Managing People With Autistic Spectrum Disorder
How Can You Help Them Perform at Their Best?
It's a lot easier than most people think to integrate someone with autism into the workplace. It just takes a good manager who is prepared to give some time to bring that person on.– William Elliott, a managing director at Goldman Sachs.
It's your first day managing a new team and you're reviewing your handover notes. You see that one of your team members has Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD).
You want to offer the right support, but you worry that you don't have the knowledge or experience to deal with the issues that might arise.
In this article, we'll look at the common characteristics of ASD, the challenges that they can bring to the workplace, and the strategies that you can use to manage people who have the disorder.
What Is ASD?
The American Psychiatric Association defines ASD as "a complex developmental disorder that can cause problems with thinking, feeling, language, and the ability to relate to others." It's a lifelong disorder that can affect people's ability to make sense of the world, and it impacts their interactions with others.
ASD is a group of conditions that used to be diagnosed separately – Asperger's Syndrome, Disintegrative Disorder, and Pervasive Developmental Disorder-Not Otherwise Specified (or PDD-NOS). It affects people in different ways and to varying degrees.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that one in 68 children are diagnosed with it in the U.S. The National Autistic Society puts this figure at one in 100 people in the U.K. Males are five times more likely to have ASD than females, though more females are being diagnosed.
With this many diagnoses, it's likely that you'll know, or work with, somebody who has ASD.
Common Characteristics of ASD
ASD covers a wide spectrum of characteristics. Some people can live independent lives while others need intensive lifelong support.
People with ASD mainly experience:
1) Difficulties with social communication and interaction, having problems with:
- Holding conversations.
- Understanding social cues and rules.
- Reading body language, sarcasm, tone, and humor.
- Taking language literally.
- Responding appropriately.
- Forming friendships.
- Working collaboratively.
- Empathizing with others.
- Expressing emotion.
- Predicting behavior.
2) Restricted and repetitive patterns of thought, behaviors and interests, such as:
- Sticking to routines.
- Playing rigidly by the rules.
- Struggling with motor skills and coordination.
- Intensely following particular interests.
- Experiencing learning difficulties.
- Having fears and phobias.
- Having difficulty processing everyday sensory information.
These traits can make some people unable to communicate verbally, while they give others exceptional numerative and analytical skills, and intensive knowledge in specific domains.
Potential Challenges of Managing a Team Member With ASD
Individuals with ASD can struggle at work on several fronts. They can:
- Get confused by instructions.
- Feel uneasy about change.
- Be resented by colleagues for what can be interpreted as "odd" behavior.
- Inadvertently cause offence by making inappropriate comments.
Without the right support, all of these things can make it difficult for your team member to do his or her work successfully. They can also affect people differently, so, if you get to know each of your team members and base your approach on their specific needs, you can offer them the right support.
Another challenge is being aware of your own assumptions about ASD. Many people have them – perhaps partly because of the success of films such as "Rain Man" (1988) and "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time" (2003).
Your assumptions, however, can lead you to form inaccurate conclusions about your team member. For example, you might notice him avoiding eye contact and interpret it as inattentiveness or a lack of respect for you. In fact, the reason could be that too much eye contact causes him extreme anxiety.
A final pitfall is not being aware that an individual has ASD – either because it hasn't been diagnosed or because she hasn't told you. Being able to recognize ASD can help you manage her accordingly.
Strategies for Managing a Team Member With ASD
You probably already use a range of techniques to support team members with varied learning and working styles. Here are some practical steps that you can take to make it easier for team members with ASD to perform at their best.
Tailor Your Approach
There's enormous variety among people with ASD, and what helps one person may not help another. A good starting point is to ask your team member what he'd find helpful, rather than simply guessing.
Give him the time and attention he needs to feel confident in his work by offering him one-on-one training. Make sure that all instructions you give him are clear, precise and direct. Detail them step-by-step, avoiding figurative language. He may prefer reading an email to having a conversation, because he may find it difficult to interpret verbal communication. Back up your verbal instructions with written ones, and check that he's understood them.
Reading Steve Silberman's award-winning 2015 book, "NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and How to Think Smarter about People Who Think Differently," is a good way to learn more about people with ASD, and the ways you can help them to perform at their best.
Modify the Role
Re-work your team member's briefs to fit her talents. Provide structure in her role by creating a consistent set of duties and an unchanging schedule. Focus on the end result and on making sure that her work gets done, rather than on how she does it.
ASD characteristics can often match up with particular roles, for example a librarian, an illustrator, or a software tester.
Be prepared to make adjustments to his working environment. There can be particular lights, noises or smells that make it difficult for him to work. Allowing him to wear headphones, installing softer lighting in the office, encouraging him to take breaks, and consenting to home-working or to him having a private workspace are all small ways that you can accommodate his needs.
Be mindful of his need for routine and predictability, and keep change to a minimum where you can. Where you can't, give him time to prepare and adjust.
Employees with ASD are often protected by law from discrimination. It's important to be familiar with the appropriate legislation, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, in the U.S., and the Equality Act 2010, in the U.K. This will ensure that you're treating your team members fairly, and in accordance with the law in your particular region, state or country.
Build Positive Working Relationships
Accommodating people with ASD will likely affect their colleagues. You can boost positive working relationships by gaining the support and understanding of your team members.
Arrange training to help everyone on your team understand ASD and its associated strengths, needs and difficulties.
Appoint a "buddy" who can make sure that your team member with ASD is doing well, to help her with training, advocate for her if necessary, and to be someone she can turn to when she becomes anxious.
Your team member might struggle to tell the difference between "banter" and abusive language, so be alert to the possibility of mistreatment by others. If bullying is happening, you need to take immediate action by following your organization's formal policy for handling this.
Be Aware of the Support Available
No matter how well you prepare, some issues may arise that could be out of your comfort zone or beyond your ability to resolve.
Search for organizations that can provide support in these times. The Autism Society in the U.S. and the National Autistic Society in the U.K., are two organizations that can offer advice on managing people with ASD.
Benefits of Managing a Team Member With ASD
Individuals with ASD can be valued and productive colleagues. They can often be exceptionally gifted and outstanding at what they do.
Here are some skills that people with ASD could bring to your team.
- Tolerance of repetitive activities.
- Long-term memory.
- High levels of concentration.
- Unconventional thinking.
- Creative insight.
- Technical knowledge.
ASD is a complex, lifelong developmental disability that affects the way that someone comprehends, and responds to, the people and the world around him.
People with ASD can find the workplace to be a challenging environment. However, with the right support, they can work as successful and valued team members.
When you manage someone with ASD, you may only need to make a few adjustments to your management style by intensifying your existing good practices. Or, you may find that you need to make more significant accommodations and work to gain the support of co-workers.