What are autism and Asperger syndrome?
Autism is a condition which affects the way a person sees the world, processes information and interacts with other people. People who have autism typically find it difficult to develop social relationships, to communicate with ease and to think in the abstract. Although a minority of people with autism have learning disabilities, others have average or higher than average intelligence and are often highly educated. People who fall into the latter group usually have a form of autism called Asperger syndrome.
The ‘autism spectrum’
Autism is called a ‘spectrum’ condition meaning that it can range from scarcely perceptible difficulties to severe disability. There are some traits that impact on most people with the condition to some degree or other. These include:
Difficulty with using imagination or abstract though, including empathizing with other people or situations;
Difficulty with ‘reading’ non-verbal communication, such as body language, facial expressions or tone of voice;
Following particular routines (and possibly a resistance to change in these routines);
Strong personal interests and hobbies;
A tendency to take words literally (for example, phrases like ‘you look like a million dollars’ or ‘he’s all fingers and thumbs’ or ‘she must have eyes in the back of her head’ may be very confusing);
Difficulty with and a dislike for eye contact;
Sensory issues – hypersensitivity to noise, smell, taste or touch
Because autism is a spectrum condition, people are often described as having an ‘autistic spectrum disorder’ or ‘ASD’, which covers the whole range of the condition, including people with Asperger syndrome.
People with Autism and Asperger syndrome often have numerous (and sometimes exceptional) skills which enable them to make excellent employees. It is important to help employers understand the benefits of employing a person with Autism or Asperger syndrome, how the employee can be supported in the workplace and what support is available to employers throughout this process.
Employees with ASD
People with Autism and Asperger syndrome often have numerous (and sometimes exceptional) skills which enable them to make excellent employees. As well as their individual abilities, some traits associated with ASD can, when well channeled, be a considerable beneficial in the workplace. For example, many people with ASD are good at paying close attention to detail and are meticulous about routines, rules and accuracy – meaning they are often extremely reliable, and can excel at jobs such as accounting, where consistent procedures and precision are vital. Other people with autism enjoy repetitive tasks (whether basic or complex) and perform very well in fields such as IT or administration.
In spite of these abilities, people with ASD often find the work environment hard to deal with because they face difficulties in transferring skills and knowledge to new tasks or environments. Where a person without the condition can usually see readily what is required of them and draw on their experience to complete tasks, a person with ASD may not immediately see how they can adapt their skills to a new role or activities. Because of this, they often need some level of support in the workplace.
Much of this support can be very straightforward and easy to provide, such as ensuring that instructions are precise, or that a person’s day is structured with clear priorities. Some individuals, and their employers or colleagues, may need more intense or specialized input, with a supporter working alongside the employee until they feel comfortable in the job. Once settled in, people with ASD often become highly valued staff members and many managers who work with them find that the skills they develop as a result – particularly in prioritizing work and in communicating what they expect from staff – benefit the workplace as a whole.