Succeeding at Work with Autism
As a child, Temple Grandin had extraordinary memory and visualization skills. But she was socially awkward and hypersensitive to noise and other sensory stimuli. As an adult, she used her skills to gain insight into the minds of cattle. She is now among the world's preeminent designers of humane livestock facilities and an associate professor of animal science at Colorado State University.
Grandin is also one of the most accomplished adults with autism. Diagnosed with brain damage at age 2, she learned decades later her condition is Asperger's Syndrome, a form of high-functioning autism.
A leading advocate for two causes -- animal welfare and autism -- Grandin represents a new wave of workers: autistic adults. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, one in every 1,000 Americans has some form of autism. Precise estimates are difficult, because autism is a continuum for which no clear test exists.
The Right Jobs
But understanding of the disorder has grown in recent years, and more and more people who have been diagnosed with autism are moving into the workplace. Grandin believes they can be good employees. In fact, she says, under proper conditions they can be the best workers a company has.
"Autistics tend to be very strong in one area and very weak in another," she says. "I'm a visual person, but I'm poor at math. Autistics excel if they are supported and appreciated in their areas of strength."
Autistics also need clear, well-defined job roles, says Grandin. "They should be told, ‘Develop this computer program in 10 days.' When I worked for a farm magazine, I had to know how many articles to write per week."
Dr. Diane Twachtman-Cullen, cochair of a panel of professional advisors for the Autism Society and editor-in-chief of Autism Spectrum Quarterly, agrees. "Structure and predictability are important. A good workplace is relatively quiet and routinized; tasks are known in advance and put in writing. Employee handbooks are great, because rules and procedures are written and visible."
Jobs requiring specific, concrete tasks such as library cataloging, equipment or graphic design, data gathering and mathematical modeling are well-suited to autistics. They do less well in positions requiring complex social skills, such as management. And jobs that depend on multitasking, such as being a restaurant hostess or receptionist who must simultaneously answer phones and type, are also poorly suited to autistics.
Because people with autism lack social skills -- they may make offensive remarks without realizing what they've said or be unable to read emotions from facial cues -- daily interactions with colleagues can be difficult. Supervisors should smooth over any social gaffes, Grandin says.
At the same time, an employee who does not spend hours engaging in office politics or office gossip can be a very productive employee. "There wouldn't be a lot of technology without Asperger's people," says Grandin, adding that Albert Einstein and Carl Sagan would today be considered autistic. "Technology is not developed by very social people."
Autistic workers can be distracted by fluorescent light -- "it can flicker like a disco," Grandin says -- so adaptations like incandescent lighting or a desk by the window can help.
Grandin says autistic people should ask for such accommodations as soon as they're needed. However, it is an individual decision whether to describe one's condition as autism. She worked for 10 years before telling anyone she has Asperger's. "They just thought I was weird," she says.
Job coaches and mentors are important too. Twachtman-Cullen describes an autistic woman with incredible knowledge of sports trivia. A coach helped land her a job as a television researcher, where she is now mentored by a sportscaster.
The hiring process can be a significant hurdle for autistic people. Grandin says that autistics' poor social skills may undermine an interview, so they should sell themselves through a portfolio of their work. She advises avoiding the human resources department if possible, instead showing the portfolio to someone in the engineering or computer department who might understand it better.
Of course, that is not always possible, so Twachtman-Cullen advocates extensive preparation, including role-playing. "Applying for a job is nerve-racking for everyone, but people with autism are especially prone to anxiety," she says. "They're not always sociable or able to think on their feet." That's why, she says, it is important for employers to realize that autistic applicants may be anxious and to understand that although autistics may not interview well, they have plenty to offer.