Social Integration in the Workplace
Autistic Individuals Face Special Challenges
and also have Special Abilities
Remarks and Information
Prepared for Job Counselors of the
Massachusetts Rehabilitation Commission (MRC)
July 25, 2011
NB: this is a work in progress, and is not to be quoted.
Your comments and suggestions are welcome and invited.
©2011 Michael Forbes Wilcox
“Forty-two,” said Deep Thought, with infinite majesty and calm.
“The Answer to the Great Question, of Life, the Universe and Everything”
“I checked it very thoroughly,” said the computer, “and that quite definitely is the answer. I think the problem, to be quite honest with you, is that you’ve never actually known what the question is.”
From The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, by Douglas Adams
I don’t know that question
The Great Question, of Life, the Universe and Everything is not something that comes trippingly off my tongue. I do think I know why you are all here today, however.
The great conundrum, as I understand it, facing the MRC is, why is it so easy to find jobs for Aspergerians (that is, people who, like me, have been diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome), and so difficult for them to retain those jobs?
As an Aspergerian, my job, in the next few minutes, is to share with you some of the things I have learned over a long lifetime; I have held many jobs, I have lost many jobs. I know some of what works and some of what doesn’t. Maybe, just maybe, I can give you some pointers on advice you can give to your clients.
I have written much for you, as I’ve pondered this conundrum, and you have a copy of something I prepared just for today.
I won’t attempt to read the whole thing to you, because I want to give you the big picture, and leave time for you to ask me questions.
Topics That I Will Cover, If Lightly
Before I’m done, I hope to have time to say a few words about a whole bunch of things.
First, Some Vocabulary and Basic Terminology
Let me hasten to add that my opinions here are my own, and do not necessarily represent the positions of any of the many organizations with which I am affiliated.
First: please! expel the word “unacceptable” from your vocabulary when you speak about the behavior of people with disabilities. Let it join that trash heap that now contains the word “retarded” and the phrase “mental retardation.” Instead of “unacceptable,” let us refer to “expected” and “unexpected” behaviors. You will see examples of what I mean when I later talk, or you read the reference I give you, about social skills in the workplace.
Likewise, strike the word “disorder” from your vocabulary. Disabilities are a normal part of the human condition. Many of us who are autistic believe that we represent a different order, not one that is better or worse. We believe in the concept of neurodiversity, meaning that autistics and non-autistics deserve to be treated as equals. If you haven’t already done so, read Jim Sinclair’s excellent piece, “Don’t Mourn for Us,” written in 1993 and just as relevant today as it was then.
When you speak of me, please do not refer to me as “a person with autism!” I am an autistic person. I know that the people who have advocated for “person first” language have done so to great advantage for many sectors of the disability community. Some self-advocates, however, have rejected specific aspects of an otherwise respectful approach to speaking about people with disabilities.
Blind people, for example, so not want to be called “people with blindness.” The deaf community is even more strident, and insist on being called “deaf” – not “people with deafness.”
Here, too, Jim Sinclair has some elegant words to express why autistics prefer to be called what we are: autistic.
I am right-handed. You would not call me a “person with right-handedness” – being right-handed, like being autistic, is part of who I am. There is nothing wrong with being left-handed (although not long ago, it was thought so; my partner, who is left-handed, grew up attending parochial schools in Springfield, and would be soundly rapped on the knuckles if she tried to write with her left hand in class). Being left-handed is a disability, however. Most tools are designed for use by right-handed people. If you are right-handed, have you ever tried to use left-handed scissors? I have. It isn’t easy.
Similarly, there is nothing wrong with being autistic, but this world was not designed for us. Autism is part of my identity. It is not something I can leave at the door when I enter a room full of non-autistics. It is not something I caught one time because I didn’t wash my hands, and it is not something that is going to go away. Nor would I want it to!
Okay, With All That Aside, Here Are My Words of Wisdom
I have provided you with a handout that contains the following items, and a web link to my blog for a more complete discussion. Also, you have my email address; I welcome any questions you may have that I don’t have time to address or answer today, or that may occur to you later.
- “Splinter Skills” – this is a term often used about autistics to describe how they may be very good at some things and very poor at others. Of course, this applies to all people, not just autistics, but it seems that we are perhaps blessed with an even more disparate set of skills than is true in the non-autistic population. [As an aside, we often affectionately refer to non-autistics as “neurotypicals” or NTs, and forgive them for their limited range of abilities, recognizing that it is just the way they were born; they can’t help it! 😉 ]
- Years ago, Howard Gardner introduced the concept of multiple intelligences, but his insight has not had as much influence outside of the academic community as one might hope, since most people still seem to view the “IQ test” as the sine qua non of intelligence.
- It turns out that the things that autistics are good at often requite an enormous attention to detail; library science, engineering, computers, and the like. The things we tend to be really bad at involves such things as social skills.
