People living with Asperger’s and autism can have successful careers. But in order to succeed in the workplace they may need some extra support. Just 16% of those diagnosed are in full time work. In this article we are going to look at what support you can provide when managing staff with Asperger’s and autism and why it makes sense to do so.
You are going to learn some valuable skills and practical tips that will help you as a manager. But first let’s get to grips with what both conditions are and how to spot some of the signs and symptoms you might see in the workplace.
What are Asperger’s and Autism?
Firstly, Asperger’s and autism are not mental illnesses. They are developmental conditions that affect communication and social behaviour. The conditions are related and fall at different points on what is called the autism spectrum. Autism is more severe than Asperger’s.
According to the National Autistic Society in the UK and the Autism Society in the US, about 1% of the world’s population has autistic spectrum disorder (ASD). A diagnosis is three times as common for men than women.
The main features of ASD are:
- Difficulties with social interaction and social communication (especially nonverbal)
- Restricted or repetitive patterns of behaviour and interest
The cause of ASD is not fully understood, although both genetic and environmental factors are likely to be involved. Symptoms usually develop in early childhood and a diagnosis is often made at school age.
There is no cure. Treatment usually involves helping the individual to learn more effective ways of communicating and coping with their condition.
How would you recognise a person with ASD?
People with ASD can have difficulty interpreting verbal and nonverbal communication signals. As a result, their social interactions can differ from expected norms. So you may mistake their behaviour for them being awkward, odd, shy or even rude.
For example, a person with Asperger’s may engage in a long speech about a favourite topic while struggling to recognise a listener’s feelings or reactions. The listener may indicate that they wish to change the topic or end the conversation. However, the person with Asperger’s misses these signals. So they assume the listener understands and is interested in the topic despite what others would recognise as obvious nonverbal signs of a lack of interest.
People with ASD may avoid eye contact or only talk to people that they know and like. They may have difficulty understanding jokes, irony or non-literal language like metaphors. Again, you might mistake this for them being shy, aloof, blunt or uninterested. They are not. They just don’t recognise all the subtleties of social communication.
Because of these communication issues you may find that people with ASD have fewer relationships. They can find themselves ostracised by other employees or made fun of in the workplace.
The social challenges faced by people with ASD are often at odds with their cognitive abilities. Their intelligence can be above average or even superior.
The character Raymond Babbitt, played by Dustin Hoffman in Barry Levinson’s 1988 film Rain Man, popularised the idea of the autistic savant. A savant is someone with autism who has an exceptional skill in a narrow area. This might be memory recall, calculation, music or art.
Due to the popularity of Rain Man the autistic savant has become something of a stereotype. In fact this form of autism is rare. Fewer than 10% of people with autism will have savant qualities.
People with ASD are likely to think literally and logically. As a result they may enjoy routine and repetitive tasks that others do not. Certain jobs may suit them more than others. They can often excel in fields such as maths, science or computing. Typically these occupations do not require as much understanding of the subtleties of people’s feelings or body language as others.
Autism – more severe than Asperger’s
Autism is a more serious developmental condition than Asperger’s. In the case of autism, there may be a delay in language development in childhood. This leads to more severe communication problems than with Asperger’s. Speech may be repetitive, rigid or even nonexistent. This will be combined with a lack of recognition of the feelings and interests of others.
As well as differences in language and social interaction, those with autism may show restricted and repetitive patterns of behaviours and interests. They may line up objects or arrange them in patterns. They may fiddle obsessively with objects or insist that aspects of a daily routine remain exactly the same. Such behaviours can also be features of other conditions, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder. It’s important therefore that you do not make assumptions about someone’s condition or try to diagnose them yourself.
Your job is not to make a diagnosis
As with any disorder, mental or physical, your job as a manager is not to make a diagnosis. If you suspect an employee has Asperger’s or autism do not use these terms yourself unless the employee has referred to themselves in this way.
Refrain from using any labels they may find offensive and be careful with your language in general. It is best to view autism as a difference rather than a disorder. Many people with autism see their condition as a part of their identity. They will prefer to look for positives rather than negatives. They may choose to refer to themselves as neurodiverse in contrast to the non-autistic population who are neurotypical.
You should avoid negatives whenever possible too. When talking about Asperger’s and autism try to not to say ‘suffering from’ but instead say ‘living with’. Keep your language neutral and think of the effect your words may have.
