How (and How Not) to Work with Employees with Autism or Asperger Syndrome

Imagine that you are a young person with Asperger Syndrome. You leave home and go off to college. Happily, you find that your new school is quite able to accommodate your needs (provided you advocate for yourself, of course). Whether it is an alternative location and extra time for testing, a note-taker in class, or another such support, you will receive whatever you need in order to be successful.

Now fast forward a few more years. The game has changed. School’s over, and you have a job. The accommodations that helped you have a fair shot at success in the world of academia are no longer available. And whereas in college work and time management were as simple as making a list of what needed to get done, prioritizing each item appropriately, noting how much time you had for each assignment, and organizing your workload accordingly, you soon enough discover that it’s not quite that simple in the workplace.

Whether it is the subtleties of office communication, the complexity of the work and how it fits into the whole organizational scheme of things, or, in many cases, the rapid pace, you find that the professional world does not so nicely suit your need for clear, manageable, unambiguous structure.

And perhaps worst of all, while there is always a learning curve in the workplace, it seems the same learning curve that applied in school does not apply here. You are expected to meet the organization’s standards on its terms and within its timeframe, not your own.

To be fair, schools and colleges have had the benefit of many years’ preparation and training in working with autism and other disabilities. Businesses and other professional settings have not been similarly equipped. Hopefully, I can offer a few valuable insights in this regard.

The challenges the workplace presents to someone with Asperger Syndrome or any other form of so-called “high functioning” autism are very much linked to the challenges facing the average 21st century employee. First, the typical worker is not only expected to meet the concrete expectations of his/her job, but is held responsible for a whole host of unwritten, unspoken rules that are sometimes too subtle to take immediate note of (a specific type of body language at a meeting, for instance).

Many employees say that they would gladly and ably comply with these expectations if they were made clear in advance. Most employers, however, feel that they shouldn’t have to do this…people should just know.

Secondly, it sometimes seems that employers pay too little attention to what their employees do right. I can understand where the employers are coming from on this: “We are all adults here. This is your job. You shouldn’t need a pat on the back whenever you do something right.”

But the reverse is not true. The minute you are doing something wrong, the warnings and reprimands come. Understandably, morale tends to suffer from this approach.

Finally – and this is not universal, though it is common enough – there is the lightning-quick pace of a modern workplace that strives for efficiency and constant progress. An appreciable quantity of output is expected, all of which requires great care and attention to detail…and it all has to get done posthaste. Whatever it is, if it wasn’t done yesterday, it wasn’t done quickly enough.

Please don’t misunderstand me – this is not an indictment of employers. They are caught in the unfortunate realities of the modern workplace just like everyone else. But I believe that we, as a society, have to take these issues into consideration for the sake of everyone involved, employers included.

For a lot of people with autism spectrum disorders (ASDs), many of the contemporary workforce’s expectations are patently unrealistic. Through no fault of their own, people on the autism spectrum can take longer to mentally process information…whether conveyed via written communication, verbally, or otherwise. A so-called “Aspie” can be very good at attention to details, but other things – especially pertaining to unwritten or unspoken expectations – may get filtered out. Likewise, for the Aspie who thrives on a more relaxed pace, the demand for faster output can cause stress and, potentially, burn-out.

All things considered, the person with an ASD is more likely than most to face workplace pressure and a lower sense of self-worth, working hard and doing his or her best while coming to feel as though s/he is doing little or nothing right.

Having said all this, I’d like to offer a few suggestions to employers who currently, or may in the future, work with ASD employees:

 

  1. Be open to unlooked-for niches. People with ASDs are very capable and valuable employees (many famously intelligent and successful people were said to have been on the spectrum). But they may require some flexibility – the kind that allows their employers to say, for example: “Herb has a hard time with X, but he does very well with Y. Perhaps he should be given responsibilities more consistent with Y.” With ASD diagnoses on the rise, there are more of these people coming into the workforce. And that little extra patience and investment on your part will not only enable such people to be successful (it has proven invaluable to me in my own professional experience), but may in the long run produce remarkable returns you never expected.
  2. Try to be as specific as possible with assignment expectations, deadlines, and what you and the organization need from your ASD employees. Don’t just assume that they will intuit these things from the way your particular workplace…well, works, because that might not come as naturally to them.
  3. Remember that you are working with people, not machines. People are diverse, not uniform; they cannot all fit into a planned “scheme” of operation.

For employers and for job-seekers on the spectrum, I would also recommend getting a hold of Stephen Shore’s book “Beyond the Wall: Personal Experiences with Autism and Asperger Syndrome.” In chapter 12, Shore includes a sample letter identifying certain supports that can help facilitate a productive professional relationship between an employer and his/her ASD employee.

Not every person with an ASD is the same, and different people will both face and present different challenges. But these are some general guidelines that I hope will be useful, even if only to kick-start a much needed discussion.

 

Daniel Crofts is a 29-year-old man with Asperger Syndrome. He has an MA in English/Literature from the State University of New York College at Brockport and experience in the fields of freelance journalism, substance abuse prevention, online higher education, and service to people with developmental disabilities. He may be contacted at danielcrofts31@yahoo.com.

Have a Comment?