Monday, July 2, 2007

Autism at work

The subject of "special treatment" has been raised once again. How can I claim that autism is a difference worthy of respect (as opposed to a necessarily and inherently disabling condition) and still advocate for accommodations for autistic people? It's one of those questions which no matter how many times (or how many ways) I answer it, possibly some people are never going to get it. I have an arsenal of arguments for this topic, filed under names like Affirmative Action Comparison, The Handedness Argument, The Social Construction Explanation, Definitions Please, and the ever popular Because I Said So ("not an argument, it's just contradiction!").
Today, I will try a different approach, called What Does It Cost You? Now, before anybody gets all upset about this, yes, I know this doesn't cover it all. I know that some people need more than the things on this list, and I believe that they should be able to get them. This is just about some things I think would have been helpful to me personally and perhaps to some others with similar cognitive and social makeup. The point of it is to reduce, however slightly, the fear that affects employers and taxpaying citizens upon hearing words like "accommodation" and "supports".
1) A written, prioritized list of job assignments. If someone tells me more than two things I need to do, I need it in written form. I have long made a habit of carrying a small notebook for this purpose. For someone who finds writing by hand slow and laborious, though, providing him or her with a list could be helpful. For me, the prioritizing part of this accommodation would be the most help. See the next point for further explanation.
Cost: $0
2) Clarity and specificity. I don't automatically know what the boss sees as most important. Left to my own devices, I will approach a task list by starting with the easiest and quickest so that I can mark it off. Second, I'll do the most difficult job, to get it out of the way. Then back to an easy one. If something needs to be done NOW, it really helps to be told that. If "sweep the dining area" means "sweep the dining area and front entrance area", that would be a really good thing to know. Being direct in requests is equally important. Some autistics won't pick up on sarcasm, such as "great job on that sweeping" when it hasn't been done adequately or hints like "It would sure be nice if someone swept this floor".
Cost: $0
3) As much as is possible, consistency. I have always had problems in settings where I've had to report to five or six different managers, all with different preferences for how things should be done. Often, these managers have been at war with one another and tended to use their employees as pawns in this game. This is a level of strategy I'll never be able to negotiate on my own. Could it be understood that some employees really do need to be accountable to one particular manager?
Cost: $0
4) Exemption (within reason) from wearing the company uniform. Cotton is good. I like cotton. Polyester, anything scratchy or "slippery" feeling, these sort of things guarantee that I will not be able to focus on anything except how uncomfortable I am. I am sure this is true for many NT employees, too. I hope that someday all corporations will recognize how truly unproductive some types of uniforms can be.
Cost: minimal (purchase of similar item might be necessary)

5) A less hostile workplace culture. Locking someone in the walk-in cooler because you think he's a geek is not funny. Encouraging a co-worker to break an important rule is not funny. Mocking, excluding and criticising people for stims isn't funny either. I've seen bosses not only turn the other way, but actually join in the "fun". Someone needs to be doing some education and training at corporate and local levels. Autistic people deserve a workplace free from harassment, just as women, gays and persons of all races and ethnicities do.

Cost: (?) Management workshop or seminar; inclusion in company non-discrimination policies; training for co-workers
6) Patience. I learn routines quickly, but if the routine changes, it might take me 4 or 5 times as long to relearn it. I know this doesn't make sense to NT managers, but really, it's not some kind of game to me. Understand that it will take some employees a while to give up the "old" way of doing things. Also, if your employee is trying to tell you something, it might take a very long time to get it said. It is really not helpful to finish her sentences for her or otherwise show impatience. Cost: $0
7) Understanding schedule requirements. Some autistic employees will happily work a standard 40 hour week consisting of (5) eight hour shifts. Others will do better with shorter days or a four day work week. The benefits to the employer include not paying for time which is not going to be productive due to overload or exhaustion. Understand that the energy we must put into being around people is draining. Being in a break room with others may actually be less relaxing than being on the factory floor in a more isolated area. Performing job tasks while in the constant presence of others can tire an autistic person significantly.
Cost: $0
8) Consideration in type of work assigned. Not every worker fits well with every job in a company. I have been lucky enough to have some employers who saw my strengths and knew what type of work would suit me. I have worked in some very chaotic environments which I survived by finding a place for myself in the background, away from the demands of direct customer service. I had no problems managing an eight hour day working in the stock room of a department store, but found doing similar tasks on the sales floor very draining. Managers need to know that employees with this type of profile are not just "being difficult".
Cost: $0
This list of free to inexpensive accommodations is far from exhaustive. I'm sure every autistic person who reads this will have something to add or change.
Clearly, the price to be paid for these "supports" is not financial, but is traded in the currency of attitudes. Employers fear the development of a "slippery slope" or situation whereby more and more employees will demand "special treatment". Co-workers may harbor resentments that someone who is not obviously "disabled" is getting "preferential treatment" in scheduling or work assignments. Until autism is better understood and accepted by the general public, problems will persist.
Providing some of these accommodations would be easy. Getting past the idea that everyone is the same and that treating everyone identically should be maintained as the gold standard of fairness, well, that's another story, isn't it?


