This article comes in three parts. First, in case you’ve no idea what I am on about, a short summary section of Autistic Spectrum Disorders with some useful definitions. Second, if you’ll allow me, a section of self-indulgence in which I will attempt to explain to you my own relationship with my Asperger’s Syndrome in the hope that this personal experience will put this article into context. Last but not least, I shall end with an important summary of what can be done in the workplace to help people with Autistic Spectrum Disorders do their jobs whilst benefitting from the same respect, tolerance and understanding as their neuro-typical colleagues.
So, some definitions:
Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is the umbrella category for a group of conditions which very broadly include the symptoms of difficulties with social interaction and communication, repetitive behaviours, restricted interests and sensory issues.
Autism is the most common and well-known of the above conditions and is often used as an umbrella term itself, including synonymously with ASD.
Asperger’s Syndrome (AS) was, at the time I was diagnosed, classified as a separate condition to autism. Since then, however, it has been redefined as one of the conditions covered by the umbrella term of ASD. Some people also use AS synonymously with high-functioning autism. Others, myself included, find the latter term unhelpful and offensive to those not classed as “high-functioning” and would prefer it if it were not used.
Aspie is a word which some people with Asperger’s Syndrome, including myself, have reclaimed for themselves. It is wise not to use this term for other people unless they have explicitly said that it is ok to do so.
In the following paragraphs I shall try to use the above terms as consistently and coherently as possible. If, however, I slip up and am less than clear please do accept my apologies. You will hopefully be able to work out what I meant to say.
Right, time for the self-indulgence.
Growing up I knew I was different to the other kids at school in the ways in which I thought about things, a knowledge which often bordered on arrogance when I knew that my way was the more correct way of thinking, if not the most useful. Probably partly because of this arrogance, along with little desire to mix with those whom I didn’t understand, I never had many friends growing up. It wasn’t that I didn’t want friends, I often craved social contact most desperately, it was just that my peers didn’t make any sense to me whatsoever and interacting with people whom I couldn’t understand frustrated me.
The only person at school whom I understood at all was a boy whom I knew had something called Asperger’s Syndrome. I could talk to him without feeling nervous, stupid, inferior, superior, dumbfounded, annoyed, perplexed, ashamed, offended, awkward or any other of the myriad of confusing feelings that interactions with “normal” children made me experience. I did wonder a few times if there may be a straightforward reason for why I would find this child’s view of the world made so much more sense than other people’s and I even asked my parents on occasion whether I might have this Asperger’s Syndrome as well. They dismissed my queries because they didn’t understand the need to “label” children.
Fast forward to my eighteenth year of life and I had successfully gained a place at Cambridge University reading biological Natural Sciences. I found my first year at university hard and in more ways than one. Upon immersing myself into Cambridge life, the social problems which I had experienced my whole life and had just about learned to cope with were turned on their head once again and shaken about a bit. And as if that wasn’t enough, there was the work. I very quickly found myself floundering in a mire of unfinished essays, untouched example sheets, loud parties next door which I had not been invited to and a growing sense of “What on earth am I doing here?”, I think it is called Imposter Syndrome. That was when I decided to pursue the line of thought I had had earlier on in my life, to find out if I could be “labelled” with another sort of Syndrome. From that point on, everything was a lot simpler. Not simple by a long way, but simpler.
It is important to point out here that, as with anything, my experience is not the same as other people’s. Just because I found my life so much more bearable after being diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome does not mean that anyone with Aspie tendencies should immediately seek a diagnosis. Nor do I agree with my parents’ not “labelling” view. It very much depends on each individual person what they are likely to find most helpful. For my part, I am glad to have collected my label.
Once I knew why I was different I started thinking of myself as such. Different, not strange or weird or odd, just different. This change in attitude towards myself was probably the most important effect of my diagnosis. Where previously I was floundering in a sea of confusion, I could now mostly step back, realise that I was confused, realise what was confusing me and why and in many cases actually do something about it. That is not to say that I had immediately solved all my social and communication problems, but I was from that point on a lot more able to deal with them.
The practical outcomes of my diagnosis were of course also useful. At university I received extra time in exams and was able to sit them in another room. This was also more recently allowed when I did the PG Certificate in IP at Bournemouth University. Supervisors were made aware that I may find it difficult working with other people and that I may need more time finishing off practicals or handing in essays. Once I was able to work to my full potential, or at least nearer my full potential, I was able to start tackling the confusion that was the social side of my life. At first I was paranoid about mentioning my Asperger’s, assuming that it was not possible to do so without it seeming like an excuse. With time, however, I got used to casually mentioning it in conversation and explaining certain behaviours with neat little phrases like, “I’m sorry, my Asperger’s Syndrome causes me to take things literally sometimes” or “Can we please schedule when we’re going to meet in advance? I have Asperger’s and don’t deal well with uncertainty and changes in routine”.
