Business for Aspies

As someone who has taken a specific interest in Asperger syndrome (AS, and the workplace I am always interested in any text that can throw light in this area. When I saw the words Business for Aspies therefore, it was a book that I immediately sought to review.

Ashley Stanford runs a computer company in California and has studied how people with Asperger syndrome (AS) operate in a work context. She approaches the issue from a different perspective however, namely that: if you look at the situation or impairments in a different way they cannot only be resolved, but AS-related issues or traits can even become strengths. The central tenet of the book is therefore, fundamentally different to that adopted by many other commentators: you focus more on strengths not shortcomings. It is a very refreshing and, I think, immensely valuable approach. The key is to look at a problem from both the employee and the employer perspective.

The book revolves around three sections: a framework of core concepts that help understand the practical suggestions advocated; next a list of 42 best practices and thirdly; some rules that provide “safety, survival and rights”. I adopt a slightly different way to conduct this review: shorter than previous ones and stating the key message and benefit on a chapter-by-chapter basis and what I have learnt from own experience/would do in such circumstances.

Chapter 1: Baseline Starting Point for Building Your Career

The chapter starts with a very interesting story about Stanford going to a meeting with her husband who had AA and who was clearly stressed at the prospect. She told him not to say anything during the meeting and let her lead.

This he did. However, as the meeting progressed and he felt comfortable, it started to revolve around technical questions. Her husband opened up, answered the questions and became the focal point: he excelled! The key was to prepare him physically for the encounter and enable him to focus on his – technical – abilities. Focus on the unique positives and avoid placing the employee with AS in a position that shows their negatives.

An example of how I would ensure this occurs is by only taking on responsibilities I was prepared for, was capable of doing and not seeking promotion until I was ready internally.

Chapter 2: The Executive Function

Organization Matters! Finding “work arounds” for existing deficits is as important as overcoming those deficits, or as Stanford says: “sometimes the best solution is avoiding the problem in the first place”: if organizing is hard, own fewer things. Make sure the things you need are visible and keep objects in the office to a bare minimum.

Organizing and planning events can be difficult. They may be forgotten and/or organizing schedules around them may not be easy. Instead set up a “get tasks done” process: allocate tasks to each day of the month. Check each day and either complete or ignore if it does not need to be done.

How do you decide what to do next? Many people with AS “just do what is in front of them”. Instead identify “everyday tasks” and “elephants” – big projects that need to be done a little at a time. This is simple and it works.

The book uses Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to demonstrate the importance of satisfying personal – AS – requirements: if a person does not feel secure, i.e. if they have a new and demanding boss, they will no longer feel safe and it will affect their work, ability to concentrate and function effectively. An AS person needs to secure their basic needs and safety/security first and then, finally, secure love/belonging. The latter may be easy or hard. If you want to be accepted as part of the team, then you need to work at it. For your esteem/ego – or sense of self – the lack of social skills means you may have to fake it publicly.

Whatever work scenario I am now in, I always try to participate and contribute socially. I force myself to attend out-of-work functions even when I really don’t want to attend or cannot see any point in doing so. I also always introduce myself initially to colleagues and acknowledge daily and try to make small talk.

Chapter 3: Social Interaction on the Job

The closing stages of Chapter 2 roll over into chapter 3. An inability to play with others as a child may manifest itself as an adult as not being buddies with colleagues, the inability to communicate or be a “team member” and get a pay rise or appropriate compensation for work. This can cause stress and frustration. Different “best practices” are suggested.

1. Engaged and Safe”: A feeling of “safety” at work is essential for someone with AS. Achieving this involves becoming “engaged” in your work environment whilst maintaining a sense of safety or not being pushed into overload. Ensure sensory issues are controlled and implement other suggestions such as using a weighted vest – something that I had never heard of before.

Safety may involve “emotional safety”. However, building career success and security involves engaging in social relations with colleagues. The belonging level includes acceptance, being part of the group and identification with a successful team. A stronger ego/sense of self comes when you are given projects. If the person with AS realises these requirements they can reach “peak experiences” and achieve amazing things due to the ability to hyper-focus. Once the basic safety mechanisms are in place you can more easily engage socially.

