Autism and the Workplace: Specialist Skills and Wider Talents by Jonathan Andrews
Written on 1st Sep 2015 by Alex Lowery
Today we have a guest article by Jonathan Andrews. Jonathan is 21-years old and was diagnosed with Pervasive Developmental Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS), a lesser-known type of autism at the age of 9. He is also a Youth Patron at ‘Ambitious about autism’. Jonathan has written several articles on autism and employment for BBC Ouch and Diversity Jobs. He’s worked on a booklet about ‘Autism in the workplace’. This booklet is a collection of experiences of adults with autism in employment. Click here to read it. He’s previously written another article for my blog on the subject of empathy in the workplace, which you can read here. Today’s article is about ‘Specialist Skills and Wider Talents’. I hope you enjoy reading it.
The word ‘autism’ – despite the wide diversity of the spectrum it encompasses – too often conjures up a simplistic view of simplistic people. In the workplace, all people with autism are judged to be socially incapable, fiercely individualist to the point of refusing to take part in group work, and utterly unable to avoid brutal honesty even when inappropriate. But like with all stereotypes, these are far too simplistic; while sometimes true, many with autism break these stereotypes.
1. Autistic people cannot work effectively in a team
This belief is accurate in that few autistic people want to get involved in the nastier and more damaging sides of ‘office politics’ – most have little interest in forming cliques and socially excluding people, and would rather get a job done than “creating drama”. In certain but people often assume, too, that autistic people therefore dislike all forms of ‘office politics’ – which, at its core, is the workings of a team. But contrary to the stereotype of an anti-social or non-social autistic person at work, many autistic people report being considered “more chatty” than others.
Others don’t, but the vast majority are still happy to work within a team they feel comfortable in, and they’ve gotten used to. Team work is not the same as group-work, after all – it requires a lot of individual work on assigned areas, something autistic people often excel at. There is no reason to suppose that autistic people won’t want to be a full part of a team that reciprocates by accepting them for who they are, and sticks to its objectives rather than bickering. If we weren’t effective in the workplace, why would so many companies now be seeking us out?
2. No autistic person can tell white lies
It’s true that autistic people tend to have a strong conscience and value honesty; many see it as a betrayal of their values to lie, while others simply do not have the guile to do so. But this is not a universal trait. Autistic people tend to lack social imagination, but not imagination per se, meaning many can create lies; and those with hyperlexia (a good number of high-functioning autistic people) tend to develop a very good grasp of language which often makes their lies more convincing. And some autistic people tend to appear calm at all times, as their emotions do not show as easily/in the same way as non-autistic people – which makes them appear confident and more believable.
Even those who have an innate difficulty with lying can develop the ability to tell “white lies” with time and practice, and not all have the trait of inflexible honesty in the first place. Having said this, those with autism who can lie are far more likely to do so for good reasons rather than self-serving ones, and are still far more likely to be trustworthy in the workplace due to a stronger sense of loyalty. And some autistic people – mostly women – report feeling like a social ‘chameleon’, able to adopt any personality in social circumstances. This might be strictly considered ‘lying’ – but it also makes them great actors, and potentially skilled at activities like pitching and negotiations.
3. Autistic people are anti-social, and unable or unwilling to communicate with any group of people
It’s true that social impairment is a part of childhood autismdiagnostic criteria. But this specifies only that a person display a ‘failure to develop peer relationships appropriate to development level’. So people with autism tend to have trouble communicating with people their own age (not all, though, since not everyone diagnosed will meet this specific criteria) – though the ways in which they have trouble are vastly different across the spectrum.
Yet some are very adept at communicating with other age groups, whether younger or older than them. Indeed, Tony Attwood notes that a desire to form friendships with adults and older children can be a sign of Asperger’s/high-functioning autism in children, while adults see less issue with age gaps in friendships and relationships. While the view that autistic people cannot be prejudiced is a benevolent myth, it is true that autistic people tend to have friends from more diverse groups; and with several figures in business now arguing that the leaders of tomorrow require cultural intelligence – the ability to work with those who are not like themselves – it may be that certain autistic people are well placed to do this.
And these are just a few of the skills some autistic people display in the workplace – far from the stereotypical view of the condition, they can be effective communicators, team-workers and diplomats. Equally, though, there should be no stigma around autistic people who do not display these skills – nor should everyone with autism be expected to excel at them. Once you’ve met one employee with autism, you’ve met one employee with autism!
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