Written by Lyla Johnston
Photography by Lyla Johnston

Job hunting in the creative industry while autistic: “We have to pretty much hide our traits”

Starting out in the creative industry can be laced with numerous challenges, but for neurodivergent creatives, there are often additional blockers at play – meaning suitable job opportunities can seem scarce. As she comes to the end of her placement at Creative Lives, our editorial assistant, Lyla Johnston, reflects on her own journey as an autistic creative in industry, and shares her advice for those in similar positions.

After a blissful six months writing for Creative Lives in Progress, I’m about to enter limbo. Not in the “on the beach wearing white cargo pants ducking a pole while “Hot Hot Hot” plays in the background and everyone watching drinks piña coladas” way, but the “mid-space between life and death, or heaven and hell” way. When it comes to my future job prospects, as an autistic person, it looks like I’m heading to square one.

Apart from the obvious freelance work, I don’t know what the future will hold for me. To get this role, it took two years of brief retail stints, photography gigs and me kissing an entire pond of unsuccessful-job-application shaped frogs to get there. It definitely seems like I’ll be returning to that pond, especially given my circumstances.

“It took two years of brief retail stints, photography gigs and kissing an entire pond of unsuccessful-job-application shaped frogs to get here.”

My journey in the creative industry has been both easy and hard. I’ve read that neurotypical people usually have around 10 usable hours a day, while neurodivergent and disabled people have around four – which has been the case for me. As an editorial assistant, I go into hyperfocus when I can and work extremely well while on-call, but have to get myself mentally prepared to do even the most menial of tasks. This means that I’m writing this opinion piece near the end of my run as editorial assistant, despite wanting to do an article like this since day one.

Part of the reason is down to an element of imposter syndrome. I didn’t go to university – I flunked my GCSEs and floated around college for just over three years before they abruptly refused to honour my access requirements, making me drop out. Shortly afterwards, I learnt that a BA in photography wasn’t for me and that I’m more comfortable taking a more multidisciplinary, earn-while-you-learn path. I still do photography, because there are some things that can’t just be memorialised with words. I’m way too wordy to just be a cookie-cutter photographer.

Photography by Lyla; Adam All, Man Up!, 2019
Photography by Lyla; Brooke Candy, London Trans Pride, 2019
Photography by Lyla; Chiyo and Hans Off, Mighty Hoopla, 2021

However, that means that opportunities for me are just a little more scarce and, most of the time, the opportunities aren’t a good fit. For example, I’ve had experiences with a TV channel and sports subscription service who have used HireVue. If you’re not aware, HireVue is a video interview software that uses artificial intelligence to look for the best candidates for certain jobs. Unfortunately, that technology is a bit too biased, with typical neurodivergent traits – like little to no eye contact – seen as a massive no-no. Seeing companies preach about their disabled colleagues, then use such a discriminatory tool just feels abhorrent.

There have also been some assessments where it just seems like they want me to make perfectly good work for free. Sure, coming up with a low-budget ad campaign for skincare products was fun, but when you have to make an Instagram reel about how to make the best sandwich in London, whilst applying for an apprenticeship that’s less than £10k a year, you just feel used – especially when you’re neurodivergent and barely have the energy.

“Seeing companies preach about their disabled colleagues, but then use discriminatory hiring tools just feels abhorrent.”

Even then, rejection can hit particularly hard as someone who’s part of a minority group seen by the masses as objectified inspiration porn at best, and an incapable waste of space at worst. After rejection upon rejection, I thought that I wasn’t meant to work for anyone and that I’d have to make money on my own, selling horoscopes – something which turned out to be soul-crushing. In fact, I originally turned down the interview at Creative Lives. However, the hiring manager told me that the company really seemed to care about me and my CV, so I decided “why not?”.

Thank goodness I later agreed to the interview. The team at Creative Lives have made me learn to value myself not only via external validation, but on what I myself have achieved. They told me not to be afraid – my approach in cold contacting artists and photographers who I envy is slowly going from “please like me!”, to “que sera sera”. They know that oftentimes, work can be a slow, even difficult process. They’re almost too caring about my physical and mental health.

Photography by Lyla; Bimini, Lipsync1000, 2019

A fair amount of autistic people hide their disability to make themselves more hireable. I don’t, but that’s because I’m scared to settle for working at a company who want to turn down the volume on, or even silence, my voice and point of view. When I leave, I really want to work at places where my autistic, queer, working-class perspective is valued. Maybe even championed. But even then, I also don’t want to be a box-ticker, hired to be diversity window-dressing.

So what are my tips for looking for creative jobs while autistic?

Know your worth, and don’t overwork yourself for too little money to survive on. Trust your instincts – even if things seem nice on the surface, a hard time may lurk beneath. You can assume that you’ll be valued in certain workspaces, but don’t expect to find out you will be until you’re actually there. As naff as it sounds, know that your neurodivergency can make for the most creative ideas. Most of all – keep going!

Lyla Johnston is a writer, photographer and multidisciplinary artist. When not writing about art, culture and queerness, you can usually find her watching trash TV, eating an entire tub of Phish Food and just being an overall sprinkle of neon pink glitter.

You can follow them on Twitter or visit their website.

Written by Lyla Johnston
Photography by Lyla Johnston