2. Friendship with Co-Workers

This helps avoid social politics and office dramas. You don’t have to be the most popular person. Different skills are required at work and friendships are less pronounced and more shallow. Companies want people to be friendly not friends; close-knit relationships can even hurt the company: i.e. friends may not tattle on each other but colleagues may.

At work I always try to be on friendly terms to avoid antagonism with colleagues which has, at times, been as a result of the distance that my Asperger has, I believe, communicated. At the same time I cognitively condition myself to accept that I can’t demand and expect reciprocation. People will look after their own interest first-and-foremost – not mine.

Chapter 4: Eye Contact and Reading Faces at Work

3. The eyes send messages as does staring and the usual suggestions are made for dealing with this: train your eyes /map the blank face. Mindblindness (Baron-Cohen) is the inability to recognize other people have a different mind from your own which leads to difficulty guessing what they are thinking. If you don’t understand faces, ask people to tell you what they are thinking/want. Help can be gleaned from the Facial Action Coding System (FACS) by Paul Ekman which is a clinical way to read facial expressions:

When a person is angry, someone with AS may find it impossible to read another person’s face and the brain protects itself by shutting down the overload. Micro-expressions are brief, involuntary facial expressions that show the internal emotion of a person who is not consciously aware of their underlying emotional state. A basic knowledge of facial expressions is crucial for interacting with colleagues in real-space.

I would concur with this. However, if I am unsure, I ask!

4. Building Skills for Ultimate Flexibility: Removing the Pressure for In-Person Work

The author also advocates developing distinct skills by operating in fields that allows the person with AS to enter at choice, at their leisure and on their own terms. The book cites a very interesting example about writing code for Apple, Microsoft and Linux. The latter appealed because people could work on it in a casual way without having to respect strict financial guidelines as laid out by the corporation.

I think that this is a very important point and one which has become increasingly apparent to me over time. If I am working on subject matter that interests me and which I enjoy, I am focused, productive and effective; if not, it is the exact opposite. This is not always possible of course in a work context, but there have been times when I haven’t requested or sought this when it has been possible. I more pro-actively seek to do so now wherever possible.

Chapter 5: Body Gestures and Gestures on the Job

Find a body posture that is relaxed. Sitting too far from someone creates distance for example. Yoga is suggested to create awareness of your body, as is observing other people. Loud body language is large/fast or many movements – ignore this. Watch the “quiet people” and study their movements. Utilise hand gestures. Crossed arms indicates protectionism; hands moving in front passion.

Gestures are easier and more simple in a work environment. The general rule is keep gestures small and unobtrusive. Another universal rule is the more intense the hand gestures the more emotion behind them. In the office the less emotion the better.

This is sound advice. During delivery of my Asperger Transitions Programme in UK Universities I have been struck how often students fiddle with their hands. It is distracting and disconcerting. I try consciously wherever possible to avoid making unnecessary physical movements.

Chapter 6: The People You Work With

In most work environments, there is a mix of people who are difficult to deal with no matter how socially savvy you are. Emotions are rarely appropriate at work. The most important aspect of your relationship with your boss is respect. Before your boss can respect you need to respect yourself.

For me, these messages are short but powerful. I can think of no example where showing emotions is beneficial or appropriate; the only effect is the opposite. I try as hard as possible to control my Asperger emotions to maintain gravitas. By stating to myself that I am worthy and in now way lesser because of my condition, I can adopt the positive mindset that helps achieve this. Positive benefits then stem from this. As I believe that one of the most important factors for anyone with Asperger Syndrome is the working relationship they have with their boss, if I feel I cannot respect my boss, I find someone else to work for.

Chapter 7: Do I Enjoy My Job?

“You have the right to be happy in your chosen career!” There will, though, be times when you have to do unpleasant things which are difficult.

Perhaps the biggest potential error in carer choice for a person with AS is stated as taking the easy choice to accept that someone else is in charge of your career. It happens because of: a) overload with sensory input, mental chaos and the ensuing internal panic; b) self-preservation: complete mental chaos leads to subconscious switching of effort to self-preservation; c) abdication: when all energies are focused on surviving overload, there is no residual mental space left to consider alternative options that are abdicated to others.