- Emotional withdrawal: autistics have, in most cases, been told all their lives that they do things wrong. This can create great psychological harm, leading to severe depression at the extreme, or perhaps just to a reluctance to engage socially, for fear of being rebuked yet one more time. This reluctance to engage can be misinterpreted by NTs as coldness or non-interest, when in fact the person may very much want to join in, but just doesn’t know how to do it.
- Lack of emotional regulation: autistics live in a world of logic. When things don’t go as they expect, or don’t make sense (a common occurrence when dealing with the NT world), they may appear to “fly off the handle” with rage, or experience some other form of a meltdown, resulting in complete withdrawal.
- Literal-mindedness: this does not mean we are not good at figures of speech, metaphors, or puns. Most of us also have a highly developed sense of humor. What we lack is the ability to “read between the lines” – things must be spelled out step by step for us. Of course, it is also up to us to learn how to elicit missing information, but many of us do not recognize when that occurs.
- Sensory Issues: Aspergerians share with all autistics an aversion to certain stimuli. This will vary from person to person. We all have something, but what bothers me may not bother another. Accommodations must be sought or created. This is connected with the issues of self-awareness and disclosure.
- Not Wanting to be Different: this seems especially applicable to younger people.
- Perspective-taking: the most difficult challenge for many autistic brains. And, the heart and soul of social skills. And, although this is inherent in us, it is not our natural place to go, so must be trained. The very most difficult thing for us to do is to see ourselves as others see us.
I’m autistic, and I’m proud of it! I was diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome (AS) late in life, and I’ve come to appreciate how special that makes me. I’ve always known I’m different, but I never comprehended how very different I am. Now that I understand the deficiencies of the neurotypical (NT) mind, I have become much more accepting of the 99% of people in the world who just don’t get it! They can’t help it, they were just born that way!
I say this in jest, because I tire of being told that I have a disorder, and that my way of doing things is somehow wrong.
I’m not disorderly, and there is nothing wrong with the way I do things. It is just different. I think differently, I do things differently. My way of thinking is perfectly cogent and internally consistent, even if it is incomprehensible to 99% of the population. So, stop telling me to change, stop telling me that I need to “fit in” and start accepting me for who I am.
Okay, great speech, but it ain’t gonna work! My natural way of being produces discomfort in most of the people I encounter in life. So, as a survival mechanism, I have needed to learn how to hide my differences, and to play their game. It’s hard work, and I don’t always succeed, but when the alternative is total rejection, there is a huge incentive to be able to fake it.
I’m told that many employment counselors are puzzled by their autistic clients. Someone who is diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome may be clearly qualified academically in their field, and even have an impressive employment history (at least on paper). Yet, they may have difficultly securing employment. And, even more significantly, they may have a history of being unable to retain a job once they have been placed.
I have been asked to address the puzzle of why many Aspergerians appear to be highly qualified for employment, may even have a good-looking resumé, and yet have great difficulty in obtaining new employment, and perhaps even more puzzling, have a history of not lasting very long on a job, so that they are soon back on the hunt for employment. Obviously, helping these people find and retain good jobs would be beneficial for them, for their employers, and for their support network.
Let’s Figure Out What Is the Proper Question!
Superficially, the question is clear: why is it that autistic people have such great difficulty securing and retaining jobs for which they are clearly qualified?
The answer to that question, however, is quite simple. They lack the social skills that are expected in the NT world. Neurotypicals, because of the way their brains are wired, easily acquire the social skills they need in order to “fit in” to NT culture; autistic people often complain that everyone else seems to know the rules, but no one has given us a copy of the rulebook!
Is this because of some deficiency in the neurology of autistics? No, not in my view. When I am in a room full of autistic people, I can relax and behave naturally, since everyone else will understand me, and I will know what is expected. If I am talking and someone interrupts me, I can switch gears and go with the new train of thought without resentment, or I can tell them to stop interrupting me and continue with my own exposition, and no one will think either one of us is being rude.
Once, when I was giving a presentation to a fairly large audience of Aspergerians, a young woman in the back row shouted out, “Get out of my head!” I took that as a great compliment. We do understand each other, the way NTs understand each other. But it’s very difficult to be bilingual. For the most part, NTs don’t try, unless they are therapists or in a relationship with someone who is autistic.
On the other hand, autistics are expected to learn what is expected in the NT world, and, quite frankly, to be successful in it, they need to do just that.
So, rather than ask the easily-answered question of “Why?” let’s move on to a “How?” question, along the lines of “How can autistic people learn social skills and develop strategies for navigating the shoals of a world that is inherently incomprehensible?”
When talking about myself, I use “Aspergerian” and “autistic” pretty much interchangeably, my choice depends on the context or my mood. All Aspergerians are autistic, but not the other way around. There is great value to the Asperger label, in my experience. It tends to be less stigmatizing (although I wish that weren’t true), and it helps conjure up a image that may be helpful to others in forming their expectations.
