What’s in a Word: Asperger’s and Employers8 min read

This series is focused on the many oppo­nents of Asperger’s: the word, the diag­nosis, and the people who have it.

This article focuses on Asperger’s and employers. Other arti­cles in this series: Asperger’s and the APA Asperger’s and Employers, a case study

Asperger’s and Employers

One of the main bar­riers to suc­cess for people with Asperger’s, espe­cially if they are undi­ag­nosed or mis­di­ag­nosed, is that they expe­ri­ence dif­fi­cul­ties with being believed and under­stood by their employers. Even the autistic person may have trouble under­standing the com­mu­ni­ca­tion dif­fer­ences present between them and their co-workers. Often, someone with Asperger’s (a form of autism) begins a new job or accepts a pro­mo­tion with opti­mism, enthu­siasm, and energy. They main­tain an eager momentum until sen­sory issues inter­fere, roles and respon­si­bil­i­ties change, or con­flicts happen within the inter­per­sonal and social dynamics of the work­place. When the employer has expe­ri­enced the autistic person as a charis­matic, graceful, effi­cient employee, he or she has dif­fi­culty accepting that the needs of the autistic person are legit­i­mate.

Sensory Issues

Sensory over­load is unpre­dictable. There are times when an autistic person is able to tol­erate more, so employers can be per­plexed by com­plaints about the envi­ron­ment if they weren’t ini­tially a problem. The flo­res­cent lights, the three wall clocks all slightly off-sync nobody else can hear, and the beeping of phones and fax machines sud­denly becoming a problem is usu­ally inter­preted by lead­er­ship as an avoid­ance mea­sure or willful oppo­si­tion.

But a thou­sand fac­tors can cause an autistic person to become over­whelmed. Imagine the neu­rotyp­ical brain as a looping series of 2‑lane roads that are well-connected. Traffic easily flows, exit ramps are open, and cars (infor­ma­tion and sen­sory input) reach their des­ti­na­tion quickly.

Now, imagine that the autistic brain is a 14-lane highway with the hip­pocampus acting like a single check­point to direct all traffic down one-lane roads to its des­ti­na­tion. In ideal cir­cum­stances, all 14 lanes are open, and traffic moves through without issue; how­ever, an acci­dent, bad weather, or a hol­iday rush can cause all 14 lanes to become backed up. In this analogy, ill­ness, stress, fatigue, and other neg­a­tive stimuli can cause a “traffic jam.”

This is what sen­sory, social, and infor­ma­tion over­load is like for an autistic person, who needs quiet down­time to direct all of that traffic to the right loca­tions and clear the mind. This kind of over­whelm can cause someone to become con­fused, foggy, awk­ward, dis­tressed, pan­icked, and even non-verbal.

There is no amount of resilience or per­sonal industry that makes “func­tion” in that state of over­whelm pos­sible. The inten­sity of these sen­sory sig­nals can impact a person as severely as acute pain. For me, I think of this feeling as being sim­ilar to standing in boiling water while being cov­ered in spi­ders and cock­roaches. It can be impos­sible to main­tain com­po­sure and focus during these times.

Change in the Workplace

The reason that autistic people thrive in rou­tines is that the brain isn’t as taxed when it doesn’t have to process new infor­ma­tion. Neurotypical brains are less con­nected from the sen­sory input to the cor­re­sponding cor­tices (Eg. from the eyes to the visual cortex or the ears to the audi­tory cortex); how­ever, neu­rotyp­ical brains are much more inter­con­nected (like in the highway example above).

A neu­rotyp­ical person looks at a tree and sees a single object. An autistic person looks at a tree and sees thou­sand of indi­vidual leaves, pat­terns, scars, and cut limbs. This kind of intense information-recording is over­whelming. For this reason, changes in policy, pro­ce­dure, or envi­ron­ment can be dif­fi­cult for an autistic person who may need more time, in keeping with the analogy, to clear their traffic jam and adjust.

Employers are often baf­fled when someone who seems so intel­li­gent can have dif­fi­cul­ties with what neu­rotyp­ical people can easily adjust to and learn. Autistic people have dif­ferent strengths, and they might be the best in the com­pany (or the country) at one or two spe­cific tasks; how­ever, their minds can have dif­fi­culty learning new motor move­ments or adding extra steps in com­plexity. Until it becomes rou­tine, it can cause dis­tress.

A person with autism, no matter how intel­li­gent or “func­tioning” he or she appears, has strug­gles that a neu­rotyp­ical person can’t empathize with or under­stand. Objection to minor changes is often inter­preted as insub­or­di­na­tion or will­ful­ness because employers don’t under­stand how dif­fi­cult it can be to change gears for an autistic person.

Social Dynamics in the Workplace

Socializing, for a neu­rotyp­ical person, is fluid and easy. The most preva­lent theory of com­mu­ni­ca­tion, Dr. Mehrabian’s 55−38−7 Theory (2017), posits that 55% of com­mu­ni­ca­tion is through body lan­guage, 38% is through inflec­tion and tone, and 7% is through spoken words. This for­mula, though, is only applic­able for the neu­rotyp­ical person.

