There is increasing evidence, albeit anecdotal, that autism is now on the radar screens of employers. Last year, SAP, the giant software company, pledged that in the next few years 1% of its workforce will be individuals on the autism spectrum. The announcement generated widespread publicity. SAP’s message was a positive one: utilizing the specialized abilities of autistic individuals.
Also fueling awareness is that so many people today know of someone who is on the autism spectrum. As a human resources director recently told me, “Five years ago, if you mentioned Asperger’s Syndrome, I wouldn’t know what you were talking about. Now, I can name several people who have it.”
Despite this, employers are often unsure of how to manage these employees, particularly the highly capable individuals who are in mid-manager or professional jobs. They are too high-functioning to need the services of an on-site job coach/trainer, yet they often face significant challenges in the workplace. There may be a pattern of repeated job losses, or chronic exhaustion from the stress of making it through another work day.
The protections provided by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) are vital for those on the autism spectrum. The ADA prohibits employers from discriminating against individuals with disabilities. It requires companies to make reasonable accommodations – modifications that enable a person to participate in the interviewing process, or to perform his job.
As I have seen repeatedly in my practice, workplace accommodations can mean the difference between a person keeping or losing a job. This is especially true for people with Asperger’s Syndrome. For many who are college-educated and in salaried positions, autism is a hidden disability. The characteristic difficulties with interpersonal communication appear to be attitude problems, and are treated accordingly. Minor misunderstandings can quickly escalate into disciplinary actions or firings. Even those who manage to avoid sticky social situations may be ostracized or bullied for being different. The workplace is unforgiving of those who are judged as not being team players.
Sometimes, the most important accommodation to result from a disclosure of Asperger’s Syndrome is understanding. It allows managers to reconcile how an employee who is obviously smart and skilled can have so much difficulty interacting with other people.
Now that Asperger’s Syndrome is no longer in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), some individuals wonder whether this understanding is in jeopardy. Most members of the general public – including supervisors and human resources managers – know very little about the autism spectrum. Myths and stereotypes remain. Asperger’s Syndrome tends to be associated with eccentric geniuses who work in high technology or engineering. Autism is associated with Dustin Hoffman’s character in the movie Rain Man.
Many organizations require that an employee who discloses a disability provide proof of a medical diagnosis. Dave is typical of individuals I work with who are in middle-management or professional jobs. “I’m afraid that if I told my employer that I have autism, it would ruin my career,” he said. “I don’t know what I’ll do if I need an accommodation.”
This is an excellent example of why the term Asperger’s Syndrome should not go away. It clearly differentiates these individuals from those who are on the Kanner’s end of the continuum. The autism spectrum as defined in the DSM-5 is so broad as to be impractical, particularly when defining necessary workplace supports and accommodations.
It is also critical that employers be educated about Asperger’s Syndrome. Understanding brings patience and acceptance. This does not mean that employers should tolerate inappropriate or offensive conduct. Addressing performance problems often requires workplace accommodations and behavioral changes by the employee.
Mark’s supervisor explicitly explained his priorities, helped him develop check lists for tasks, and moved him to a cubicle in a quiet location. However, Mark persisted in disrupting others. He would repeatedly ask a question he knew the answer to (“To double check myself,” he explained). If he needed to speak with a co-worker who was in a meeting, he would hover outside the conference room. Colleagues would receive four and five emails per hour inquiring when they would hand over assignments. His boss said that if these behaviors didn’t stop, immediately and permanently, he would be fired.
Mark told his supervisor that he was working with an Asperger’s specialist on his interpersonal skills. Impressed by his commitment, she agreed to speak with me. Once she understood that his actions were not due to rudeness or the willful disregard of her instructions, she was willing to give him another chance. We identified the specific behaviors that Mark needed to change. I reassured her that she would not hurt Mark’s feelings by confronting problem behaviors directly. She learned to be more specific and concrete when giving him feedback. Rather than saying, “Everyone can hear you,” she would say, “You need to lower your voice.”
In the coaching sessions, Mark learned to pay closer attention to the nonverbal signals co-workers gave when they did not want to be interrupted. He found ways to better manage his anxiety, and stopped repeating questions and sending multiple emails about the same topic. We established rules and procedures for handling legitimate questions, behavior in staff meetings, and thinking through options instead of impulsively reacting to problems. Mark was amazed that he could control how other people perceived him by changing the way he acted.
Over the next few months, Mark’s skills and his relationships with co-workers steadily improved. His supervisor acknowledged the change. A year later, he was given a promotion.
Employers who have a grasp of Aspergian strengths and challenges are in a better position to match jobs to the abilities of an employee. It is not always easy for Aspergians to determine the suitability of a position that they have not held previously.
Karen discovered this after being promoted from assistant archivist to manager. She had been employed at the company for over three years, and disclosed her Asperger’s Syndrome a few months after she started.
In the new role, Karen was involved in creating a complex database for archiving data. Just three months after the promotion, Karen was placed on probation. Her supervisor complained that she made too many errors, and that critical tasks were not completed on time.
The manager’s job required that Karen attended several staff meetings per week. Being around others made her anxious. She had trouble simultaneously listening and writing, and did not take notes at meetings. She forgot what she heard, and left meetings unsure of what she was expected to do. Karen was embarrassed to learn, from her boss, that a particular spreadsheet was a critical component of the archiving project. “I don’t know what needs to be done, or why it’s important,” she said.
Karen had been promoted into an executive function nightmare. Still, she believed that with modifications she could meet performance expectations. She presented the following accommodation requests to her supervisor and a human resources representative:
- Twice weekly meetings with her supervisor to discuss priorities, the best way to handle tasks, and how to be more efficient
- Explanations of the big picture to clarify why she was performing certain tasks
- Assignments given in writing (not verbally)
- Ability to review meeting notes taken by a colleague
- Instruction from a co-worker on how to organize files and her work space
In addition, Karen agreed to create a monthly project schedule, a weekly to-do list, and check lists for multi-step tasks and review these with her supervisor.
After three weeks, Karen’s supervisor decided that Karen could not manage the core responsibilities of the job. “At the manager level,” she explained, “you need to handle most of these tasks independently.” Karen was demoted to her previous position of assistant archivist.
Karen succeeded in the assistant job because it was structured, and there was little pressure. Intriguingly, one of the few things she didn’t like about it was a scheduled lunch break. She mentioned several times that what she really liked about being a manager was going to lunch when she wanted.
Had her employer understood more about why the manager’s role could be quite challenging, Karen could have been evaluated differently. Had she been able to shadow the former manager (who himself was promoted), and received more explicit examples of what the responsibilities were, she might have realized that it was not a good fit. Or, if she accepted the job, she could have requested accommodations from the start.
A valuable resource for professionals and employers is the Job Accommodation Network (JAN; http://askjan.org), a service of the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy. Its website offers a wealth of information about the Americans with Disabilities Act, including guides with accommodation ideas for various disabilities.
Barbara Bissonnette is the Principal of Forward Motion Coaching (www.ForwardMotion.info). To request a free copy of The Employer’s Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome, send an email to Barbara@ForwardMotion.info. Barbara specializes in career development coaching for individuals with Asperger’s Syndrome and provides training to organizations. She is the author of the award-winning Complete Guide to Getting a Job for People with Asperger’s Syndrome and the Asperger’s Syndrome Workplace Survival Guide: A Neurotypical’s Secrets for Success.