Dear employers ~ How to work with employees “with” Asperger’s / autism ~ Part 5: You hired an Aspie / autist! Now what?

My partner suggested I write a follow-up post that explains what an employee on the Asperger’s/autism spectrum might “look like” once they’re (we’re) on board and working for you.  I decided to take his suggestion to heart; after all, his partner (me) is an Aspie, and so was his best friend.  Both his best friend and I have had challenges with employers that were largely unnecessary, simply because we were undiagnosed and didn’t know how to explain the differences between us and the “rest of the world”.

So here you have it–a “bonus” post 🙂

As with the other posts in this series, I’m speaking directly to anyone who is a non-autistic/neurotypical owner, manager, supervisor, Human Resources professional, career placement services specialist, or anyone who works at a job placement entity of any kind.

So…you hired an Aspie/autistic person!  First of all, awesome!  Maybe you looked specifically for someone who is on the Asperger’s/autism spectrum and brought them on board, or maybe you recently discovered that someone already in your organization is on the Asperger’s/autism spectrum.  Either way, this post is for you; everything I’m about to say applies equally to either situation.

Now, there’s a bidirectional learning curve when it comes to people on and off the spectrum working with each other smoothly and successfully.  If you’re not on the spectrum yourself, you might not know what you’re seeing, so my goal for this post is to try to help “decode” some of what you may observe when working with us (especially if you might perceive it to be confusing or annoying), and why we might be doing what may look odd or strange from your point of view.  (It’s not actually odd or strange once you’re aware of the reality; it’s just different, which is why you hired us, after all!)

Perceived Laziness/Inactivity – Some of us might appear to be lazy, sitting around, doing what looks like nothing.  Fear not: we’re not milking the clock, I promise.  We’re probably thinking, and probably deeply at that.  Or we might be switching gears, from one topic, mode, activity, project, or thought process, etc, to another.  My most popular blog post thus far focused precisely on this topic: we might appear to be lazy, but there’s a whole bunch of other phenomena that might actually be taking place, that are anything but lazy.  If this issue has surfaced in your situation, you’ll definitely want to read that post.

Dress/Clothing – Some of us might look sloppy or dress differently.  That’s simply because we tend to need to dress for comfort.  Looser, more casual, and low-maintenance clothing work well for a lot of us.  That does not mean we’re slobs; it just means our clothes might be looser, less “dressy”, or our sense of style might be different.  It might look somewhat outdated, because we often hang onto clothes for longer periods of time than others might.  For females, our hair style might be similarly low-maintenance; a wash-and-go style seems to suit many of us, even if it’s not exactly the most current style.

Punctuality – We all tend to differ pretty widely on this.  We might be late sometimes.  Or we might be early.  Or we might be spot on time.  If we’re late, it’s not usually a lack of work ethic or care about the job; it’s usually more of an executive function thing.  Sometimes it can be hard for us to decide what we’re going to wear; that might be an easy decision for most people, but it may be tougher for us.  Sometimes, clothing that normally feels OK doesn’t feel right on that particular day.  If we’re early or right on time, that’s probably our precise nature.  Or we have extra anxiety about being late.

Social Situations (Why we might want to minimize meeting with people) – Some of us are perfectly comfortable meeting and interacting with other people, but many of us may not be.  We often prefer to work in solitude.  I know that although my job depends on meeting with people, and meeting with people is an unavoidable component of my role in my office, I often feel a sense of liberation and relaxation when I realize that I don’t have to meet with anyone that day.  For many of us, it comes down to not wanting to look incompetent to others.  I certainly can meet with people face to face; it’s just that it consumes energy faster than does working alone.  What is it about meeting with others that takes energy?  For me, it’s the incredible amount of effort put into attempting to appear “like everyone else”.  In my line of work, I must suppress my Aspergian/autistic tendencies and attempt to “act” like other people.  It’s not a case of deception or malicious manipulation; it’s a case of playing by the social “rules” of the majority, being perceived to be competent by that majority, and then being ultimately accepted by that majority.

