WorkZone: 'Aspies' get workplace advice

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Some of the trademark characteristics of people with autism or Asperger's syndrome can be advantages in making them effective workers: attention to detail, an interest in research and an ability to work on long projects without getting bored.

But in any office outside of a factory line, social cues and communication can be just as important as meeting deadlines and filing reports, and people with either condition often have trouble reading facial expressions or understanding subjective phrases.

To help people on the autism spectrum and their employees, Rudy Simone wrote "Asperger's on the Job," an advice book for her fellow "Aspies" navigating the workplace.

It's a group whose numbers are growing as the rate of autism and Asperger's diagnoses increases. Some employment agencies are springing up to hire specifically those workers with Asperger's, she said, trying to tap into the group's ability to focus intently on the task at hand.

And, as awareness of the syndromes increases, Ms. Simone said, "People who have previously kept their mouths shut, and shrinked and faded into the background, are standing up and saying, 'No, I'm a good worker,' " she said.

Ms. Simone leaves it up to individuals to decide whether they want to "come out" to their boss, co-workers and employees as being on the spectrum, but many of her tips apply whether colleagues know about the syndrome or not.

Many with Asperger's have sensory issues that make them hypersensitive to conflicting sounds or bright lights, and sensory overload can lead to an anxiety attack, she said. Her tip: Pack a "sensory tool kit" to keep at work with ear plugs or stress toys -- anything to help calm you down when you need it.

Day-to-day social interactions -- or lack thereof -- also can make a workplace miserable for these employees. Those on the spectrum often have difficulty with social courtesies or reading nonverbal cues like facial expressions.

That can prove problematic in an office where every sigh or frown is calculated and analyzed.

"It's like we're Mr. Spock on the starship Enterprise," Ms. Simone said. "We will say something without embellishing and without gift-wrapping it."

She paraphrased noted autistic and animal doctor Temple Grandin in saying to autistics and Aspies, "Even if you know you're smarter and you do your work smarter and better, you should ask for help every once in a while because no one likes a know-it-all."

And since those with Asperger's are often hyperfocused on a given topic, Ms. Simone suggests focusing that energy on learning tact and social cues.

Having an office-mate unafraid to say the emperor is not wearing any clothes can be refreshing, she said. But it can also be an issue "if that person happens to be our boss."


Erich Schwartzel: or 412-263-1455.


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