Asperger’s Syndrome in the Workplace

October 25th, 2012 by

The following is a guest post from Michael John Carley, the Executive Director for the Asperger Syndrome Training & Employment Partnership (ASTEP) and the author of “Asperger’s From the Inside-Out.”

1 in 88 are the new rates for autism spectrum prevalence. So if the math holds true (and whether you know it or not), if you’re a large company you already have many people with Asperger’s Syndrome (AS) working for you. They may be (a) disclosed, (b) diagnosed but undisclosed, or (c) they may not even know themselves that they have AS. But no matter what, their spectrum-specific challenges may be presenting as issues for managers, if not on the desks of your HR staff.

What to do? Well, there’s a lot you can and will want to do, as many of these folks have remarkable abilities that can help your company grow.  And as more and more young people with AS are earning college degrees, it might soon become a large enough portion of the workforce that is hard to ignore.

What is AS?

Asperger Syndrome is a hidden disability that is part of what is now referred to as the autism spectrum. While no two individuals with AS will ever present as alike, AS is often identified by social awkwardness, difficulties with eye contact, motor skills differences, and an oddly-exhibited use of the spoken word. But I, as an adult with AS, can state that internally it simply feels like a difference in processing thoughts, emotions, and experiences. Luckily, most individuals with AS also have average to above-average IQs and exhibit a remarkable attention to detail, especially if it pertains to a special interest of theirs. Furthermore, they’re loyal and don’t shop their resumes around very much.  If they’re happy where they are, you may have a dedicated employee for life.

Possible strengths include:

  • Attention to detail
  • Good concentration on routines and procedures
  • Memory for facts and figures
  • Logical approach to tasks
  • Honesty
  • The aforementioned loyalty

Possible challenges include:

  • Social interactions
  • Intense focus on limited interests
  • Literal-mindedness
  • Inflexibility
  • Anxiety
  • Troubles with empathy

Now That I Think About It, I Believe My Company Could Have Some Workers with AS. But What Should I Do?

Well, maybe nothing, especially if everything’s working out just fine. But if there are some problematic employees whom you suspect might have AS, there is much that you can do.

First off, you likely do not need to have them disclose, though that is always easier because that allows you to work with the employee rather than around them regarding solutions. And you should never tell someone you suspect they might have AS (as it’s against the law to do so in the workplace). But disclosed or undisclosed, you do need to manage them differently.

Are the new management strategies that difficult to learn? No, as they all mostly revolve around communicating more clearly.

Three Key Concepts: Hidden Curriculum, Executive Functioning, and Sensory Issues

Hidden Curriculum

The Hidden Curriculum is information that you have learned instinctively, but that someone with AS has to be taught. It includes understanding non-verbal behavior, such as tone of voice and body language. Many people also refer to this as the unwritten rules of social interaction. The notion of what is socially appropriate and inappropriate, or the ability to understand what another person might be thinking . . . these lessons often escape the individual with AS. So if you find yourself thinking things like “I shouldn’t have to tell him…,” or “Doesn’t he know that…” then chances are you’re dealing with a Hidden Curriculum issue.

Solutions revolve around being clear, such as:

  • Establishing rules (such as “never comment on the physical appearance of someone else”). Rules are clear for folks like us, and preferred as they require no reading between the lines
  • Writing down what the expectations are of the employee with a given task
  • Limiting your use of idioms, soliloquys or sarcasm (it might go over some of our heads)
  • A very detailed job description

Executive Functioning

These are the mental processes that allow us to put into practice what intelligence we have. These difficulties can be identified through challenges with organization, multi-tasking, time-management, and prioritization and can result in some individuals appearing slow, or even less intelligent than they really are. While many individuals with AS can visibly hyper-focus on a task, others with Executive Functioning challenges can appear the opposite given the same task.

Solutions revolve around being clear, such as:

  • Writing down what the expectations are of the employee with a given task
  • A very detailed job description
  • Flexible work hours
  • Mentoring
  • Going slow when verbally outlining tasks and priorities
  • Encouraging employees to take notes
  • Additionally confirming as an afterword that the employee understands the tasks assigned

 Sensory Issues

People on the autism spectrum frequently navigate at least one atypical issue having to do with the five senses. For some, a sensitivity to certain types of lighting can produces headaches, certain sounds might make others have to cover their ears, and many people—though they might appreciate deep-tissue contact, such as in a hug—truly do not react well to light touch, as in an unexpected tap on the shoulder.

Also, the concept of stimming—involuntary or semi-voluntary body movements, sometimes including the production of noises—can be viewed as sensory issues as stims are usually deployed as a result of environmental factors (the most well-known is the way some more-challenged autistic people flap their hands). Though potentially alarming to those with no experience with this population, stims generally are a healthy way to combat stresses, and are often an expression of pleasure, not anxiety. Furthermore, most college-educated spectrum graduates have long since learned how to cloak these behaviors.

Solutions revolve around simple, atmosphere adjustments, such as:

  • Flexible work hours
  • Lighting adjustments
  • Workspace adjustments such as moving their workspace to a quieter space in the office
  • Working from home (less simple, but a true solution for a dedicated employee with more serious sensory challenges)

With the Hidden Curriculum, Executive Functioning, and Sensory Issues there is the potential for added anxiety as one tries to navigate a social world (yours) that confuses them. Allowing for breaks, so the person can find a quiet room or go for a walk, will truly help to ease the stress caused by emotional, sensory, or executive overload.

Train, Train, Train

Businesses rightly won’t hire or attempt to retain employees with AS if they don’t have the confidence that they can make the relationship work. Trainings—be it for managers, HR staff, or recruiters—is tantamount to a company successfully increasing its cultural competence.

In Summary

If you look back at the solutions for managing and better accommodating those three key areas, you should see the (sometimes repeated) emphasis on clear communication. While perhaps time-consuming for managers, the expense pales in comparison to other accommodations. And what manager wouldn’t become a better manager for his non-AS colleagues if he or she learned to communicate better?

And did I mention that some of us are quite intelligent, honest, and loyal?

Michael John Carley can be reached at mjcarley@asperger-employment.org

Photo Source: Victor1558

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