ASD in the Workplace for Employers

This section aims to help open and supported employment services and employers understand the needs of people with Asperger Syndrome and high functioning autism.

Introduction
The most important thing to remember when working with adults with Asperger Syndrome and high functioning autism is that no two individuals are alike.

Each has individual requirements for assistance with job placement, individual capabilities, special talents and a unique perspective to contribute to the workplace. Sadly some young adults with high functioning autism or Asperger Syndrome can exit the education system highly qualified but lacking the social and communication skills to impress potential employers in an interview, and function successfully in the workplace.

Common difficulties experienced by people with ASD that impact on their employment opportunities include:
– difficulty communicating with others,
– difficulty with social interaction,
– difficulty coping with change and a need for routine,
– difficulty concentrating and focusing on relevant information,
– difficulty with time management, and
– issues arising from stress and anxiety.

Simon works in supported employment. His supervisor noticed he was becoming stressed and overloaded and suggested he have a sick day. But Simon couldn’t grasp that he could take a sick day even though he had no physical symptoms of illness. Now, his supervisor tells him to take a ‘brain’ day and Simon is happy to do so.”

Some positive aspects about adults with ASD:
– many have an excellent memory for facts,
– many have a special talent or skill, some have savant abilities,
– positive character traits include honesty, punctuality, loyalty, reliability, attention to detail, perfectionism and single-mindedness.

We are all different, yet the same
Many people have a start-up routine at the beginning of their work day. Most of us have habits or rituals that help us through the day. If our routines change, we can become uneasy. Adults with ASD also have rituals and routines that they rely on to provide structure to their life. If these routines change they can have an unusual or excessive reaction.

One of Adam’s routines was to walk through his workplace by a particular route; this routine never changed. But one day some boxes were delivered that blocked his path. He had great difficulty negotiating a different route and this made him quite anxious.”

When placing a person with ASD in a new position, it is helpful for all employees in the organisation to undertake a work plan. This will help colleagues become aware of their own needs and requirements to get through the day, their likes and dislikes about their job, their rituals and routines. Through understanding their own routines, other employees will be more aware of the accommodations required for people with ASD in the workplace.

Interests and motivation
Every adult with ASD has a special area of interest; their job must appeal to these interests, strengths and talents. Take the time to get to know the client, understand his or her interests and discover how they can be utilised in a job setting. If a position involves activities that fall outside their interests, adults with ASD will have little or no motivation to perform these tasks.

Safety issues
Some adults with ASD appear to lack common sense. There can be difficulty assessing cause and effect and in some cases concern for order or neatness can override logic.

Nick took the safety guard off the mower. Even though the blades were still turning, his first instinct was to brush the grass off because he likes everything to be neat and tidy.”

Social Characteristics
The following tables list the social, physical, cognitive and work characteristics of adults with Asperger Syndrome or high functioning autism. While most people will identify with many of these characteristics at some point in their lives, adults with ASD experience these continuously with many of them appearing simultaneously; they also experience them far more intensely.

While these features are typical manifestations of ASD, the list is by no means exhaustive. Remember also that a person with ASD will not display all of these characteristics, nor will they display them all of the time. Below each characteristic is a list of strategies to help deal with each issue.

Difficulty offering criticism without appearing insensitive

Explain in a tactful way that they are being insensitive and suggest an alternative.

Difficulty accepting criticism

Be sensitive to their self-esteem. Make it seem like a learning opportunity rather than a deficit. End the discussion in a positive way and give them one or two clear, practical, achievable tasks to work on.

Difficulty in perceiving and applying unwritten social rules

Social skills training may be required.

Immature manners

As above.
Naïve trust in others

Be aware this can lead them into distressing or dangerous situations.

Have a very tactful word about who is best to avoid if this is an issue.

Shyness

Social and communication difficulties often lead to withdrawal and isolation. Encourage adults with ASD to observe others and learn from them.