If you suspect someone in your team has autism or Asperger’s and you need to broach the subject, do so sensitively. Explain what you have observed in a non-judgmental manner. Perhaps you have witnessed them being withdrawn, having difficulties in their relationships with other staff members, or them insisting on routine or repetitive behaviours. Ask them whether they have been affected and how you might be able to help.
If you believe they need further assistance, gently suggest they might like to see occupational health or their GP. They may then be referred on to a psychologist or psychiatrist.
Managing staff with Asperger’s and autism
So far we have discussed the nature of Asperger’s syndrome and autism, the signs and symptoms, and how to broach the subject. Now we’ll focus on what you can do practically when managing staff with Asperger’s and autism.
If a member of your staff has been diagnosed with ASD you should try to learn more about the condition. This article is a great place to start.
Learning about the condition will provide useful information. But remember everyone’s experience of autism and Asperger’s will be different. So taking time to understand a person’s unique experience of the condition is the only way to gain true empathy for them. As a manager you will need to make time to listen. Only then can you begin to understand how your employee is affected. After listening you can discuss workplace adjustments and offer suggestions for support.
There are 3 main areas in which you can provide support when managing staff with autism and Asperger’s.
1. Be understanding and remain positive
Most important you should realise that an employee with ASD is not being intentionally awkward or rude. They may seem insensitive or awkward to others, but they cannot help it, and should not be judged. If you have permission from the person with Asperger’s or autism, you can have a quiet word with other employees and let them know that the individual requires their support and understanding. Do not disclose anything that would be a breach of confidentiality.
Once people know that the person with ASD can’t help their behaviour they should react to them more sensitively. They will learn not to expect the same social skills they expect from others and should not make jokes or critical comments.
Remember, employees with ASD can be extremely valuable and reliable workers. They just need the right understanding and support. Some of the most brilliant minds in history may have had Asperger’s – Darwin, Einstein, Newton – so it should be no barrier to success.
2. Adjust your communication style and consider communications technology
You and your staff should adjust the manner of your communications to a person with ASD. Make sure you are very clear and literal in your speech, avoiding jokes, irony, euphemisms, exaggerations and other non-literal speech. This way they will understand what you mean, and what you want from them.
Give them clear guidelines, targets and deadlines. Don’t assume they will understand the context of a topic and fill in the gaps in what you tell them. Remember that they will take what you say literally, so for example if you say ‘we’re going to have to work day and night to get this done’, they may actually believe they need to work all night.
Avoid putting too much emotion into your speech and body language, as they are unlikely to understand it. Be calm and matter of fact. This does not mean be robotic – remain friendly and polite. Show interest in their wellbeing and success, as they certainly care about these things themselves. If they enter into a long-winded monologue, cut them politely short if necessary but without criticism. Be friendly and matter-of-fact.
In some cases you can best manage people with ASD through emails or other communications technology, such as mobile apps. These kinds of technology remove the social cues that people with Asperger’s and autism have difficulty with. Fujitsu has published an article on the development of workplace technology that can support people with autism.
3. Consider the impact of work roles and the workplace environment
Make sure the role and responsibilities of a job suit the abilities and needs of the person with ASD. If they find social interactions difficult then they may be better suited to working individually. This of course depends on the nature of the job or the understanding of team. They are not likely to perform well in customer interactions unless these are brief, matter of fact and literal.
On the other hand, certain types of task or role may be well suited to a person with ASD. They can focus on activities with a clear logical structure, for example involving numbers or keeping things in order. You should give them clear step-by-step guidance and feedback on how well they are doing.
In addition people with autism often have sensory issues and may have difficulty focusing in environments with bright lights, frequent talking, music, and other distractions. These employees will do their best work in a private office or a remote workspace, where they can concentrate.
Although a person with ASD struggles to understand emotions, they can certainly become stressed or upset themselves. This may result from conflict or miscommunication with others, or failure to understand and carry out a task properly.
Once again remember that the problem is not their fault and that they need extra support. They may find it difficult to explain the cause of their distress, so you may need to think laterally.
For example, the stress may not be caused by a difficulty in the job but by a colleague not being explicit in their instructions, by things not working efficiently (such as a computer crashing), or a change in routine. Trying to think around the immediate issue may help, as well as supportively asking the employee specific (though not invasive) questions to try to get to the root of the problem.
If you’d like to learn more a good resource is the National Autistic Society in the UK. Their website has specific advice on how to manage staff with Asperger’s and autism. They also offer a half-day course: Understanding Autism for Managers.
You can read about the opportunities autism in the workplace presents in this Guardian article.
Best of luck managing staff with Asperger’s and autism from Ian, Tony and David at the Delphis team!