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Managing employees with Asperger’s: the benefits and challenges

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Many managers don't realise they have team member with Asperger’s – a hidden and non-visible disability.

The condition can actually present as frequently as one in 200 of their employed workforce, possibly with greater occurrence in particular skill areas.

Little is known about Asperger’s in an employment context. It’s traditionally hard to gain access to question employees and employers on this issue because the condition is so often undisclosed. It is difficult, if not impossible, for employers to know how many people in their organisations have autism or Asperger’s, partly because those with a diagnosis are not obliged to disclose, may chose not to disclose, or simply may not know they have it.

I recently questioned employers and HR specialists to explore the benefits and challenges for line managers of people with Asperger’s.

Patterns forming

Firstly, they spoke about the strengths of these employees having a high work ethic and a higher than average IQ. They also indicated that Asperger’s employees are often willing to perform repetitive tasks which many other employees may avoid but are valuable to the organisation.

However, while having an employee who is willing to do important but repetitive or menial tasks is of obvious benefit to an organisation, it does raise the question of whether allocating someone a disproportionate amount of routine work the 'right' or the 'wrong' thing to do.

Some of the common Asperger’s traits raised by line managers were described as both strengths and weaknesses, such as attention to detail; social interaction and working with others; and honesty and directness. Two were thought to be more frequently problematic; being inflexible; and being hyper sensitive to lights and noise which leads to stress and anxiety.

Attention to detail was considered a positive aspect with regards to accuracy and quality of work, but could often affect the speed at which Asperger’s employees complete their tasks. Managers also reported exemplary timekeeping as a positive, but inflexibility and a dislike of change presented challenges. 

Common traits

The majority of managers cited the tendency to be honest, direct and 'speak their mind', as a positive aspect of employing the individual. While criticism is unlikely to be universally welcomed, line managers appreciated having a team member who was willing to criticise or point out problems with a particular decision or process, or ask questions and articulate complaints that others may be afraid or embarrassed to raise. 

Furthermore, the findings challenged stereotyped views that people with Asperger’s do not enjoy talking to others and instead supported clinical studies which consider the negative effects of particular environments. The study suggests that line managers face a challenging role in ensuring that the working environment is not too noisy or bright, as this can have disproportionately adverse effects upon someone with sensory difficulties and make working closely with other people difficult.

Unfortunately the majority of current employment processes do not suit those with Asperger’s because they often lack the ‘soft’ skills needed to be successful in an interview and the skills required in competency frameworks, such as flexibility.

They do however bring many other skills and employers should be mindful of this when recruiting, including the great potential for those with Asperger’s in roles which require high IQ levels, the ability to handle complex data and systems, and the ability to systemise, all of which are associated with the 'hard' skills needed in the various engineering and STEM disciplines.

Many individuals with the condition who are already in employment choose not to disclose it for a number of reasons, one of which is the attitude and awareness of their line manager. However, as schools and universities become better at supporting and diagnosing younger people, it is likely that incoming employees with Asperger’s will have greater expectations in regard to their employers being better informed and more able to support and recognise their particular needs.

Trust is key and the findings suggest that training all line managers on the condition and how it can be supported in the workplace would be beneficial to both parties.

Anne Cockayne

By Anne Cockayne

Anne is a senior lecturer in human resource management at Nottingham Business School, Nottingham Trent University. A qualified coach, Anne is involved the executive coaching provision at NBS. Her research relates to neurodiversity in the workplace.

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