4 Strategies for Managing Workers with Autism or Asperger's Syndrome

kathryn by Kathryn Hawkins on September 19, 2012
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Some of the world’s brightest and most creative people are on the autism spectrum: Director Steven Spielberg has Asperger’s syndrome, and there’s speculation that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Microsoft founder Bill Gates do, too. In fact, a Wired article postulates that Silicon Valley has a high proportion of kids with autism because many of their parents are undiagnosed “aspies” themselves.

The tech industry attracts many workers on the autism spectrum, whether diagnosed or not. “Is there a connection between Asperger’s and IT?” Temple Grandin, an autistic writer and professor, asks in a Computerworld New Zealand article. “We wouldn’t even have any computers if we didn’t have Asperger’s.”

People on the autism spectrum are often highly intelligent and focused, which can make them assets to any business. According to Grandin, autistic people also do well in industries such as architecture, engineering, graphic design, math, and music.

If one of your employees tells you that he or she is on the autism spectrum, you are legally required to accommodate them under the Americans with Disabilities Act. More commonly, you may suspect a staff member is autistic, and you should note that it’s not your place to ask. However, by providing a supportive workplace for people with different learning and working styles, you’ll make the office a more comfortable environment for everyone.

Here are some ways to do that:

  • Give employees private work spaces. People with autism often have sensory issues and may have difficulty focusing in environments with bright lights, frequent talking, music, and other distractions. These employees are likely to do their best work in a private office or a remote workspace, where they can concentrate.
  • Use technology to ease communication. Many high-functioning people on the autism spectrum prefer to communicate through email instead of face-to-face, because they may have sensory problems interpreting information and may not understand verbal cues or jokes. For people with severe autism, technology may be the only way to communicate: Some non-verbal people on the spectrum are greatly assisted by mobile apps that can “speak” on their behalf. The Americans with Disabilities Act’s Job Accommodation Network also suggests tips such as providing employees with electronic organizers and training them how to use them, since effective time management can also be an issue for people with autism or Asperger’s syndrome.
  • Be direct in your instructions. Many people with autism miss subtleties in communication and prefer to receive clear instructions regarding what they are expected to do. For complex instructions, a written step-by-step system can be most helpful. Johns Hopkins University shares some strategies for instructing students with Asperger’s syndrome, many of which may transfer to the workplace.
  • Don’t assume an autistic employee is trying to be rude. People on the autism spectrum often have trouble realizing whether their behavior is or isn’t appropriate. Penelope Trunk, a popular blogger and the founder of the Gen Y career startup Brazen Careerist, has Asperger’s syndrome, and she often writes about her tendency to miss social cues or say inappropriate things. (For instance, at a PTA meeting, she unintentionally picked a fight with her son’s teacher and interrupted her frequently because she didn’t recognize social cues.) If an employee with autism says or does something that you find offensive, hold a private meeting to discuss the incident. Often, the employee will be unaware that there is an issue until you bring it up — and will take your lesson to heart to prevent it from happening again.

The Guardian shares some additional tips for managing autistic workers.

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