For an autistic, the reality is that more like 93% of com­mu­ni­ca­tion is in the spoken word (though that figure will vary from person to person). This dynamic becomes even more com­pli­cated with another one of Dr. Mehrabian’s find­ings: when words do not match the tone or body lan­guage, people believe the unspoken com­mu­ni­ca­tion over the words.

These dynamics under­score a tremen­dous amount of inter­per­sonal con­flict for the autistic person, who is often expecting co-workers’ lan­guage to be exactly what the words (and only the words) reflect, with no sub­text or sub­tlety. This lends itself to work­place con­flicts because two dif­ferent lan­guages are being spoken when nei­ther are aware of that fact.

Employer and Supervisor Biases

Autonomy and autism have the same root word for a reason. They are autonomous, inde­pen­dent indi­vid­uals who don’t like asking for assis­tance or being sin­gled out. Especially, they do not want to be seen as weak, and they fear that their employers will not under­stand their neu­ro­log­ical dif­fer­ences.

If the majority of the pop­u­la­tion were autistic, work spaces and pro­ce­dures would be arranged dra­mat­i­cally dif­fer­ently, and the need for accom­mo­da­tions would be for the neu­rotyp­ical who was not suited for the envi­ron­ment or stan­dard pro­ce­dures.

If an autistic person requests accom­mo­da­tions like head­phones, a quiet work­space, or more time on cer­tain assign­ments, it is likely out of des­per­a­tion. The fear of a melt­down in a pro­fes­sional envi­ron­ment is all-consuming and panic-inducing in and of itself.

A Lose-Lose Professional Environment

Being able to take in so much infor­ma­tion at once is a dif­ferent way of being that is dif­fi­cult for the neu­rotyp­ical to fathom. To an autistic, it often seems like a mag­ical super­power when someone is capable of rolling with change, multi-tasking, task-switching, and keeping their cool all the while; con­versely, there is rarely an oppor­tu­nity for an autistic person to work to his or her full poten­tial because most jobs are normed against neu­rotyp­ical poten­tial.

Aspergian strengths and weak­nesses are very dif­ferent from the neu­rotyp­ical pro­file. For example, con­sider Stephen Wiltshire, an autistic artist. He can re-create an entire cityscape from memory after seeing it only once, and he does it to scale. He cap­tures, with exac­ti­tude, how many sto­ries are in each building, how many win­dows and where they are, and details others can’t begin to fathom. It would take more words than are in War and Peace to write the most basic detail of one of those cityscapes in text.

Stephen has pro­found strengths which no neu­rotyp­ical has; how­ever, he also has dis­abil­i­ties. Someone like him would likely under­per­form on a job which required sev­eral seemingly-ordinary respon­si­bil­i­ties.

Advice for Employers and Leadership

Most employers make the mis­take of trying to accom­mo­date autistic employees by sup­porting them to do the same jobs as everyone else. Imagine how much talent and poten­tial is squan­dered by forcing autistic people into roles not suited for them. Despite having extra­or­di­nary poten­tial, up to 85% of people with Asperger’s are unem­ployed (Austin, 2012).

But those who are willing to hire someone with Asperger’s often have roman­ti­cized and dehu­man­izing mis­con­cep­tions about what it means to be on the spec­trum. They expect a savant, or a genius who is odd and quirky and maybe a little too blunt. But, everyone on the spec­trum has a unique set of strengths, tal­ents, and obsta­cles.

Imagine the poten­tial of what could be accom­plished by someone like Stephen Wiltshire who can hold so much infor­ma­tion in his working memory. While most people with Asperger’s can’t do what Stephen does, they often have unique tal­ents and abil­i­ties.

How can an employer best accom­mo­date employees on the spec­trum? Ask them what they can do. They might not know, at the begin­ning of a job, how they can best be an asset to your orga­ni­za­tion or busi­ness; how­ever, it is likely they will quickly begin to get a sense of how their tal­ents are under-utilized once they’ve been working for a few weeks.

Ask them what they can do. They might not know, at the begin­ning of a job, how they can best be an asset to your orga­ni­za­tion or busi­ness; how­ever, it is likely they will quickly begin to get a sense of how their tal­ents are under-utilized once they’ve been working for a few weeks.

Structure a posi­tion around their strengths. Find out in what ways they need sup­port or accom­mo­da­tions, and keep an open line of com­mu­ni­ca­tion. Empowering any mar­gin­al­ized pop­u­la­tion by restruc­turing the way you do busi­ness has the sec­ondary impact of stream­lining oper­a­tions, cre­ating inno­va­tion, improving sat­is­fac­tion, and boosting effi­ciency for all employees.

Letting autistic employees know up front that it’s under­stood that their needs are dif­ferent and that they are an appre­ci­ated and valu­able voice on the team will set the tone for a pro­duc­tive and mutually-beneficial employee-employer rela­tion­ship.

To learn more about Asperger’s in the work­place, click here to read the next install­ment, a case study demon­strating nuanced com­mu­ni­ca­tion dif­fer­ences that can cause major prob­lems in pro­fes­sional envi­ron­ments.

References

Austin, Grace (2012, Nov. 29). Is it time for Asperger’s in the work­place?. Profiles in Diversity Journal. Retrieved from http://www.diversityjournal.com/9929-is-it-time-for-aspergers-in-the-workplace/

Mehrabian, A. (2017). Communication Without Words. In Communication Theory (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Routledge.

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