Autism Abilities in the Workplace

This is an article I wrote for a Diversity newsletter at work.  I mainly wrote this article because I have a 9 yr old boy with Asperger’s and he will eventually be in the workforce.  Being employed by a large corporation with many “engineering types” – it is likely that there are some with these difficulties.  My company strives to have an inclusive and diverse workforce and I am glad to help!

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Autism, Asperger’s, ADHD, Bi-polar, OCD, etc., etc., etc.  Each of these labels are applied to people with a wide variety of abilities and behaviors.  Many individuals with these labels are in the workforce.  In fact, companies such as SAP and Freddie Mac are heavily recruiting autistic individuals, even current college students.   This article will define Autism / Asperger’s (ASD), identify strengths applicable to the workplace, and provide information about their difficulties associated with being in the work force.

ASD Defined:

From DSM5.org ASD Fact Sheet:  “People with ASD tend to have communication deficits, such as responding inappropriately in conversations, misreading nonverbal interactions, or having difficulty building friendships appropriate to their age. In addition, people with ASD may be overly dependent on routines, highly sensitive to changes in their environment, or intensely focused on inappropriate items. Again, the symptoms of people with ASD will fall on a continuum, with some individuals showing mild symptoms and others having much more severe symptoms.”

Strengths

  • Exceptional memory.  This includes understanding concepts presented in material and images.
  • Detailed understanding of concrete concepts, rules and sequences.
  • Intensely focused.
  • Very precise and detail oriented, which can be combined with high levels of focus on tasks that others may not want to do.
  • Schedule driven.

Two difficult aspects of work for the ASD individual include social interactions and transitions.  Social interaction difficulties may include not understanding non verbal cues, strict adherence to rules and the expectation that others also adhere to said rules, blunt language (which is “truth” to them), and sometimes repetitive behaviors.  Transitions happen quite a bit more often than non ASD individuals realize, and each transition has the potential to cause distress in the ASD individual.

How do you know when you are boring someone you are talking with?  It is likely so automatic to you that you don’t even think about it.  ASD individuals often have favorite topics to discuss and most people are willing to listen for a period of time.  But when a non ASD person has had enough, he or she may start checking the time and giving non verbal hints that they want the conversation to come to a close.  ASD individuals typically do not catch these hints.  The best option is to use clear language that closes the conversation politely.  For example say something like, “Thank you for an interesting conversation.    Now I am going to a meeting.  Bye!”

Recall that a common characteristic of ASD individuals is their ability to focus.  Transitions are a break in that focus.  Some transitions that a non ASD individual may not think about include: switching from one project to another, especially when the first one is not finished; breaking for lunch; adapting to a new information system; gaining a new responsibility.  Transitions can cause feelings similar to those that many avid readers have after finishing a good book.  There is a let down period where you may wonder “oh no – what now?”  Imagine having that feeling several times a day.  When the ASD individual controls the transition, things go much more smoothly.  Whenever possible, involve the ASD individual in the transition planning, especially for significant transitions.  Allow the ASD individual to control their own minor transitions, such as when to take a break.  When presenting an unexpected transition to the ASD individual, be sympathetic and allow time for the individual to process through stressful emotions caused by the unplanned transition.

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