Asperger Syndrome and Employment

Asperger syndrome and Employment by Sarah Hendrickx is the latest in a welcome series of books written for people with Asperger Syndrome (AS) on the subject of employment.

The author is part of the Aspire project based in Brighton in the UK which seeks to provide support for adults with AS looking to transition in the workplace. Like many of its counterparts, the book interviews people with AS to identify their views on various work related topics and then offers insight and associated recommendations.

The book starts by re-emphasising how AS affects everything; how it has an impact on each and every area of a person’s life, which means that it is impossible to separate employment from it.

The point how employment itself throws up specific challenges is then emphasised and investigated. As the author says, for someone with AS, this involves: “doing things that one doesn’t want to do, in a place not of ones choosing, with people who you may not like and in a way that you may not wish to”.

Hendrickx believes that awareness of ones’ own personal differences in these areas – usually learned from the reactions of others – is a key source of anxiety, stress and possible depression. When one is unable to cope with the physical environment, it then becomes exhausting and all-consuming. Attention, communication and productivity are impossible when in discomfort as a result.

A central assertion of early pages is that the mental energy required with many of these issues can greatly impact in a work context because – as a result – there is less energy for the actual job itself. I can concur with this.

Encouragingly, Hendrickx then makes the point that some people with AS do however, work at very high levels within their occupations and have become experts in their chosen field. Some of the highest achievers have the most significant daily issues to overcome and are working very hard to continuously cope with them.

I say encouragingly because, of course, this reflects my own personal experience. My passionate belief is that such environmental issues are not insuperable and that those with AS can work at high levels in major organisations.

However, as the text then also usefully points out, those who have found successful employment have often failed to find the support that will allow them to reach their full potential.

The book starts by looking at “when work doesn’t work” by revisiting many of the common areas of difficulty – such as people relationships difficulties, coping with the social side of things, not being sure they would be able to do a job, the lack of a support worker and negative perceptions of employers – but how that, also, there are some scenarios that seem more suitable than others.

Much of this covers common ground. For example, Harvey is quoted as advising avoiding working in large corporate headquarters due to the amount of stress, workload and the “ruthlessness of managers”. I found the last note particularly interesting.

The insight into dealings with superior managers was also enlightening. The author asserts that there may also be a dislike of authority on behalf of people with AS and how several of the people interviewed commented on knowing more than their manager but not being able to conceal it.

I personally have been guilty of demonstrating many of the consequences that the author identifies as a result of this: namely how such an attitude, though probably correct, does not help form friendships and effective working relationships and how those in positions of authority like others to think that they should be treated automatically with respect for no other reason than their superior status. Where I have had respect for a manager, this has not been a problem; where there has been an absence of respect, it has led to real difficulties.

The author then refers to the known tendency for someone with AS to treat everyone equally or to give respect only where they feel personally it is due – not where society says it should be directed. The book cites an interesting example: “I find company politics drives me mad. I managed to make myself redundant on one occasion because I could not suppress my views on the mistakes I felt we were making”.

The two key conflict scenarios I have experienced in my career have both emanated from this position. Because of my inherent sense of “right and wrong”, I have allowed myself to react to managers who have expected me to be automatically subservient and reverential to them when I have believed this to be unwarranted and unjustifiable. Now, I always refrain from directly criticising and take an indifferent stance by not allowing myself to react or be too overtly opinionated if a manager does not meet my expectations.

The section on dealing with stress is a most useful one. As Hendrickx says there will come a time at work for most people when things become difficult either because of the workload, relationships with colleagues or some other form of stress.

For people with AS, stress can be a daily occurrence and cause high levels of anxiety and physical and mental strain. The author outlines how the main coping strategy for managing stress appears to be either absenteeism or leaving a job.

I am not sure personally that is quite the case. My own experience, and that of observing others, is that, because of the inner determination demonstrated by those with AS, people can possibly go too far in the other extreme, i.e. remain within a job when it is unsuitable or inadvisable to do so. As Hendrickx – I think correctly – asserts however, this is not recommended as it can lead to dismissal and rarely prevents the problem from arising again.

As the book proceeds it moves into territory which I found increasingly relevant and pertinent. As a result, it changes from being a text that makes largely, standard, previously made points, to one that provides some exceedingly useful insight.

