Monday, August 14, 2017

Autism in the workplace- how to make it fit

I've had the privilege of caregiving for a 17 year old with Autism since March this year.  My life has changed drastically. Not only have I had a teenager in the house, but one with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)- specifically Asperger's whos ups and downs are now part of my life.

He's high-functioning Autistic. This means he can drive, work and get about life pretty well, but is challenged in some areas like social interactions, dealing with stress, emotional outbursts and has no filter!  He had 6 jobs since he has been with his in March and has found it hard to settle, but what I have found interesting is how he has dealt with his challenges in the workplace.

For the first 5 jobs, he never disclosed to his employer that he had Autism.  He wanted to be treated 'normally'.  The thing is, most of the time he can be what looks like 'mainstream normal- (if there even is such a thing)'.  What sets him apart from others without Autism can be subtle but also drastic to a workplace at the same time.   Everyone on the spectrum can present differently, so this can be challenging too.  After being educated myself and working with wonderful organisations like and 
 and, they have equipped me well with what Autism is and how to deal with it at home and in the workplace.  So in a nutshell, this is what I see in terms of Autistic Traits which you may recognise in perhaps some of your team in your workplace, please note this is my observation rather than a definitive list:-

Anger/ Meltdowns- can range from mild to extreme and almost always have a trigger.  Levels of irritability may always be there in some degree.
  • Perfectionism which can also trigger outbursts or anger when something does not go their way
  • Extreme focus on certain topics or objects which can be obsessive
  • Social interactions- prefers to be alone reading a book/ being by themselves at lunchtimes/ morning tea etc. rather than being with others
  • May sometimes be seen as odd or eccentric with things they say/ do or possibly how they dress.
  • May struggle when meeting new people and may also not look them in the eye
  • Limited numbers of age-appropriate friendships (if any)
  • Can struggle even more with how to interact with the opposite sex socially or even in a work environment.
  • Can speak almost like a professor with huge depth of knowledge on their favourite topic ( an adolescent can almost seam like a 60 year old some days)
  • Can have an extreme talent in one or more areas that can exceed those of similar age and experience.
  • Likes structure and routine and can be rattled if it changes (eg moving desks or meeting times).
  • Repetitive processes suit them best
  • Swearing or being rude may be common place for them, they often don't even realise they are doing it.  Just gently pull them up and start letting them know what is appropriate and what is not.
  • Being on time is critical and can get very rattled and irritable if they think they will be late or others will be late
  • Can have a great sense of humour with very quick wit
  • Usually highly intelligent but may not have done well at school as the classroom environment my not have suited them.
  • Can sometimes have poor personal hygiene (can see it as pointless)
  • Can sometimes be hyper-active (but may not be ADHD, just part of Autism)
  • Can be very loyal, which can also equate to long term working relationships in the right environment
  • May require medication to contain irritability

The challenge I had when advising him on Job #6 was to disclose or not to disclose. I spoke to the organisations I had supporting us and they said some people do and some people don't.  We decided it didn't get us anywhere on 5 jobs so perhaps this time would be better.
I thought of it myself as an employer and how I would feel if someone I was hiring disclosed to me and would I be basis or not.  Big call.  So we decided to wait until he got the job and had been in it a few weeks before disclosing, after all he still had the 90-day trial period anyway.  When he came home from work and aid he told his boss and could I please email him any material I had, I just about fell-over in shock.  He had done it!  God I was hoping he would keep the job.  Apparently his boss said he knew very little about Autism and could he send sometime to him so he could understand.  So we did.  The other thing was, I decided to step in, much to my Aspies disgust!  I sent his boss a text.  It was the best move I ever made.  This meant that we could both work on supporting what was happening.  When medical meetings were required I would also inform his boss (so he didn't think it was just a sickie being pulled).  When things went wrong and the day just could not be coped with, he would text me to say he was coming home.  Quite an unconventional relationship, however the openness and willingness to support someone on the spectrum has been remarkable.  I think this is how our workplaces should be.  We should be giving people a shot with Autism and other Mental Health issues, after all, deep down we are all just the same, just with a different brain.  There are so many positive things about Asperger's/ Autism that I never knew.  I would have people with Autism or Mental Health issues in my workplace any day, all I need in full disclosure so I know what I am dealing with.  This is the problem with our PC world, people don't want to disclose to their employer due to fear of discrimination.  Come on employers- get with the program and help these excellent staff members fit into your workplace.

I now take the approach in my workplace that if I spot someone with what I suspect is a Mental Health issue, that I just approach them with the hope they will open up.  Most usually do.  This also means I can help them and understand why they may have up and down days and I can support them on their journey.  When I have done this, I have seen waves of relief go across peoples faces.  They don't want to suppress what's going on and hide it from everyone either but the way our society is modeled, sadly they feel like they need to.

People may think its a drag, I don't. My job as a CEO is to create a diverse workplace with trust, openness and honesty and support.  If we all just got over ourselves, the world and our workplaces would be such better places.

So my final tips.  Here is my edited list that actually got sent to the employer- if you have or suspect you have staff with Aspergers/ Autism in your workplace, here is my list of how to deal with things and help these great people fit into your workplace:-

List for Employers re Autism Spectrum Disorder (Asperger’s) from Lyndal

·         Be direct and clear to as to what time you expect him and where and he will be time punctual every time

·         Ensure he knows the schedule well ahead of time and try not to change what you have agreed, changes can be unsettling for him and can cause stress

  • If you see him getting stressed or swearing, let him have some time-out and go for a walk Autism means that different things will stress him more easily than others (pain/ doing something wrong etc.) 
·         Don’t expect him to be social with others in the team- this is one of his big challenges- try and slowly introduce him to people by letting him work with them rather than socialize with them, he does however value people who understand him at work and can bond with those who understand his behaviors and can see past them and see him for who he is..

·         If he says some rude or brash comments, this is part of his Autism/ Asperger's- do not take it personally- he has no filter!

·         If under extreme stress can have meltdowns, you will know because he may yell and swear profusely, sadly these cannot be well controlled yet and the best thing to do is tell him to go for a walk or calm down- do not let him get back in a machine/ car, if he goes for a walk he will calm down and he will come back.

·         If he doesn’t do something perfectly, to his expectations he can get very upset with himself and it may last for hours, this is also part of the Autism, he may also worry he is going to get fired and you may need to reassure him that its OK

·         On the positive side, he has  amazing ability to focus on the task at hand comes from his Autism/ Asperger's, especially in his special area of interest- this is his passion and his talent and any employer that has him in this space is very, very lucky as he has extreme talent.  Some Autistic people have extreme talents in music or the arts,he has had talents in his special area- since the age of 5.

·         If you look past the social issues, the no filter and the swearing, he is the nicest most loyal person you may have the pleasure in meeting, yes he can get angry and upset but this is common place for this different brain and he is learning himself how to control it more and recognise triggers every day.

·         Talk to him about things you see and discuss solutions with him regularly, give him regular feedback (we do this once per week on a Friday) and reward him for good work (a shouted lunch or dinner goes a long way with him, especially if its measured against a pre-set list of goals and expectations.

·         If really worried, please call me , his caregiver as she knows what to do and can advise on what is happening as he may not be able to explain at the time.

      Employer to employer, I challenge you to think about how your workplace functions and how you reach out and help those who may be suffering or may not be OK mentally.  We are all capable of getting depressed and suffering mental health issues, and some people may have them genetically passed on from birth.  I hope this blog helps you to understand and challenge your own behaviours towards others who might be a little different than yourself.