG I think so, especially in an interview situation. Informing an employer about factors of AS that may negatively affect an individual in an interview – such as anxiety or interpersonal skills- is important because it discourages them from comparing someone with AS to a NT person on the same theory of implicit intelligence. It is important to influence the employer’s theory of implicit intelligence not only by highlighting the differences in people with AS and NT people from a “deficit” point of view but also to promote your abilities- as you said, you have a highly pronounced analytical capability. There are many abilities and skills that people with AS have that NT people do not have that can be of a great advantage to employers and it is important to remind employers of this.

MJ Finally, your proposed pilot study into educating organisations about AS says that they should implement certain interventions during their recruitment processes.

Can you give any examples of the type of interventions you have in mind please?

LG I have yet to develop this idea further than fitting it into my timetable- I hope to include information about AS/intellectual disabilities and how to tailor the recruitment process to ensure fairer practice.

About the Author

Lisa Gorry is a postgraduate research student in IADT Dun Laoghaire, with a BSc in Psychology applied to IT. Currently research: Employers’ Implicit Theories of Intelligence in the Recruitment of Individuals with Asperger’s Syndrome

The study investigates how intelligence theories are used in the recruitment of people with Asperger’s Syndrome (AS), and how these theories can be challenged to accommodate AS in the workplace. Initially, case studies about AS in the workplace were compiled. Participants included individuals with AS. Common themes were found between the data collected and previous research in the area. These included: communication problems in the job interview, the advantages of AS in the workplace compared to neurotypical employees, and employer stereotypes. The case studies add a real-world context to a larger scale study which is in progress. The next phase of the study is an online questionnaire for employers. An investigation of employers’ implicit theories of intelligence will be carried out to determine if they negatively affect the recruitment of individuals with AS.

Lisa is currently compiling case studies of the experiences of individuals with A.S. in the workplace and the experiences of the employers of individuals with A.S.

Managing with Asperger Syndrome