Barbara Bissonette is a US based coach who specialises in working with people with Asperger Syndrome (AS) in positions with higher profiles and responsibilities. The key area of her role is “work advocacy” – working with individuals and employees on “people issues” to enhance individual performance through customized, one-to-one support.
Further details of both her and her work can be found at www.forwardmotion.info
MJ: Barbara. Firstly, thank you for offering to provide some insight into work advocacy. Can you provide a bit more background about the working relationship you have with both a company and the individual please. Typically, how often will you meet for example and how long does a programme usually run for?
BB: Individual coaching clients typically work with me over a 3 to 9 month time period. The length of time depends on the individual, what he or she is trying to achieve and the nature of the person’s job. We usually meet weekly in face-to-face sessions. I have some clients in other states who I coach via telephone.
Workplace advocacy is when a client hires me to speak with his or her employer. I explain what Asperger’s Syndrome is and what the employer can do to help the individual be successful. These assignments usually involve two meetings with the individual and one or two meetings with individual’s employer.
Sometimes a company retains me to coach an employee who needs to improve communication or executive function skills. These engagements usually last about 6 months and involve assessments, individual coaching sessions with the employee and sessions with that person’s manager and the human resources representative.
MJ: How prevalent is awareness of AS in US organisations generally and are there any key issues that continually come to the fore? Does AS – as a form of autism – have a stigma attached to it.
BB: The US business community is largely unaware of what Asperger’s Syndrome is and how it impacts individuals at work. Based on my experience, the primary issues for Asperger employees are in the areas of communication and executive function skills.
Teamwork is highly valued in most companies, and involves a lot of interpersonal communication. My clients get feedback that they don’t share enough information with their colleagues, don’t listen to other people’s ideas and focus too much on details. Many are perceived as “abrasive” because they are too direct in stating their opinions (for example, telling colleagues that their ideas are “stupid”) or are impatient with co-workers who are not as intelligent. Of course the Asperger individual usually has no idea that they impact others in these ways and thus misunderstandings occur.
There is a stigma attached to autism. Many people in the US equate autism either with someone who is nonverbal or with Dustin Hoffman’s role in the movie “Rain Man.” Asperger’s Syndrome has been getting increased attention in the press which helps increase understanding, but as I’m sure you know, change takes time.
MJ: One of the issues that I have found both personally and when working with others on the AS spectrum is the perception that other people have of Asperger syndrome.
In the UK we have the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) which, in theory, affords some degree of legal protection. However I, and a number of other people I know on the spectrum, have not reverted to disclosing and possibly using this as a protective measure in the workplace.
Do you have any views on this from an American perspective and from your own experience?
BB: The majority of my clients do not disclose their Asperger’s Syndrome to an employer unless there is a specific problem. The Americans with Disabilities Act prohibits employers from discriminating against people because of disabilities. Yet even with this legal protection, it can be difficult, time consuming and very expensive to prove discrimination.
There is also concern among employers that if they terminate a disabled employee because he or she can’t meet performance expectations, the company will be sued for discrimination.
MJ: You say you meet with the person’s supervisor to explain what AS is and what it constitutes etc. I’d like to explore this a little further if I may.
I find that the relationship one has with one’s manager is critical. A supportive manager can provide numerous benefits such as clear instructions, insight into prevailing politics, a bulwark against anxiety etc. Conversely, an unsupportive manager can be the source of real problems and, possibly, the need to terminate an employment.
Can you give some insight into the manger/worker relationship please and what you find are the key issues?
BB: I completely agree that a manager can be instrumental in an employee’s success. I’ve had cases where an Asperger individual has done very well on the job and then the company is sold or a new manager comes on board. Things can deteriorate rapidly.
It is my opinion that the work environment (which includes one’s relationship with his or her manager) is as or even more important for Asperger individuals than the job tasks. Learning how to clarify expectations, accept feedback and maintain a good relationship are critical skills to have.
Often times, communication and executive function problems are perceived by neurotypicals (NTs) as attitude or behaviour problems. The NT doesn’t understand how someone who is clearly bright and capable can “not get” things that are obvious to most people. It helps to be able to explain unexpected behaviors so NTs don’t take them personally. One woman tells people, “I tend to take things very literally. Let me know if I am missing the point.”
Individuals who decide to formally disclose need to be clear about their specific workplace challenges and the accommodations they believe will mitigate them. Simply saying to a manager, “I have Asperger’s and can’t multi-task” puts the burden on someone who probably knows little or nothing about what to do. Instead say, “my Asperger’s Syndrome makes it hard to focus on several things at once. Tell me what the priorities are and I’ll get through them one by one.”
MJ: What accommodations do you usually seek when putting together a programme and are there any which present specific issues?
BB: Specific accommodations depend on the individual, but here are some examples from recent client cases: Use of a laptop for note-taking during meetings; receiving a meeting agenda 24 hours in advance; receiving written requests from staff members; providing written answers to questions from senior management. One man, by his own choice, switched from a management role to a technical job that was much more in line with his interests and abilities.
