I recently assessed a woman in her 40s and found that she met the criteria for a diagnosis of Asperger Syndrome. She kindly agreed to an interview which allowed me to explore some issues related to employment in those with an autism spectrum disorder. Some details, including the client’s name, have been changed to protect her identity.
Louise: I would like to begin the interview by asking some more general questions. When did you first become aware that you might have ASD?
Sarah: I was seeing a life coach last summer and she suggested that I might have Asperger Syndrome because she knew someone else who had been diagnosed with this condition and recognised that I had some similar traits.
Louise: How did your diagnosis come about?
Sarah: After the life coach suggested that I may have Asperger Syndrome, I watched You Tube videos about this condition and read ‘Aspergirls: Empowering Females with Asperger Syndrome’ by Rudy Simone, which is a brilliant book. I felt strongly that I have Asperger Syndrome and wanted a diagnosis. When I explained this to my GP, I was told that I could be referred for an assessment through the NHS but that there was a waiting list of about a year. Since I did not want to wait, I sought an assessment privately.
Louise: What difference (if any) has having a diagnosis made to you?
Sarah: It was a brilliant relief and wonderful to have an explanation for the way that I have behaved throughout my life. I have always had problems making and keeping friends, have had some problems getting along with my boyfriend, and have also had problems keeping jobs because of problems with colleagues. Now I know why I struggle with small-talk, banter, teasing and irony. I also know why I find multi-tasking difficult.
Louise: Turning to your work life, and beginning on a positive note, what useful characteristics do you have that you bring to the workplace?
Sarah: I am conscientious and keen to do a good job. I can focus particularly well, give tasks my full attention, and am very good at proof-reading, for example. Although some people think that Aspies (I like this term) do not have emotions, I am helpful and friendly at work, and I empathise with service users. I have a feeling of satisfaction when I have helped others. I like things to be well-ordered and to be up to date with my work.
Louise: How do you feel that your Asperger Syndrome influences your ability to get things done at work?
Sarah: I prefer to do one task at a time. For example, I don’t like having to break off from filing to answer the telephone. I do really well at tasks when I can focus on them without being interrupted.
Louise: What type of environment do you prefer to work in?
Sarah: I like to work in a small, quiet office with a pleasant atmosphere. I pick up on negative atmospheres and dislike office politics and gossiping about colleagues. I benefit greatly from positive feedback and like to be told that I’m doing a good job.
Louise: What happens when you find yourself in an environment that doesn’t suit you?
Sarah: If the demands placed upon me are too great then I become overwhelmed and stressed. I am irritated by noise such as the radio or other people speaking on the phone and can concentrate better if it’s quiet.
Louise: How do you find getting on with colleagues and customers?
Sarah: I can manage some interaction with customers but struggle with too much, and can become stressed on a busy reception desk. If I feel overstretched then I may become irritable and abrupt when interacting with colleagues.
Louise: What about the practical issue of travelling to work?
Sarah: I find the journey to work stressful and worry about being late. I tend to be anxious and hyper vigilant on buses. I dislike the way some people smell and become uncomfortable if people try to engage me in conversation. Also, I become concerned that people may find out about my daily routine and where I work.
Louise: Do you manage to maintain a work-life balance?
Sarah: I find that work tends to take over my life if I am full-time. I get very tired and stressed and this affects my relationship with my boyfriend. I also find it difficult to keep up with my household chores and things begin to get on top of me.
Louise: How do you respond to change at work?
Sarah: I can manage small changes, but if I’ve got used to doing tasks a certain way and then all my duties are changed, I tend to find this very stressful. This happened to me recently and I was required to carry out tasks which I felt very uncomfortable doing because of my Asperger’s traits. I was placed in a customer-facing role on a busy reception, taking a high volume of incoming calls and working in an open-plan office. These changes led to be being signed off work with anxiety and stress by my GP.
Louise: How to you manage with learning new tasks?
Sarah: It helps if I make step-by-step notes and I like to be able to ask a colleague questions as I go along too so that I don’t like feeling that it’s all down to me.
Louise: Have you had any periods of unemployment which you feel may be related to your Asperger Syndrome?
Sarah: I have often left jobs because of difficulties with relationships and feeling that I don’t fit in. Although I try to be friendly, I think that people may see me as being withdrawn, quiet or aloof. I prefer to spend my lunch-break alone, don’t like to socialise out of work, and I don’t want people to find out too much about me.
Louise: We know that each individual with Asperger Syndrome is different, but is there any general advice that you would give to those with this neurological difference about how to succeed at work?
Sarah: I would encourage them to accept their differences and limitations such as not wanting to make small-talk as this does not come naturally for Aspies. I would also encourage them to look for work in an environment where they would be comfortable and not to push themselves to work in situations which are too difficult and would cause their health to suffer due to anxiety and stress. Like me, they may find working in an open-plan office too distracting and may be best-suited to working in a quiet office where they can focus and concentrate.
Louise: What advice would you give to employers?
Sarah: I would ask them not to judge employees who quietly get on with their work instead of taking part in office banter, and to find out why they behave in the way they do. I would like employers to understand that Asperger Syndrome is fairly common, that it is linked with a neurological difference, and that just because someone can be quiet, this doesn’t mean that they are completely disinterested in other people. Employers need to understand that people with Asperger Syndrome often work very well under the right conditions.
In my experience of supporting those with neurodiverse conditions in employment, successful outcomes are often possible provided that a thorough initial assessment is carried out which establishes the needs of the employee, a suitable role is found, and appropriate support is put into place.
There are organisations that provide support for those with Asperger Syndrome to find and sustain employment, and for their employers. These include the National Autistic Society, Remploy, Working Links, and the Brandon Trust. Disability Employment Advisors at Jobcentre Plus will be able to give advice about agencies that may be able to offer help in your area as well as government-run programs.
Financial support may be available for those with Asperger Syndrome to help them with employment-related issues. Access to Work grants help to fund practical help for those with a disability and Employment and Support Allowance may be available for those who are unable to work.
If you are an employer in the Bristol or Bath area and feel that you would be able to provide suitable job opportunities to those with Asperger Syndrome, then please contact me as I am keen to forge links with local organisations.
Useful books on this subject include:
Bissonnette, B. (2013). Asperger’s Syndrome Workplace Survival Guide: A Neurotypical’s Secrets for Success. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
Bissonnette, B. (2012). The Complete Guide to Getting a Job for People with Asperger’s Syndrome: Find the Right Career and Get Hired. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
Hendrickx, S. (2004). Asperger Syndrome and Employment: What People with Asperger Syndrome Really Really Want. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.