Autistic Spectrum Disorder and Asperger's Syndrome

Definitions

Autism is a developmental disorder that is characterised by difficulties with social communication, social interaction and social imagination.  It is a spectrum condition, which means that while some people are severely affected, others may be only mildly affected.  Asperger's Syndrome (AS) is a form of autism where individuals are high-functioning, but experience may experience some difficulties. People with Asperger's Syndrome are are usually of average or above average intelligence. Their strengths commonly lie in areas such as their focus on a particular passion, their meticulous approach to detail or their ability to spot patterns in data.

However they may struggle with empathising with other people, or knowing what they are thinking.  They find it difficult to read body language, and find it hard to understand and fit in with a society with many unwritten rules. This may lead to anxiety and depression, and also to outbursts of frustration and anger. They may be unusually sensitive to sensory stimuli. They may find the world confusing and unpredictable.

In the right role, people with autism can be very successful, but potential difficulties may include:

  • Having a very narrow focus on one's own work, and lacking  interest in other aspects of the department’s work.
  • Problems interacting with other people and preferring solitary work.  
  • Difficulty carrying out management roles.
  • Additional support may be needed if the individual is in a role requiring interaction with students. They may be perceived as naive, pedantic, rude or offensive. They may also fail to spot or respond appropriately to other people's distress or concerns. 

People with autism may do well in more technical roles, drawing on possible strengths in meticulous attention to detail, in consistency checking, in pattern spotting or in following set procedures.

Possible support

The support that can be provided by the University depends on operational requirements and the nature of the role.  These are some suggestions to consider:

Work environment

  • Minimise sensory stimuli. Working in a busy open plan office may be difficult.  It may not always be possible, but can a smaller office be provided?
  • Minimise clutter and visual distraction. Try screens, or placing the desk to face a bare wall.
  • Minimise noise.  Sounds like a buzzing fluorescent tube may make work impossible.  Colleagues chatting may be a distraction. Try over the ear headphones to cut out ambient noise.
  • Ensure that lights are well-maintained, to avoid flickering. Allow an individual to wear sunglasses inside, or a peaked cap, if light levels are too high.
  • Ideally the individual should be able to control the light, noise and temperature of the environment. 

Rotuine

  • Help the individual develop a regular routine, using tools such as task lists and diaries.
  • Avoid last-minute changes, and give as much notice of meetings as possible.
  • Discuss any changes to routine well in advance to reduce anxiety.  Similarly, give support with change such as restructuing or office moves.
  • Warn the individual of regular loud noises, such as fire alarm tests.  People with sensory sensitivity are likely to find loud noises exceptionally uncomfortable.
  • Someone with autism may want their workspace arranged in a particular way, and may get distressed if other people change things as a "joke".

Social interaction

  • A “work buddy” colleague could help interpret other people's words and behaviour.  Someone with autism may find it hard to make sense of the interactions of people who do not have autism (the "neurotypical") and may miss subtle non-verbal clues.
  • Sharing information about autism with your work colleagues could help them understand your difficulties.
  • People with autism often want to be sociable but may have difficulty making and maintaining social relationships, which causes them to be very anxious. They may not know how to join a conversation, which may lead to them intruding in a private conversation.  Other people can help by inviting the person to join a group, and by directing the conversation if necessary (for example if the person with autism doesn't know when to stop talking, or how to introduce a fresh topic).  After the event, colleagues and friends may be able to give explanations, if the person with autism is puzzled by particular interactions.
  • Social isolation and difficulty with relationships may trigger a vulnerability to mental health issues such as depression. See your GP to get help.
  • Sadly, many people with AS report experiencing bullying and harassment in the workplace. They can be seen as easy targets, because they don’t fit in, and are not always quick to know that they are being bullied. They may find it difficult to establish relationships with colleagues, since they struggle with socialising, whereas they can be very focussed and hardworking on the job.  Managers and colleagues can help to create a more inclusive environment, where everyone can flourish.

