Many have heard or have used the words Autism, Asperger’s, ADHD, Bi-polar, OCD, and so on. Individuals with these labels have a wide variety of abilities and behaviors. Often when you hear Asperger you think of a child, but children become adults and enter the workforce. Do you work with someone labeled this way? Do your coworkers have children or grandchildren who face this reality daily? Recently in the news, companies such as SAP and Freddie Mac are heavily recruiting autistic individuals hoping to harness ! their unique talents and to give them a chance to flourish in a job and spark innovation. For Ari Ne’eman, president of the Washington DC-based Autistic Self Advocacy Network (ASAN) and a member of the U.S. National Council on Disability, the moves are welcome and well overdue. “We need to see neurological diversity in much the same way as we’ve seen workplace diversity efforts in the past on the basis of race, gender and sexual orientation.”
Eilene Edwards from the Supplier Management Learning Solutions team has personal interest in seeing this neurological diversity come to fruition. She and husband Aaron are the parents of two boys. Their oldest Ryan is seated next to dad. Their youngest Luke, seated next to Eilene, has Asperger’s and struggles with the battle between these strengths and difficulties daily. Understanding the strengths and difficulties associated with Asperger’s has helped her to avoid many problems and handle problems that do arise in a more effective way.
Asperger Syndrome is an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), a milder variant of Autistic Disorder. The fifth edition of the American Psychiatric Association’s (APA) Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders DSM5.org ASD Fact Sheet defines ASD: “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.”
ASD Strengths in the Workplace
- Exceptional memory including 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.
ASD and Difficulties in the Workplace
Two difficult aspects of work for the ASD individual include social interactions and transitions.
- Social interaction difficulties may include not understanding nonverbal 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 nonverbal 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 letdown 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.
Eilene tells us that not everyone with Autism Spectrum Disorder has a formal diagnosis. There are many adults who fit the description, but they were never diagnosed as ASD. They may have been labeled “that odd kid who likes to play alone and won’t look you in the eye” or “that kid who is always causing problems or being rude.” Next time you encounter an employee who has some of the difficulties described here, be more open to finding good ways of interacting with him or her. You may be surprised at the innovative ideas they can come up with, if just given the understanding and chance they need.