Following last months’ introduction on the research being undertaken into communication between neuro-typical people and those with Asperger syndrome, I speak this month to Martina Buckley from University College Cork in Ireland who is conducting the research in further detail about some of the issues that relate to the work place in this area.
Interviewing is a key area here, given as it is, something during which a person with AS needs to communicate clearly, precisely and assertively.
MJ: What would you say are the key communication gaps between Neuro-typicals and people with AS in general? What is it that the former find so difficult about connecting with the latter?
MB: Well, I could answer quoting from the manuals or reporting what other AS and ASD people told me during my research, and I prefer the latter option. Face-to-face interaction is the big issue here. It is really like if there were two languages with no translator. Neuro-typical’s often interpret the lack of eye contact, the abrupt-to-the-point answers, the incapability of lying for social purposes as lack of confidence and/or rudeness.
If the AS/ASD person works in a creative or academic field, the behaviour would be simply considered as “quirky” or “odd”. Instead in a mainstream job environment or, typically, in schools, it is just not accepted and often no effort is made to understand why the Asperger/ASD person acts or talks like that. On the other hand, the AS person is expected to conform, which is often difficult, if not impossible in some cases. Then you get a picture of exclusion and incommunicability.
MJ: You say that environmental factors significantly impact on communication. This is certainly the case with me. Can you elucidate in some more detail how the work environment manifests itself for someone with AS?
MB: In my opinion, and drawing again from AS/ASD experiences, work settings today are highly stressful and often very unstructured (and this goes also for neurotypicals, if I may add). Because of the nature of Asperger Syndrome and ASD, a very noisy, overcrowded environment is a recipe for withdrawal, lack of concentration and isolation.
You can easily apply this scenario for primary and secondary schools. Yet, in many colleges and universities you can get plenty of support if you are in the special need spectrum, including Asperger. They allow you personalised settings for studying and examinations and help communication with on-line devices. I really wonder why this can’t be applied in the workplace.
MJ: Indeed, one of the things I always seek when I am considering changing job is a work environment that allows me solitude and the ability to work independently.
I have found that throughout my career that there are certain companies, corporate cultures, and individual managers/colleagues I can work very well with and others I cannot. In other words, communication is effective in some situations but not in others. Why can’t I retain an effective communication mode in every workplace setting when, in effect, I am dealing with the same subject matter and issues?
MB: This is what I am trying to find out with my research, among other aspects. I suspect that, once again, environmental factors are to blame. I am trying to explore which communication strategies work better than others and why.
Communication is such a fundamental aspect in our reality that, when there is an impairment of any sort in it (think also about the hearing-impaired community) the results always involve exclusion. In the workplace the problem is even more obvious, as if communication is not effective, the job does not get done.
MJ: Do you think that it is practical, realistic and possible – and indeed advisable – to explain to work colleagues the different communication requirements of someone with AS. I wasn’t thinking of this from a “should I or should I not” perspective, i.e. disclosure of AS and the related sensitivity of the subject, but more from whether NTs are sufficiently able to ever truly understand the AS perspective?
MB: It is a very sensitive matter. In my opinion, yes, do explain what you are to your colleagues and be militant about it. In reality, this is not always the case. I came across many Aspies who kept their diagnosis for themselves, afraid that by coming out with it they would encounter discrimination and, very possibly, lose their job (or not getting the job in the first place).
I believe that more training should be available in the workplace in order to deal with diversities of all sorts. Websites like yours, for instance, could be used as a reference tool ready available to every manager, Aspie and NT.
MJ: Why do you feel NT’s find it difficult to understand the AS communication mode? What specifically are the difficult elements?
MB: Yes, this is the main problem. NTs find extremely difficult to understand the staple traits of Asperger and ASD. For instance, in the workplace the obsessive tendencies of Aspies and their way of talking often of their topic of interest might be frown upon as an inefficient strategy to deal with work.
Interestingly, this aspect of AS is often encouraged in universities, that’s why Asperger people often make excellent academics. Aspies also might not work well in settings like face-to-face meetings, which are a huge component in the workplace.
MJ: I am interested in hearing more about your views on language and what you feel is appropriate in a work context. Obviously, this may differ from outside, but are there any key requirements you feel need to be respected and implemented?
MB: My research has a firm constructivist base. I really think that we construct the world around us with language and the way we use it. If a workplace does not function properly for certain people (typically, people “wired” in a different way) it is because we made it hostile with our interactions.
This factor, in my opinion, has to be kept in mind all the time in an office. I am still listening to the voices of people involved everyday with these problems in order to isolate some key requirements or simply some basic guidelines that can be implemented in social settings like work and schools.
MJ: I am interested in probing more your concept of the “disabling environment” in a work context. Whilst I believe that this is true, it only holds – as mentioned – I believe in certain situations: aggressive or highly formal cultures, where technical knowledge is outside of personal interest/interests etc.
However, there is the pragmatic consideration: people cannot automatically pick and choose where they work. Do you believe that someone with AS can operate effectively from a language/communication perspective or is it an insuperable problem.
MB: Of course, there are some coping strategies that can be “learnt” by Asperger people in order to function better in highly structured social contexts. This is interesting, because coping strategies constitute one of the aspects I am also exploring at the moment within the research, the way they can be learnt and applied.
I still firmly believe, though, that the neurotypical counterpart must make some efforts too. Understanding that communication is not the same for everybody, for instance, would be a huge step forwards.
MJ: Your research will focus on the patterns inherent in language. Can you give more specific examples of what you have in mind and how they play out in a work context?
MB: The way my research works is that, basically, the participants construct it day by day with their words and their written material. I have finished the pilot stage and some interesting patterns have already emerged.
The participants seem to be very confident when communicating with written text and feel that this medium should be exploited more for practical applications. There is a huge need for more research in the field of communication difficulties in social contexts. Some of the people I spoke to could not even get a job in the first place because of their “perceived” lack of communication skills.
I just hope that through my research (it will be published in 2009, but hopefully there will be other “child” publications before that time) I will be able to link with other people who already deal with the practical issues of communication difficulties.
I believe that personalised plans can be put in place when hiring somebody with a diagnosis. You can, for instance, have online meetings, which are perfectly feasible with the current technology, rather than face-to-face one. Written communication might be privileged to verbal. Some simple steps, a more flexible work (and school!) environment and some better knowledge of the communication strategies of AS/ASD people could help towards a more inclusive work environment.
MJ: Martina, many thanks. We shall follow your research with great interest and report its findings on a regular basis.