Autism and the Workplace

The following is another except from the book I'm writing, A Spectrum of Relationships. As I have announced before, there will be a free public draft before the final edition is assigned ISBNs and uploaded to the major online bookstores. Only the abridged draft will be free, but it should help people determine if they want to purchase the final revision of the book.

As always, this section is only an excerpt but all comments and suggestions are welcomed.

Avoid Being Annoying
The key to being respected as a peer and colleague is to avoid being perceived as annoying. Whether you can do the work assigned is less important in terms of relationships than your attitude about the work. Since most of our relationships start at school or work, maintaining the respect of peers and colleagues is important.
Some autistic individuals do not judge their peers and colleagues, but many of us do. My discussions with autistic students and workers indicate most of us judge peers and colleagues on their skills and knowledge, while we are being judged on personality traits and social skills. Our peers and colleagues ask themselves the following questions, among others, when forming judgments:
• Are you an optimist or a pessimist? 
• Do you handle stress well or poorly?
• Do you help or hinder others and their projects?
• Do you share credit or take credit for accomplishments?
• Do you defer to superiors or challenge them?
• Are you a leader or a follower?
The preceding questions are only some of the criteria peers and coworkers use to decide how close they want their relationships with us to be. If someone is judged to be a “bad” coworker, then that person is also unlikely to considered a potential friend. For people with ASDs, the answers to these questions is not always clear. We are often poor judges of how we are perceived, if we remember to consider perceptions of us at all. 
Most people naturally gravitate towards optimists. They want to work with peers and colleagues likely to help everyone succeed in the eyes of a teacher or supervisor. Confusing for me, and others with ASDs, is that peers and colleagues don’t seek someone who blindly follows instructions and respects all authority figures. We are judged on a “sliding scale,” therefore. We have to balance being independent with working as a team, for example. We have to balance respecting the boss or teacher with carefully offering different opinions. Our peers and colleagues respect someone who can offer new ideas to superiors, without causing conflict. 
What I can state, definitively, is that no peer or colleague wants to be friends with a negative, anxious, disorganized person prone to conflicts. If you want friends, you have to master when to keep negative thoughts to yourself. And yes, I know keeping silent is a problem for autistic individuals.
Appearing Optimistic
Appearing optimistic is not the same as being inherently optimistic. Most of the autistics I’ve met are simply realistic, but that realism can be perceived as “pessimism” by peers and colleagues. People have called me negative when I thought I was only expressing an honest analysis of a situation. How to appear optimistic has been something I have had to learn from mentors. Some of the suggestions I have learned include:
• When discussing a project, discuss it in terms of “odds of success,” not failure
• If you notice a potential problem, try to offer a solution when alerting a superior
• When you must address a concern, use e-mail or a private meeting when possible
• If you need to raise a concern in a classroom or meeting, raise it once and move ahead
One reason I seem “negative” to people is that I focus on what must be done. Things that are working do not need to be fixed or changed. I’m more likely to raise issues and concerns because I don’t understand why anyone needs to dwell on success. Teachers and employers have told me to “celebrate” successes, but I am always looking forward. That’s a good trait for a self-employed person, or someone working alone on a project, but other people do seek positive reinforcement.
When I was an undergraduate, one of my mentors said the trick to managing people is to mention two or three good things for every issue that had to be addressed. That’s not easy for me and can feel like lying, even though it isn’t lying. It is manipulative, I believe, but I also recognize that classmates and coworkers don’t like to hear lists of problems. 
People mistake realism for pessimism and pessimism for a “bad attitude” at school or in the workplace. You do not want to be known as the classmate or coworker with a bad attitude. I’m not always clear on what this means, other than the implication you don’t like your job. However, I have been told that a “bad attitude” includes being perceived as if you have “given up” on projects. Pessimists give up, since they are certain of future failure.  
Showing No Stress
People don’t like stress, which often includes pessimism. Unfortunately, stress seems both contagious and natural in school or the workplace. The pressures range from assignment deadlines to the physical spaces. Autistic individuals might feel anxiety or stress by default in these settings. Since people do not want to be around stress, people with ASDs face the challenge of trying to minimize stress when dealing with peers and colleagues. 
For people to consider you approachable, you need to know how to “de-stress” at school or work. Disability and employment specialists have offered me a number of suggestions for autistic students and employees. Some of the suggestions to at least appear “less stressed” include:
