April is autism awareness month. As I've seen no official posts on it since I've been here, I've decided to take the initiative.
Autism (and Asperger's syndrome, which is a form of autism) presents difficulties both from the person with the condition, and the people around them. Even though people are becoming more aware of autism, it is still often misunderstood, especially higher functioning autism.
In the workplace, autism can be a mixed bag. Autistics tend to be very focused, averse to lying, and very detail oriented. Obviously, this part is a manager's/coworker's dream.
Then, there's the downsides.
- Resistance to change
- Rigidity of thought
- Inappropriate emotional responses
- Social awkwardness
- inability to easily grasp personal boundaries
- Difficulty dealing with stimulus
- sensory overload
When someone who is autistic is functioning well, it's difficult to recognize that they even have it, until something triggers a reaction, such as a sudden shift in specs, a new coworker, someone walking in with a new perfume, a flickering light, et cetera.
When someone who is autistic doesn't understand something, they may get upset, and pester you about a question they have until they have an answer. They may come across as abrasive, rude, egotistical, arrogant and unyielding. This is usually unintentional.
This can be extremely jarring when someone is normally amiable, friendly, et cetera.
While everyone engages in some form of social scripting behavior, autistic people tend to be rigid with their scripts and find it difficult to go "off script". In the workplace, this can manifest in dragging conversations back to previous topics, hijacking conversations, and rigid adherence to subject matter.
It can also manifest in emotional outbursts over what (to the non autistic) seems to be minor issues, a dogged examination of details to an excessive minutia, or a seeming inability to abandon a topic.
Because of this, autistics face additional difficulties in the workplace.
- We get called creepy due to our inability to judge personal boundaries, or our tendencies to stare (much like cats, it's not actually staring, we're lost in thought)
- We're easily duped as we tend to take people at face value.
- We often mistake politeness for friendliness, and therefore tend to think that people who are nice to us are our friends.
- We tend to do poorly in rapidly changing environments
- We tend to get bogged down in the details.
So, what to do with an autistic coworker?
- Be direct. Many people with autism tend to be confused by niceties. Being direct with them is the most 'polite' thing you can do, even if it would be considered rude towards others.
- Quantify things. "I want this done by Friday at 3pm" is not demanding to an autistic person, you are merely being precise, which we appreciate.
- Avoid imprecise language like "Can you do this for me when you have some free time?" can confuse a person with autism. see previous bullet point
- Don't touch them, especially from behind. Many people with autism have a hypersensitivity to stimuli, especially touch. In my case, I have to fight the urge to scream every time someone touches me unexpectedly, and I am high functioning, someone with more severe autism may not be able to suppress that urge.
- Point out inappropriate behavior directly, and in private. A diagnosis is not an excuse for bad behavior, and while many people with autism may not realize what they are doing, the behavior still needs to be addressed. Be direct, specific, and firm. Again, don't try to be nice, it will just confuse the person.
- If a person seems to be belligerent about something, be firm and say things like "The matter is settled" or "We will need to discuss this later".
- Work to engage them. Sadly, autism, can create a feedback loop. An autistic person can easily become disengaged, which is often interpreted as disinterest, so people around the autistic person pull back, which makes him even more disengaged, until he ends up withdrawing entirely.
- If you see an autistic person starting have a meltdown, they may no longer be able to make decisions on basic things, and their judgment may be impaired. A bit. Ask them if they need to take a break or a walk.
Lastly, autistics make easy targets and are easily taken advantage of. If you have an autistic coworker, try to be patient and understanding.