Little or no participation in group conversation

Don’t be too concerned if they do not contribute to the conversation. Many adults with ASD prefer one-on-one interactions. The person is probably interested in the conversation but unsure how or when to join in. Perhaps ask a structured question to include the person in the conversation.

Constant anxiety about performance and acceptance.

Make praise and comments meaningful. Instead of ‘good job’ tell them specifically what you liked about their work.

Extreme honesty, often expressed in an inappropriate manner

Tactfully suggest a more appropriate comment.

Bluntness in emotional expression

Adults with ASD do have emotions, they just don’t talk about them in a direct way or may experience and describe them differently.
Seems to have little or no sense of humour, bizarre sense of humour

Most adults with ASD don’t get humour that relies on understanding inference or how others think. They might prefer word-play or slapstick humour.

Difficulty reciprocating greetings or pleasantries

Encourage the person with ASD to observe others and take their cues from them.
Difficulty expressing empathy to others, eg. condolences, congratulations

A lack of empathy may be off putting to a person who doesn’t know them.  Remember it takes longer to build a relationship with someone with ASD. The person may not be sure how to express their empathy to others in an appropriate way.

Strong expression of likes and dislikes

We all have likes/dislikes.  People with ASD tend to express them more intensely.
Rigid adherence to rules where flexibility is desirable

When learning rules, it is helpful for people with ASD to learn that some rules must be adhered to at all times (ie a safety rule), some rules can be broken in certain circumstances and some rules are flexible. Write these down for reference.

Serious’ all the time.  May not recognise jokes or sarcasm, takes things literally.
Single-mindedness can be an advantage if channelled in the right direction.
Flash temper or tantrums

Don’t make a big issue out of it – suggest they go for a walk to calm down.
Excessive talk

The person with ASD may lack the skills to just ‘chat’ so they may talk about their interests a great deal. This may also be calming strategy.
Difficulty distinguishing between acquaintance and friendship

Sometimes people with ASD can’t distinguish between who is a good friend and who is an acquaintance.  They may need gentle reminding.

Intense concern for privacy

A person with ASD may ask their colleagues many personal questions but not want to reveal anything about themselves. Gently tell the person if their questioning is inappropriate.

Difficulty judging others’ personal space

Tactfully remind the person with ASD of the need to respect personal space, use concrete points of reference such as arm’s length.
Limited clothing preference

May not be suited to positions that require formal attire or uniforms or conversely may prefer to wear a uniform day after day for sameness, and have difficulties on ‘casual days’.
Seem to ‘be in their own world’

Many adults with ASD are aware of their differences to those around them but have no idea how to handle the feeling of isolation. They just want to be accepted for who they are.

Physical Characteristics
Strong sensory sensitivities

Such as smell, touch, sound, light.  They may need a quiet space to work, background music, headphones or other strategies to overcome sensory issues.

Self stimulatory behaviour to reduce anxiety

Reduce or eliminate sources of anxiety in the workplace.

Encourage the person to have some time out at lunchtime to take a walk or engage privately in some appropriate activities to help self-calm. Stress balls or bubble wrap may help ease stress and provide some sensory release in a socially acceptable fun way.

Clumsiness, poor balance

They may need an assessment by occupational therapist (OT). It is important not to ridicule the person with ASD as these characteristics are inherent in the disorder. Be aware of potential safety concerns due to clumsiness.

Unusual gait, posture or stance

As above.
Difficulty judging distances

As above.
Gross or fine motor difficulties

The person with ASD may have problems with handwriting or manipulating small objects. They will probably prefer to complete any written tasks on a computer.

Vocal or motor tic

Many individuals with ASD display a “tic” – this may include an involuntary sniff, cough or other mannerism which they cannot control.  It may be exacerbated by stress. If the person’s tic behaviour is heightened, they may be under increased stress- discuss this with the person. Otherwise have sensitivity and understanding. The person may be painfully aware of their tic and be very embarrassed.

