Going beyond the stereotypes: managing employees with Asperger’s
Asperger's syndrome (AS) is a condition occurring in about 1 in 200 of the population. It lies on the autistic spectrum and until recently has been a condition about which little is known in the employment context.
What is interesting about AS is that it is both a disability protected by law, and at the same time is also a diversity, a form of difference. What's even more curious is that you may not easily see these differences, as diversity is most often talked about in terms of the differences we can see - a person's gender, race, ethnic origin and cultural background are usually quite visible.
In contrast, Asperger's syndrome is not visible - the differences lie in processing and thinking style - and there is no obligation to disclose the condition to an employer. For these reasons, many managers are not aware that they may have employees with Asperger’s.
Screened earlier this year, The 'A' Word was a critically acclaimed TV drama following the lives of a family with an autistic child, Joe. Joe's autism was depicted as a condition which gives him strengths as well as difficulties.
I recently carried out a study with HR practitioners and line managers to discover the strengths and difficulties which employees with Asperger’s may have. The findings showed that adults with Asperger's who apply to work for your company are likely to bring with them many strengths, particularly in the 'hard' skills associated with predictive analytics and capacity for work involving fine detail.
Seven 'clusters' of characteristics and behaviours emerged from my research, connected to the following characteristics; IQ; work ethic; attention to detail; social interaction and working with others; a tendency to be blunt and direct; being hyper sensitive to lights and noise; and being inflexible.
Firstly, spoken about exclusively as a strength was high IQ.
Employers need to be more aware of the great potential for those with Asperger’s in roles which require high IQ levels, the ability to handle complex data and systems, and the ability to systemise, all of which are associated with the 'hard' skills needed in the various engineering and STEM disciplines.
The majority of line managers reported exemplary timekeeping and a drive to attend the physical workplace over and above that which they might expect from the rest of their team. Employees with AS may go out of their way to arrive and stay at work even in circumstances which are adverse, such as bad weather or personal injury.
Managers also noted that some working patterns can cause the employee significant anxiety. This means that managers need an awareness of the health and wellbeing of their employees and knowledge of how their mental health can be supported.
Attention to detail
Nearly all the line managers reported that attention to detail was a characteristic that they definitely or strongly associated with their employees.
This was across different roles, different skills levels of employees and different organisations. Employees were reported to perform repetitive tasks, which other members of the team are often reluctant to take on, with accuracy and rigor.
This willingness may have an impact on a manager’s decision on how to accommodate these abilities in a wider team. While employees with Asperger’s are often willing and happy to carry out these repetitive or menial tasks, managers should be aware that giving an employee a disproportionate amount of routine work is not necessarily the ‘right’ thing to do and won’t help them to realise their full potential in relation to their high IQ.
Social interaction, working with others, and being hyper sensitive to lights and noise
Having autism or AS does not mean that an individual will experience all of the impairments, strengths and abilities that are associated with the condition.
Rather than responding to stereotypes...reasonable adjustments should be made to the working environment
Findings in this study challenged stereotyped views that AS people do not enjoy talking to others and instead supported the clinical studies which discuss the negative effects of environments, particularly those that are noisy or bright – such as a call centre or open plan office. These can have disproportionately adverse effects upon someone with sensory difficulties and therefore create issues with working closely with other people.
Rather than responding to stereotypes that those with AS may want to work alone, and placing individuals in roles where there are isolated from the team, reasonable adjustments should be made to the working environment, the type of allocated task within the team and the time spent on it.
A tendency to be blunt and direct
The tendency to be honest, direct and 'speak their mind' is a common characteristic of someone with Asperger’s and generally managers rated this as a positive aspect. While criticism is unlikely to be universally welcomed, there are benefits to having a team member who is willing to criticise or point out problems with a particular decision or process, especially when others are afraid or embarrassed to raise a complaint.
Inflexibility and liking for routine was universally identified by all the line managers. Those with AS are predisposed to see the detail in any given situation, and are acutely aware of fine environmental stimuli; colours, sounds, people and location of objects, so changes to that situation or environment will affect that person disproportionately more than someone who does not greatly attend to detail.
This expression of liking for routine was described as both problematic and as a strength by line managers, as Asperger’s employees will adhere conscientiously to the task set and complete it as instructed.
With flexibility and change almost inevitable within competency frameworks, it does raise the question of whether these are the most appropriate mechanisms for assessing performance.
Supporting employees with Asperger's
Working life for AS employees may become either difficult or fulfilling, depending upon how companies support them – and studies show that trust is key when it comes to disclosing their condition to their line manager.
Working life for AS employees may be either difficult or fulfilling, depending upon how companies support them
AS employees can play a major role in team contribution, yet prolonged and enforced socialising at mandatory ‘away day’ type events can place an unduly heavy burden, and may also discriminate against AS individuals. Often, the changes needed are very minor, but may be perceived as a little unusual by those dealing with AS for the first time.
Striking a balancing act is tricky for HR, so here are some questions to ask:
- Do you know approximately what proportion of your workforce may have AS?
- Do you associate AS as a condition associated with strengths or difficulties?
- When an applicant discloses they have autism or AS on an application form what is your immediate reaction?
- What do you base these reactions on?
- What social events are prescribed or strongly encouraged, and are they always necessary?
- How is the Equality Act interpreted to make sure reasonable adjustments are appropriate for individuals recognising that AS is a spectrum condition and so each person is unique?
- If someone does disclose their condition, what changes can you make to the working environments?
- How might these changes affect the rest of the team?
- Do existing job roles play to the strengths of AS employees or does the nature of the role and environment cause difficulties?
And finally, looking across your organisation,
What policies do you work with which may unintentionally discriminate against AS employees?