Work is a very important part of our lives. Being employed can give us purpose, provide working relationships, and give a sense of independence. People with autism or Asperger’s Syndrome (AS) have many wonderful and unique skills and thinking processes that they can bring to the work place. However, it has been suggested that only 15% of people on the autism spectrum have been able to access full time employment (NAS, 2012), even though it is now the law to prevent discrimination in the work place (the Equality act, 2010). In this article, I am going to highlight the strengths of having a person with autism or Asperger’s Syndrome in the work place, explore some of the difficulties they may experience and suggest some strategies to aid people with AS so that they can gain and retain suitable, positive and supportive employment.
It is important to emphasise that all people with Autism or Asperger’s Syndrome are different and the skills that one person presents may differ for another person with the same condition. I will be describing the general traits that people with Autism or Asperger’s Syndrome might have, but these are likely to differ for each individual.
What skills could a person with Autism or Asperger’s Syndrome bring to the work place?
People with Autism or Asperger’s Syndrome certainly have a great deal of skills to provide to the work place environment. According to Atwood (2008) these people are gifted with:
- attention to detail,
- high abilities,
- abilities to identify errors,
- a logical thinking style,
- ability to thrive on routine,
- a loyal personality.
People with Autism or Asperger’s Syndrome can bring a unique way of thinking to the working environment (Attwood, 2011). They have been shown to hold a high ability to solving problems in a different way to neuro-typical individuals, and are known to be intelligent and logical (Simone, 2010). Sadly, people with Autism or Asperger’s Syndrome tend to be over qualified for their job (Atwood, 2008). This mismatch between the demands of the job and the employee’s abilities could cause boredom or a lack of motivation, which could then impact on job performance. It is therefore important for both the AS employee and employer that the job is suited to the individual. According to the skills, as outlined above, people with AS could succeed in organised and structured positions such as accountancy, statistician, academic researcher, IT technician, artist or website designer (Edmonds & Beardon, 2008). As long as the person with autism can access a suitable employment, relevant to their skills and interests, then there is no reason a person with AS would not be able to succeed in their chosen employment.
What could be a problem in the work place for People with Autism or Asperger’s Syndrome?
So why is it that people with Autism or Asperger’s Syndrome do not succeed in the work place? Like neuro-typical people, people with autism also have difficulties in the work place. We are not all perfect individuals. However, these issues should be brought to attention, so that people with autism can gain the support and reasonable adjustments, to aid them in the work place.
Such situations, as suggested by Atwood (2008), and built on in this article are:
1) working in a team, such as being asked to work with unknown co-workers on a project;
2) organising time, such as a new management bringing organisational change which impacts on the person’s job role and/or routine;
3) coping with change, such as a supportive supervisor/manager being replaced by a less supportive one;
4) communicating stress and anxiety and asking for help, such as the person’s manager asking for a piece of work, but does not specify clearly what they want;
5) dealing with sensory stimulation, such as working in a busy open plan office with too much sensory stimulation, which can impede productive work.
Possible strategies for overcoming these issues:
The act of working in a job alone and with supportive colleagues and employers, will help the person with Autism or Asperger’s Syndrome develop these skills. However, there are also strategies for coping with such issues that can be easily applied to the work place and will protect the person from the stress of finding it hard to cope in their work and dealing with difficult social interactions at work. Like neuro-typical people, people with Autism or Asperger’s Syndrome will vary according to the skills and strengths they have to offer, but also in how they respond to potential difficulties. Therefore it will be important to explore with the AS individual, what are important issues for them and the type of adjustments that would be most beneficial The following strategies, based on the above situations, may be helpful to the person with AS and their co-workers in order to make work a more positive and productive environment.
1) When being asked to work with other co-workers, raising awareness about autism within the company can help co-workers understand the AS employee better, which can aid teamwork and their ability to fit in. This awareness can be gained from autism awareness workshops and booklets, found on many psychological support websites such as Psychologists For Autism and the National Autistic Society. The individual with Autism or Asperger’s Syndrome could also gain or may have already had social skills training, which can aid their ability to communicate with other people.
2) In terms of coping with a change of management which impacts on a change of routine, it is highly important that the new manager understands and assists the AS individual with the change, maybe by slowly helping them to adapt to the new routine. The person with AS could create a timetable to assist them with organising their day, or use a calendar to prepare for the new changes (Grandin & Duffy, 2008). In addition, there is an app on the IPhone and I pad, which aids task management, efficiency and time organisation through the use of reminders.
3) In addition, when coping with the change of new management from a supportive manager to a less supportive one, the employee with AS could try to enhance understanding of autism by explaining respectfully what difficulties he/she has, and by showing the brilliant work that they have previously completed (Grandin & Duffy, 2008). This way the manager can understand the talents of the individual with AS more. However, if this doesn’t work, then the employee with AS could discuss their concerns with the employer, in a respectful manner.
4) In the case of communication difficulties, an individual with AS could create written notes to aid them to speak up and remember how to communicate in everyday situations, through a process called scripting (Hawkins, 2004). Furthermore, the employers and co-workers of a person with AS could ensure that their demands are communicated clearly. It has been suggested that if the employer writes the tasks out in an email, the instructions tend to be more clear and concise (Edmonds & Beardon, 2008).
5) Working in an environment that can cause too much sensory stimulation, can be manipulated through simple technique designed around the situation. In the case of the busy, open plan office, the person with AS could ask for their desk to be moved to a quieter place such as a corner, or another smaller office room (Grandin & Duffy, 2008). For those with touch sensitivities, they could wear gloves; or those with light sensitivities could sit in an office with darkened lights. This environment change is as important as having wheelchair access for people with AS (Edmonds & Beardon, 2008).
People with Autism or Asperger’s Syndrome have brilliant and unique skills that they can bring to the work place. Like neuro-typical people, they are constantly developing new skills and learning new strategies to cope with any difficulties in their working environment. As long as the individual is motivated in his or her their work, and their colleagues and employers are supportive and understanding, then people with Autism or Asperger’s Syndrome should have a much higher chance at securing and maintaining a positive position in the workplace, which in turn increases the AS employee’s productivity, self-confidence and independence.
You may also find helpful information in the following references. Alternatively and if you would like to arrange a consultation with Liz Keenan to discuss your particular needs, please contact…