An Introduction to the Autism Spectrum
The Autism Spectrum is a form of neurodiversity – that is, a variation in how someone perceives and responds to the world around them due to a wide range of factors including differences in brain structure and functioning.
With a prevalence of one in 68, it is quite likely you know or know of someone within your workplace, neighbourhood or community that lives with AS.
As a “spectrum” this form of diversity can vary greatly in how it is experienced and demonstrated by those living with it. There are multiple traits, sensitivities, skills and abilities that vary from one individual to another
In very severe cases, those with AS may lack verbal skills, not seem to engage with people around them, and may be seen to rock, flap their hands, walk on tiptoe and engage in other “odd” mannerisms. They may be very inflexible, needing a strict routine and have very restricted interests and a lot of support is needed on a daily basis to ensure their health and wellbeing.
In less “severe” cases of AS, there may be support needed due to limited verbal skills, a need for predictable routines, narrow interests, hypersensitivities and limited engagement with others.
In the least severe cases, what were once individuals classified as having Asperger Syndrome, there is normal to advanced intellectual functioning, normal to advanced verbal skills and better tolerance for changes in the daily routine. That being said, those with this form of AS do still experience sensory sensitivities to light, sound, smell, touch and taste, find social situations challenging and may have very narrow interests and areas of expertise.
Executive functions related to goal setting and monitoring progress may also be affected.
Those with AS may also experience other mental and physical health challenges including obsessive/compulsive disorder, attention deficit disorder, Tourette Syndrome, anxiety and depression, challenges with hand/eye coordination and gross motor difficulties. Some of these can be treated, or stabilize over time so that in adulthood they can be more easily accommodated in their day to day life.
All of this may sound overwhelming if you have never met someone with AS, but on a day to day basis, some of the most commonly observed traits, especially among those with the least sever forms include the following:
- Difficulty engaging in eye contact
- Flat affect – that is, their ability to demonstrate moods and their emotions may be difficult
- Advanced vocabulary – using terminology and speech patterns that are very accurate and grammatically correct
- A need for predictability and seeming inflexibility when it comes to what to expect when
- Difficulty engaging in social conversation or understanding the subtleties of social communication (use of idioms, metaphors, teasing, body language, voice pitch, etc.)
- Deep interest and expertise on specific topics
These may result in negative perceptions that the individual does not and cannot understand social nuances, adheres very strictly to rules, is only interested in their pet topic.
In actuality, there are positive aspects to these traits that can be of immense benefit to both the labour force and society at large. These include:
- Strong attention to detail
- Logical thought processes
- Amazing memory
- Deep understanding and knowledge of given topic areas – i.e. specialization
- Out of the box thinking/creative problem solving
- Strong intellect
- And more.
These traits can compensate and provide strategies to overcome the challenges. For example, for someone who has difficulty in social situations, being given a “play book” on how to interact with different people, which topics to broach and which to avoid, can be very helpful – using memory and attention to detail, they can learn to manage these interactions in a positive manner. The deep understanding and knowledge about their pet topics make them subject matter experts in their chosen fields.
As Temple Grandin says, “the world needs all kinds of minds” and neurodiversity can drive innovation in many different aspects of work and life. In most cases, including those with AS in the workplace is relatively low cost and simple. Examples of easy fixes to accommodate skilled professionals with AS include the following:
- Providing a single point of contact for the individual – this could be a mentor or supervisor they can ask clarifying questions, debrief with, and learn how to meaningfully contribute to the workforce.
- Establishing clear communication strategies – if the workplace uses channels such as Slack or Teams, establish rules for these interactions, what an expected response time might be for any given team member, etc.
- Provide clear job descriptions including role and responsibilities for both the individual with AS and those they may be working with.
- Provide or approve access to noise-cancelling headphones
- Adopt scent-free policies
- Review workplace lighting and access to natural light – provide breaks from fluorescent lighting in an alternately lit environment
- Provide access to a quiet break space
- Give the individual more time to reply to questions, comments or instructions or ask them to put them in their own words to gauge their understanding – writing it down may be particularly helpful
- Understand that although the individual seems to be working well in an environment that is challenging to them, the energy required for them to function is greater than for others. They may need more frequent breaks or very limited needs for overtime work.
Level IT Up is here to help. We can provide great workshops that describe AS and how it might impact your workforce and we can also support both the individual with AS, as well as their employer, to establish a positive, fruitful working relationships.
Some Famous People with Autism Spectrum Disorder
- Bill Gates
- Steve Jobs
- Dan Akroyd
- Susan Boyle
- Satoshi Tajiri
- Al Gore
- Anthony Hopkins
- Darryl Hannah