  1. Well said. And not so different from "well meaning" family members accusing me of giving Pete special treatment and "not expecting enough of him." That couldn't be further from the truth. I hope that when the time comes for him to join the workforce, some of your suggestions will have been implemented.

    Karen in CA

  2. Sounds like 'common sense' to me if not to say 'good management practices.' There again, where my spouse works, they are all 'techys' and that kind of management sort of goes with the territory - that is if 'one' expects anyone to produce anything ever.

  3. Bev, most of the suggestions you make here would help me in the workplace, and I'm not autistic. I quit my job 6 years ago to stay home with my children, in part because my employer unwilling to be flexible about scheduling and location (your #7) -- I could easily have worked from home part of the time, but they were unwilling to consider it for some of the reasons you mentioned (slippery slope I'm sure among them).

    By being rigid and unwilling to change (hm, and they blame autistic people for this!) corporations are losing out on thousands of talented workers, from the autistic to simply moms like me.

  4. Hi Bev, I wrote a post that takes your discussion of accommodations a bit farther:

    Diversity at Work

  5. I think one big thing missing in your list is what is the net gain of accommodating someone with autism...

    You get a hard worker, someone who may excel at the job because it is one of their interests, someone who won't waste everyone's time with petty politics, etc.

    So there may be some cost in implementing accommodations, but they are offset by the benefits gained by having that person as a worker.

    (My daughter has Asperger's, I really like your blog.)

  6. Excellent point, g. Check out the link to a post by abfh which has even more to say about the benefits of flexibility for employers.

  7. Most of these are things I complained to my employer about. The one that really comes to mind iare the "lists". I told my supervisor more than once, when I first started--a simple cut and dry list.

    I am fortunate because at my job I am alone and it is very routien, except for "emergencies" but even those are handled the same way all the time.

    The person who "trained" me a year ago, purposely gave me wrong information and left out information. It was extreemly furstrating.

    This is exceptionally good advice.
    Loved this post.

  8. "Less hostile work environment" could in reality *gain* the company money, by saving the time folks waste being arseholes.

  9. Thanks for compiling this excellent post. Everything on your list would definitely lead to a much calmer, more efficient working environment, not just for aspies. I find the hardest thing is to communicate aspie workplace needs to an employer without appearing demanding of special treatment. The list you have compiled is not special treatment, though: it is just decent stuff any employer can do to help everyone.

  10. I found this entry after searching for Autism and Employee. I have an employee, whom I inherited, who I am fairly certain has Aspergers. He is a stupendous worker, very efficient and gets lots more work done than anyone else. He is very particular about when he comes in and when he is willing to leave (even if I give him the afternoon off he won't go). I haven't ever had any major problems with him. But this is VERY helpful to me. I think that the minor problems I have had could be alleviated by giving him a list and telling him what's most important. I do notice he does tend to just do it in the order I have given things to him, which has led to me getting (privately) frustrated a couple times with him.
    Thanks for the post and everyones follow-up comments.

  11. As an Aspie, I like the list. Like you say, not all applies to everyone, for instance I have no problem with shaking hands or eye contact and actually relish those jobs with a uniform - so I don't have to guess what does or doesn't fit in the dress code.

    Some of your list fits extremely well though. #5. Can not emphasize it enough! At 42 I've had a lifetime of being hired on the bases of my skill, reliability and loyalty to company and to task, only to lose the job because of the one or three domineering NTs who can't handle my oddness and refuse to get along with me. It's frustrating as hell and depressing beyond description, but that's the American workplace.

    I think the number one thing any employer can do is to recognize an employee for his/her job skill - not our social awkwardness.