The Phone – Many of us might stumble while talking on the phone, or we might try to avoid the phone altogether.  A common practice for me is that I’ll often let an incoming call go to voicemail so that I can listen later and contemplate a response.  We may not return phone calls immediately, or perhaps we may respond in a different method, such as email.  We’re probably not avoiding you; we’re simply avoiding situations in which we might feel less secure.  We like to be sure of ourselves.  The way I tend to experience the phone is that I feel that it puts me on the spot.  This is nothing personal, it’s just that suddenly, I have to “think on the fly”, and by “fly”, that usually means “fly by the seat of my pants”, which feels very chaotic, unpredictable, and potentially unstable for me.  Many of us need time to think and process what’s being said and figure out how we’re going to respond.  The human brain (on or off the spectrum) does not multitask well at all; it’s just that people on the spectrum tend to be more aware of that fact.

Perceived Lack of Attention – We might appear to “zone out” during meetings.  Chances are, if we’re staring at something other than the speaker, we’re actually trying to–and often can–focus more directly on what’s being said, and process it more thoroughly.  This is different from the way the non-autistic brain tends to work: the non-autistic brain looks at the speaker in order to engage more fully with that person and what they’re saying.  This is not generally true for the Aspergian/autistic person; looking at the other person might be more “acceptable” in society, but it’s actually very distracting to many of us.  We can often focus better if we’re looking away or staring “into space”.

Facial Expression – We might look as though we’re irritated, angry, grumpy, tired, bored, or any other of a number of negative dispositions.  However, this is probably not the case at all.  Someone might think we’re bored when we’re actually calm.  Someone might be under the impression that we’re grumpy when really, we’re just deep in contemplation.  An apparently “angry” look might indicate intense concentration.  A “tired” look might indicate contentment or calm.

Perceived Mood – Sometimes we might appear to be irritated, “short”, or brusque, beyond facial expression alone.  Sometimes our outward behavior can match those labels.  This is very likely not personal.  And don’t worry; generally, we’re not going to “blow” (unless we’re pushed to a breaking point).  Often, although this looks (and frequently, to us, it feels) like irritability or anger, it might actually be anxiety or a sense of being overwhelmed.  It was not until well into middle adulthood that I began to realize that when I “got short” with people, it was because I was overwhelmed.  If I ran around in a hurry, getting more irritated by the minute, it was likely due to mounting anxiety.  My “fuse” got shorter, which isn’t in reference to anger or temper, but moreso in a context of complex thought/resilience/how much stress I could handle.  Could I handle making one more decision?  Could I handle the news of one more issue or dilemma?  Could I deal with one more demand placed on me?  The best way to handle this type of situation is to wait until the person can hit their internal “reset” button; sometimes this simply takes a little time, whereas other times the person may need to eat, or perhaps sleep and then take a fresh look at the issue tomorrow.  In my experience, the “shortness” happened more often than the “irritated”.

There is one common exception to the “what looks like irritability isn’t necessarily irritability” concept.  Sometimes it actually is true-blue irritability.  For me, the most common cause of that is being interrupted, especially when I’m knee-deep in a project and my brain is juggling a lot of little details at once.  To have that concentration broken spells complete disaster for me.  I’ve written about that phenomenon in-depth in a previous post.  I highly recommend NOT trying to interrupt an Aspergian/autistic person when working on a project; it’s not like we can simply shift our attention to you and then back to what we were working on very easily.  It might take the “average” person a few seconds to a few minutes, but it takes me anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour.  Not all of us are like that; some of us are a little quicker than I am, while others may take even longer.

Task-Switching – On the immediately preceding note, task-switching (the act of ceasing one activity and beginning another) sucks.  It does usually take us longer to do it, so I do recommend not trying to push us to do it faster.  We’ll definitely do it as fast as we can, but it does take time.  The more we’re pressured to do it, and the more quickly we’re forced to do so, the more quickly the anxiety and irritation will mount, and the closer they may come to the surface.

Routine – Most of us definitely rely on routines; routines need not be “obvious” or “strange”; it’s not like we all insist on walking through every door with our right foot or washing our hands three times before going back to our desks or anything.  Our routines may not appear to be any different from those of non-autistic people.  For me, I like planning out my day and preferably, my week.  I like knowing what the upcoming week is going to look like by the Friday before.  I used to call it “being prepared, so that I know what I’m walking into”.  I like to look ahead, check my meeting schedule, and plan my independent work time around that.  I live by to-do lists; they work for me, especially when I type them into my smartphone’s notepad feature.  My phone never leaves my side; therefore, I don’t ever lose my list.  When I sit down to either plan the following week, or to do my work for that day, I consult that list, and it jogs my memory so that I can maintain productivity.  That’s what works for me, but may or may not work for others; we’re all a little different, after all!

