What’s Keeping People with Asperger’s Syndrome and Autism out of the Workplace?

group-3014157_640Some of the most intelligent people I know have ASD.  Their capabilities can well exceed those around them, including me.  Their resumes and transcripts may be filled with over qualifying skills. So why is it that so many are without a job, or are constantly hopping from job to job to job?  The answer is soft skills.  You may have heard this term before.  Soft skills are what you need to work with others in a harmonious and productive way, and they are a big part of what employers look for when hiring and maintaining employees.

Employers rank communication as the most significant soft skill.  And just to clarify, communication is so much more than talking.  In fact, talking is the least important step in communication.  The most important step in communication is listening.  We listen with our ears to hear what others are saying. We listen with our eyes to see what nonverbal cues are given, and what feelings may be impacting the discussion. Communication is an awareness of where we are and to whom we are talking.  After all, there are different rules for talking to friends, family, coworkers, bosses, etc.  Even if we discuss talking to a friend, there are different rules for talking to your friend when they are at work, in a restaurant, at home, at a movie, at a ceremony, etc.

Once you have listened with your eyes and ears, once you have thought about where you are and your relationship with the person you are communicating with, then you compile all that information to help you understand what you need to say, as well as what information is irrelevant.  And sometimes when you take all those factors into consideration, the answer is to say nothing.

Complicated, isn’t it?  People without ASD do this all the time without even thinking.  It’s second nature.  Oh, I forgot to add, that if you need to maintain a working relationship with this person, you are going to need to remember their name, and what was discussed, even if it was the most boring conversation you have ever had.

Communication skills need to be directly taught to people that have autism and Asperger’s Syndrome.  Even if they have been taught these skills, under stressful situations (like an interview) the individual with ASD may revert to old habits.  So, when interviewing, especially, a person with ASD may not show their full potential.

Another aspect of communication is the ability to realize and acknowledge when you are having difficulty understanding.  The roadblock here, especially for people with Asperger’s Syndrome and autism, is perfectionism.  People with perfectionist tendencies tend to view asking for help as an admission of weakness.  They often come back with “I should be able to do this on my own.”  However, asking for clarification, an essential skill in the workplace, is merely the acknowledgment that others think differently and may need things explained in a different manner.  Since the workplace is filled with differently minded people, this is an essential skill.  When someone is unsure of the task they have been given and works on a project with an assumption of what they think is correct, money and time are wasted.  Also important, when others ask for clarification, they are not trying to be annoying, or stupid people.  They just want to be sure that they understand what to do.  Everyone is working as a team and as such, they want to work together to create the best version of the project/ product they can.

These skills are important in face to face communication and now there is the added importance of being able to communicate effectively via email/ IM/ text.  Here written conversational skills come into play.  Many social niceties are needed in written conversation.  People that have ASD tend to state just the facts, and in a written form this can be perceived as bossy, rude, cold, etc.  A simple “Hi, how are you?” while not necessary to the completion of a task, is important in building relationships with colleagues.  And yes, relationships with coworkers are equally as important as relationships with the boss. Since coworkers are essentially a team of people, if one member is difficult to work with, they are usually let go.

Communication is an incredibly sophisticated and complex skill.  However, people with Asperger’s and autism can learn these skills when directly taught the expectations. Employers and coworkers can learn to encourage their fellow workers rather than take offense at their faux pas.  If we all work together, the workplace can be a rich and diverse place, leading to productivity and success.  A little extra effort is well worth the price!

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