The time spent before and after work are important rejuvenation times that prepare you for work next day. Successful strategies advocated here include: sensory system balancing, sensory input/complete elimination,
Overload causes a tendency to give up your free will or, at the very least it limits your available choices. Useful practical suggestions are provided. Coping strategies for inevitable work overload include: “can I get back to you with that later?; “That’s an important question. I need to look into a few things before I answer”; I am in the middle of another project now, can I come back to you later?” Keep pre-scripted answers at the ready to protect your choices.

Drafting a trajectory for your career will help keep it on track. Set goals and do what it takes to achieve them. If you experience frustration when a goal is unmet or needs to change: replace the unmet goal with a new one; have a back-up strategy when the pressure becomes too much, i.e. running to calm down; do not do the activity in the first place if it is too frustrating. The aim is to build a framework to make everyday choices, not increase the difficulty in your life.

With hindsight I can see that I have not managed my career as pro-actively or effectively as I could have – especially in relation to my AS. I have stayed put because I am happy when I have needed to move on to avoid being in roles that were becoming unsustainable; I have stayed in roles which I have not felt right or been happy in. I believe that I have had much more personal agency that I realise. Now, if things are not right for me, I am assertive I changing to ensure that I am in a situation where I am happy and is right for me.

Chapter 8. Your Most Valuable Traits

According to Stanford, understanding how your brain works is the most valuable thing you can do to boost your career. Seek understanding for how you work and why you work that way to recognize your strengths. AS strengths are often portrayed as weaknesses in common settings.

Do not get involved in unnecessary conversations to allow energy for other things and abstain from some peer relationships if they inappropriate. Do not extend yourself socially to an uncomfortable degree to avoid detracting from your ability to do the job.

The author next takes an interesting approach by advocating one does not get too involved in the social network. Emotional games do nothing except slow down the progress of business. The lack of “sharing interest” can keep one away from many minefields. One can use reason because of the AS brain, not fear or intimidation. By not noticing the emotional messages flying around the office via glances, body movements etc a person with AS can stay above the fray.

To keep your job when things get difficult: be valuable/focused, do not get caught up in office drama and; be accessible. If necessary, when people go to lunch and you have things to do say “thanks, but I need to stay and finish this”.

I personally try as hard as possible now to stay out of gossip or contentious issues. It helps allowing my AS thoughts and feelings to cause offence and ensure I remain productive. I focus, stay out of the fray and try to deliver tangible business results.

Chapter 9: Your Position in the Company – Building It and Keeping It

There is a flow of reciprocal actions in the workplace which needs to be understood. Social reciprocity is returning a “hello”; emotional reciprocity is thanking a co-worker for assistance, showing enthusiasm for a project.

Examples on non-reciprocity include: showing no interest in a co-worker’s conversation; ignoring non-verbal communication or focusing on your own work only. Managers often, however, tend not to full reciprocate as they cannot. Doing so means adopting a buddy-buddy level whilst bosses need to remain objective. Bosses can even be rude as they do not have to worry as much about the consequences of their actions – as the author says, they do not have to be fair, but unfortunately this is often true.

According to Stanford, Aspies can be great managers by leaving people alone. The desire to bond with others is less intense and allows one to stay on a boss-employee level more easily. A common business saying is: “it is better to make a right decision than a popular one”.

AS Stanford also goes on to say, people with AS have great difficulty in asking for help, mainly because they don’t think to ask!! Doing so can remove some major problems. The best sources of help come from family/friends and work contacts should only be approached last as it can lead to meaningless requests – asking about things you already know. The answer is to “make a list” of contacts you can draw on. Do this outside work as, when you do need it most, you will not have the cognitive ability to do so.

There is also the danger of brainspace”: having so many things on your mind it hinders the ability to get things done. Move things that can be done later out of your brainspace and focus on priorities. Work on the priority and avoid everything else. This approach respects certain AS traits: intense focus, sensory overload and visual models.

Recognizing brainspace is a powerful tool in helping self-protect yourself against work overload. Often too many tasks will come at once. The AS, hyper-focused brain means seeing too many Do’s at once which can be overwhelming. You end up being “frozen” and not being able to accomplish any task because you don’t know where to begin.

Securing a pay rise. Out of all the autistic traits, not spontaneously sharing your achievements with others is the most detrimental to your financial success. It is also the most difficult. Pay rises are given on what you “appear” to have contributed. Make sure people are aware of this.

Methods for communicating your value include: effective appearance, written confirmation and results. Assuming that your boss will automatically recognise your accomplishments is a dangerous assumption.

1. Visual appearance: others judge you on this. Having a smile means people will judge you as someone whom they can get on with. If you are well-kempt, people will assume that you do quality work;
2. Written confirmation: when communicating with others, don’t hide your accomplishments as others may take the credit or you will be given more than you handle. Don’t brag about them either as people will assume you feel insecure about them. Rule: liars give too much detail!
3. Results: these speak volumes about the quality of your work

However, a danger is that if you are perceived as being brilliant at your job you will automatically be brilliant at other things as well. This may result in premature advancement – and subsequent difficulties. Beware of this “halo” effect and make your manager aware of where your talents lie.

There are so many relevant factors here that I have experienced. I certainly have not emotionally acknowledged and reciprocated sufficiently at work and have striven hard to do this. Now I acknowledge everyone and try to smile at them. If they help me I thank them.

Related to this I try to leave people alone to get on with their jobs, but I also spend more time than I used to seeking to support them providing emotional support. I encourage, I acknowledge – and I seek to learn from my sub-ordinates as well. If I need help I ask and I certainly let people know what I am doing and what I have achieved. Related to this is ensuring that people are aware of the unique insight my AS means that I can provide into business issues via full communication.

Chapter 12: Unique Aspie Preoccupations on the Job

The next piece of advice offered is important: keep in mind that the company you work for – and also you – need the talents of other people. A Stanford rightly points out, doing this will help significantly as being regarded as a team member. Everyone unknowingly give clues about what they think about people and communicate our true feelings via body language, words and assumptions. If your thoughts for each other are positive you are more likely to work successfully together. The repercussions of not doing so are immense.

“Talk doesn’t cook rice!” In meetings say as little as possible to avoid saying the wrong thing. Another useful rule is: praise in public, criticise in private. During meetings if you do offer input, give positive suggestions. When saying something negative point out only the specifics. Do not make sweeping generalizations or mention anything irrelevant. Detox after meetings also. This is important for surviving future meetings better as it will prevent the future perception of pain. Do not expect meetings to be fun, but do expect them to be survivable.

All good stuff. I have found that by adopting a positive, internal mindset towards other people it helps mitigate my AS tendency to outwardly demonstrate antipathy towards others. In meetings and conversations, I always try to contribute something to avoid the danger of being regarded as being in my own world, but I always ensure that it is relevant. Before meetings I steel myself to concentrate and re-assert internally that I can get through them and retain the key facts.

Chapter 13: Who You Are at Work

The book states that talking less gives a perception of intelligence. Take time also to consider a reasonable response. Excessive social communication can be damaging. If you can master the act of listening carefully and communicating thoughtfully, your verbal interactions will be more successful.

Expectations shape who we become. Expectations change performance and if these are low you may feel “not good enough”. These are destructive emotions in the workplace. They erode trust between you are your colleagues who believe you will not achieve. Shift your expectations or have interactions mostly with people who have positive expectations of you.

If you are in a position where someone is putting you down every day, ask a trusted person to help. People like giving advice, but it is important to note that they can also be wrong. Explain any personal weaknesses to your boss so that they understand. Focus on the positives.

If you treat someone like an “it”, they are more likely to do so to you: treat people with respect. Try not to cause the problem in the first place. If someone else is the cause of the trouble, ask a third-party their view to see if it is justified. Listen carefully. Do not automatically dismiss other people’s views as irrelevant. In general, keep quiet when you see other people make mistakes.

Again, I believe that this is all sound advice in a work context. I try not to say anything negative about anyone, if someone is putting me down, I address the issue. I try to respect everyone in some way and take on board their views to ensure I convey respect.

But, perhaps, most importantly of all, I refuse to accept that my AS means that I cannot work in senior management positions or achieve key business objectives. If such negative views start to infiltrate my mind, I stamp on them. I may be different in some ways, but I am no less capable.

Chapter 14: Safety, Survival and the Ultimate Success

These are the three concepts a person should review in a difficult situation: safety, survival and ultimate success. When you are stressed and deep into overload, it is not a good time to think about career paths or deal with difficult co-worker relationships. Instead, focus on healing and building your tolerance.

The Safety Point: everyone has a range of performance ability, or a scale upon which they thrive or fail. A way of identifying your safety point in your own life is to try and identify the point at which you lose control of yourself: this for someone with Asperger is often a meltdown. The first loss of control is anger which, in the workplace, can get you into a lot of trouble. The second is detachment. This may not get you fired and get you through difficult times, but a prolonged period of detachment will seriously harm your self-worth. You may also become passive which invites co-workers to dominate and mistreat you.

The key is to stay above the safety point so you can help yourself. Pay attention to your personal negatives. Overload can be brutal so ensure that it doesn’t happen. In a work environment you may be required to do things such as give presentations, make phone calls or interact socially in ways beyond your comfort level. This leads to the book providing a very useful Survival Toolkit Top 10!

a) Breathe: people with AS get stressed when they stop breathing due to a less noticeable internal warning sign called adrenal fatigue. This can cause faintness. Tell yourself to breathe and practice various breathing techniques. Yoga is suggested, specifically Kundalini Yoga as it involves intense breath-work;
b) Drink water: dehydration slows brain function meaning that sensory overload is more likely to occur and abilities shut down. Do not drink water before bed as it hinders sleeps. Coffee dehydrates the body; water improves mental function;
c) Exercise: this is particularly useful for someone with Asperger syndrome. Regular exercise calms the nervous system;
d) Eat well: what you consume affects your work performance. If inappropriate avoid Gluten;
e) Sleep: adequate sleep is a vital survival tool. Taking a lunch hour nap can be beneficial. Visualise pleasant environments to help you go to sleep and establish a routine. Sleep deprivation can be very harmful and lead to things such as memory loss, irritability and ADHD. Sleeping well will help you keep your job and improve your career;
f) Make a nest: having a private office can make a big difference. If you cannot change your office, make home the place for letdown after work. Find what works for you whether it is visual, auditory, olfactory or tactile and then build a nest that suits;
g) Read: reading may be your ultimate survival strategy. Reading fiction books means you are better able to understand the social relationships around you. Reading can provide you with insights you cannot get any other way and can save significant time and energy;
h) Indulge in your hobby: this can relax and rejuvenate you. A hobby is good for you; an addiction is not;
i) Financial security: this involves an awareness of your financial situation which provides a greater level of internal relaxation and calm;
j) Check in with friends: “isolation kills”. Make and keep a few friendships.

All of these factors are general lifestyle changes which I have, in the main, adopted and found beneficial. They have helped me as a manager and assisted in improving my performance in a work context. I would thoroughly recommend trying to adopt them to some degree.

The book ends with an Aspie Bill of Rights. In the workplace this involves things like the right to refuse advancement if it entails unwanted stress; to immerse yourself in your work; to request accommodations etc. there are consequences for everyone of your actions, but recognising that they are your actions based on your ability to control your own life is an empowering position to be in. The more you fully own your life, the more easily you can direct it. I believe that this is a positive way to finish and lists many things that someone with AS is entitles to expect from their employer and in their career.

I loved Business for Aspies! The different approach of focusing on personal/AS strengths, as opposed to continually trying to focus on weaknesses, is both refreshing and hugely positive in outlook. Above all I applaud and support the assertive way that Ashley Stanford advocates concentrating on the different traits inherent within the Asperger personality and viewing them as opportunities to be grabbed. I have taken an enormous number of positives from this book.

Ashley Stanford: Business for Aspies, Jessica Kingsley Publishers. ISBN: 978-1-84905-845-2

Managing with Asperger Syndrome