The existence of–and reliance upon–the routine tends to become much more obvious when it’s disrupted.  Since I (strongly) prefer to get my meetings out of the way first thing in the morning before settling in to work independently for the rest of the day, an afternoon meeting might really throw me off.  I also tend not to have meetings on Mondays or Fridays, so I gratefully appreciate a heads-up about a stray Monday or Friday meeting several days in advance.  Each of us has our own routine, typically set according to a combination of what’s required of us, our preferences, our energy rhythms, our tendencies, etc.  These have often been firmly established after years of experience and experimenting, finding out what works and what doesn’t.  For most of us, any sudden change in that routine, especially without any advance notice, is likely to cause anxiety/panic, which, for me, usually manifests as irritability.

Please understand that that’s not always (or even often) something that we can control.  It’s just the way it is.  The benefits that adhering to the routine can bring are attributes like productivity and excellent time management; the benefits of avoiding sudden changes include minimized stress, which boosts concentration/focus, and creativity, for those of us who are so inclined.

Also, when a routine is established that involves several tasks in sequence, the act of task switching might become easier, faster, and more efficient, because it’s a task-switch that we’ve become accustomed to making.

Projects – Many of us like working on projects.  Typically, we prefer to work by ourselves, and be accountable only to ourselves.  In group project situations, we can become rather anxious when aspects of our lives (livelihood, job security, reputation, etc) are out of our control and in the hands of other group members, especially when we don’t perceive those people to be particularly reliable, or their work ethic, thought processes, etc, don’t match ours at least slightly.

We may not know when we’re hungry – It took me a long time (and the help of my coworkers) to realize when my blood sugar was starting to plummet.  I often exhibited the “shortness” or impatience described above.  Often, the only way I know I’m hungry is if I get very shaky, jittery, and/or anxious for no apparent reason.  Or, when someone comes to me with a question and I throw my hands in the air and say, “I can’t deal with that right now.”

We may not know when we’re tired – Many people in general (and I’ve experienced this myself at times in my life) realize when they’re getting tired and start craving sleep; they start to feel sleepy and they start counting down the minutes/hours/etc until they can finally climb into bed.  Not me, not now.  Some of us don’t get tired, or at least, we don’t feel that way.  For some of us, our brains (and bodies) will go and go and go…until–I’m not sure what happens.  All I know is that my brain peters out first.  My body is still going – I can walk, drive, lift my roller-bag, and just about everything else.  But my brain will just come to a screeching stop.  Pushing forward beyond that point is damn near impossible.  I’m likely to forget things, to make mistakes.  I’m likely to start singing loudly from my office (as though I’ve lost my mental stability, even though I haven’t).  I’m likely to start saying (and singing) random things.  For those of us who experience this, we’ll all probably display it a little differently.  I’ve simply described my own example.

Either way, our brains may simply–and suddenly–“shut off”.  We may not even realize it at the time.  Don’t worry, they’ll turn back on again.  It might take a few hours or it might be an overnight phenomenon.

We may need periodic breaks – When we’re working, our power-brains are fully engaged, having been diving deep down for long periods of time, without coming up for proverbial air.  The non-autistic brain strip-mines; the Aspergian/autistic brain drills deep caverns.  Both have their uses, both have their benefits, both serve their purpose.  Often, the Aspie/autistic person doesn’t quite realize just how deep their brains go and how hard they work.  The non-autistic person paces themselves naturally, jogging through the day, at a relatively even pace; the Aspie/autistic person’s brain is doing many high-intensity 100-meter dashes in a row, until we stop.  Expending that amount of cognitive energy is going to need frequent recharging; you wouldn’t run a marathon at the speed that you’d run a 100-meter dash, right? 🙂

The Ebb and Flow of Ideas and Energy (“Brain Moods”) – Often, our energy levels vary, as do our “brain moods”.  “Brain mood” is a term I made up on the spot (but it’s no less valid) to describe the feeling of, “I have several ongoing tasks/projects to choose from.  What does my brain feel like doing today?”  It’s a kind of resonance or affinity one might feel to/for a particular activity.  An awareness of being able to “wrap my head around” something in particular.  Maybe one day, I feel like researching facts that would help me solve a case (I’m a problem-solver at the office).  Another day, I feel like brainstorming for new ideas.  On another day, I might be more inclined to take an existing idea and work on it, fleshing it out.  Or perhaps I might go back through previous material and make corrections/revisions/updates.  Or plan outlines for certain projects.  Or collect tidbits I can use later to accomplish a task.  Or I might be in communicating/explaining mode.  Or explore options for books to get for the library or art to purchase for our office walls.  (That’s why when you see us surfing the internet, don’t jump to conclusions right away – we might be researching something for you or for one of our work projects.)

