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Working with People Who Have Asperger’s Syndrome

Copyright © Barbara Bissonnette 2013

There are many things that employers can do to help individuals with Asperger’s Syndrome to be productive and successful at their jobs. If you know or suspect that someone has Asperger’s Syndrome:

  • Be patient during training, and break instruction into small segments. If an individual is asking an excessive number of questions, it could indicate anxiety or confusion about an assignment.
  • Explain how tasks and assignments fit into the whole (the “big picture”) and why particular steps or processes are important.
  • Whenever possible, encourage the use of written notes, outlines, and checklists. Icons and color-coded filing systems will help with organization. People with Asperger’s Syndrome are usually visual, not auditory, learners.
  • Assist the individual with creating a personalized “rule book” that contains processes, procedures, and where to go for help.
  • Check for understanding by asking the individual to summarize an assignment.
  • Make expectations specific and quantifiable: “The draft is due in three days, and should include at least six ideas for improving efficiency” or “Thirty entries or more must be made per hour.” Avoid vague, abstract directives: “Take the data and run with it” or “I want you to take ownership of the project.”
  • If there is a performance problem, bring it to the individual’s attention using clear, explicit language. Hints, inferences, and sarcasm will not be understood. Be direct: “You must limit emails to four paragraphs;” or “There is too much detail in this presentation, what I need is…” or “The priority is to complete the data entry by noon.”
  • Be mindful that what looks like a behavior or attitude problem is usually a communication problem. Don’t take blunt remarks or social gaffes personally. Clarify the individual’s intentions. Be specific and matter-of-fact in pointing out inappropriate or unacceptable behavior. General statements such as “You’re rude;” or “You’re not a team player;” or “How could you say that?!” are confusing. Be direct: “When you tell people to ‘be quiet’ it’s considered rude. Instead, ask them to lower their voices.”
  • Assign a “work buddy” or mentor to explain social norms, encourage social interaction, and answer questions. Individuals with Asperger’s Syndrome often hesitate to ask questions, fearing that they will appear “stupid,” or that the wrong question will result in job loss.
  • Relax the standards for “teamwork” where possible, and allow these individuals to focus on the technical aspects of the job.
  • Take sensory difficulties seriously. An individual who is hyper-sensitive to noise may require a quiet workspace, noise-cancelling headphones, or a white noise machine. Someone with an auditory processing problem may need to use a TTY (text telephone) or other assistive technology. A photo sensitivity can be mitigated by a natural light source, or lamps with incandescent light bulbs. Olfactory sensitivities can be addressed by the use of personal air fresheners in the workspace. Consider limiting the consumption of food to the lunch room.
  • Give an individual permission to take short breaks in order to avoid sensory overload.
  • These individuals often experience heightened levels of anxiety, and as a result may magnify a situation. They may panic over a minor mistake, or an insignificant disagreement with a co-worker. Often, they do not know how to correct the situation. Do not dismiss concerns as trivial, or something that the individual should know how to handle. Listen, acknowledge concerns, and brainstorm an action plan.
  • Educate human resources personnel, managers and employees about Asperger’s Syndrome. Increased understanding is directly proportional to increased employment success. Retaining just one employee at risk of derailing more than covers the investment in training.
  • Provide a coach who is familiar with conditions like Asperger’s Syndrome to work with an employee and his or her manager. The pragmatic, goal-oriented nature of the coaching, combined with an action plan based on organizational needs, assures that performance objectives are addressed. (Although in most cases it is illegal, under the Americans with Disabilities Act, to ask an employee about a disability, you can discuss performance issues. Readers outside the U.S. should consult their local laws regarding discrimination.)