Back in 2008, I posted about working for a boss with Asperger’s. Now, more than three years later, I’m still getting comments on that post, mostly from employees complaining about the difficulties, but also trying to be productive with their boss with Asperger’s.
I like to focus this blog on the positives, and ways to make difficult situations better. The reality is that both neurotypicals and those on the Autism Spectrum are usually trying to do a good job, get along with each other, and communicate effectively. But, differences in expectations, communication style, and social behaviors can mean a lot of frustration on both ends, as well as less than optimal work from the team.
Of course, diversity in the workplace is an advantage to any team, and the Autism Spectrum brings strengths as well as difficulties. Work teams can benefit from the goal directed focus, strong work ethic and loyalty, and straightforward approaches common to those on the spectrum. Neurotypicals can learn to adjust their behavior to those on the spectrum, just as people with autism have been having to adjust to neurotypicals all this time.
Tha's why I’m asking any adults on the autism spectrum to comment here, or send me an email. How can neurotypicals help make the workplace more autism accepting? For bosses on the spectrum, how can your employees work best to fit your needs and make your organizations most effective?
Thanks in advance for your comments!
This is a repost of a popular post that wasn't opening correctly. Rather than spend a lot of time troubleshooting, I'm just moving the post.
A reader of this blog recently questioned, “How do I work successfully for a boss who has Asperger’s?” Of course, people with Asperger’s have always worked, frequently in positions of authority and power. What’s new is the public recognition that Asperger’s and autism exist; that the community doesn’t include just children, but adults as well; and that Asperger’s and autism bring strengths and abilities that management values. At the same time, people with Asperger’s and autism tend to be different than neurotypicals, especially in the ways they communicate and interact socially. (Neurotypicals are those without Asperger’s or autism.)
Let me start with a simple warning. Don’t assume that all engineers and scientists have Asperger’s or that all people with Asperger’s or autism are the same. These conditions are tough to diagnose, they have a wide range of characteristics, and individuals with the condition have varying strengths, abilities, and weaknesses. So, whether or not your boss has a formal Asperger’s diagnosis, or even if you’re just guessing about it, pay attention to the individual, and try to adapt your work to what your boss specifically wants.
That said, there are typical characteristics of individuals with Asperger’s. Many individuals with Asperger’s struggle with figuring out social situations, like how to manage small talk, or the subtleties of interpersonal hierarchies. Making and maintaining traditional eye contact can be uncomfortable or even overwhelming. There may be extreme sensitivities to things like perfume or fluorescent light. A person with Asperger’s may not organize things in the same way as coworkers. Many individuals with Asperger’s have a strong and intense knowledge and interest in some specific area, often the very area where you are both employed. Their knowledge level and speed of absorbing new material may be well beyond your abilities. Frequently, these individuals are straightforward and direct.
The social differences can be the most difficult for neurotypicals to deal with. We neurotypicals value small talk and what may seem like meaningless social interactions. Without them, we can start to question if there’s something wrong, if we’re missing something, or if the boss is unhappy with our performance. Eye contact comes into play here too. Neurotypicals expect eye contact, and it’s very subtly choreographed. Without that typical interaction, we can feel ignored, misunderstood, or disrespected. But, it’s important to remember that the differences due to Asperger’s may mean that we’re reading a lot into a friendly situation.
Rather than speak for an individual with Asperger’s, I went to an expert. Joel Smith works as an IT supervisor for a government agency and he’s been diagnosed as being on the Asperger's/autism spectrum. I posed the question to him about how best to work for a boss with Asperger’s, and got this response:
“I work best when people working for me will tell me in black and white terms what they need to do their job - I'll miss subtle hints, I'd prefer someone to just come out and say what they are looking for. Similarly with interpersonal issues or conflicts among subordinates - I need to know what is going on, and I might not "just pick up on it". I don't talk differently to upper management or subordinates - I don't "translate" between the languages. I suspect a lot of autistic bosses got where they were not through social networking but rather through ability. So don't feed them bull about their area of expertise.”
Thanks for your question, and I hope this has been helpful to you in working productively with your boss. I’d love to get comments from other professionals with Asperger’s or autism about how you’d like to interact with neurotypical coworkers, bosses or employees. Please send me an email, list a trackback, or post a comment.