What I might have felt especially suited to do might be different from day to day.  I’m fortunate that my (self-)employment situation allows for this; it’s also true that my situation demands it (I wear a lot of “hats” in the office; it’s a small office, with a lot of different things to do).  Everything needs to get done; the question is, what is my brain best suited for on that particular day?  Since that changes frequently, part of my routine is to take a few minutes and review my smartphone’s to-do list, and contemplate each list item and decide intuitively what my brain would like to do at that moment.

Mess/Clutter – Sometimes, our office might be messy.  This is especially true for those of us who fill multiple roles, are responsible for multiple tasks, have several ongoing projects (or a combination of ongoing projects and shorter-term ones), or whose collections are used in the workplace (many of us have collections of various items; most of the time, these are more hobby-related, but at other times, they can be involved in our jobs).  The easy solution to this is to try to ensure that our office isn’t in view of the public.  In my case, my office is also used for my public meetings with clientele, and I’m also involved in a wide variety (and large number) of ongoing projects, so the messy state of my office is a constant thorn in my side that I haven’t rectified yet.

We might appear to be slow learners, or might need to be shown several times how to do something.  As mentioned elsewhere, that’s not an intelligence or competence issue; we’re simply “installing” information into our brains–probably in multiple places, and likely making connections and comparisons among that new information and the information that’s already there.  What we’re actually doing is learning something more thoroughly, considering every aspect and how it meshes into the grand scheme of information in our brains.

Repetitive movements (rocking, etc) – When you pass by our office, or observe us in meetings, etc, you might find us making any one of a wide variety of repetitive movements.  These can range from rocking back and forth in our office chair to wiggling our foot under the desk to twirling our hair, etc.  For a lot of us, these movements are simply a fact of life.  They help us think or concentrate, keep us calm, or relieve stress or tension.

We might “lose our words” – This is a phenomenon in which, the way I experience it, my brain is either racing too fast (like redlining an engine) or locked up (the engine has seized), and I have a lot I want to say, such as a desperate need for help or a feeling of being overwhelmed, but I might not be able to sequence my sentences sensibly or think of the right words.  It feels to me almost like my brain is so far entrenched into the situation that trying to explain it to anyone outside of myself would require a lot of “backing up” in order to start from the beginning.  This “backing up” is almost impossible for me when my brain stubbornly insists on continuing to race forward (or stay locked up).  At times like these, verbal expression becomes extremely challenging, and we might resort to emotions or actions instead.  (So, if you see me throwing things around my office on rare occasion, that’s probably why.  Or if you ask me how you can help and I say “I don’t know!” – I probably really mean it…except that I probably still need help.)  It happens especially when I’m under too much stress or thinking too fast to be able to express myself; I might need help, but even if someone asks what’s wrong or how they can help, I may not know where to start.

Last but not least: A “quick question” is never a quick question – It’s important to know–and remember–than when asking us questions (definitely preferably when we’re in-between tasks or activities), you’re more than likely going to get the “long answer”.  This is because we’re probably extensively knowledgeable on the topic, and we love to share, generally because we want to help.  We’re not typically stingy with our information.  We might go into great, specific detail, because for us, all of the details are important.  I tend to lose track of  concepts like “main idea”, “talking points” and “big picture”, because to me, it’s all a big (detailed) picture.  The details aren’t ranked to me by their importance to the mainstream or how “main” those ideas are; my brain is pretty egalitarian; all of the details are viewed with the same significance; all are pieces of a giant puzzle, without any one of which that puzzle wouldn’t be the same.

Bonus: Only ask us questions you want honest answers to – if you’re phrasing a question in such a way that appears to seek our feedback but what you’re really looking for isn’t our opinion but rather affirmation or reassurance, we’re probably not the best people to ask.  We’re not likely going to clue in on the fact that the pseudo-question being asked is really just a politically-correct ploy to get approval from others.  We’ll interpret the question literally – and respond with our most accurate answer.  Be prepared–we tend to be straightforward, without glossing or sugar-coating anything; but once you get over the surprise of the unexpected, you’ll realize that our unpolished answer was a breath of fresh air. 🙂

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