Alwanza dot net homepage link Soft Skills -> Managers and Leads of Asperger's Syndrome Workers

Managerial Skills and Tips for Managers of Asperger's Syndrome Workers:

There is no way to get around it.  If you are a Manager or a Lead in High Tech, sooner or later, more likely sooner, you will be interacting with reports or coworkers who are "on the spectrum" (of autism, known as highly functional autistics or Asperger's).  There's a chance you have had one now or in the past and didn't realize it.  The good news is that it doesn't have to be difficult, in fact, some of your best workers will probably be "on the spectrum", but you do need to communicate with them slightly differently than with "neuro-typicals".

Some of the most innovative, effective, and brilliant workers in engineering and technology are "on the spectrum".  As of 2013, "Asperger's Syndrome", is no longer a psychological diagnosis according to DSM-V, and the percentage of people who have it seems to be increasing, so now I guess we are considered a "normal variant".

Asperger's syndrome or highly functional autism was first described in 1944, but even in the 1920s, the traits were well known.  A scientist (for example) or an engineer (for example) might excel at his or her work, while appearing socially awkward.  These people often stated that human behavior is puzzlingly irrational to them.  While there is no correlation between how far someone is on the spectrum and how brilliant that person is, there is no doubt that having an Asperger's type mind contributed to their mental abilities, and our scientific breakthroughs.  The manager who can be a good manager to reports who are "on the spectrum" is a valuable asset to his or her company.

An Aspie is a person "from another culture" in the extreme.  They can follow unambiguous written and verbal instruction very well, but gray areas, and knowing how to behave in untypical situations may be difficult for them.  In general, the better you can express your expectations of how you want them to interact with you and the team, the better results you will get.  The caveat to this is that the rest of the team needs to be onboard with your expectations, too.  For example, if you want your Aspie to write status reports in a style similar to Betsy's, make sure Betsy knows that her status reports are being used as an example in case your Aspie worker goes to her with questions.  If you want your Aspie report to work with the team in a particular way, make sure you have communicated the same message to the team as to your Aspie report.

The reason for this is that, especially when the Aspie is new to your team, he/she may need a little bit of your support in order to become part of the team.  Other team members will notice that the Aspie person behaves a little differently, and if they are not comfortable with that behavior, they may challenge the Aspie if he/she asks them for help, which will put the Aspie in the uncomfortable situation of determining if he/she should bring the issue back to you, and no matter what the Aspie does, it will backfire on him/her, because the Aspie does not excel at interpersonal finesse.

Imagine you woke up one morning and everyone you encountered was acting a little bit weird, nothing you could quite put your finger on, but enough to cause you a little confusion, enough to make you wonder if everyone else got some memo that you missed.  That is what it feels like if you have Asperger's syndrome, and it feels that way more frequently than not.  In social situations or friendly situations, you can ask others how they are feeling, what is going on for them; but it isn't something you can readily or easily do with everyone you encounter every day at the tech workplace.  The Aspie in the tech workplace focuses on tasks, and finds those much less ambiguous than people.  It isn't so much that the person with Asperger's doesn't notice the behavior of other people, it is more that he/she doesn't know how to interpret that behavior within the seemingly endless possibilities of what it could mean.

People with Asperger's will usually appreciate having a well-defined role that is explicitly outlined for them.

In every work place there are some policies that are important and that everyone follows, and some policies that are not.  To an Aspie, knowing the difference might be difficult.  The Aspie worker will appreciate being explicitly told which of the policies are most important to follow.

Behavioral inconsistencies, and inconsistencies between word and action, tend to confuse people with Asperger's syndrome more than others.  Just acknowledging the inconsistency is usually enough information for the Asperger's person to accept it.  An explanation is even better.

Employees with Asperger's syndrome will not "pick up on" when the rules change, at least, not quite as quickly as others.  If something has always been done a certain way and that changes, the employees with Asperger's syndrome will need to be explicitly told.

