In Their Own Words – In the Workplace: Expect Ruffled Feathers
We thought our dreams had come true when our 22-year old son with autism landed a job as a custodian at an Army base just outside of Washington, D.C . Full health benefits, paid vacation, and a starchy new uniform – yahoo! With his intense focus on repetitive tasks and military trivia, he had the makings for a model worker, but our euphoria didn’t last long. After a rocky start, six weeks into it a Human Resources rep called me into her office to say my son was becoming increasingly unreachable, “a pain the neck” for his supervisors to deal with. As a square peg in the round hole of a straitlaced military base, with little or no interest in office politics, he was making for an inscrutable co-worker. What to do?
Here’s the surprise: instead of tossing my kid out, they invited me in to a well-attended managers’ meeting to talk about how to manage autism in the workplace – a first for this forward-thinking service provider company. Topic A: As an employer of people with physical and intellectual disabilities, how likely were they to see an increase of clients with autism in the coming years?
With more than 730,000 cases of children currently diagnosed with autism in the U.S., I assured them they could expect many more resumés like my son’s to be crossing their desks, and soon. Then someone suggested that perhaps the more relevant question is – if an employee who has autism is missing the piece of the puzzle that engages in typical social discourse, how can a workplace manager bring this new staffer into the fold?
Here’s how I look at it:
1. Start by becoming a noticer. When you see any of these behaviors – the lack of eye contact, the missed social cues, the wrong body language, the impulsivity, the flat affect, or the nervous tic-ing – consider that instead of just being rude or behaving inappropriately, this person may be somewhere on the autism spectrum, and inherently challenged by social expectations.
2. Use concrete language, not abstract images. Don’t talk so much when giving out instructions. People on the autism spectrum are very often visual learners and tend to tune out complicated directions – they frequently learn by watching and doing a task – so don’t be a chatterbox. Because, trust me, at this point the window has closed and he is no longer listening to you. Instead, be blunt. Say the thing you need to say simply and clearly. Then ask him to look you in the eye, (very important), and have him repeat it back to you. If he still doesn’t get it, maybe send him a text message or create a check list to read and keep for reference. Then shadow him. Stand back, watch, and let him monitor his own progress. Repeat as needed.
3. Prepare to have your feathers ruffled and then learn how to shake it off. For example, you might notice my newly employed son steps through that door ahead of you and lets it slam in your face, but this is not intentional or mean-spirited. Instead, remind yourself that being inwardly focused is a big part of what autism is. Don’t take it personally, and learn to let it go. This sounds so much easier to do … time after time … than it actually is. On the other hand, gentle reinforcers of acceptable behavior are always a good idea. Little things, like “Could you get the door for me, David? Now hold it for me until I get all the way through. That’s it!”
4. Lighten up: everyone benefits from a good sense of humor. After wrapping up David’s first week of work, he came upon his supervisor in the parking lot and said, “I’m off the clock now so you can’t boss me around.” The supervisor was initially shocked at David’s impromptu comment, but fortunately, he had a sense of humor. This kind soul didn’t exactly understand it, but he got it, and defused the situation with a good-natured belly laugh.
5. Respect the Two-Foot Rule: Give him room to breathe. Providing two feet of personal space around someone with ASD may be paramount for his peace of mind. So don’t add stress to a situation by imposing your physical self into the conversation. Many people with autism are tactilely defensive with acutely heightened senses and miserably uncomfortable when stuck in small spaces or subjected to loud noises. A handshake is fine but you do not want to goose this young man, or poke, or hug him – I know my son would react to that like he’d been snake-bit. Instead, make a standard handshake part of your daily routine with this individual, so that he knows it’s coming and doesn’t perceive it as an assault. All these things would come out if he could tell his own story, but chances are your new employee is a consistent loner, so he probably never will.
6. Pass it on: make a conscious effort to raise awareness about ASD during staff meetings. As managers of these workers, you will face many of the same problems we families do. Like us, you will have a few triumphs and plenty more setbacks. Be aware that the enigmatic part of autism is also going to create frustration in your staff’s well-meaning efforts to get through to him. Make sure all supervisors of employees who have autism understand that the disability simply is what it is—and nothing more. And yes, there will be times when you find yourself thinking this guy is a jerk or a pain in the neck, but remember to take yourself out of the equation – because (and take it from a someone who really knows) it’s not about you. Then, pat yourself on the back because – as every parent of an autistic child knows – you’ve earned it.
This “In Their Own Words” essay is written by Glen Finland. Glen is the author of Next Stop, a memoir about raising her son, who has autism, to adulthood and learning to let go, forthcoming from Amy Einhorn Books/Putnam in early 2011. Read another blog post by her – In Their Own Words: What Happens When I Am No Longer Here?
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