Thursday, August 05, 2010

Working With Someone With Asperger's

Susan Adams, 08.03.10, 01:30 PM EDT
People with Asperger's syndrome have trouble reading social cues. They can be long-winded, insensitive and impolite, often failing to look people in the eye. They can also produce remarkable creative breakthroughs. For instance, Temple Grandin, an animal scientist with Asperger's, invented a humane, efficient way to slaughter cattle. Forbes was among the first to profile Grandin (in 1998), and her life story was the subject of a 2010 HBO documentary.

How do the rest of us get along in the workplace with these unusual people? Asperger's, considered a mild form of autism, was first identified in 1944 by Viennese pediatrician Hans Asperger. He called his patients "little professors," because many had above-average intelligence, and they tended to become obsessed with arcane subjects. Psychiatric authorities accepted the syndrome as a disorder in 1994, though there's some dispute about whether it should continue to be identified as separate from other autistic conditions. Estimates vary on the prevalence of Asperger's, from 1 in 5,000 to as many as 1 in 500.

For advice on how so-called neurotypicals can work side by side with "Aspies," we turned to Grandin and to Jeffrey Deutsch, an Aspie who runs a consulting firm called Aspies Linking with Neurotypicals, or A SPLINT, which offers coaching to people with Asperger's, their families and employers.

Grandin and Deutsch say you should communicate with Aspies as specifically and clearly as possible. "You can't just say to an Aspie, 'Develop new programs,' or 'Develop a new sales plan,'" Grandin explains. "Aspies need clear instructions on what the job is." Expect them to tackle one project at a time, she adds. "They absolutely cannot multitask."

An example of a set of directives an Aspie can follow, says Grandin: "I want you to develop software to use on phones for finding restaurants really easily." Offer as much additional detail as possible, like how much memory you want the software to take up and how easy it should be to use.

E-mail is a great tool for communicating with an Aspie, both Grandin and Deutsch say, and deadlines should be made crystal clear. "Don't be vague with a person with Asperger's," advises Grandin. "It's better to set an actual date."

Give Aspies specific instructions about behaviors you find annoying or difficult, even in nonwork matters. Grandin says she used to have a problem with her own personal hygiene, including body odor, until a boss told her plainly that she needed to use deodorant. "Just calmly tell the Aspie what he's doing wrong," she suggests. "Don't yell at him."

Deutsch agrees. "Lay out the behaviors that are causing issues," he says. Those can include eye contact, standing too close or too far away from other people, and voice tone and volume. "The normal mind tends to be too vague," adds Grandin. "The Asperger's mind sees the details."
Grandin says that people with Asperger's also tend to be extrasensitive to their environment, including lighting and ambient noise. She says fluorescent lights often pose a problem. "They can see the flicker in the bulbs," she says. "It's like being in the middle of a discotheque." People with Asperger's need peace, quiet and solitude. "If you put them in a cubicle by the coffee machine, that's not going to work," Grandin says.

Perhaps the most useful coping mechanism for working with Aspies is to recognize that they have limitations. For instance, many people with Asperger's have trouble looking others in the eye. "Just accept that that's the way it is," Grandin says.

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