Most individuals with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) have vocational strengths and are increasingly being hired by small businesses and corporate chains. ASD, by definition, is characterized by communication deficits. Once hired, these deficits present as challenges for individuals with ASD. Specifically, their expressive, receptive, and pragmatic language deficits can be barriers to effective job performance. Employers who are made aware of these language deficits can provide accommodations and staff trainings that make employment adjustments easier for individuals with ASD.
Expressive language disorder impacts job performance. It is a communication disorder that affects the output of language and its indicators vary from person to person. Some individuals with ASD can have large vocabularies and adequate verbal skills (but struggle with using language in meaningful ways), while others have impaired verbal skills. A person with ASD processes language in a different way than a person who is neurotypical. This affects the way that they produce spoken and written language. Their brains function in atypical ways. The challenges and breakdowns arise in forming and expressing ideas, connecting words to their represented thoughts, and in processing language. Employees with ASD often demonstrate difficulties with word order, forming simple and complex utterances, word endings, using plurals, verb tense, and other grammatical aspects when they are engaged in a conversation or when they compose an email or other written documents. Semantics is also a barrier in spoken and written communication. Individuals with ASD are observed to have word finding and word meaning difficulties. They can be described as “talking in circles” and being unable to put words together to come to a point. People with ASD may not have the right words or enough words in their repertoire to ask and answer questions. They may use vague and non-specific words such as “thing” or “that” thereby making their intended meaning unclear to their employers, coworkers, and customers. This disconnection between words and ideas leads to communication breakdowns. It then makes individuals with ASD feel frustrated because they may know the thought, idea, or feeling that they want to communicate, but they find it hard to express it. Some employees with ASD are nonverbal and communicate by using American Sign Language (ASL). They have barriers in communicating because employers, coworkers, and customers may not know ASL thereby creating a communication breakdown.
Employees with ASD present with challenges in understanding spoken and written language. Difficulty understanding language is a receptive language disorder and it impacts job performance. Comprehension of spoken and written language is fundamental in the workplace. Understanding language is a complex undertaking. It requires individuals to attend, process language, and know word meanings. It is important that employers and coworkers do not misread employees with ASD. They may appear to not be listening and to be uninterested in what is being said during meetings and throughout the work day. Employers and coworkers should look beyond what they observe and realize that employees with ASD present with impairments in attending, processing language, and knowing word meanings. This makes it difficult to keep up with the demands of spoken and written language. The ability to effectively follow directions is essential in the workplace. It requires working memory and processing skills. When employees with ASD are given verbal and written directions to complete a task, they have to store the task requirements into short term memory, process the task sequence, and then interpret and execute the task requirements. Employees with ASD are observed to struggle with following directions. In the workplace, it should be recognized that when employees with ASD do not respond to directives, it is not that they are displaying insubordination. Instead, it should be realized that the employee with ASD is having a communication breakdown in processing the directive. They may have been focusing on the first step of the directive and may not have been attending to the subsequent steps. They may have short-term memory impairment that prevented them from storing the task requirements. Perhaps, the employee with ASD could not adequately process the directive and this impeded them from executing the commands. Challenges with semantics may have played a role. The employee with ASD may have a weak understanding of word meanings and this inhibited them from carrying out the directive.
Pragmatic impairment is a hallmark of ASD. Individuals with ASD present with nonverbal and verbal language challenges. These communication deficits vary from person to person and impact how employees with ASD function socially. Some nonverbal language challenges are inappropriate eye contact during conversations, inadequate interpretation of social cues, and poor adherence to the social rules of proximity. Establishing and maintaining eye contact can be challenging for individuals with ASD.
In the workplace, employees with ASD may not look at their conversational partner while speaking. It is important that employers and coworkers do not misinterpret limited eye contact as shyness, lack of interest, or untrustworthiness. Instead, they should understand that workers with ASD often find it uncomfortable to establish and maintain eye contact while conversing. Employees with ASD often lack the ability to interpret social cues because they often lack social problem solving and perspective taking skills. They do not adequately read nonverbal signals to gauge their listeners’ interest in their conversation. Individuals with ASD often do not understand and respect personal boundaries. They are often observed to not adjust their proximity to their conversational partners. In the workplace, they may violate a person’s personal space by standing too close when they speak.
Employees with ASD are often not flexible with routine changes. They function best with established routines. Examples include having a fixed shift, number of hours of work, break/lunch time, meeting time and location, procedures to complete task, work area, location of supplies, and location of supervisor. Having a set routine makes them better employees and reduces their anxiety. Individuals with ASD often use verbal language in atypical ways. They often have challenges in initiating, maintaining, and terminating a conversation. Some employees with ASD will not be the first to start a conversation or greet their managers and coworkers. Poor topic maintenance and limited social reciprocity make maintaining a conversation problematic. The conversations do not flow effectively. Workers with ASD may abruptly switch topics without signaling that the topic has changed, their utterances can be tangential and irrelevant to the topic, and they may not carryout adequate listener-speaker roles (i.e. talk while someone else is talking). Their responses to “WH” questions (who, what where, etc.) can be non-contingent to the question. An employee with ASD may engage in a conversation and then suddenly and inappropriately terminate the conversation.
During the work day, individuals with ASD may discuss topics that are not appropriate for the workplace, and can be blunt and too honest during a conversation. Their challenge lies in inflexible social adjustment. They demonstrate difficulty with adjusting their conversation to match the conversational partner and the context. Perseveration and echolalia are apparent in some employees with ASD. They are often observed to perseverative on topics they are passionate about. They may talk continuously about trains, baseball, dinosaurs, say hello numerous times a day, and repeatedly ask the same questions. This can be disruptive in the workplace. Employers, coworkers and customers may not be interested in the topic or may have heard the same information several times before, and may also find it bothersome to repeatedly give the same answer to the same question. It is important for employers and coworkers to know that workers with ASD perseverate on topics because doing so reduces anxiety and it is their method of being social; it is their way of contributing to a conversation.
Another verbal repetitive behavior is echolalia. This is when individuals with ASD continuously repeat song lyrics, lines from a movie, or phrases that they heard recently or some time ago. This is also an anxiety reducing method and a social contribution. Individuals with ASD often do not understand humor and respond to figurative language in literal ways. If someone tells a joke, the employee with ASD may not see the humor, nor have an appreciation for the humor. They often cannot interpret humor and figurative language because some of them are concrete thinkers and have literal interpretations for abstract language.
Employees with ASD are valuable additions to the workforce. As an increasing number of them are being hired, it is imperative that employers provide accommodations for workers with ASD and continuous staff development on ASD. Some strategies and accommodations that can reduce communication barriers and support employees with ASD include:
- Use simple spoken and written language to facilitate word meaning deficits.
- Repeat directions (gives ample chances to store, process, and interpret information).
- Reduce directives into smaller steps.
- Provide increased response time to facilitate word finding challenges and to process spoken and written language.
- Use visual and auditory prompts to indicate routine changes.
- Give several advance notices about schedule and routine changes
- Hold frequent staff trainings about ASD and how to tailor the work day to meet the needs of employees with ASD.
- Implement ASL training.
- Hire/consult with a Speech-Language Pathologist to treat workplace communication barriers.
Tamara Sterling, M.S. CCC-SLP TSSLD is a Speech-Language Pathologist in New York. She has eight years of experience working with children and adults with articulation, stuttering, language, and autism spectrum disorders. She is an ASHA Mentor and a recent recipient of ASHA’s ACE award. She is a Field Examiner for various test publishers. For more information, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.