Communication

  • Many people with autism are happy to do what is asked of them as long as it makes sense to them.  They find it helpful if clear expectations are set out and managers are explicit about any hidden assumptions.  
  • People with autism may have endless questions about things that may seem obvious to their manager, such as how the manager will measure whether the individual ‘is a good team worker’.  Someone with autism may lack the social knowledge of other staff, so they ask questions and process information at face value in a logical way. A good manager will be willing to answer questions, and help the individual understand what it required. If an individual has behaved in a particular way, the manager may want to explore the individual’s assumptions which made them behave that way, and help develop their views.
  • Someone with autism may need help in imagining alternative outcomes to a situation or in predicting what will happen next. 
  • It is helpful to give instructions and information in written form as well as/instead of verbally, so that they can be used for reference.
  • It may be helpful for the person with autism to share their understanding of the instructions, to avoid misunderstandings.
  • Someone with autism may take sarcasm literally e.g. “You aren’t committed to the job.”
  • Someone with autism may provide too much information when asked.  Give a steer on what is needed.
  • Some guidance on emails may be helpful.  Emails from people with autism are often short and factual, which may be interpreted as rudeness by the recipient.

Feedback and support

  • Give timely, focussed feedback: people with AS often have low self-esteem and may find it difficult to assess how they are doing.
  • Reinforce the good things that you observe the person doing.  Be specific.
  • Give a consistent level of support. It will be confusing if you say “come to me whenever you need help” but then “I haven’t got time for you now”.
  • Feedback on behaviour If you want the individual to behave in a different way, it may be useful to explore with them why they behaved in a particular way.  This is likely to be based on logical assumptions. You may want to give them additional information, and instructions for how to behave in a similar situation.
  • Feedback on language If you are giving feedback that the individual is perceived as rude or ill-mannered, you should be direct with them (in private). The individual will not pick it up unless you tell them explicitly.  They may also need detailed guidance on what terms are acceptable and may need to practice wording.
  • Feedback on structure People with AS may get lost in the detail (for example of a research topic). They may need support in working at a more strategic level and in deferring detail until later.  They may also need support in communicating their concepts to others.
  • Having oversight The manager needs to achieve a balance between allowing an individual independence to manage their work in their own way, and being able to assist to avoid the person getting bogged down or losing direction.  Scheduling regular review meetings may be helpful.
  • Support with meetings The  individual may need help in preparing for potentially stressful situations such as meetings. Help them to think about the purpose of the meeting, and what they want to achieve from it. This may help to reduce the stress of unpredictable communication. Support the person in getting topics onto the agenda. Help explain nuances and interpretations of behaviour to an individual with AS after meetings, since they are likely to miss these. It may be appropriate to ask  the chairperson to support an AS individual who has difficulty knowing when and how to speak in a meeting, or when to stop.
  • Learning the job An employee with AS’s ability to focus and absorb training may be different from other employees, especially if they have high levels of anxiety. Such difficulties should not be mistaken for the individual with AS not paying attention, or being unable to do the job.  Give the person time to absorb the training, and clear reference materials.  Someone with AS who is motivated to learn new processes may ultimately develop a detailed knowledge of the new system.  Their logical approach may also be helpful in training other staff. On-the-job training at an individual’s own pace may work better than group training.

Potentially useful strategies include:

  • Give an overview of the topic and show how it relates to existing systems. 
  • Chunk information – explain each part separately, then show how they link. Visual aids to show connections may be helpful.
  • Practise doing tasks under supervision – instructions may include assumptions that someone with AS does not share.
  • Produce and check good documentation.  Can photographs be used – for example for setting up lab equipment?
  • Encourage the employee to repeat tasks until they have learned them.
  • Be clear about the circumstances in which the new skills apply. Include instruction on recognising exceptions and how to deal with malfunctioning equipment or issues where further guidance should be sought.

 

Recruitment and selection

  • At interview people with AS may have difficulty with making eye contact, modulating their voices, shaking hands and expressing themselves verbally.  Do not interpret this as meaning that they would not be good at the job.
  •  Look widely for evidence of the necessary abilities.  People with AS may have difficulty in getting a job because of their social communication difficulties, so may not have had the opportunity to build up their employment history.
  • People with AS may have an apparently chaotic work history, reflecting their different interests.  Do not be put off by this.  They are often very focussed and quick at mastering new areas of expertise.
  • People with AS may have difficulty in judging an appropriate length for a response to a question, especially if they are passionate about the subject.  The recruitiing manager may need to intervene.
  • An interviewee with AS may have difficulty answering questions about other people's thoughts and motivations or possible responses.