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Autism in the workplace

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Could you identify if someone you work with has autism?

The new guy in the office is loud and aggressive. He can’t read social cues, won’t wait his turn in meetings, and talks obsessively about the same things every day – but sometimes shares extraordinary insights. You may wonder: how can you form a good working relationship with someone who’s such a puzzling combination of brilliant, wooden, stand-offish, and just plain different?

It’s possible that your colleague may be on the autism spectrum – one of the 1 in 68 people in the U.S. that the CDC estimates has autism spectrum disorder (ASD). This is a major rise from the 1 in 88 that the CDC reported just six years ago, in 2008. This phenomenon – which manifests in social and communication deficits, fixed interests, and repetitive behavior – has been described as an epidemic, and researchers are only just beginning to decipher what causes it. Here are some strategies that individuals can use to build better relationships with colleagues on the spectrum.

Avoid eye contact (if they do). Often colleagues with ASD will be uncomfortable making eye contact. If that’s the case, follow their lead. Back off a little from the typical Western, in-your-face approach and give him some breathing space. And we say “him” because males are predominantly diagnosed with ASD; in fact, this diagnosis is applied to four times as many males as females.

Take their affect in stride. Your colleague will likely have a flat affect. Think of this as an inherited trait like hair colour something that he has no control over. Do not under any circumstances embarrass your colleague because of this or any of the other symptoms associated with ASD.

Listen patiently. ASD dramatically impacts individuals’ ability to understand the unwritten rules of communication that are normative in virtually all business environments. So your colleague may be entirely uninterested in hearing about your recent vacation, but all too eager to obsessively share with you statistics about NCAA football or the characteristics of the North American songbird. Be tolerant and flexible. He literally cannot control this – and, you may learn something.

Embrace structure. If your colleague with ASD has a tendency to butt in or talk over everyone in meetings, the solution is to introduce order to the typical free flow. Individuals with ASD often appreciate structure; indeed, they sometimes thrive on obsessive repetition and rigid routines. Consider adopting Robert’s Rules of Order for your meetings, and perhaps even appointing your colleague as parliamentarian. He will likely learn well – and may fanatically implement – these new rules, ensuring that your meetings run more smoothly for all. You may also want to consider creating a short document that lays out organisational “rules of the road,” detailing workplace expectations. Examples could include defining how teams should operate, setting expectations about the permissible time between receiving and responding to colleagues’ emails, banning ad hominem comments, etc. Such a document can be beneficial for everyone, not just employees with ASD.

Minimise “social clutter.” If your colleague has trouble fitting in with the team and sometimes distracts others with his presence, you might consider holding all of your meetings by video conference (Skype, Vidyo, GoToMeeting, etc.). You may be surprised at how efficient these kinds of meetings are, eliminating the “social clutter” that can often take so much time during the typical business meeting. As well, this is good practice for your road warriors, and can ensure that your division can hold its own in the contemporary business environment. Over time, as your team acclimates to this new personality and you develop other resolutions to his discrete challenges, you might transition to in-person meetings.

Dorie Clark

By Dorie Clark

Dorie is an adjunct professor of business administration at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business and the author of Reinventing You and Stand Out, which was named the #1 Leadership Book of 2015 by Inc. magazine. Dorie is a frequent contributor to the Harvard Business Review, TIME, and Entrepreneur. Dorie is a marketing strategy consultant and speaker for clients including Google, Microsoft, Yale University, Fidelity, and the World Bank. For more information: dorieclark.com.

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