Finding support for adults on the autism spectrum can be especially difficult. Once students leave high school, many of the formal and informal support options are no longer available. Without the structure of school, and with difficulty in finding appropriate post high school education or employment, many individuals struggle to remain connected and productive.
One valuable resource is the Transition Options Program, (TOPS) from Mount Diablo Adult Education. I’ll draw directly from their flier:
The Transition Options Program (TOPS) addresses the unique needs of adults with Asperger’s Syndrome, High Functioning Autism and related disorders transitioning to higher education, independent living and/or employment. The goal of the program is to provide education and support to enable students to be successful in work, home and the community.
The program is uniquely designed to address the individual needs of participants as they select their class schedule based on the following four core areas of instruction: Social Skills/Cognitive Development; Employability/College Readiness; Independent Living Skills; Community Access & Resources.
TOPS provides a supportive environment for students to develop social skills, increase independence, develop interests, explore resources, participate in the community, and create a social network of support while preparing for work, independent living and/or higher education.
For more information on the program, contact Karen Lingenfelter-Carman, Adults with Disabilities Program Coordinator at (925) 685-7340 ext. #2742 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
The transition to adulthood is probably the most uncertain stage in the life of a special needs individual. There are support services and a fairly well defined path available for children and teens, but after high school many young adults flounder. In this post, and my next, I’ll be discussing several good programs to assist in transition planning.
Orion Academy, along with JFK University, is offering their 6th annual ASD Transitions Seminar. The seminar will be held at JFK University, in Pleasant Hill, CA, on Saturday, March 10, 2012, from 10 am to 4 pm. There will be a number of speakers, on various topics of interest to parents of transitioning or soon to transitioning teens, as well as vendors and exhibitors. You can register or get more information at the JFK website. Space is limited!
The holiday season can be tough for those workers who prefer a businesslike atmosphere. People have a tendency to chat more, there are lunch and party invitations, and generally more socializing throughout the day.
Although individuals on the autism spectrum may prefer to focus on the job, I think it’s important to participate in some degree of the socializing. Coworkers will think you’re friendlier, and therefore more of a team player, and even more trustworthy, if they know you on a more social level. It may not make sense, but that’s the neurotypical mindset - NTs trust those they like and like those they know.
So, why not look for low key ways to socialize? A coffee pot discussion can be as connecting as a long lunch. If you can’t avoid the holiday party, it is OK to come slightly late and leave slightly early. Casual drop-ins at a colleagues desk can be a way to connect and not be too intense. Set a goal for some type of interpersonal interaction every day.
More than ever, young people on the autism spectrum are going to college. Thanks to highly effective early interventions, ongoing educational assistance and, of course, the crucial support of parents, students with Asperger’s and autism are succeeding academically, graduating from high school, and looking for more education. This is great news, because those on the spectrum are frequently underemployed, and education can go a long way in ensuring that autistic adults can find satisfying and appropriate jobs.
But, it’s important to make sure these students have the support they need to take advantage of their college experiences. Most students on the spectrum, whether in special education programs or standard classrooms, have had the advantage of special services at their elementary and high schools. And all kids on the spectrum have benefited from the ongoing help of their parents. Too often, that assistance gets dropped all at once as students attempt a standard college program, without the help of special services or their parents. College presents intense challenges, not just academically, but also for executive function, life skills and social skills.
For many college students, a few years at community college or junior college can be the best fit for right out of high school. These programs can allow the students to stay at home for a few years and focus extra attention on developing their independence, executive functions and social skills. Arguably, these abilities are probably more important for long term employability than academic excellence.
A growing number of universities offer programs specifically for autistic students. In a blog post a few years ago I mentioned Inside College.com’s lists of Very Friendly Schools for Students with Asperger’s, and Friendly Schools for Students with Asperger’s. Recently, a reader brought my attention to 10 Impressive Special College Programs for Students With Autism. Both of these sites can provide some options for appropriate and supportive four year programs.
The Center of Attention and Learning, in Albany, California, offers ADHD coaching, Executive Function support, and Educational Therapy. The Center, founded last year by Educational Therapist Linda Lawton, is now offering their first working group for adults with ADHD. The group will meet three times per month, and each month will focus on a different issue, starting with procrastination.
Group coaching is an excellent way to get both professional and peer support, and it is more cost effective than individual treatment. If you’re interested in more information, visit the Center’s website, or their Working Group information page.
