Tony Attwood: Management and Asperger Syndrome

MJ: Many thanks for agreeing to contribute to Asperger Management. In the chapter of “Life After School: College & Career” in your book The Complete Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome you say that “for autistic people there is a predestination for a particular profession from earliest youth; a line of work that grows naturally out of their special abilities”.

I can certainly concur with this given my own outlook and interests. I also think that it is a truism for everyone: if you can work within an area that interests you, and which you are passionate about, you are much more likely to succeed and excel. However, as someone who didn’t really know what he wanted to do after leaving college I have had to move between vocations until I have eventually found something I like doing and feel relatively comfortable about.

Looking back with hindsight, I strongly believe that I could have operated more successfully in a wider variety of occupations had I know about my condition (I self discovered at the age of 35), earlier. How far, given the AS personality profile, do you believe this to be so?

TA: I think that those who have had a diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome in childhood may be more aware of their particular qualities and difficulties and thereby focus on career options at a much earlier age than has occurred in the past. I strongly recommend teenagers from the age of 14 years who have Asperger’s syndrome are assessed in terms of their interest and abilities to try and identify career options. It is then important to have a wide range of career experiences to clearly focus on an eventual career, but also to develop a portfolio of experience and abilities that can be used in an interview.

It is also important that once the diagnosis is recognized by the person with Asperger’s syndrome they can then explain their characteristics that could be confusing or abrasive to neurotypicals. There is then credibility for the unusual profile of abilities and an explanation that may assist neurotypicals in understanding the colleague, manager or junior staff with Asperger’s syndrome.

From my clinical experience, I have also found it very important that the person with Asperger’s syndrome during adolescence has an increasing understanding of who they are in terms of a concept of self. Once this has been achieved, the person can also make wiser choices in terms of careers.

MJ: The reason why I wrote my book Managing with Asperger Syndrome – and had my website built - is to help (I hope) to in some way overcome another point you make about preparation being the key for a very different life.

For me this support is both vital and lacking at the moment for anyone with AS who wants to try and work in more responsible, senior positions due to the general perception that prevails that this is not a feasible career option for someone with AS.

Would you like to comment on this current perception/situation? Do you feel that this is changing and are there any specific actions you would recommend that would help overcome this further?

TA: Over the years I have noticed that when a person with Asperger’s syndrome is highly motivated they can acquire exceptional skills provided they have access to knowledge. Thus, while one may initially say that a person with Asperger’s syndrome would have considerable, but not insurmountable difficulty in the interpersonal skills necessary for senior management positions, this does not mean that the person with Asperger’s syndrome could not acquire the skills to a considerable degree of expertise. Some managers have this ability intuitively, but the person with Asperger’s syndrome can read information on management practises and apply those strategies successfully in the workforce.

MJ: You mention that “overall, finding and keeping a job is not as easy as for normal [NT] people”. Again, I think that most of those on the spectrum would accept this. Issues like anxiety and change spring to mind and having the protection that legislation like the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) here in the UK is widely regarded as helpful.

Obviously, it depends on individual circumstances but, to what extend given the parameters of the AS personality profile, do you believe that such protection is essential for someone seeking to work in more responsible, senior positions?

TA: With regard to protection and legislation, while this is certainly of potential benefit for people with Asperger’s syndrome this does not guarantee changes in attitude and understanding. I am somewhat cautious of a litigation conscious approach to helping people with Asperger’s syndrome and prefer to focus on how the workforce can understand and embrace the characteristics of Asperger’s syndrome in a colleague. This may occur using the published literature, but I also work with an individual with Asperger’s syndrome in designing a brochure that outlines the nature of Asperger’s syndrome in that person and the strengths and weaknesses associated with the diagnosis. There is a greater emphasis on the strengths but also strategies that colleagues can use to help that individual.

MJ: There is very little specialist assistance available in the UK – or career counsellors with the required knowledge of AS – to participate in the career evaluation process.

What advice would you give for someone considering work and/or career options and what are the key factors that should always be borne in mind? In addition, do you have any opinions or comments about possible additional, specialist assistance for someone with Asperger syndrome seeking career development guidance?

