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 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.
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.