Asperger's Syndrome at Work: What EA Professionals Need to Know

By Bissonnette, Barbara | The Journal of Employee Assistance, May 2011 | Go to article overview

Asperger's Syndrome at Work: What EA Professionals Need to Know


Bissonnette, Barbara, The Journal of Employee Assistance


"April is National Autism Awareness Month, yet few understand the challenges that adults face in the workplace."

Certain employees are enigmas to their colleagues and supervisors. Consider "Allan" a brilliant programmer who forgets to make eye contact and to smile. He irritates coworkers with painfully blunt, but usually accurate, assessments of their ideas, "That's dumb and won't work!" Doreen has lost more than a dozen technical writing jobs for asking too many questions and being "rude." Notoriously, she tried to empathize with a colleague by observing, "I can tell that your diet isn't working because you're still fat." Mark's supervisor laments, "He can be an incredibly creative, out-of-the-box thinker, but he gets so caught up in the details that he loses sight of what we're trying to accomplish. How do I get him to stay on track?"

What all of these employees have in common is Asperger's Syndrome (AS), a mild form of autism. Although awareness of Asperger's Syndrome has grown dramatically, little attention is given to the challenges that adults face in the workplace--particularly those earning high salaries in white-collar jobs. Many of them do not disclose their AS to their employers, while others entered the workforce before this disorder was recognized by the medical community. Many of these individuals aren't even aware that they have autism.

Asperger's Syndrome is estimated to affect 1 in every 250 people in the U.S. As a result, chances are that EA professionals are likely to come into contact with employees with this disorder. For instance, they may receive a call from a supervisor about an employee who is smart but doesn't "fit in." The employee in question usually has no idea that something is wrong. Interventions that do not match the unique way that these individuals process information will not work. In many cases, there are low-cost and even free accommodations that will enable an employee to meet performance requirements.

What is Asperger's Syndrome?

An Austrian physician named Hans Asperger, who wrote about a group of unusual children that had difficulty making friends, first described Asperger's Syndrome in 1944. Their pedantic speech was accented by odd vocal tones and rhythms. Their interest in a topic, no matter how arcane, often became an all-consuming passion. Writing in his native German, Asperger's work remained largely unknown in the English-speaking world until the 1980s, when British researcher Dr. Uta Frith translated it.

It wasn't until 1994 that Asperger's Syndrome was included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition (DSM-IV). It is classified as one of five Pervasive Developmental Disorders that include autism. The diagnostic criteria for Asperger's Syndrome (299.80) includes "qualitative impairment of social interaction" (e.g. nonverbal communication, development of reciprocal social relationships), and "restricted repetitive and stereotyped patterns of behavior, interests, and activities" (e.g. inflexible adherence to routines). There is no clinically significant delay in language or cognitive development (DSM-IV-tr 2000). (1) The cause is unknown.

Individuals with Asperger's Syndrome vary widely in their abilities, challenges, and need of support. Not every person experiences every symptom. For some, holding on to any job is a challenge. Others are able to establish careers, although they usually face significant struggles with communication throughout their working lives.

Individuals with AS in the workforce are typically bright and college educated. Although represented in all types of careers, the areas of high technology, technical writing, scientific and academic research, library science, and engineering make good use of their logic and analytical skills, excellent memory for facts, attention to detail, vast knowledge in specialized fields, and tolerance of routine. …

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