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.