• Read information on stress management and find what works for you
• Identify a quiet place you can use to take a break from interactions
• Post and maintain a public calendar and project “to-do” list
• Learn to say “no” politely when you cannot possibly take on more tasks
There is no one best way to reduce stress at school and work. I used to try to sit somewhere dimly lit and meditate, but that doesn’t work for everyone. People with autism sometimes tell me a “quiet space” only highlights the background sounds, so white noise or nature sounds might help. It is important to lower stress, though, if you want people to feel comfortable around you.
Peers and colleagues do not know how much you might be trying to accomplish, so the one tip I do have is to make sure people respect how busy you are. For autistic individuals, I’ve found a calendar posted somewhere helps because then peers and colleagues can see you are busy. Also, it is not a crime to tell peers and coworkers you are unable to take on more work. Even teachers and supervisors might have to be told you are overwhelmed with too many tasks. 
Another challenge for people with ASDs: when someone tries to get you to defend something, it seldom helps to respond. Being defensive seems to cause an upward spiral in conflict and stress. Many people with autism have an impulse to be accurate, so anyone questioning their factual statements can trigger a defensive response. 
Sometimes, people just criticize what they don’t understand. You can explain yourself once, but if you have to repeatedly defend an action or your views, the stress will be contagious. Plus, if you are defending yourself constantly you start to question yourself, which goes back to the need to appear optimistic and not pessimistic. This reinforces the suggestion that walking away from a conflict is often the best approach. 
Being Helpful
Throughout this text I emphasize the value of helping others by sharing information. An earlier section explores how to appear helpful, so refer to that for specific tips. People get annoyed with a classmate or coworker they believe is hindering success. You have to balance being helpful with accepting too many tasks, which is complicated. I encourage everyone, including students and workers without ASDs, to try to help others whenever it doesn’t negatively affect other projects.
Sharing the Credit
Sometimes people with ASDs forget that social rituals are important to other people. One of the rituals of school and work is the recognition of others when a project is successfully completed. If you are a team leader on a project, sending positive notes to coworkers or classmates is one useful approach. Also, if a supervisor or teacher congratulates you on a job well done, be sure to mention to your superior that other people helped you. This also reduces the risk of being perceived as “snobby” or “conceited” by coworkers. 
It’s not only a matter of sharing credit, but of recognizing anyone who performs well. I had a student with autism tell me, “But everyone just did his or her job. What’s the big deal?” I understand the complaint. I’ve wondered about “tipping” someone providing good service: isn’t good service to be expected? Apparently not. I advise people to say “thank you” to classmates and coworkers on a regular basis, even when they’ve only done their proper jobs. 
Respecting Authority
Demonstrating respect for authority is important in school and the workplace, as long as the authority is perceived as reasonable by others. Calling people by their formal titles is one way to demonstrate respect. Also, individuals with ASDs should learn any rituals that are expected in their school or workplace settings. I suggest observing peers and colleagues to master the norms of the settings. The goal is to be perceived as at least as respectful as other classmates and coworkers.
Respecting authority doesn’t mean never questioning or challenging authority. However, as written earlier in this text, you should raise questions in private and always politely. Constantly challenging authority leaves one perceived as a “troublemaker” and risky for others to befriend. 
Peers and Colleagues Can Become Friends
Our parents, caregivers, and educators care about peer and colleague relationships because most friendships formed throughout life start within these social circles. Parents arrange “play dates” and sign up children for activities in the hope that a few peer relationships will develop into friendships. The first peer-to-friendship transitions happen between the ages of four and five for most children. 
Children with ASDs apparently form these bonds slower, needing more time to navigate the social settings and focus on those peers likely to be reciprocally friendly. As adults, it still might take the autistic adult longer than his or her colleagues to recognize potential friendships. The difficulties nurturing relationships from the peer and colleague level into friendships are likely part of the lifelong challenges of ASDs. 
The next chapter addresses how friendships are formed and maintained. If an autistic can maintain peer relationships, it is likely he or she will develop at least some friendships. Many autistics report that it was a peer or colleague who identified when a relationship had become a friendship. Knowing how to evaluate a relationship to verify it is a genuine friendship is one topic I explore in coming pages. 


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