The first is how the communications difficulties inherent in AS may make specific problems bigger. For example, a person may be less able to discuss their feelings and concerns at an early stage in the development of a problem and so prevent the stress from developing and becoming unmanageable.

I personally have found this is a real difficulty in certain cases, especially when dealing with conflict or aggressive, problematic people. I have analysed why extensively, but have yet to locate what I believe is the precise explanation.

A key reason – possibly – is the sense of awareness I often feel that, perhaps, the differentness inherent in my AS, combined with a conscious sense of be able unconsciously to antagonise others unintentionally because of my non-neurotypical mode of communication, has been a causal factor in any friction. I have fought to reject this internally as I have found that it is often not justified and yet can become self-perpetuating.

The author also asserts that there may also be the tendency to refuse – or find it difficult – to accept help and admit “failure” (as they see it). I have increasingly come to appreciate that I have, to a degree, practised this. In a work context – especially as a manager – I have tended to try and resolve things independently through fear, I suspect, of being perceived as ineffectual or less than capable.

The book then moves onto investigating “what works and why” from an employment perspective for someone with Asperger syndrome. 47% of those questioned were working in IT and 10% in mathematical fields are quoted and, so, how it may be that these vocations fit with the systemising temperament of someone with AS.

The section on the key factors in many successful employment situations is very good. Working alone (the most commonly mentioned requirement), autonomy – making own decisions; a clearly defined role and responsibility; intellectual challenge; being respected for skills and personal interest in subject matter are all cited by those interviewed.

The responses demonstrate a considerable degree of self-awareness and reflection by participants. The author points out however, that most of these factors would be pretty high up on anyone’s ideal job, which is something that I always feel is relevant! Only the working alone is viewed as being particularly distinct to the Asperger personality.

The book then looks at self-awareness and how, once this ability has been practised and developed, it becomes much easier to consider what kind of strategies can help overcome anxieties and difficulties.

Hendrickx rightly, I believe, believes that understanding your own self, condition and limitations, is a good place to start when deciding what work to do and whether you will be any good at a particular career. Learning about AS and how it impacts on the person (individual) is a big part of this.

I too believe that this is right. As I have found out more and more, particularly in relation to others and different work contexts, I have been able to make significant changes that have helped me to progress my own career through simply understanding myself better.

Next the motivations for working are explored. People with AS were found to be interested in money – for survival and getting by however – not to impress people or secure significant material gain. As the book says, people with AS are not affected by societal norms and the need to acquire possessions so as to be part of any social group or to acquire social status.

The key factors identified from a monetary/financial perspective are working to have money for practical reasons, as a source of enjoyment and/or intellectual challenge, to prevent of boredom, to be useful/gain sense of achievement. All relevant stuff, though I would have liked the text to have investigated further how people with AS may not press for additional financial gain when due or deserved. Importantly, the point is then made how people with AS need to enjoy what they are doing to gather the motivation that makes the stress of work worthwhile.

The section entitled “The Perfect Job” investigates what type of work would best suit someone with Asperger syndrome. First, it lists some ideal jobs which (no criticism implied or intended) contains no real surprises.

It then looks at tasks from the key processes involved: control, limited contact with people, autonomy, enough money to alleviate financial concerns and flexible working hours. It is suggested that working part-time might be a serious option for someone with AS who may find the demands of the workplace too exhausting for a full time working week. Full time work or unemployment should not be seen, therefore, as the only options available.

Next the book looks at early experiences and personal circumstances in relation to work. AS is a lifelong condition that begins in childhood and its effects will have been felt therefore for many years and before they become apparent to a potential employee. This was certainly the case with me!

The author asserts that an adult with AS contemplating work has previously been an adolescent with AS and experiences in childhood will have shaped them in a number of ways – both good and bad.

For the majority of children, mainstream education should be achievable with appropriate support and training of staff. Intellectually, those with AS are usually able to manage the level of work required. However, having high academic capabilities may not be useful in themselves if a person is lacking in social or practical living skills or “common sense”. Many interviewees reported a general lack of support and understanding of the true nature of their different behaviours which can then be carried over into a work context. .

