Successful Integration of Individuals with Asperger’s Syndrome (Autism Spectrum Disorder) into the Workplace
By Deb Blankenship
The job market today is robust and full of opportunities. Though wonderful for job seekers, employers are having difficulty filling positions. For example, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the Information industry unemployment rate is 3.9% percent, a full percent lower than the total unemployment rate. Employers are seeking highly specialized people who are in scarce supply, especially in the Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) sector (for a list of jobs where people on the autism spectrum can excel, see Temple Grandin’s article, Choosing the Right Job for People with Autism or Asperger's Syndrome). To fill these positions, companies like Microsoft have launched programs to hire IT graduates with Asperger’s Syndrome to capitalize on their strengths (Warnick, 2016).
Asperger’s Syndrome was officially dropped as a diagnosis from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) in 2013 and merged with autism spectrum disorder. Nonetheless, those who were originally diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome often prefer that descriptor over autism spectrum disorder (Bissonnette, 2016). What distinguishes individuals with Asperger’s from others on the autism spectrum are less severe symptoms, good language skills, and average to above average cognitive skills.
Common Strengths of the Asperger’s Worker
- Superior focus on one task with sustained concentration and perseverance
- Enjoys and does not tire of repetitious work
- Heightened attention to detail; excellent memory, especially of details and facts
- Highly analytical and logical
- Can often see novel ways to solve problems
- Can develop expertise in a given area; able to see patterns and connections where others generally do not
- Loyal to their employer
- Honest and ethical (Bissonnette, 2016)
Please note, the characteristics and recommendations in this article are generalized and do not fit everyone with Asperger’s Syndrome. There is no single approach that will address every person’s needs. There is no typical person with Asperger’s. Individuals with Asperger’s have different strengths and challenges just like all other individuals (Bissonnette, 2014).
Common Behaviors of the Asperger’s Worker
Along with their strengths, people with Asperger’s Syndrome can have difficulty with social interactions and may exhibit a restricted range of interests and/or repetitive behaviors. The following behaviors are often associated with Asperger’s syndrome; however, they are seldom all present in any one individual and vary widely in degree.
- Avoidance of direct eye contact or reciprocal conversation
- Limited or inappropriate social interactions
- Inability to read body language or interpret voice inflection; doesn’t “get” sarcasm
- Speaks with a monotone or has repetitive speech
- Challenges with nonverbal communication (gestures, facial expression, etc.) coupled with average to above average verbal skills
- Tendency to discuss self rather than others; one-sided conversations
- Inability to understand social/emotional issues or nonliteral phrases
- Obsession with specific, often unusual, topics
- Awkward movements and/or mannerisms
- Doesn’t understand workplace hierarchy, social structures, and hidden rules of the workplace
- Doesn’t have an understanding of the thoughts, feelings and intentions of others
- Appears aloof and disinterested; or talks too much and interrupts
- Only sees the parts of a situation, often doesn’t understand the context or how to draw a conclusion about what is happening (Autismspeaks.org, 2016)
Once hired (and preferably before the first day on the job), several factors must be addressed for the individual to be productive and to flourish in the organization. The direct supervisor should have a conversation with the employee to talk about preferences regarding workspace requirements and interpersonal interaction.
Workspace - usually need a quiet workspace, free from visual distractions, bright lights, interruptions, background noise, and strong odors.
Interpersonal interaction – determine the balance of interpersonal interaction with co-workers and alone time. Understand that the individual will most likely work better alone than with a team, and may have difficulty with team meetings.
Guidelines for the Direct Supervisor of the Asperger’s Employee
Structure, order, routines, and clear rules and assignments are essential to help promote vocational success for the individual with Asperger’s (Hurlbutt & Chalmers, 2004).
- Give clear, detailed, step-by-step instructions and help with prioritization of tasks
- Be very specific and detailed with what the daily, weekly, or project expectations are
- Help the person structure and prioritize each task if necessary
- Allow the individual to finish one task before starting another
- Be flexible with deadlines if possible
- Initially, check in with the new hire several times a day at prearranged times, then once or twice daily as needed.
Social Interaction at the Workplace
Individuals with Asperger’s greatest challenges are usually with the social interactions at the workplace. They can master the work, yet day-to-day interactions with supervisors, co-workers, and clients can be awkward and difficult. Untrained supervisors and co-workers not familiar with these characteristics may take offense to them. These challenges can be mitigated if staff are informed and trained on how best to interact with a co-worker who demonstrates any of these characteristics. Training for the supervisor and co-workers is essential for the successful integration of the individual exhibiting these characteristics. Video and on-site training can be obtained at Integrate, Autism Employment Advisors at https://www.integrateadvisors.org/
When well integrated into the workplace, an individual with Asperger’s Syndrome generally will be a loyal, hard-working employee who becomes a specialist at what they do and will make a substantial contribution to the organization.
Annear, M. (2013). The disorder formerly known as Asperger’s. Retrieved from http://www.abc.net.au/rampup/articles/2013/05/24/3766915.htm
Autismspeaks.org. (2016). What is Asperger’s Syndrome? Retrieved from https://www.autismspeaks.org/what-autism/asperger-syndrome
Bissonnette, B. (2016). Finding employment that works for individuals with Asperger’s Syndrome. Workshop presented to the Colorado Career Development Association, Denver, CO. September 21, 2016.
Bissonnette, B. (2014). Helping adults with Asperger’s Syndrome get and stay hired. Philadelphia, PA: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
Grandin, T. (1999, November). Choosing the right job for people with Autism or Asperger's Syndrome. Retrieved from https://www.iidc.indiana.edu/pages/Choosing-the-Right-Job-for-People-with-Autism-or-Aspergers-Syndrome
Hurlbutt, K. & Chalmers, L. (2004). Employment and adults with Asperger Syndrome. Retrieved from http://www.worksupport.com/resources/viewContent.cfm/271
US Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2017, Feb). Retrieved from https://www.bls.gov/news.release/empsit.t14.htm
Warnick, J. (2016, February). Microsoft hiring program opens more doors to people with autism. Retrieved from https://blogs.microsoft.com/blog/2016/02/09/microsoft-hiring-program-opens-more-doors-to-people-with-autism/#B0pD7QDWpWQ1UKWI.99
Whetzel, M. (2013, June). Employees with Autism Spectrum Disorder, Job Accommodation Network. Retrieved from http://askjan.org/media/downloads/ASDA&CSeries.pdf
Deb Blankenship, M.A., GCDF, is a Workshop Facilitator and Employment Specialist at Workforce Boulder County where she has facilitated workshops for job seekers on such topics as career exploration, resume writing, interviewing, intergenerational communication and LinkedIn since 2009. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.