And, for Middle School and High School Students, check out the Center’s Supervised Study Hall. Author's note: 2/13/12, the Supervised Study Hall is no longer offered, but I will be posting about a new program soon.
Post high school transition planning is an important step for any student with special needs, and it's vital to begin the process early. I encourage parents to attend transition events as a first step in planning, and it pays to start early, well before your child's senior year. Most events are only held annually, and many programs are limited in size.
In March, Orion Academy is conducting their 5th Annual Seminar on Post-High-School Transition Planning. Orion Academy is a college-preparatory program for secondary students on the Autistic Spectrum with neurocognitive disabilities such as Aspergers syndrome, or NLD (Non-verbal Learning Disorder). From their flier:
Seminar-Social Issues Facing Teens on the Spectrum
March 26, 2011
8:30 AM - 4:00 PM
Renaissance Club Sport Hotel, Walnut Creek, CA
$95 -Lunch and resource binder included
Orion Academy's 5th annual ASD ''Transitions Seminar'' will take a bold look at the issues facing today's teens on the spectrum and what parents should know but may be afraid to face. Topics will include social networking, dating and attractions, and sexual safety. Speakers will also summarize the legal issues parents should be aware of and post high school options for their teen.
Exhibitors for various post-high school programs will be available at lunch to meet with parents.
For information call (925) 377-0789 or go to www.orionacademy.org
Every year I write a post to adults with Asperger’s and autism, about how to manage all the stress of holiday get-togethers. (Last week I did a similar post to parents of kids on the spectrum, because they deal with similar pressures.) And every year I hear the same comments and concerns from people on the spectrum. That all makes sense, because families, friends and coworkers can exert a lot of pressure on you to join in, be a part of the festivities, have fun. But, what’s fun for the crowd may not be fun for you. To balance out all that pressure, I wanted to restate my comments from last year, and the year before. Here are my tips for how to manage the holiday stresses.
Plan Time for Yourself
If you find yourself getting overloaded, it’s perfectly acceptable to step aside and spend some time alone. Go for a walk, find an empty spare room, or offer the do all the dishes by yourself. Family members may pressure you to join in the “fun” but it’s fine to say that you just need a bit of time to yourself.
Choose Your Battles
You’re an adult now. It’s OK if your family doesn’t understand you, or if you can’t convince them that you’re right. Agree to disagree. Some battles are just not worth the emotional energy. No one has to get all their needs met by their family, friends can offer support and understanding you can’t get from some of your family members.
If It’s Too Much, Go Home Early
Again, you’re not required to stay with the family on holidays. It’s your job as an adult to take care of yourself. Come late and leave early if that’s the best way for you to take care of yourself. You can even choose to stay in a hotel, and just come over during the day.
Look for the Bright Spots
Try to find an activity that’s enjoyable. If the long family conversation is too much, go sit at the kids’ table and be the fun adult. Or, pull out old pictures and reminisce with your sibling about funny childhood times. An older relative may have a lot of interesting memories about their youth and family and this can be a more low pressure way to connect.
Sometimes the best way to manage when you’re not getting what you want is to shift focus on to more positive areas. Think about all the things you’re grateful for this year. Look around and see what you can do to help out.
Above all, remember that as an adult it’s your right and responsibility to take care of yourself. Do what you need to to feel good about this holiday.
Still getting pressured? Know that you’re not alone. That’s why I post this same advice every year.
Does it really matter how you come across at work if you get your job done? So many of my clients tell me that it doesn't. True, you're hired because of your abilities, often a technical skill or a specific knowledge. But once you get the job, it's no longer just about that skill or knowledge. Now, you're part of a team, assigned to all sorts of projects that may have nothing to do with your expertise.
You may be the world's leading expert on a specific user interface, or an aligner, or 17th century Norwegian artists, but once you get the job, you'll be put on the party planning committee, or the diverse hiring practices task force, or the workplace safety team. All those extras have nothing to do with your expertise, everything to do with your job success (and job security!) and they all require social skills and a good work attitude. Just like Seth Godin says, "Your smile didn't matter....No Longer."
Patricia Robinson MFT
I'm a licensed therapist in Danville, California and a coach for Asperger's and ADHD nationwide. I work with individuals of all ages who have special needs, like Autism Spectrum Disorders, ADD, ADHD, and the family members and partners of special needs individuals.