The section on bullying is good and provides some beneficial advice on it in relation to work: how people with AS are less able to fit in socially and so become easy targets for those with more advanced social skills/techniques such as deception, sarcasm and non-verbal skills. The person with AS can also appear innocent and naïve and believe what they are told which makes them vulnerable. These are all applicable work examples and sources of potential assistance.

Workplace bullying was mentioned by a number of interviewees, many of whom did not recognise the malicious intent of their colleagues. According to the author, if they were aware they were unlikely to have the communication and social skills to deal with it effectively.

Skills, for “repairing” social situations are identified as a potential solution as well as being an area of difficulty. Bullying can result from the belief that one does not deserve respect and friendship as a result of lower self-esteem.

The book asserts that many people [with AS] were able to navigate these experiences at school and that this fosters an ability to endure and tolerate bullying in the workplace. I suspect that this applies to me and my inability to effect “boundaries” which I will be exploring shortly on Aspergermanagement.com

As the book outlines, if a child fails however to learn the workplace skills taught at a school – following instructions, punctuality, politeness and cooperation- they will be hindered at work.

The author then moves onto looking for a job. Most people interviewed stated that it is difficult to identify what job to do when they had never had the opportunity to experience it beforehand. However, for someone with AS, who is unable largely to engage in abstract, imaginative thought, actually doing a job may be the only way to find out if it is doable and tolerable.

Hendrickx emphasises that the job a person initially chooses doesn’t have to be the one that you do forever. One can change jobs, careers or direction at any time and doing so should not be viewed as failure. Not having the skills for ones’ perfect job doesn’t mean you cannot work towards it over time. This mirrors my own job record, though it was unplanned and evolved as a result of trial and error, I did – in the end – arrive at acceptable vocation.

Hendricks then goes on to say that having a goal for the future can be helpful in keeping a person motivated to work towards a career in small steps. I certainly think that this is relevant and pertinent advice and is what the Transitions Programme I am working on with the Nottingham University Careers Service is currently seeking to achieve. Part of the programme involves doing what Hendrickx advocates next: reading articles about jobs to acquire a basic knowledge about them before entering cold and prematurely..

Her next point is also, I believe, extremely valid. Being realistic is important. A job may come with a big cheque, but also with circumstances that you may find intolerable. I can’t emphasise enough from my own experience the benefit of avoiding jobs and work cultures that are inappropriate for someone with Asperger syndrome – both can do immense, long-term damage.

The book advises that, if it is impossible to decide what job to try, voluntary work is a sensible option, and is, perhaps, the only way to increase confidence, experience and skills is to be able to do something. To this, I would add the opportunity to try something whilst under no personal pressure.

The longer a person is unemployed, the harder it is for them to return to work. Doing something is better than doing nothing, as it prevents isolation and sense of achievement.

The book then lists the key points for choosing a job, which are worth reading:

• Research what types of job exist – ask other people about them
• Think about the consequences of doing certain jobs – positive and negative;
• Search for available jobs and try to think if you could do then;
• Request work experience in a company that interest you to see what it would be like to work there;
• Look around you at the jobs that people do and see what their work involves, and think whether you could do their job;
• Ask people you know what job they think you would be good at;
• List all your skills and interests – the job for you may become apparent from this list;
• Ask others to help you to list your skills – it can be hard to know what you are good at;
• Try to volunteer jobs to get a better idea of what types of activities and environments you enjoy and work well in;
• Any activity or research that you do today will be a step towards finding work that suits you;
• Complete free online/psychometric tests relating to career types to give some suggestions. Do not take these too literally or seriously as they should be just a guide;
• Get careers advice from a professional.

Next Asperger syndrome and Employment looks at applying for jobs. It is here that, for me, the real strength of the book comes to the fore: its practical advice and insight.

Reference is made to the how little AS specific support in searching and applying for work is available; how age is a factor insofar as many respondents didn’t know about their AS when they first started applying for their first job and; how there is a strong rationale and logic involved in job searching and that there should be less of the simply “go for it” element.

Among the problems cited were: “never felt confident applying for jobs”; “bad at selling myself”; “difficulty in inferring information from any job ads”; “not sure what job I’d fit into” and; “the only criterion I can use when applying for jobs is: “can I get away with it”. All I feel are worthy of further consideration.

The text then looks at interviews which are a classic area of difficulty for a person with AS. Having personal contacts who can introduce you to an employer is cited as being useful, but not everyone, of course, has access to these.