Most Asperger's syndrome people do not respond well to surprises.  If handling emergencies is part of the job, an Aspie who knows that in advance will be up to the task if she/he understands what is expected of her/him and confirms that she/he can do it.  However, if something comes up that is going to change an Aspie employee's routine, the more advance notice you can give him/her the better!

Asperger's syndrome people are not typically secretive or sneaky.  If you share a secret with an Asperger's person you must be explicit about what part of it is not supposed to be shared with others.  Also, because Asperger people are not sneaky themselves, they aren't expecting others to be sneaky either.  In this way, Aspies can be naive and vulnerable.  Sometimes they set themselves up for revenge by their teammates because they are not good liars; not good white liars, either.

Typically Asperger's syndrome people are direct communicators and appreciate the same from others.  If an Asperger worker asks you a direct question about work, the best answer is a direct and unambiguous one.  People with Asperger's may not understand if you white lie or sugar coat a situation, and may take what you say as the literal truth as you understand it, and then act accordingly, which may not be what you want.

Although people with Asperger's syndrome may extrapolate well from a set of facts (and hence are good troubleshooters), they have difficulty extrapolating conversational subtext or social "hints".

The Asperger's person usually does not "pick up" behavioral cues.  If an Aspie worker is dominating the conversation (usually because the topic interests him/her); he/she may not realize that others want a change of topic or speaker and may need to be interrupted and told.  When this happens, typically, the Aspie will be apologetic and cooperative.  No one gets to be an adult Aspie without having endured their closest friends and relatives telling them that "sometimes you talk too much".

In general, Aspie folks find it more difficult to look into other people's eyes.  If this makes you uncomfortable, you can request that he/she looks at you when you are talking to him/her.  He or she may need to be reminded more than once.  It is not intended as an insult and it does not mean that he/she is not paying attention.

If you are having a particular problem with an Asperger's syndrome employee, the best approach is to bring him/her in on the discussion of how to solve it.  For example, you could work out a hand-signal to indicate that he/she is taking more than his/her allotted speaking time at a meeting.  Reminder gestures, worked out in advance, can be a very helpful tool.

Identifying an Asperger's Syndrome Person

Identifying an Asperger's syndrome person isn't always easy, and might be more difficult in the workplace, where someone whose traits are not obvious may have learned (through previous bad experience) not to share that information.  Not all Aspies are obvious and not all have been diagnosed.  Aspies tend to have hyper sensitivity to sensory input:  hyper startle reflexes, sensitivity to light (most Aspies dislike fluorescent lighting, although they won't go into epileptic fits unless they also have epilepsy and those conditions are not linked), hyper sensitivity to smells and noises.  However, all Aspies will not have the exact same sensitivities to the same sensory input nor the same intensity.

If you observe that one of your coworkers has the ability to concentrate on some project for hours as if the rest of the world didn't exist, coupled with some hyper sensory sensitivities of one sort or another, coupled with awkward social behavior, there is probably about a 40% chance (my guess) that person is "on the spectrum".  Notice that 40% is less than half.  That is because all the symptoms that define Asperger's can also have alternate explanations or diagnoses.  It takes an expert to know for sure.  But if your coworker who exhibits those traits responds well to being given specific verbal or written instruction, then the label is less important than having found a good way to communicate.

The Upside of Asperger's

Your Aspie report does not want your job.  He/she appreciates that you have people skills that he/she does not have and admires you for them.

Your Aspie report is not going to take part in deviously stabbing a coworker in the back.

Your Aspie report will have good logical and troubleshooting abilities and be able to focus on a problem for hours, and be more likely to solve it than most.

Usually, Aspies work very well remotely and can be trusted to complete assignments by designated deadlines without a lot of supervision.  They have much greater challenges interpersonally than technically, and if given adequate result expectations and direction, and pointed to the correct documentation, will be able to do the work.