This first-person chronicle is the experience of Calgary-based Henry Gordon. For more information on CBC’s First Person Stories, please see the FAQs.
I did the mental equivalent of a double take. I was sitting at my desk waiting for a meeting. Sweet amusement at a possibility turned to thoughtful disbelief at the increasingly likely fact.
It couldn’t be possible, could it?
Of the dozens of jobs I applied for—and about a dozen jobs I managed to interview—every time the application required an interview, I didn’t get the job. Was I so bad at interviews?
I’m an emerging stage manager with autism – at least I am when the theater isn’t closed by pandemic restrictions.
There is enough pressure in an interview to give the right answers. This can be a stressful situation for anyone, but for me autism makes interviews exceptionally difficult.
Turns out I’m much better at landing jobs that don’t require maintenance – like odd jobs as an accountant and a construction job I got through temp work or personal connections. .
During interviews, I have to make eye contact, deal with stressful environments like fluorescent lights and distracting noises, wear uncomfortable clothes, and not stimulate.
Stimming involves doing movements that burn nerve energy, such as clapping your hands, flicking your fingers, and pacing. Not stimming is stressful for me. I always need to move to think.
But the slightest mistake, a slip of a mask, and I feel like I’m making someone experience the “strange valley” – the feeling of discomfort created when something seems almost human, but isn’t. Not normal.
Now I have to worry about giving good answers and make eye contact to appear “normal”. It’s exhausting.
I tried to tell people about my autism during the interview process and describe the benefits of it, but it didn’t seem to help.
So now, when I start a new job, I often only tell my employer that I have autism on the second or third day on the job so that the first impression my employer has of me is my work and not my neurodiversity. Once I revealed it, most of my employers and colleagues were extremely supportive.
But where autism can be a barrier to getting a job, being autistic is an asset in my career.
I didn’t dream of being a director when I was a kid, but I’ve wanted to tell stories since childhood. I also needed to study social behavior in order to survive as a neurodivergent in a neurotypical world. Drama, which is about understanding social behavior, was a natural path.
In college, I learned that the Lethbridge Shakespeare Performance Society was looking to fill some production roles for the summer. I applied, didn’t need an interview, and worked with them for three summers.
I have since worked on several productions, including working during the pandemic with a private school in town, and volunteering with the Calgary Folk Fest and the podcast, Dark side of the web. I am particularly proud of my work with the Lethbridge Shakespeare Performance Society’s production of macbeth and academic production of Titus Andronicus.
I like being able to help others produce good work.
My typical day involves sitting in the theater, under sharp task lights, taking notes and seeing the big picture. I monitor stage entrances and exits, prop and costume movements, while recording director’s notes and watching the clock for actors to have timely breaks.
I build what’s called a “pilot checklist” for the show, breaking down the complicated into simple tasks – just like I would in everyday life.
Being able to see and hear everything that’s going on and then filter the almost overwhelming amount of detail down to the essentials is something I’ve always needed to do as a basic survival mechanism for a living divergent brain in a neurotypical world.
But I still feel pressure not to look autistic. I feel the pressure to look “normal” – even in theater, which is a more inclusive industry and where I think my autism can be an advantage. I don’t want to be thought of as just the “autistic guy”. I want to be seen as a person with autism who is good at what she does.
My autism is part of who I am but I feel like I have to constantly mask myself to establish myself in my career. It’s frustrating. I’d like employers to understand that I’m good at my job because of my autism, but traditional job interviews aren’t the best way to show it.
Tell your story
CBC Calgary is hosting a series of in-person writing workshops across the city to help community members tell their own stories.
Learn more about the workshop organized by the Genesis Centre:
To learn more about our writing workshops or to suggest a community organization to help facilitate, email CBC producer Elise Stolte or visit cbc.ca/albertastories.