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Autism and Success in the Workplace

The workplace can be a social minefield.

Building Collegial Relationships
Colleagues tend to come later in life, when we have professional careers or volunteer to work for organizations. However, colleagues are similar enough to peers that I am discussing the two together. Colleagues range from those with whom we work daily to those we might consider more similar to acquaintances. Because today’s workplaces often require us to shift from team to team, or from one location to another, it is always best to consider the possibility that any colleague can become a close coworker.
I’ve met successful people with ASDs who accomplish great things and do so without any impulse to impress colleagues or develop social connections. Colleagues respect these individuals, I hope, though it can be difficult for me or other autistics to determine how much we are respected by coworkers.
My colleagues at the universities and colleges where I have taught can be divided into close and distant colleagues. While everyone at the institution was a colleague in the general sense, the “close” colleagues have been the people with whom I worked weekly. We generally worked in the same buildings and shared supervisors. To identify close colleagues, I use the following criteria:
• You work with the person on a regular basis, the frequency varying by profession and workplace
• You serve similar clients, departments, divisions, or other “consumers” of your services or products
• You report to the same supervisor, or your supervisors report to the same superior
• You possess related professional skills or interests
As of yet, I have not developed lasting friendships with my colleagues from any workplace — and I have had several different career paths. I’m not sure how unusual that is, since many people do seem to form friendships at work. However, I recognize the value of my professional colleagues and attempt to nurture those connections as best I can. My suggestions for building and maintaining collegial connections include:
• Disclose any physical, emotional, or neurological impairments
• Try to recognize “personal space,” physical and virtual in the workplace and at school
• Listen to colleagues, learn from them, and build professional connections
• Answer questions when asked, learn how to politely offer information (and to whom) when not asked
• Actively help and contribute to projects
Disclosure Required
Without question, the most important choice individuals with ASDs face at work and school is the disclosure of any challenges he or she might face. Legally, if you want to protect legal rights within either setting, you must disclose any officially recognized disability. This disclosure is done to a specific office or person in most workplaces. In education, the office is commonly called “Disability Services.” In private industry, you might have an “Office of Equal Opportunity” within “Human Resources.” Supervisors and “Human Resources” should know the appropriate office to contact.
For autistic teens and adults the potential implications of disclosure for colleague and peer relationships are significant. For some individuals with ASDs there is no choice but to disclose disabilities, especially those posing potential physical risks such as seizures. Other individuals, with less obvious impairments, decide against disclosure.
I’ve studied and presented conference papers on the protections mandated by federal and state laws, especially within education. However, the reality is that teachers do talk and that human resource departments are not the Central Intelligence Agency. Colleagues and peers likely will learn about the nature of a disability, even if they do not learn the specific diagnosis. Relationships are affected by the label “autism” and other disabilities.
Interactions in workplaces are not like our interactions with strangers or most acquaintances. The social differences of autistics persist into adulthood and are obvious to the coworkers and employers of adults with ASDs. Also, our colleagues are not always our peers, so there are differences in our general backgrounds that can exacerbate tensions and misunderstandings.
Colleagues, being older and ideally more mature than the peers of our school years, probably can and should be told when an autistic individual faces specific impairments or challenges. I realize this is not easy or comfortable for many people with ASDs, but a lack of information can lead to serious problems. A person with autism does not have to use the terms “autism” or “Asperger’s Syndrome” to explain his or her challenges. I recommend specific disclosures such as explaining, “I am sensitive to bright lights.” Specifics are clear and concrete.
Personal Space
Personal space and cultural communication norms are important in the workplace or school setting. In my experience, there are always colleagues who stand a bit too close to me, talk a bit too loudly, and in general make me feel uneasy. These instances remind me that I might also be too loud or make people uneasy. I try to be formal in the workplace to ensure I do not violate personal space. Because those of us with ASDs can be sensitive to stimuli, it might help other autistic teens and adults to think of their limits when dealing with coworkers.
Building relationships does require sharing space. I advise people with ASDs to explain any special light, sound, or other sensory tolerances to their coworkers. It also helps to explain if you have any special routines or organization within your workspace. Whether it is an office or cubicle, the space needs to meet the needs of the employee, within reason. A good HR department will also help an autistic individual adjust a workspace for ergonomics. HR experts understand that a workspace has to meet ADA (Americans with Disabilities) accessibility and usability requirements.
If you are not comfortable, you are not going to be easy to get along with in the workplace. Yes, comfort affects relationships. The more comfortable you are, the more at ease you will be with colleagues.
Collegial Communication
The majority of successful autistic adults tell me that e-mail has been the greatest innovation in their lifetimes. They cannot imagine life without e-mail, which they prefer over phone calls and other forms of communication. Personally, I think e-mail is great for communicating with everyone from family to coworkers for several reasons:
• You can re-read e-mail as many times as necessary
• You can respond slowly and carefully, unlike a conversation
• You can save e-mail messages in case you forget the content of a note
• You do not need to respond to every message
Misunderstandings do happen via e-mail, especially since humorous, sarcastic, and sardonic comments might be interpreted literally by an autistic reader. However, since you have the ability to pause before respond to a message there is a chance to seek clarification. Everyone should pause and read a message carefully — including the messages we send.
Though I prefer e-mail, the reality is that in workplaces meetings happen. You can only use e-mail and telephone calls for so many contacts. The adults with autism with whom I have discussed career success tell me they plan meetings, including one-on-one encounters with coworkers. These autistic men and women plan where they will stand, what they will say, and some do use checklists or notecards.
Sometimes autistic individuals aren’t good at interactions because we are too focused. In adulthood, autistic perseveration tends to shift to information perseveration. I’ve met many autistic adults with a compulsion to memorize minutiae about a topic. Perseveration on a topic can be a strength in the workplace. The obsessive need to master a skill or specific topic can make the autistic person the “go-to expert” in the workplace.
I’ve never outgrown being “too passionate” about topics in which my peers and colleagues have only limited interest. Nothing turns away colleagues quicker than boring them. I do try not to get carried away with certain topics. For autistic people with passion for a topic, one suggestion is to remember the need to stop and judge the interest of others. It isn’t easy to determine if others are interested, so I wait to see if someone has questions or comments. If they do not, I’ve probably said too much about the topic already.


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