Of course, a person with a disability must be able to perform the essential functions of the job and meet the employer’s performance standards. Sometimes the individual with Asperger’s Syndrome has trouble working fast enough to meet required deadlines. I also notice a tendency to focus on details when what senior managers want is the “big picture.”
MJ: Whenever I work with managers or students with AS one of the things that I often find is there is a feeling that outside, third-party’s should take responsibility in initiating measures that will assist in providing support.
Whilst I accept that it is a two-way process, one of the things that I try very hard to do is emphasise the importance of “helping others to help themselves”. What I mean by this is that the AS community has a responsibility to help others by providing them with information about the condition via insight and support.
Unfortunately, I have to say that I often find a reticence among the AS community to do this and that I have to be quite blunt in emphasising this point. Is this your experience with managers with AS in the US?
BB: I was giving a workshop on how to communicate effectively at work, and one of the participants asked why the person with Asperger’s always had to be the one to change. “Why is it wrong,” she asked, “to not enjoy small talk? Why are we penalized for not being able to multi-task?”
There is nothing inherently “wrong” with the way that someone with Asperger’s processes information. It is just different than how the majority of people see things. Right now, most NTs do not understand much about Asperger’s. So when they see behaviour that they don’t understand, such as a co-worker not making eye contact, NTs are confused. They don’t have the knowledge to say, “Hmmm, I wonder if that person has Asperger’s Syndrome.” Instead, they think, “That person doesn’t want to be part of our team.” NTs take the words or behaviour personally. It is human nature to be suspect of people who are different.
So one way to create positive change is for people with Asperger’s to educate NTs. I have some clients who are very open about their Asperger’s. They explain why they have difficulty with something that seems very easy or obvious to an NT. They ask for what they need.
Focus on your strengths. When I work with people on disclosure, we come up with a strategy that emphasises what the individual contributes to the organization – all the things that they do well. Then we get specific about what the person’s challenges are and the needed accommodations. The wrong way to approach an employer is to say, “I have Asperger’s Syndrome so I can’t do X, Y, and Z.”
MJ: Leading on from this point, will you automatically agree to work with a manager with AS who approaches you or are their any caveats that need to satisfy before you enter into a coaching relationships?
BB: Coaching cannot be effective unless the individual wants it. I ask potential clients if they are willing to change and learn new skills, are open to receiving guidance, and if they will commit to coaching for a reasonable time period. The person also has to be emotionally stable and not going through any personal crisis that would make it hard to focus on the coaching work.
If an employer brings me in to work with an employee we decide up front who will have access to what information. For example, I let everyone know that I do not report the content of individual coaching sessions. We discuss how the employee’s supervisor and the human resources representative will be updated on progress. Usually the update is a written report done midway through the coaching. The employee being coached helps put this together and signs off on it before the document is distributed to others.
MJ: Can you give some insight into some of the more specific aspects of your training you provide please? For example, can you a guide a manager with AS towards say memory or anxiety training?
BB: I share tools and techniques with my clients for learning better communication skills, and managing time, priorities and other executive function skills. We do role-plays so that a client can practice what to say and do in particular situations. If I have an article, assessment or worksheet that I think will be useful, I pass that on to my client. If someone needs assistance that I can’t provide then I will refer them on to a specialist.
MJ: As with a superior manager another area which I feel is absolutely crucial in securing an effective working context is an appropriate organisational culture.
If this is unsatisfactory then I have found that it is virtually impossible for someone with AS to effectively operate. Corporate politics is an associated area which immediately comes to mind.
The prevailing culture will never be fully correct or appropriate. Can you give any insight into the methods you have been able to deploy that mitigate issues and enable progress to be made in this area please?
BB: I emphasize to my clients is that it is impossible to control what other people say or do. All they can control is their own behaviour and how they react to others. No job will ever be perfect and there are times when people (including NTs) have to deal with poor managers or business decisions that they don’t personally agree with.
It is important to manage stress. I’ve had cases where people have become so frustrated that they impulsively quit a job or exploded at a colleague with very serious repercussions. Try to objectively assess the situation. Is everyone in your work group overwhelmed, or just you? Is there a manager that many people find hard to work with, or is it just you? Are many employees staying late, or is it just you? If issues are unique to you, seek some help to figure out what you can do differently.
If there is a conflict with someone you interact with frequently, try to understand their point of view. This may be difficult for a person with Asperger’s to do alone. Also consider factors like the economy, regulatory environment, industry changes, etc. If there have been a lot of layoffs in your company, you may need to take short cuts or compromise.
Sometimes a person needs to move on. One man had jobs with several start-up companies and left each one because he could not handle the pressure and very tight deadlines. He has many transferable skills and is now seeking employment at an established firm with a less frenetic pace. Another client was fired from four consecutive financial consulting jobs. It turns out that he had no real interest in the profession and is now training for a different line of work.
MJ: Barbara thank you very much.