Aspergers Syndrome in the Workplace

Working with someone who has Aspergers Syndrome.

Aspergers Syndrome in the WorkplaceMany people with Aspergers Syndrome struggle to get into employment, and when we do, we often have a quite tough time of it because we are easily misunderstood.  On average only 12% of people with Aspergers Syndrome manage to hold down a full time job for any meaningful length of time and the reason for that is often due to discomfort in the workplace. Changing jobs requires a lot of adaption for anyone. There is always a settling in period where you will get to know your colleagues, learn about the job and the way things are done in your new workplace. Most people adapt to this new environment fairly quickly, settling in within a few weeks. However when you struggle to read social cues, struggle with change and find new people and new environments (especially busy ones) stressful, it can take a lot longer to adapt.

When stressed it is very easy for someone with Aspergers to come across as rude, insensitive or impolite. Imagine being dragged on stage to audition for Pop Idol without really wanting to, and then being asked to juggle some fruit in your underwear while standing on one leg while singing. If you can picture that, you can picture what it is you are asking someone with Aspergers to do when they are stressed and outside their comfort zone in a new working environment.

First Impressions CountFirst impressions count, in fact they tend to last, especially at work. Unfortunately that puts someone with Aspergers at a huge disadvantage, and it can create issues and situations with colleagues which we are poorly suited to cope with.

A question I am often asked by others with Aspergers is “Should I tell my employer or potential employer?” and in all honesty, there is no easy answer to that question. Many employers will be excellent and will make reasonable adjustments in order to make your working life as tolerable as possible, but in some cases that is far from true. In most western countries there are equality laws of various kinds and employers aren’t legally allowed to discriminate, but equally these same laws are often used as a guide on how to discriminate indirectly.  In my case, yes I probably would tell a potential employer, but that is purely a personal choice.

People with Aspergers can be brilliant; they can often see problems and solutions which nobody else would. We can be incredibly creative and tend to think visually, seeing the world from a completely different perspective and many of the most remarkable breakthroughs are often found through the thought processes of people with Aspergers.  Hans Asperger used to call the children he studied, his “Little Professors” and for good reason. Once interested in a subject or problem, the Aspergian mind can focus an unparalleled level of concentration and commitment to a subject, problem or puzzle.

Giving 100% in the wrong environment isn't easyWe do struggle with some demands in the workplace. Multi-tasking is very difficult as we tend to commit ourselves specifically and totally to one thing at a time.

We can struggle with instructions that aren’t precise enough or are open to interpretation – you need to tell us specifically what you want, and how you want it to work in detail.

We like to work in a modular and organized environment, but we need a certain freedom to organize our environment ourselves.

If you need to set a deadline, make it crystal clear and set an actual date and time, don’t be vague.

Telephones can also be an issue with Aspergers; many of us struggle to talk over the phone, because it can require a great deal of concentration in order to interpret emotional or hidden meaning behind words, pitch of voice and language usage.

Email is a fantastic tool for Aspies, as we tend to communicate much better and with much more freedom when writing.

When it comes to behaviours that you find difficult or annoying, it is best to tell us directly and calmly, even if it is not work related. Never shout at someone with Aspergers Syndrome and don’t confront them in front of others.

Ask if we are comfortable in our environment, as we can be very sensitive to sound and fluorescent lighting, many of us find specific noises physically painful and some of us can see the flickering of fluorescent light bulbs / tubes.

Perhaps the most important thing an employer or colleague can do is accept that we have certain limitations, like making eye contact for example. As difficult as it can be, try to allow for that, don’t try to change us or our behaviour, because you simply can’t, but given enough time to settle in, we will open up to you and we will adapt to our working environment.