What to Do with Employees on the Autism Spectrum

People on the autism spectrum, including those with Asperger’s have poor executive functioning in their brains. This can have various implications for work. Here are some things bosses can do to ensure their employees on the spectrum succeed in the workplace.

  • ·         Give step-by-step instructions and have your employee repeat them back
  • ·         Make instructions as simple and concrete as possible
  • ·         Break down tasks/assignments into smaller chunks with more deadlines
  • ·         Provide written instructions, or at least have the employee take notes
  • ·         Allow the employee to keep “cheat sheets” around which they can look at to ensure they know what they need to do
  • ·         When possible, provide a daily checklist so your employee can check off what they have finished
  • ·         Provide the employee with a rubric so they know what a successful project looks like
  • ·         Say to the employee “This is important because . . .”
  • ·         Provide them with a routine when possible

All of these things help those on the spectrum keep on track and to prioritize. But do keep in mind that if you do provide them with a way to prioritize, they will prioritize in exactly that way. You have to provide them with any nuances, because such nuances will not occur to them on their own.

For example, let’s say that you have four tasks for your employee. The most important thing to do is task A, then B, then C, then D. D is the least important, but it has to get done too. Also, the times when certain things in each set have to get done varies. So if there is something in A that can get done in two days, the priority is to do something in D due in an hour. However, if you fail to discuss the way time factors into prioritizing, the person on the spectrum will simply get all of A done, then do all of B, then do all of C, and then do as much of D as he can get to. He may not even do any in D, since the others are top priority. As you can imagine, this employee is going to get in trouble for not getting to anything in D. However, since the employer did not explain how to prioritize using time, it is not really the fault of the autistic employee that D wasn’t getting done.

What typically has to be done is to allow the employee to get down prioritizing A-B-C-D, then introducing them to the time factor so that they understand the time element of prioritizing. They can and will learn the entire system, because to them it will be an algorithm by which they work, but it has to be taught to them explicitly and in steps.

Does this sound like a major pain in the neck? Yet, once you have your employee trained, you can rest assured that this employee will do the work pretty much without flaw, and will be a major workhorse. Of course, being a major workhorse can itself be its own problem, since his fellow employees will likely not like the fact that the autistic employee is so focused on work that he is getting more done than everyone else. We all know that when that happens, office politics come into play. Beware of what your regular employees say about your autistic employee, and be aware that your autistic employee is complete oblivious that anyone is undermining him or in any way acting underhanded. His social world can completely fall apart, and he won’t know it. Also, it probably won’t help him that he’s typically too blunt and direct, won’t look anyone in the eye, has no earthly idea how to make small talk, won’t notice when people are bored about his obsession (typically work), treats bosses and employees the same, has a tendency to interrupt during a conversation or walk away in the middle of one, and ask too many questions.

But do also keep in mind that your employee on the spectrum also has the following traits:

  • ·         Attention to detail
  • ·         Sustained concentration
  • ·         Excellent long term memory
  • ·         Vast knowledge in certain fields
  • ·         Tolerance of repetition and routine
  • ·         Strong logic and analytical skills
  • ·         Creative thinking
  • ·         Bluntness (which can be good if you want to know what’s really working and what’s not)
  • ·         Honest
  • ·         Loyal
  • ·         Strong desire to do well

These are the reasons you want someone on the spectrum to work for you. They may not be the best employees from the perspective of being socially ideal according to neurotypical standards, but they will typically be your best workers, once you have them trained.

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