The diagnosis of Asperger’s Syndrome has exploded in recent years. Considered by many to be a mild form of autism, it is now estimated to affect as many as 1 in every 250 people in the United States. Although a growing number of human resources professionals have heard of Asperger’s Syndrome, most are not sure about how to respond to employees who disclose this disability and ask for accommodations.
Asperger’s Syndrome is a neurobiological disorder that affects an individual’s ability to understand and respond to social cues, communicate effectively, and organize tasks. Since many people who have Asperger’s Syndrome are bright and college educated, it is usually not apparent that the individual has a disability unless they disclose it. Even then an employer may not understand how to mitigate challenges or may rely on standard interventions that do not address the specific needs of these individuals.
For example, employees with Asperger’s Syndrome often have problems with communication and may alienate colleagues with blunt remarks, take instructions very literally, have trouble working on teams or not engage in small talk and other social niceties common to most corporate cultures. Frequently these communication deficits are assumed to be attitude or behavior problems.
Difficulties with executive function, which governs the ability to plan, prioritize, multi-task, change course and see the big picture, can also impact the performance of these employees. They often need specific assistance to manage time and tasks.
Accommodation needs vary depending on the individual employee and the nature of his or her job. However if someone discloses Asperger’s Syndrome there are some general guidelines to follow when addressing communication and organizational issues.
First, it is important that the individual’s manager provides specific, quantifiable expectations whenever possible (“the report is due in 3 days and should include year-to-date sales and revenue and at least 5 suggestions for reaching sales goals”). Regular feedback about performance is beneficial to any employee, but particularly to one with Asperger’s Syndrome.
Organization is improved by the use of written instructions, check lists and electronic reminders. Since these individuals are often hypersensitive to noise, a quiet workstation will help them concentrate and stay on task.
Regarding the all-important area of social skills, it is critical to remember that people with Asperger’s Syndrome often don’t know what they have done to offend or anger someone. Avoid general statements like, “You’re rude,” “You are not a team player,” or “How could you say that!” Use clarifying questions to understand the individual’s intentions. Be specific, direct and matter-of-fact in pointing out inappropriate or unacceptable behavior (“When you tell people to ‘be quiet’ it’s considered rude. Instead, ask them if they’d mind lowering their voices.”)
Assign a “work buddy” or mentor (someone other than the employee’s supervisor) to explain social norms, encourage social interaction and answer questions. People with Asperger’s Syndrome may hesitate to ask questions out of fear that they will appear “stupid” (likely a by-product of being bullied or ostracized in school).
Be sure to educate human resources personnel, managers and employees about Asperger’s Syndrome. Otherwise, legitimate accommodation requests may be brushed aside as bids for special treatment (“Everyone wants a quiet cubicle”), resulting in violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Provide a coach who is familiar with Asperger’s Syndrome to with an employee and his or her manager. The pragmatic, goal-oriented nature of the coaching process combined with an action plan based on organizational needs assures that performance objectives are addressed along with skill development.
Here are some examples of low- and no-cost accommodations from actual client cases (names and identifying details have been changed to protect confidentiality).
For nearly 10 years, Cindy was a successful sales manager at a high-end vacation community. Despite having Asperger’s Syndrome she did well working one-on-one with clients and training junior sales people in the organization. Her group often ranked number one or number two in quarterly sales.
After the company was acquired by a much larger firm, things changed. Cindy’s job became less structured and she began receiving conflicting instructions from various executives in the organization. The new regional vice president said that Cindy asked too many questions and provided too much detail in her presentations. During weekly team meetings, Cindy appeared chronically unprepared to answer questions from senior executives.
Concerned about her performance, Cindy decided to disclose her Asperger’s Syndrome to her supervisor and human resources representative. One of her accommodation requests was to receive a written agenda and list of questions one day in advance of the team meetings. She asked permission to respond in writing to questions within 24 hours of each meeting. These requests addressed sensory and processing problems that made it difficult for Cindy to hear and respond immediately to comments and questions and comments from several different people at once. After implementing the changes, she was able to provide the strategic responses the management team needed.
Tina works as a receptionist for a large financial firm. One of her job requirements is to make sure that visitors have the proper security clearance before leaving the lobby. On one particularly busy day, Tina issued a visitor badge to someone she thought she recognized who rushed through the checkpoint quickly flashing an ID. Concerned about the possible security breach, Tina reported the incident to her supervisor who then issued Tina a written warning.
Tina explained to human resources that Asperger’s affects her short-term memory and her ability to recognize faces under stress. Her employer agreed to turn off the television in the lobby during Tina’s shift because the sound is distracting to her. Employees have been instructed to send visitor requests in advance and in writing so that Tina has more time to process them. And signs are now posted in the lobby informing visitors that they must check in with the receptionist and show appropriate identification.
Todd contacted me at a crisis point. Employed in a director-level job for two years, his literal interpretation of instructions and difficulty seeing the big picture were frustrating his colleagues. Todd’s supervisor expected him to assume “a leadership role,” an open-ended, general directive that was completely bewildering to Todd. When we met Todd had been given two weeks to improve his performance or be fired.
Todd disclosed his Asperger’s Syndrome and over the next three months Todd, his manager and a human resources representative worked out accommodations and clear performance expectations. Then an opportunity arose for Todd (at his own request) to give up the director role and become a senior manager instead. The new position allows Todd to use his considerable technical ability and off-load the troublesome “leadership” and people-management duties. With continued coaching he has learned techniques for clarifying expectations and communicating more clearly with co-workers.
As these examples illustrate, in the right job with the right support, individuals with Asperger’s Syndrome are dedicated, productive employees.
1 The Complete Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome, © 2007 Tony Attwood