The other advantage of the Asperger label is that it has helped unite a community and created an opportunity for many people to gain understanding and support. I know the Asperger community has been a huge help to me over the past few years.
Still, we all know that individuals are unique, and there are plenty of people who have not received the AS diagnosis who can benefit from learning about the skills I mention in this discussion, just as there may be Aspergerians who, for unrelated reasons, may not be in a position to enter the workforce.
So, although people with the AS and closely-related diagnoses may represent the majority of autistic people you encounter, the very same skill set discussed here can also benefit anyone who is autistic. All autistics have much more in common with each other than they do with the NT world.
Reasons Autistics have Difficulty with Social Integration in the Workplace
The following list is not meant to be exhaustive, but to give a flavor for the challenges facing autistics as they try to do what is expected of them in the workplace. These items are also not presented in any particular order, since they all interact with each other, and in some cases are just different ways of saying the same thing.
 “Splinter Skills” is a term used to describe people (not necessarity autistics) who appear to have very different skill levels in different aspects of life.
This is closely related to Howard Gardner’s concept of “multiple intelligences” – a theory that he began developing in the 1980s and which came into full bloom in the 1990s, and is considered by many to have been a paradigm-shifting way of thinking about intelligence [q.v. Kuhn, Thomas, S., “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions”, Second Edition, Enlarged, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1970 (1962) which itself was a paradigm-shifting piece of work!].
What Gardner pointed out, in essence, is that intelligence cannot be measured on a single scale; we all have talents in multiple areas, and we are not necessarily equally adept at each of these skills.
I have a friend who uses the term “dull normal” when referring to NTs, as in “would you rather be weird or dull normal?” My friend John Robison has talked about his belief that NTs tend to have a similar intelligence level in most areas, whereas autistics seem to have variable intelligence levels, being very good at some things (such as he was at electrical engineering), and very bad at others (such as social skills).
Despite the acceptance of Gardner’s ideas in the academic world, his paradigm shift has not entered many areas of practice. We still use a single scale of intelligence, for example, to define who is eligible for services from DDS.
 Autistics carry the burden of a lifetime of being told “you’re doing it wrong.” This can lead to a fear of social interactions with their potential for rejection, and may inhibit autistics from sharing their thoughts.
All of this may give others the impression that autistic people are shy, uninterested in friendship or social involvement, and prefer to be left alone. This is usually not true; it is just that they don’t know how to initiate the interaction.
 Lack of emotional regulation – “flying off the handle” or panicking.
Monotonic emotional presentation – the inability to emote may give off the (false) impression of being “cold” or uncaring, incapable of empathy.
All of this may be a result of or perhaps lead to withdrawal and depression.
 Literal mindedness: this does not imply the inability to understand metaphor and figures of speech; rather to not being able to “read between the line” and make inferences. We do not know, as NTs seem to, that “B” ALWAYS follows “A” so that telling an NT to “do A” is equivalent to saying “do A and B” – the autistic person will do “A” and stop, leaving the boss to wonder why they are being uncooperative (or stupid).
Solutions: [A] we must be given a specific task list OR told what the objective is, rather than how to achieve it. (Don’t “box us in” if you want us to “think outside the box” – a concept most of us don’t understand anyway!)
[B] We must learn to solicit information when we suspect we are not being given the whole picture.
 Sensory integration/regulation issues – e.g. continuous or loud noise, bright lights, etc. may be totally distracting or even lead to physical reactions and distress.
It is in the interest of employers to provide reasonable accommodation where they are needed, in order to maximize the productivity of each employee. This platitude, however, is often honored in the breach.
In my days in the job market, long before I understood the concept of accommodations, or even knew that I needed them, I found clever ways to create them for myself.
For example, I learned early on that, for me, the rush-hour scene was especially stressful. The crowds, the noise, the delays all distressed me.
My first “real” job came to me while I was living in Springfield in the late 1960s; I got a job as a computer programmer for an insurance company in Bloomfield, Connecticut. At the time, I was attending AIC in Springfield at night, working toward my bachelor’s degree.
I would often arrive home at 10 o’clock or so, attempt to do some homework, have some conversation with my wife, maybe watch some late-night TV to help me unwind, and end up hitting the sack around midnight. All of that made it quite challenging to get on the road in time to be at work by 8 o’clock, given that I lived about a 40-minute drive from my office.
 Not WANTING to be different. Especially true among the younger crowd.
Antidote: knowledge –> understanding –> acceptance
Self-acceptance can’t be imposed, and needs to be preceded by the first two.
Those who are autistic do not intuit how very different they are.
 Perspective-taking. Flows from .
Social Thinking At Work, by Michelle Garcia Winner and Pamela Crooke, 2011, northriverpress.com
Asperger’s on the Job, by Rudy Simone, 2010, Future Horizons, Inc.