Why I self-advocate: A personal essay

Cole Hasserjian/Courtesy

It was my first interview with a large corporation, and a summer finance internship opportunity was on the line. The interviewer’s initial questions were straightforward, and I thought I had a strong chance to move on to the second round. At the conclusion of the interview, I was asked: “Why is there so much autism on your resume?” I nervously responded, “I was diagnosed at 3…” and before I could relate my experiences of overcoming the struggles that autism has presented to my motivations to work in finance, the interviewer uttered a condescending “oh.”

I knew what the interviewer insinuated by his reaction — that my character as a candidate had been reduced to the negative stereotype of individuals on the autism spectrum. That’s why I have to self-advocate for others on the spectrum and myself.

According to a study by Drexel University, only 58 percent of people on the autism spectrum have ever been employed after high school, and a large percentage of individuals are overqualified for the jobs. In my experience with networking sessions and the interview process, it is more difficult for someone with the knowledge, skills and abilities to receive a job offer with a competitive firm when the recruiting process has a greater emphasis on social skills.

Candidates on the spectrum such as myself find it more difficult to get through the interview process because of its dependency on picking up on unspoken social cues, such as when to ask questions and how to answer particular questions without being too personal. My opinion is that if somebody can effectively communicate with managers and members of the team, these should be the only social requirements initially for a candidate with strong technical skills.

I nervously responded … the interviewer uttered a condescending “oh.”

Since I was diagnosed with autism at the age of 3, my family has provided all of the help to assure that I’m able to perform to a high level. As often noted, the Mayo Clinic defines autism as a “serious neurodevelopmental disorder that impairs a child’s ability to communicate and interact with others,” although this does not mean it cannot be improved.

In my unique case, I had extreme problems with communication skills to the point where I needed a script to converse with anyone, even my own family. I still experience social anxiety today, where I sometimes repeatedly knock my knees together to calm myself down and prevent getting rashes on my skin. My family has given me the resources to make me a person who can be independent and formulate his own ideas and perspectives.

I have a unique opportunity to self-advocate because I have been fortunate enough to have access to resources to help combat the challenges that autism has presented for me. I am cognizant that I have a unique opportunity to have a platform to potentially change the perceptions of those who influence the private sector. I have begun to become more of an advocate for potential candidates with disabilities with the company I had an internship with for the past summer. Earlier this semester, I connected one of the company’s recruiters with the Disabled Students’ Program so that the company will have greater access to talented individuals who happen to have disabilities.

…I have been fortunate enough to have access to resources to help combat the challenges that autism has presented for me.

I would like to see the unemployment rate for college graduates with autism drop below 50 percent in my lifetime alongside more individuals on the spectrum having a more significant influence on corporate America. I also don’t want individuals on the spectrum to feel like they have to hide their diagnosis and feel ashamed to share their story with future employers, as I have done in the past.

My story is a part of me — I will not hide it any longer. What I gained through those experiences is why I am in this position today. I am aware that more companies are making conscious efforts to increase the pool of candidates with special needs, but the employment data and the prevalent negative stigmas suggest that there is more work to do. I am confident that the experiences on my resume make me qualified, and my autism is a strength rather than a weakness because those experiences have taught me what it takes to overcome obstacles. I know that changes in perception take time and patience, and I believe that if my journey to UC Berkeley has taught me anything, it would be that progress takes time, and there will be setbacks along the way.

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Contact Cole Hasserjian at [email protected] and follow us on Twitter at @dcweekender.