Depression, anxiety

Make a list of things they have achieved to encourage positive thinking. Encourage the person to seek counselling or access the employee assistance program if necessary.

Difficulty expressing anger in an appropriate way

Monitor the person’s stress level and ask them to take a break or a walk if you can see they are highly agitated. Offer ways they can express their anger or grievances appropriately.

Flat or monotone or unusual vocal expression

This is a feature of ASD and you cannot necessarily do much about it.

Difficulty initiating or maintaining eye contact

It is important for a person with ASD to understand they should orient their body toward someone when communicating. Do not pressure the person to make direct eye contact as it is very stressful for people with ASD.

Poor personal hygiene

Put up hand washing posters and infectious disease posters as a prompt to all employees to improve hygiene. Ensure tissues, soap and paper towels are available.

Strong food preferences or aversions

We all have likes/dislikes but people with ASD are more inflexible due to sensory processing difficulties.  They may find lunchroom smells overwhelming.

Cognitive Characteristics

  • Susceptible to distraction
    Limit visual and auditory distractions in the work environment. Provide a quiet space to work.
  • Difficulty expressing emotions
    Picture charts or graphs can be used to indicate emotions or level of anxiety. Give the person time if needed to discuss their emotions.
  • Mental shutdown
    This can be a response to conflicting demands or multiple tasks.
    Avoid ambiguity. Don’t expect the person will automatically understand an instruction that seems obvious. Don’t demand too many tasks at once, particularly if the person is a perfectionist or must complete the task before moving to another task.
  • Poor understanding of conversational rules, eg interrupting, shifting topics.
    Be explicit, “We’ve finished talking about that now.” “It’s my turn now.” Ensure turn taking in meetings and don’t allow anyone to dominate topics.
  • Literal interpretation of instructions (and language in general)
    Use precise, direct language but avoid talking ‘down’. Avoid statements like ‘maybe’ ‘sometimes’, ‘possibly’. Always check to ensure they have interpreted the instruction correctly.
  • Dependence on step-by-step learning procedures
    Break down tasks into steps. If the task involves operating machinery or producing something, use photos of what each step looks like.
  • Difficulty in generalising
    When a new skill has been learnt it is helpful to reflect on what has been learnt and discuss how this skill might be useful in the future.
  • Preference for repetitive tasks or routines
    If forced to change a routine, help them develop a new one.
  • Needs to finish one task completely before starting another
    Allow time whenever possible for this to happen. People with ASD may not be able to multi- task without stress.
  • Rigid adherence to rules
    Teach rules in a way that allows for flexibility, eg rules regarding safety must be adhered to at all times but some rules can be broken in certain circumstances.
  • Concrete thinking
    Avoid use of phrases such as “pull your socks up” or ‘Bob’s your uncle’.
    People with ASD are very literal thinkers and will take these phrases as fact. Use direct instruction or feedback about specific tasks or issues.
  • Difficulty imagining another person’s thoughts or intentions
    People with ASD will not be able to predict or understand what another person is thinking or how another person reacts in a given situation.
  • Apparent lack of common sense
    Be aware of safety implications. Do not assume that anything is a “given” or automatically will be learnt without explanation.
  • Difficulty assessing cause and effect
    Will need training in carrying out risk assessment if the position involves hazardous tasks.
  • Difficulty with time management
    Use visual schedules. Help the person with ASD establish priorities and estimate time to be spent on given tasks.