Once I felt more comfortable with myself and my interactions with the world, I was able to start helping others. Whilst at Cambridge I helped the Disability Resource Centre there with various access initiatives, as well as being Disabled Students’ Officer at my college. I was also facilitator for the AS Social group for a fair while. This not only helped me to explain a lot of my own behaviours through chatting to other people on the Autistic Spectrum, but if I don’t sound too much like I am blowing my own trumpet in saying so, I think I helped the other people at the group as well. The main reason for this though was simply that their previous facilitator did not have an Autistic Spectrum Disorder! This in my opinion is an example of one of the least helpful ways for neuro-typical people to help neuro-atypicals, make a space for them and then sit in it. By all means make the space and we will thank you, but then get out of it! It is almost true of any group that if you are not a part of that group and you want to help the best thing to do is give the people who are in that group the space to help themselves, with support from you only when they ask for it.
Onto the third and probably most relevant part of this article for you, the reader. Some advice on what to do if you have a colleague with ASD.
Since starting down the route of training as a Patent Attorney after my degree, I have had positive experiences and negative ones related to my Asperger’s. I shall not go into great detail here about these experiences, but rather sum them up in the form of take-home does and don’ts for employers and colleagues of someone on the Autistic Spectrum. It is important to point out that the following list is by no means complete. It is simply a list of the most important points which I am aware of from my own experiences, which will of course be different from other peoples’. I hope you will find it helpful nonetheless.
1. DO give clear instructions.
People on the Autistic Spectrum often cannot infer meaning or “read between the lines”, so if given unclear instructions can find it difficult to carry out the required task. This not only means the job does not get done adequately, but it can cause the person with Autism significant stress. It is often useful to provide instructions in writing rather than orally and can be helpful to ask the person to repeat back instructions to be sure they have understood.
2. DO allow for routines and give adequate notice when these change.
People on the Autistic spectrum often find routines very helpful and can get upset and stressed when these are not in place or are changed without notice. Clarification of working hours and break times can be useful, as can timetables for when there are multiple tasks to be completed in the same time period.
3. DO give feedback and make it clear that it is not criticism.
Clear feedback can be very important to someone with Autism so that they can be sure that they are doing work correctly, or alter how they are doing it if not. It is, however, often important when dealing with people with ASD to make sure that this feedback is constructive and not interpreted as criticism. Autistic people are often perfectionists, so perceived failure can hit them hard. Many have also experienced bullying in the past, so can be more sensitive than others to negative remarks.
4. DON’T expect them to be super-good at teamwork.
As described above, people on the Autistic Spectrum often have social and communication difficulties. They are therefore probably not the wisest people to expect to do large amounts of teamwork! If they are needed in a team, then just be aware of their needs and maybe make sure that the others in the team are as well, of course with the Autistic person’s consent.
5. DON’T expect them to join in social stuff.
It varies from firm to firm and office to office of course, but socialising can be an important part of working in IP. As with teamwork, it is important to remain aware of an Autistic co-worker’s needs and not pressure them into going to the pub after work. If they do decide to join in social activities, be respectful of boundaries, possible sensory issues and the fact that they may need to take some time out at any point to recover from the social interaction.
6. DON’T make assumptions based on stereotypes.
Not everyone on the Autistic Spectrum is like Rain Man. As the name suggests it is a Spectrum and many people have learned tricks to make their Autism invisible most of the time. Avoid saying things such as “You can’t possibly be autistic” or “Does that mean that you do X?”. Such things can be very upsetting or frustrating for someone who has put a lot of effort into learning how to appear “normal”.
7. DO listen to the person with Autism.
This is possibly the most important take-home message of this article. Of course, self-education is good and I whole-heartedly encourage you to go home and read up on ASD (the National Autistic Society website is good). At the same time, I would like to stress one last time that everyone is different. So, in deciding what reasonable accommodations to make in your office or how to socially interact with an Autistic colleague, the person who best knows the answers to your questions about their autism is the colleague themselves!
Of course, don’t think from the above that I believe the entire impetus is on other people for making sure that a person with ASD gets on ok in the workplace. I believe that it is of course important for the Autistic person to make an effort as well. If the above points are followed, however, it should hopefully be a lot easier for the Autistic person to work together with their colleagues to find ways of working that benefit all.
Guest blogger for IP Inclusive