Making people aware you are looking for work may help also as there is then the possibility of avoiding an informal interview. I am not sure personally of how valid this assertion is; in most cases today I believe, unless it is with a small family type of firm or an extremely close acquaintance, most firms will want to conduct some form of interview.

Reading about interviewing skills is regarded useful, but how it is also important not to try to be something that you are not. The latter I believe is something that is essential for a person with Asperger.

From my own experience of interviews, I believe that it is possible for someone with AS to prepare and “wing it” through the process. However, I believe if you do succeed in doing so it will only store up trouble for later: you have to be who you are and adapt yourself accordingly to the environment.

Further advice includes finding out what the interview procedure will be beforehand and getting as much information about the company. If you disclose your AS, provide the company with some information about the condition. Useful interviewing tips: stay on the question and do not go “off track”.

The text then gets back on the motivation to look for work and how it is sometimes reported that people with AS get “stuck” in familiar patterns and behaviours that they find difficult to change. This may be due to avoiding risk and change or comprehending the consequences of action (or non-action). A person may not be able to work out or predict the possible outcomes of not working.

There may also be the desire to change a situation but the person with AS cannot see any possible options for change, i.e. learning new skills or contacting a person who could provide some advice. I think that this is largely true because of a propensity to stay within a static situation on the basis it prevents change in the known and comfortable routines.

Hendrickx next found that most people questioned had some difficulty in making the initial shift from stasis into movement, although, once started, they found it easier to continue and make required changes. Its not change itself that causes the problem, it is the transition – the process of moving from one circumstance to another.

Once the new situation is reached, it is no longer “new” and is therefore familiar. I have found that this is largely the same for me. In my recent Asperger syndrome and decision making in the Viewpoint section of my website, I allude to this vary clearly and the methods that can be deployed to overcome it. I have found it to be incredibly beneficial.

According to Hendrickx there is no easy way to get motivated apart from just doing it – something, anything. Doing nothing usually means that nothing will change. The only way for things to change is to do something to change them.

It is this that I find is the most important thing for me at work: I make a start which is the hardest thing for me to do but, once I have done so, it becomes easy and I find I can work easily and steadily. Not thinking ahead to any impending new task until I am about to begin is also very useful as it stops me getting distracted. Accepting that you can change your situation means taking responsibility for the position you are in now and choosing, (yes choosing), to do something about it.

The subject of disclosure is then explored, though I do not believe the book covers any new ground or insight that has not been covered in other texts.

According to Jane Meyerding, most people “come out at work gradually”. It is never too late to ask for adjustments and you do not have to continue to struggle. Most people distrust how an employer would react to disclosure or the strong belief that a person with AS can manage unaided. The latter could possibly be because they have found a low-stress environment in which they could survive and possibly thrive.

However, as with most other books I have read, the author advocates disclosure. By disclosing AS to an employer you ensure that adequate support is provided as a preventative measure – before the stress emanating from associated problems arises. It also means that the positive skills can increase. Without disclosure things (publically) will not change; employers will continue not to understand the condition or the benefits of employing someone with AS.

Hendrickx then moves onto the area of guidance and training or specialist support for individuals and services for people with Asperger which is where her expertise lies.

It is reported that few people with AS find work without specialist support and that more could retain work if they were better supported. Few receive any type of specialist support and most simply “make their own way”. Partners or family were often cited the main sources of support. I think these general points are largely accepted.

However, the book goes onto more, and more useful, detail: how it takes a long time for someone with AS to be ready to make the changes they want/need to make and how a typical three to six month programme is not long enough to encourage and embed any required behaviour or raise confidence.

Importantly, the point about how many would benefit with ongoing support is made because of inevitable fresh challenges/situations, and how a mentor can also act as an advocate in areas like employment. (Aspire is overrun with requests as it provide practical support/guidance, but has limited resources).

The book then moves onto AS specific training and services and employers. It is recommended that organisations, support workers and family members should have access to AS awareness training to enable appropriate care and support to build. This is a key area currently being investigated as part of the UK Government’s current consultation process as part of its A Better Future, Adults with Autism Strategy, one which, I believe, is extremely limited and in desperate need of rectification

Some insight is then provided by Powell who works as part of what sounds to be the extremely interesting Avon Asperger Syndrome Project in the UK. This provides recommendations on the type of information and training that services’ could receive: “selling” the skills of someone with AS to an employer, understanding the specific qualities and weaknesses of those with AS and how to recognise when someone is ready for work.