TA: I think that specialist assistance in terms of career guidance and support is going to be very important for people with Asperger’s syndrome. I hope that, in due course, it is possible to develop a specialist career in helping people with Asperger’s syndrome throughout the employment process. Certainly there is a huge demand for such a service but a lack of supply.

I do not think this role would be the preserve of any particular profession but it may well be that, in due course, an organization such as the National Autistic Society (UK) may sponsor the development of such a service. They already have the ‘Prospects’ programme which has been remarkably successful, but I also think there would be great benefits in an equivalent service for those in more senior management positions.

MJ: My site has a number of contributions that discuss interviewing for jobs and how this is an area of real difficulty for people with AS. This is so for a number of reasons – inferring the motive behind questions, making eye contact etc.

For this reason, some commentators advise requesting a telephone interview. Do you agree with this or do you feel that requesting such a caveat is too risky and overall conceals difficulties later such as having to liaise with work colleagues which is an inevitable consequence of working life?

TA: I am rather cautious regarding the suggestion of telephone interviews. While for the person with Asperger’s syndrome this may remove the difficulty of the social dynamics that can occur in an interview room, particularly in regard to reading non-verbal signals, but I also think it is important for those who are conducting the interview to have an opportunity to have more information available than occurs on a telephone line. Thus, I think for both parties, I would see a telephone interview as a second choice in comparison to a face-to-face interview with the person in the room.

MJ: I would like to talk about support once in a particular role. We have talked about employment legislation (DDA) and its possible benefits.What other supports would you actively recommend a person seeks? Mentoring is one option that comes to mind and, whilst at the BBC, I had an incredibly supportive boss who, in effect, acted as a wonderful mentor.

However, he did not know about my condition. I personally feel it is crucial that any person one confides in has an understanding of the unique factors that impinge on someone with AS. How far do you agree with this and, given that there is such little understanding of AS generally, what would be your recommendations in this area?

TA: I think there are many supports that are needed in a work situation and certainly one of the great advantages of having a mentor is that there can be regular supervision and guidance. The guidance can be in terms of the practical aspects of the work, but also to provide, what I would call as the “unofficial rule book” of the social hierarchy, personalities and dynamics in the work situation. In other words, the mentor acts as a cultural guide for the employee with Asperger’s syndrome, so the approach is not simply in terms of work competence but also the social dynamics.

Some people just seem to understand the characteristics of Asperger’s syndrome without a formal diagnosis or formal tuition in this area. I think they are naturally gifted in understanding the world from the perspective of the person with Asperger’s syndrome. Unfortunately, such people are rare, but there may be an attempt to identify what are the characteristics that define such people and within the workforce to identify such a person. My own thoughts are that such individuals tend to be either those that have some of the characteristics of Asperger’s syndrome themselves, or an extreme neurotypical who has the intuitive understanding of the world from the perspective of the person with Asperger’s syndrome.

MJ: In senior positions I have been required to formulate plans and instigate new initiatives. This requires at times in-depth thinking and expending significant cognitive resources.

I always find this difficult to a degree. I can concentrate and work cognitively to a high level, but typically not for as long as other people. When I am under pressure, or when I am conscious of the need to get a task done, I find this not only demanding but quite stressful. I am only able to work for short periods in this fashion.

Improving my performance in this area would be of real benefit to me. Do you have any suggestions as to how one can overcome this problem and work more consistently and productively for longer periods?

TA: In a management situation the person with Asperger’s syndrome is obviously expected to formulate plans and instigate new initiatives. However, pressure and, in particular, anxiety regarding performance and fear of making mistakes, can affect the person with Asperger’s syndrome to a greater degree than would occur with a neurotypical.

Thus, the person may need advice and guidance in stress management activities, not only in terms of reducing anxiety to encourage flexibility and creativity in thinking, but also to reduce problems with executive function, that is the same of the organizational and planning difficulties associated with Asperger’s syndrome.

Therefore, it will be necessary not only to encourage relaxation in such stressful situations but also guidance in terms of time management and the duration of a particular activity that requires high concentration. The person with Asperger’s syndrome can be highly productive, but this may be through more frequent short duration periods of focus on the task.