  12. Hi,

    My names Aaron and I have a brother with Aspergers. I have been working in the Washington, DC area to start a hands on program for teens/young adults with Aspergers and other 'high functioning' forms of Autism. I have been wanting feed back from people who have worked with and through the lens of Aspergers to see if the interest is there. I believe that too much emphasis is put on core education and not enough opportunities are given to people on the spectrum to find something that they are really engaged in doing. Design, engineering, and creativity aren't only found in a classroom but sometimes by making furniture, drawing and more generally by being given a medium that is engaging, fluid, and open to interpretation. Would love to hear back from everybody who reads this. Especially if you are a young adult with Autism or a parent of a young adult and live near DC.


  13. I guess, since we mostly live in an ultra-capitalist society, the bean-counters in a corporation would need to compute Return on Investment (RoI) and see how it affects their bottom line. Accomidations would be seen as "overhead" costs and these would be classified as either recoverable or non-recoverable, one time expenses or recurring expenses. If the accommodation is a one time expense, the question then is how long till the corporation profits from increased productivity. If it is a temp or short-term job or the project requires short-term profits, *BRRRT*, sorry, that person is usually a goner or reassigned. Too many reassignments and that person is s goner too. If it's a long-term project or program or an on-going service or manufacturing endeavor, usually, if it takes more than two years to recover that investment with the increased productivity that it has yielded, then, that person is a goner too. It may also be seen as: Do these accomidations excessively erode the profit margin? Sometimes corporations have staples of profitability baked into the constructs of their productivity metrics. So, non-recurring expenses, even if profitable may eat too much of the margin, depending on the duration of the endeavor and affect too negatively the bottom line. If the expense is recurring the question then becomes: does the increase in productivity more than compensate for the investment in accomidation, and if so, by how much, and if so, how does this affect the bottom line? Sometimes an accomidation can bring out the best in an autistic. In some cases, the autistic may outperform the NT by leaps and bounds because the accomidation uncovers a special skill that makes it worth it for the enterprise.

    But I believe the reality is, most autistics average out, as the entire spectrum spans from top to bottom. Such being the case, for an ultra-capitalist entity, it may be found that accomidations may simply yield average results and therefore be deemed unprofitable from the vantage point of RoI and therefore the enterprise will then initiate a disciplined mechanism of measures to oust the autie in a way where it could evade discrimination charges, such as, but, not limited to, memos of record for performance, negative reviews and performance improvement plans to establish precedent for cause or justification of layoff or firing.

    So there, ladies and gentlemen, though this may seem satirical and a farce, it's the sad reality of our ultra-capitalist society. Most such enterprises are not the humane society.

    Removing bias in the workplace is one thing, but even with pure robot-like impartiality, the odds are stacked against us, because, after all, considering the entire spectrum, most auties are probably average on the bell-curve. It is the different peaks and valleys that would need to be taken into account to determine the feasibility of profitability for inclusion into an endeavor which probably stacks the cards against us, even when there is no bias.

    Sorry for being blunt. But this is why auties should get, not ordinary jobs, but jobs in their special skills and interests because then they are more likely to stack the cards in their favour as they get computed into the RoI algorithms. Capice?

  14. When I was in the Air Force I obviously had to wear an uniform. As such, if it required something pokey or scratchy I might opt to wear something underneath it, like a liner of some sort. I could not stand wool. Yuck! It would drive me absolutely crazy and I couldn't function. But I was left to my own creative devices for such accomidations.

    Being in the firing range and being startled: I had to enrol, of my own accord, into a meditation class, and also wear ultra effective ear plugs to be my best at the firing range. -just saying. I highly doubt the employer (the U.S. Air Force) would have been very "accomidating" had I failed at the firing range. The next thing to be fired would have probably been me. lol

    ...or discharged, which is how they call it.

    Luckily, I was able to find myself some good advocates, mentors and advisors. They helped find ways in which for me to cope. So, lessons learnt: Surround yourself with good advocates, mentors and advisors, whenever possible and to the maximum extent possible. They will act as your armour and shield against adversity and help fund coping mechanisms and creative accomidations.

  15. Taking advantage of an autistic's gullibility is also not funny. Seeing that an autie tends to take things at face value and then having the room uproariously explode with laughter when the autie says "REALLY?" might not be all that funny to the autistic if done repeatedly. -just saying. ;-)

  16. Bev, thank you for putting together this list of small investments.

  17. If the uniform is comfy and cottony then it can be a plus. No longer the frozen moment in the morning: "now... ...what am I supposed to wear??" The uniform becomes part of the routine. xD


Squawk at me.
Need to add an image?
Use this code [img]IMAGE-URL-HERE[/img]