He [Powell] also outlines a strategy for those providing support services. The most common request made by adults with AS using support services was to work with someone who understood their condition. It is this, I believe, where the biggest challenge lies in the current provision of support services in relation to employment support on the autistic spectrum in the UK and the author makes an impressive, passionate case for their further development.

I personally am sceptical as to whether anything other than a highly trained professional, one who has studied Asperger syndrome and who has worked with people with AS, could ever adequately guide a person in this area.

One of the most rewarding – and heartening – aspects of the Transitions Project that I am currently running with the Careers Service at Nottingham University, is the positive feedback I have received from attendees; in particular, how they have valued the insight that I have provided from my own experience as a person with AS in the workplace.

What I am determined to try and do as a consequence, is extend the training to other Careers Advisors to assist in ensuring that they have better insight and understanding of the condition, and how they can guide students who are currently largely unaware of what awaits them in the world of work.

The book then lists some useful training principles as part of this section. The need for:

• Expert input into the development of AS training;
• Two tiers of training provision: AS awareness training and job-specific or specialist training;
• Trainers to be experienced and preferably still working with those with AS and;
• Those with AS, or their family members, to contribute to training sessions.

Advocacy is then made for training to cover the theory of AS and practical strategies which, I think, is sound. Specialist job training should also be tailored to meet individual job roles. Life skills must not be ignored. The former would be difficult but ideal; the latter, I feel, pretty much essential

Above all, it is rightly pointed out that these skills are not learned overnight and require long-term, consistent, AS focused support. Without these skills, a person with AS will find it difficult to enter the world of work for several hours each day.

From a personal perspective, this is one of the most pertinent and valuable lessons that I have learned. Looking back, it amazes me in a way how entrenched the lessons I have learned – ones which I initially felt would be almost impossible to acquire – are now almost second nature.
The key is to consistently apply the correct methods and practices and not – as is often the innate way for someone with AS – to become impatient or discouraged when change doesn’t immediately appear and divert from required actions and practices.

With workplace support, most people interviewed did not receive any support because they did not disclose their condition. There is also a stubbornness reported for fear of feeling less capable that suggests that someone would rather walk out of a job than admit to having a condition which can be disabling in certain circumstances.

The final chapter looks at “How to Make Employment Work – Tips for Success”. It starts by emphasising that communication between employer and employee is essential for any relationship to work. This communication may need to be initiated by the employer as the person with AS may find it difficult to admit having a problem.

I am not sure how feasible or likely this request would be in practice, but the suggestion that a structured, scheduled meeting time with a superior in a recognisable, appropriate place for discussions about work issues is something that I always push for as part of any ameliorative programme for someone with AS.

The book then lists key requirements for employment success from an employer and employee perspective which are largely standard in relation to other texts but which are extremely useful nevertheless

The author concludes by emphasising how people with AS need to make themselves familiar with their condition, and their own strengths and limitations, and how they must be willing to work at new skills. This may involve some discomfort, change and anxiety, but it is the only way to make changes – it’s the same for everyone.

It’s a very apposite point to finish on and, in my opinion, not only most useful, but essential, advice.

Asperger syndrome and Employment is a useful and most enjoyable read. Its main limitation is that it is required to inevitably go over ground which has been covered by many preceding texts. Providing something new and different is always likely to be challenging, but that in no way denigrates the book or makes the messages it sends in any way less important.

Where the book really excels in my opinion is when it discusses the training and support aspects of assisting those with AS in the workplace. Hendricks has invaluable practical experience and affords advantageous insight in many different areas.

It is for this reason that Asperger syndrome and Employment is well worth reading and will be part of my reference list on both Aspergermanagement.com and the documentation supporting my Transitions Project for University Students with Nottingham University.

Asperger Syndrome & Employment: What People with Asperger Syndrome Really Really Want, Sarah Hendrickx,

Jessica Kingsley Publishers, ISBN: 978-1-84310-677-7

Managing with Asperger Syndrome