MJ: In the last question I talked about pressure. Often this involves anxiety which is obviously an issue for someone with AS. In your texts you advocate withdrawing from a situation which gives a person the chance to regroup. This is the first thing that I always try to do.

However, there are times in a work context – when a deadline is pending for example – when this is impossible. In such circumstances are there any specific techniques or actions you can suggest which would ameliorate the situation?

TA: I have found that people with Asperger’s syndrome can have great difficulties when there is a deadline and the anxiety associated with that deadline can be counterproductive. This is a time when the person would benefit from an executive secretary, either in terms of the secretary or colleague who can assist in such situations.

In a clinical sense, Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) can help the adult with Asperger’s syndrome develop mental strategies to cope with anxiety, especially fear of failure, and a clinical psychologist may be able to assist if this is a significant factor for the person with Asperger’s syndrome.

MJ: You talk about promotion at work to more senior levels which, for me, present a number of issues for someone with Asperger syndrome. One of the key lessons I have learnt in my career, is the importance of not taking on additional responsibility too early or, at least, before I have the required experience or have mastered the technical skills that the role requires.

Once I have done so, I can cope; if I haven’t, I find that I can find myself in situations that have the capacity to overwhelm me which leads to enormous anxiety and, occasionally, meltdowns.

There are times though when, conversely, I have not sought positions which would have enabled me to develop – always vital at work – and would have taken me into safer areas in terms of job security. Inevitably these occurrences appear in a work context; ones where it is more detrimental to refuse advancement than it is to accept. When faced with such a scenario, what advice would you give to that person?

TA: Taking on additional responsibilities can cause considerable difficulties for the person with Asperger’s syndrome. My general approach is to use a large sheet of paper and outline the ‘Advantages’ and ‘Disadvantages’ of remaining in the same position or taking an advancement with a weighting system of the value of various aspects that range obviously from financial to stress levels. Thus, the final decision may be made on balance after careful thought of the pros and cons of the alternatives.

MJ: Politics? It's there, it always will be and a person in any responsible role working within anything other than the smallest of companies is going to have to deal with it!

Given that someone with AS is never going to feel comfortable working in this area, is unlikely to ever acquire the intuitive, innate skills to manage it fully, what suggestions do you have to mitigate its potential negatives. Are there any specific programmes that you would recommend which could assist in overcoming some of the difficulties in these areas?

TA: With regard to politics in the workforce, I do recommend that the person with Asperger’s syndrome has a colleague or mentor to act as a second opinion with regard to the person with Asperger’s syndrome perception of the dynamics and politics and to discuss the various options.

This may be a partner, family member or colleague. There are a number of management training books that help with regard to team work and management strategies, and certainly the person with Asperger’s syndrome needs to read all the relevant literature to acquire some of the skills needed in such situations.

MJ: In any form of supervisory position a person with AS will have to manage people. Doing so effectively means forming inter-personal relationships which is one of the things a person with AS finds the hardest to do.

Other skills like assertiveness inevitably come into play as well. However, being assertive or taking decisions which are detrimental to another person and go against the grain of my innate concern for other people’s well-being is something that I have found incredibly hard to do.

One technique I have developed is to always insist that my staff tell me as soon as they are unhappy with something or about something I am doing. This, I feel, helps overcome my lesser ability to discern unhappiness because of TOM (Theory of Mind) and lower empathetic skills.

Another thing I do is request that at any staff appraisal they inform me of the one thing that they would like me to do to help them perform better. This way I can identify any shortcomings or gaps in my management style without formally explaining to staff why which then enables me take ameliorative action.

Do you have any other suggestions?

TA: I endorse your approach of encouraging staff to let you know if they are concerned or unhappy about a particular decision or situation. The approach is “I need to know” and explain that the information needs to be direct rather than making the assumption that the person with Asperger’s syndrome understands the inter-personal or personal perspective.

I encourage people to develop a language which I call “Aspergerese” and that is to be very direct and honest with the person with Asperger’s syndrome. If you are subtle and indirect then the person with Asperger’s syndrome may completely miss the point, which causes great confusion for all concerned. It is also important that other people are not offended by the directness of the person with Asperger’s syndrome.

MJ: Professor Attwood - thank you very much indeed