01 Mar 2014

BY: Louise Hilliar

Asperger Syndrome and Employment

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.

Louise’s comments:

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 TrustDisability 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.
01 Jan 2014

BY: Louise Hilliar

Undiagnosed Undergraduates

In this post, I will be outlining some of the challenges facing students who begin their university careers with undiagnosed neurodiverse conditions. I hope that this will help students to recognise whether they may have such a condition, and encourage them to seek appropriate support. 

As this year’s freshers contemplate their return to university following the Christmas break, most will have settled into university life well. They will be coping with the demands of living independently, making friends, and keeping up with their work. A particular group of students will be struggling, however, and the reason for this is that they have undiagnosed neurodiverse conditions.

Students with dyslexic-type specific learning difficulties are likely to be unable to keep up with note-taking during lectures. They are probably behind with their reading and need to reread material in order to understand it fully. Tackling their first assignments has probably high-lighted their weaknesses in structuring written work, expressing their ideas clearly, and proof-reading. On top of this, these students may be unable to remember verbal instructions, and may find it difficult to express themselves orally.

Students with dyspraxia often experience similar difficulties to those with dyslexia but may also have weaknesses in fine motor skills. This can lead to problems with handwriting, producing diagrams, drawing graphs, and using laboratory equipment. These students also often have weak organisational skills. They may have some deficits in their social skills such as difficulties with interpreting nonverbal communication and with modulating voice volume. Problems with finding their way around can mean that dyspraxic students struggle with getting used to new buildings and living in a new town.

Students with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) are also likely to encounter problems adjusting to a new environment. They may find it difficult to follow their time-table and to arrive to places on time, and may rely on another student to compensate for their weaknesses in this area. These students may arrive to lectures without basic equipment and may find it difficult to keep track of their possessions, losing keys, wallets and travel passes, for example. Students with ADHD are likely to lose concentration during lectures, find note-taking challenging, and have disorganised files. They tend to procrastinate when it comes to beginning their work, can’t always ‘see the wood for the trees’ when carrying out research, are easily distracted, and find it difficult to organise their written work. Such students frequently experience difficulties with adding the finishing touches to a piece of work and tend to miss deadlines. An inability to sleep often adds to their problems, and further reduces their ability to concentrate.

Students with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) such as Asperger Syndrome also often struggle to adjust to living in a new environment. They may experience difficulties with independent living skills such as money-management, shopping, cooking and travel from an organisational point of view, but also due to social difficulties. These students often find it difficult to integrate with other students and establish friendships. They may become overwhelmed in social situations and their social skills may be under-developed. In common with other students with neurodiverse conditions, students with ASD often find note-taking challenging. They often find it difficult to focus on topics which do not interest them and become side-tracked when carrying out research. In addition to this, these students frequently have a tendency to misinterpret essay questions and struggle to produce well-balanced essays. Students with ASD are often reluctant to ask for help and they may not recognise the signs if their health is deteriorating which means that problems can go unnoticed.

Some students with undiagnosed neurodiverse conditions will have managed well at school but run into problems when there is an increase in the demands placed upon them.  Others will have experienced difficulties throughout their education which may become even more apparent when placed in a new and demanding situation. If you are a student who feels that you may have an undiagnosed neurodiverse condition, then it would be advisable for you to contact the department at your university which is dedicated to the support of students with disabilities. The staff there will be able to provide advice about whether an assessment would be useful and how to arrange it. In the case of dyslexic-type difficulties and dyspraxia, the university may well be able to arrange screening tests and diagnostic assessments on your behalf. In the case of ADHD and ASD, assessments may be sought through the NHS. Waiting lists can be lengthy, however, and for this reason, assessments are sometimes funded privately.

There are two final issues to consider. The first is that it can be difficult to distinguish between different neurodiverse conditions due to the overlap between them. The second is that it is not uncommon for an individual to have more than one of these conditions and it is therefore important that this possibility is considered.

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