Relationships with colleagues and bosses are often the biggest area of struggle for those on the autism spectrum. We live in a society where success is not based on merit, skill or dedication, but on sociability. Usually social and behavioral issues, rather than lack of technical skills, derail careers. Most employers explain that social skills are vital for good work performance.
Most spectrum individuals work well independently, but if they need to work with people they may have problems getting along. They may never be Mr. Mixer or Miss Popularity, but they need to acquire basic social skills. Instead, many attempt to compensate for their social ineptness with intellectual ability, because learning to interact with others takes great effort and doesn’t come naturally.
As one climbs up the career ladder, social rules become ever more elusive. Those who are unaware of these subtleties won’t be promoted, no matter how good their work is, because they’re regarded as flawed, too weird, not one of the club. Even though they may be very qualified and perform exceptionally well, coworkers may not tolerate their idiosyncrasies and antisocial behavior. Despite excellent skills and experience, those on the autism spectrum often find themselves passed over in favor of a competitor with better social awareness who got “in” with the managers.
Even if the person is able to have good relationships with coworkers, he/she often doesn’t develop the same social networks. Although they try hard to be kind, generous, and interesting, it’s never enough, because they miss most of the social cues.
We must educate the neurologically typical (NT) majority in the workplace about autistic quirks and needs. Eye contact is one example. In the USA, many people intuitively distrust someone who can’t look at them directly. Lack of eye contact is perceived as boredom, inattentiveness, or rudeness, and can cause offense, aggression, and the appearance of dishonesty. But for many spectrum individuals, failure to maintain constant eye contact is not deliberate; it’s essential. They simply cannot listen, look, and concentrate all at the same time; so they need to look away.
The Aspie’s tendency towards black and white thinking also needs to be explained. They tend to take things at face value and may see others in black and white terms. Concrete, rigid thinking makes it hard to imagine what others think or feel, see another’s viewpoint, or respond to colleagues’ thoughts and feelings; this can alienate coworkers.
The inability to identify and follow social protocol is a third issue which can seem narcissistic or self-involved to neuro-typical colleagues. Spectrumites tend to be frank and want to get down to business. They’re unaware of standard customs and the social script. Office politics, social subtleties, and the use of sarcasm are often confusing to them. This can be interpreted as social insensitivity by neuro-typical coworkers, who perceive the spectrumite’s honesty as rudeness.
Many on the autism spectrum have difficulty looking at people’s faces or understanding humor and figurative speech. They may need to work alone and be self-isolated during break times, or may engage in self-stimulatory behavior, such as hand flapping or rocking, to cope with environmental anxiety. These differences may lead not only to misinterpretation of their intentions and abilities, but also to many forms of abuse and workplace bullying.
NTs often withhold their feelings and opinions, preferring small talk. While NTs may consider this polite and considerate, the spectrumite often sees it as manipulative, as talking about others behind their back. If an Aspie has something to say, he will often do so without considering the person’s feelings, but giving him/her an opportunity for counter argument. The NT, however, regards this as blunt, disrespectful, or arrogant. This is why those on the spectrum may see NTs as behaving illogically. They don’t say what they mean, and aren’t attuned to details. In turn, NTs view spectrum folk as odd and not fitting into the corporate organization.
These issues create problems with interpersonal boundaries. Setting boundaries is a matter of not allowing people to enter your space, and conversely, not entering others’ space. It requires continual awareness of what is appropriate for you and what you want, as well as understanding others’ expectations, and respect for their wishes.
Spectrumites often lack social intuition. They’re unable to perceive and understand nonverbal cues. Combined with their literal mindset, this means that they may not understand their boss’ or colleague’s expectations and desires. If they’re around people for any length of time, they will slip up and cross an invisible (to them) boundary, causing offense. They’ll probably never know what it was they did or said that turned the other person off. While friends may in time come to understand this behavior isn’t intentional, and will accept this person, this rarely happens at work.
Spectrum individuals can build skills to use at work and interact with colleagues, though it’s often exhausting. Honesty, integrity, kindness, high professional standards and strong value of competence are characteristics of folks that spectrumites manage best with. But, in our dog-eat-dog world, these qualities are rare.
While relationships with NTs will probably continue to be exhausting and frustrating for the average individual on the spectrum, it’s important not to give up, as you can improve with practice. Here are some tips:
- Smile, and try to maintain a positive outlook. People are attracted to those who exude happiness, who seem relaxed rather than uptight, and who have a sense of self.
- Before going out to places where you’ll have to interact with others, take a few minutes to visualize yourself being in their company. List what makes you a good friend. Imagine a beautiful bubble in the room and everyone in it, including you, happy and relaxed. Picture the others there as happy and open to you.
- Some people simply won’t like you. That’s OK. But sometimes, you’ll meet someone who wants to talk with you. Be pleasant, but try not to overwhelm him or her. Let the other person guide the conversation. Focus on the other person, not yourself.
- Try to be nice to people whether you like them or not.
- Ask family and friends to point out inappropriate social conduct and discuss ways to effect change.
- At professional conferences, avoid milling around before meetings. Visit new venues early to become familiar with the setup.
- Scripting and rehearsal of social situations can help. Memorize a script to use when introducing yourself, but remember to adapt it to each situation.
- Try to notice what is going on with others. What are they working on? Pick up on a comment they made. Follow up with brief, positive comments about them and their experiences. If they answer and walk away, keep a smile on your face. Save face for others who may be watching.
- To cultivate friendships at work, begin by smiling and saying Hello.
- Look for clues (like pictures) on the person’s desk or cube that indicate their interests, and ask questions about them – but be careful not to invade their space by handling objects.
- Talk about work issues that you share, like, “do you have any of those green forms?” Bring in some cookies or flowers for everyone to share.
- Try to avoid environments that make you anxious, and remind yourself that every situation is new.
- Be aware of the personal space of others and learn not to invade it.
Because of the neurological nature of these disorders, the degree and type of impairment varies greatly. Although some people on the spectrum are limited in their adaptability or their ability to interact with people, other spectrumites possess unique qualities and skills that are valued in the workplace, are professional and functional, and succeed in their chosen careers.
Yvona Fast, MLS is the author of Employment for Individuals with Asperger Syndrome or Non-verbal Learning Disability: Stories and Strategies, (JKP, 2004) a career guide for individuals with Asperger Syndrome or Non-Verbal Learning disability. The Polish language edition of this book came out in March 2008. Her work in learning disabilities and neurological impairments is based on her experiences and on interviews with individuals who live with these disabilities. She has authored two more books: My Nine Lives (2011) is a memoir she co-authored with her mother and Garden Gourmet: Fresh & Fabulous Meals From Your Garden, CSA or Farmers’ Market (2013) is a seasonal cookbook. For more information, please visit www.wordsaremyworld.com.