Work Characteristics

  • Difficulty with teamwork
    The person with ASD may need defined tasks, roles or guidance within the team; they may not naturally be able to pitch in without being told what to do. The person with ASD may actually be very good at team leader roles directing others or at documenting the team’s progress or outcomes.
  • Avoids socialising with other employees on or off the job
    They are not being aloof or rude.  Many adults with ASD find it difficult to interact and relate to others socially. Small talk is pointless and painful for people with ASD.
  • Punctual and conscientious
    People with ASD are often very punctual and conscientious workers with great drive and focus. They will rarely take sick days and will work overtime. Ensure the person is not being taken advantage of and encourage them to take leave or a sick day if needed. If the person is late or having difficulties getting to work found out what their problem is and provide support- negotiating public transport can be very difficult for people with ASD, something may have changed which is making it hard for them to get to work on time.
  • Difficulty handling relationships with authority figures
    Some people with Aspergers or high functioning autism find it hard to respect people in authority that they feel are less intelligent or less knowledgeable about a subject than they are.
  • Reluctance to accept positions of authority
    Some people with ASD may want to be in a position of authority but lack the social skills and confidence needed to take on the role.
  • Low level of assertiveness
    Make time for regular feedback sessions to discuss problems. Support the person to speak up for themselves when they need to.
  • Little awareness of risks in the environment to self or others
    Help them make connections between cause and effect. Be explicit about any hazards in the workplace and use signs and other visual cues.
  • Tendency to ‘lose it’ when given contradictory or confusing priorities
    Avoid ambiguity. Check that they have interpreted instructions correctly. Be aware of information overload. People with ASD take much longer to process verbal information.
  • Difficulty starting a task
    Break tasks down into well-defined steps. Use physical or verbal cues as a prompt. Gradually fade prompts.
  • Little motivation to perform tasks outside personal interest
    Ensure the position involves tasks that appeal to their interests. They are likely to forget tasks without reminders.  Use lists or visual schedules.
  • Concerned with order and appearance of work area
    People with ASD find it difficult to focus on what is relevant and essential; a tidy work area helps them focus.
  • Perfectionism
    Remind the person that not everything has to be 100% perfect all the time.
  • Difficulty with unstructured time
    Ensure the person always has a task or errand to complete in unstructured or down time. Unstructured time may make the person feel lost or anxious, or they may start looking for something to do and disrupt others.
  • Reluctance to ask for help
    This can be due to embarrassment or trying to hide difficulties.   Encourage them to ask for help or provide opportunities to ask for help in 1:1 time without others present.
  • Excessive questioning
    This can be a self-calming strategy.  Answer the question but try to move the conversation on.
  • Stress, frustration and anger in reaction to interruptions
    Interruptions may be a distraction that results in the person having to start the task over again. Provide a quiet area for work or let the person use music to concentrate on if the area is busy and distracting. Ask others to be respectful for the person’s need to work in peace, uninterrupted.
  • Difficulty negotiating with others
    People with ASD in the workplace may have unrealistic expectations of others due to an inability to understand thoughts, feelings and motivations of others.
  • Vulnerable to harassment by others
    Educate other employees to ensure the person with ASD receives the same respect as everyone else. Do not tolerate harassment or bulling in the workplace.

Remember that modifications made to the workplace such as using signs and encouraging a harmonious workplace can support everyone, not just the person with ASD. Simple modifications rarely cost anything except some time, creativity and consideration.

Jobs that suit people with ASD:

  • Drafting (CAD or engineering)
  • Librarian or library technician
  • Photographer
  • Engineering
  • Commercial artist
  • Journalist
  • Video game designer
  • Copy editor
  • Computer animator
  • Building maintenance
  • Stock controller
  • Computer programmer
  • Office clerk or filing position
  • Auto mechanic
  • Statistician
  • Appliance repair person
  • Physicist
  • Laboratory technician
  • Mathematician
  • Building tradesperson
  • Instrument tuner
  • Cleaner
  • Factory assembly work
  • Data entry
  • Gardener or grounds person
  • Web page designer
  • Accountant
  • Computer technician or network manager
  • Animal behaviour management specialist

Women with autism may gain entry in fields such as psychology teaching or healthcare professions.

Remember each person is unique. The can be no single approach that will work for all adults with ASD.

Recommended Reading

  • Asperger Syndrome Employment Workbook by Roger N. Meyer
  • Coming Out Asperger, Diagnosis, Disclosure and Self Confidence by Dinah Murray

Online resources: