How to Find Work That Works for People with Asperger Syndrome

I did think I would struggle to read a more authoritative and worthwhile book on Asperger syndrome (AS) in relation to work than Tony Attwood’s The Complete Guide to Asperger Syndrome, but I am contemplating changing my mind!

How to Find Work That Works for People with Asperger Syndrome by Gail Hawkins matches it and deserves to be regarded as a “must read” in relation to having Asperger syndrome and employment.

Written from the perspective of a support coach for people with AS seeking to enter the workplace, the book is a comprehensive overview of all the issues and how they can be positively addressed.

The book – and the content – is equally relevant and applicable to those with AS either trying to find work or looking to improve their current performance.

The text starts with Hawkins communicating most effectively why there is reason for confidence if proper support if given to the person and their transition into the workplace.

Importantly, the point is made that regular employment agencies and employers do not understand what AS is, or what the unique challenges it present, constitute and why, therefore, a tailored approach for each individual is necessary. It’s a complex process, but one that can result in high rewards for employees and employers alike.

There are 14 chapters spread over three parts covering what AS is, how it impacts, who is affected – the subject, coach, family and employer – and, finally, what the various issues are.

Part 1 looks at “The Players” starting with the Employer. Interestingly the author is a very strong advocate of disclosing ones’ condition, and doing so right from the start of any application process.

The rationale for this is that, once an employer knows what to expect, they will be open to what is required from them in assisting the person; central to this is making required accommodations.

The section then looks at ten key skills an employer looks for and evaluates them against the personal attributes inherent within the AS\ character. Some are positive – good work ethic, analytical skills – others may present problems – communication, teamwork, inter-personal skills.

The point is then made as to how an employee with AS can blossom once they feel comfortable with their surroundings – something that I personally can concur with very closely.

According to Hawkins, the start point for is addressing shortcomings in these areas by finding an understanding employer who you can work with to come to a work accommodation.

This includes providing a longer learning curve and enabling an employee to build up to longer, more demanding hours, breaking assignments into smaller, manageable steps, answering more questions that normal, learning how to communicate more clearly, providing written instructions and accepting behavioural anomalies. Some employers will do this; others won’t!

Part 1 then looks at the value of a Job Coach. Their key requirement is to help with interaction with other people, firstly, by educating others in the workplace about AS and identifying effective work processes.

Developing effective lines of communication and appropriate relationships are also important and a coach can facilitate this via mediation and providing support. They can also ascertain “how” an employer wants a job done and how both parties can interpret information to facilitate understanding – clear instructions, limited multi-tasking etc.

Importantly, Hawkins emphasises how support must be phased out, so as to avoid dependence, but how this should not be done before a candidate is ready to avoid any possible negative consequences. Contact by the Coach should be retained going forward from a distance.

Building natural supports is also outlined as a key requirement. AS people typically do not ask for support, so key supports need to be identified who can provide advice, though this obviously depends on prior disclosure. Overall, the aim of the Coach is to develop an accommodation strategy and, as somebody who has throughout my career, always had to do this for myself, I can see the clear advantages and benefits of doing this.

Next the perspective of the candidate is considered. The author rightly emphasises the importance of the [AS] person making the effort personally to “fit in”. This means accepting others and their different approaches, empathising with the feelings and views of others, acting appropriately with authority figures, resistance to change and self-motivation. All of these objectives are ones that I have sought to instigate myself.

The passage also highlights the positives of the AS condition, i.e. honesty, conscientiousness, but also how cognitive shortcomings such as TOM (Theory of the Mind), the drive for perfection and low self esteem can act as hinderances and cannot be entirely eliminated.

It is at this stage that Hawkins makes the first of numerous statements which I personally could resonate so very closely with. These offer real insight into areas where significant, positive changes can I believe make such a difference to performance and which – for me – makes this book so invaluable (I shall mark these from here on with an *): “most people with AS have never really examined the depth of commitment needed to be successful in the workplace, how there are certain things that only the individual can do – such as “playing the game” and how learning unwritten rules of social culture and “not demanding or expecting that other people should accept you automatically for who you are”. In other words, the author lays down some key rules and lessons which, if adopted, can really impact positively on improved work performance.

People do need to be – I believe – strongly committed to this process and adopt self-acceptance in three areas: accepting one “is” different cognitively; accepting they have different and unique talents and; accepting the challenges that come with having AS.

Being aware of these personal challenges and taking responsibility, presents opportunities and prevents past mistakes from being repeated. Realising this, according to the author, involves adopting the actions of role models and living up to the expectations by truly understanding the necessary requirements: wanting to work, being motivated, being open to feedback, taking personal responsibility, developing required strategies and being willing to make personal changes – among others.

The final sections of part 1 then look at how the Family and specialist Professionals (Speech Therapists, Psychologists etc) can assist. With the former this involves emotional and practical support and avoiding over-protection. All useful insight.

Part 2 of the book is described as The Foundation and starts by looking at what Hawkins’ has labelled The Four Pillar Technique. This has four component parts in teaching those with AS: effective communication, clear expectations, clear consequences and consistency.

Effective communication involves “say what you mean and mean what you say” … – and do so in 15 words or less! Basically, be direct and explicit!

Re-learning for people with AS is acknowledged as hard because of established, rigid-thinking modes and routines. Consequently, teaching something right the first time is, therefore, highly important. The key is to find out what an employer wants and clearly relaying it to the person with AS to ensure complete understanding.

Most people do not require this, and most managers don’t know how to do it; so they need to be told in the case of someone with AS. Implied meanings should be avoided so that important points should not be missed.

Hawkins rightly emphasises why clear expectations are essential in business – “rules, mandates and ethics” – and why the AS person needs to understand them. Expectations should be realistic, stated, and how they can be met. The obvious may need to be spelt out and it should never be assumed that a person will automatically know. Ask: “do you know how to accomplish this?”

People with AS learn best when they participate in a process and helping them understand what consequences are required. Tasks need to be outlined, followed through and rewarded where appropriate.

Above al, Hawkins emphasises the need for consistency, and to achieve this, advocates making plans with clear expectations that are followed by the person with AS and fellow workers.

The author concludes this section by emphasising how adhering to The Four Pillar Technique is essential as communicating with people with AS is different, In summary, Hawkins requests you always “ask”.

The Foundation stage then moves onto The Employment Toolbox which consists of ten tools aimed at developing specific strategies to ameliorate some of the previously outlined problem areas.

Firstly, developing appropriate responses via:

* Scripts: pre-determined dialogues for given situations,
* Role-playing: acting in a way required at a real, specific event;
* Video play: witnessing ones’ own behaviour to provide a catalyst for change;
* Rule tool: rules required in set situations;
* Formulas: step-by-step descriptions of how to do something and achieve the required result;
* Anchoring: using the unconscious to get a pre-determined result – this involves the use of words that remind one of something to aid recall, touch and visual cues;
* Scales: systems that provide measurements to identify the middle ground. As people with AS live in a world of extremes i.e. anger;
* Third-party praise or positive reinforcement of behaviour;
* Mirroring: non-verbal communication by copying or reflecting the personality with whom you are talking and;
* Verbal Reflection: the opposite to mirroring – gaining feedback from others to accrue better awareness of what others see.

All of these are useful suggestions in my view providing one feels comfortable with them. As the author wisely advocates these tools should only be used privately and sensitively.

The book then moves on to assessing employment skills or evaluating The Big Picture. This consists of seven stages. Initially this involves bringing together individual issues or elements to identify the areas where skills are lacking so that any required skills can then be learned.

Importantly, I believe the author makes the correct assertion that this should be done in the actual workplace.

The key foundation stages are:

1. Personal Presentation

As people form impressions quickly, personal presentation and related details are important. The importance of initiating basic greetings such as: “good morning” or handshakes are also emphasised.

2. Social Skills Behaviour

A personal, conscious effort needs to be made to pick these up – general manners, awareness of other people’s personal space. The point is made how odd behaviours will draw negative attention and how if an employee is obsessed with getting something perfect it will hinder productivity.

The danger of inappropriate comments when socialising is referred to and how these can lead to argumentative discourse or signs of physical discomfort. Sensible it is advocated that the touching others should be limited or avoided altogether.

The danger of aggressive behaviour due to frustration or disappointment is also alluded to, due to the lower ability to express oneself appropriately and how this can lead to over reaction.

Such responses can draw a negative response from those observing the behaviour. As a result, people with AS need to learn to suppress angry feelings as it is very difficult for others to work around a person who is on the edge. Whilst employers will usually understand the occasional upset, if it continues they won’t.

I found all of these points highly relevant. As I have found – and as commentator Nick Dubin also asserts – it is essential at every stage to not over-react and avoid meltdown.

3. Communication Skills

How those with AS like concrete explanations and avoid grey areas is explained previously beforehand in the book.

One comment that I found very insightful is how extensive vocabulary can often hide poor comprehension skills and how language may be stiff. As someone who I believe exhibits the first point, I can resonate with damaging this can, at times, be.

The author outlines how conversation may be “at” the person, rather than, “with” the person, with the latter’s interests only partially taken into account. Inconsistent non-verbal language may also make it hard for others to understand what the person is actually feeling, thinking – and projecting. From a personal perspective I have, again, found myself practising this trait and how working to overcome it can provide real self improvement.

A monotone voice (which others have also commented on me having) may also be projected, resulting in meaning is lost through lack of emphasis. In addition, Hawkins believes that thoughts insufficiently censored, i.e. assessed as to whether they are appropriate for a given situation.

Other communication issues are then listed such as special interests, interrupting, reading of non-verbal clues, listening skills, understanding humour and eye contact – and how all can exert influence over the ability to communicate effectively.

iv) Mindful Skills

The book then moves onto an area which I have not investigated personally in any great detail. Namely: the ability to be sufficiently aware of any given situation and being able to process the information that emanates from it. This is a section that I found incredibly pertinent and useful.

A number of facets can prevail here: problem solving or applying common sense; visual instruction or “thinking in pictures”; kinaesthetic issues such as remaining still or focused on one issue for long.

How a person learns will impact on their ability to comprehend instruction or process information. The way a task is explained is also outlines as hugely important.

From my own experience I found the commentary on the application of judgement by effectively applying past lessons; flexibility with regard to work structures and routines to provide predictability, order and consistency so as to reduce anxiety extremely useful. The text explains how a downside occurs when faced with change, and how a person is rigid and unable to switch tasks or priorities- all traits and characteristics that have applied to me.

The point is then made as to how busy environments can distract people with AS and how memory retention is difficult insofar as the meaning allied to any memory may be poor. One solution advocated is the breaking down of tasks into small steps, though multi-tasking should be limited as far as possible.

The chapter finally discusses another issue which I can personally resonate with as a manager with AS very strongly: taking the initiative. The book asserts that people with AS frequently “get stuck” when left without direction and so, to perform well, they need some form of routine and structure.

4. Personal Characteristics

The next stage looks at the personal characteristics associated with AS and how these impact in a work context.

The problem of low self-esteem is initially discussed and how this can lead to a lack of confidence or even depression. People with AS can also be over sensitive or overreact and how employers don’t want employees who talk back, become aggressive, argue or act belligerently.

Next motivation and how people are generally not motivated to complete a task that is unimportant but which needs to be done. I have to confess I felt slightly ill at ease here being, as this is, something that is highly pertinent to me.

Finally the section looks at the Environment and how important it is to get this right for people with AS. As a whole chapter in my book Managing with Asperger Syndrome was devoted to this subject, given the importance I attached to it, I found this one of the most beneficial parts of the text. Heat, for example, can be an issue, whilst others may be incapable of working long hours or working more effectively in the afternoon.

The Strategy Guide section starts by asking readers to prioritise challenges and provides some answers to the areas previously discussed, i.e. Mindful Skills. Usefully, it also emphasises how this is a lifelong process and how change doesn’t happen overnight; in other words, how micro-strategies needed to be developed one at a time and how patience is required from a personal perspective.

Prioritisation involves identifying the challenges that are the greatest impediment to employment; next what aptitudes employers seek and finally; what the candidate can most realistically alter.

However, the book then makes the very important point that one should never rely on an employer to provide the support required (or by insinuation) be loyal in return as business circumstances dictate that this is undeliverable. As someone who has painful experience in this area, I can only re-affirm the warning!

Practical tips are also afforded. How a question should be asked again if any instruction is not fully understood or, if an answer is not readily available, refer to a script: “can I have time to consider that further please?”

Other suggestions that I could personally resonate with include identifying priorities to avoid switching tasks, focusing on a task for at least an hour to ensure satisfactory progress and; developing a list of assignments that are valuable but not formally part of any job description to instigate and demonstrate initiative so that one can revert to them during quiet periods.

With multi-tasking the author believes that only three tasks should be identified at any one time; ones that are realistic and attainable, so that a competitive productivity level can be worked up to. Once improvement has been achieved within required timeframes, further goals can be introduced into work schedules so as to develop an effective learning curve.

With the ever-present requirement to “organise a work schedule” techniques such as drawing up checklists, advance preparation, creating “to do” lists, establishing time frames are all re-emphasised.

Finally, solutions to improve personal characteristics are suggested including:

* attitude – seeking positive feedback from others to build confidence levels;
* motivation – select assignments where there is a high chance of success and vary assignments to negate boredom;
* independence – gain initial approval for undertaking any task and ask questions if any difficulty is encountered (the paragraph usefully states that independence may take time to achieve) and;
* punctuality – allowing time to travel, setting up at work etc.

The final section of the book – The Dream – looks at Formulating an Effective Career Direction, the Actual Job Search and, finally, Keeping the Job.

Formulating an effective career direction starts by looking at the tried and tested suggestion of looking to exploit special interests. Extrapolating further to identify associations is advocated and a job viability chart then generated to determine whether one has the necessary skills. If support areas are needed, what skills training are required should then be identified.

Jobs that require skills normally outside the capabilities of someone with AS mean certain choices should be eliminated – excessive judgement requirements, fast decision-making, multi-tasking, strong inter-personal and social skills etc.

The section then ends with a list of the standard requirements for interview and whether one should disclose ones AS.

The Job Search section also goes over much familiar ground, areas that are similar to a conventional job hunter, but also makes some additional, incisive points.

The first, and which I would endorse very strongly, is the importance of developing a specific skill set to overcome the reduction in the application of general knowledge in the workplace.

The reason why I believe this is so highly advantageous is that it helps mitigate the downsides of having AS in the eyes of some employers and employees: introversion, weaker social and inter-personal skills etc. In other words, a unique skill set offers a high degree of personal protection.

An extension of this is how general qualifications – arts degrees for example – inadequately prepare a person with AS for employment, as they rely on the individual to apply knowledge and lessons to create a skill set.

As a History graduate, I can only resonate with this, along with the assertion that practical training programs or simply moving straight into – and leaning on – a job may be more appropriate, something that, until recently, I have never really considered.

To overcome other hurdles relating to having AS, such as weaker communication skills, prior preparation is sensibly strongly advocated. Scripts, exchanging – rather than – selling information are then referred to.

Finally, there is “Keeping the Job” section. Central to this as a starting point, is establishing natural supports, something which necessitates taking personal responsibility which may be far from easy. From my own experience however, personal supports are an essential requirement for longevity in any role or organisation.

For me, pre-empting difficulties in a job is the bets approach and the final stages of the book invaluably look at transition into a role.

A successful transition into a job will involve three stages:

1. education and establishing natural supports. Colleagues need to know how to communicate with you;
2. develop a support strategy: work closely with ones’ immediate manager to define accurately responsibilities, establish routines, identify support needs so the person with AS knows exactly what is expected of them.
3. the roles of players: employees need to take responsibility themselves – work to build social relationships, gain support from the employer and seek outside help if required.

Other useful suggestions involve not remaining in a job if it is making one very unhappy – or even ill – and being motivated to resolving amicably disputes, especially with those you are personally ill disposed to.

All of this – for me – is highly pertinent.

Perhaps the key message from the book however, is the need to take personal responsibility for ones’ own direction and well being. I simply do not believe that you can rely on others, but do passionately believe that someone with Asperger CAN succeed in highly responsible positions if they adopt the correct mindset.

If you stay focused you can achieve and the dream will become a reality!

Criticisms? Perhaps some real life examples could add even further to what is a fantastic overview. But for me this would be unjustified nitpicking.

A great book; written by an author who really knows her stuff. Every person in the workplace with AS, not just manager’s, would benefit from this. A must read!

Managing with Asperger Syndrome