On the
Spectrum, in the Workplace (typewritten image)

Employment in the NT World


index (index webpage)
Employment is generally an exercise in "emulating an NT". That doesn't mean it's formidable; only that it is helpful to understand that the workplace is structured around NT values.

Each person has his/her own abilities and tolerance for the workplace.



Education & Credentials

Unfortunately, those of us who have best succeeded have had substantial educational support from our families. The process and our nature is such that we have the intellectual ability to excel in the manner of Bill Gates, Temple Grandin, Albert Einstein, but in almost all cases, this was coincidental with substantial family support in the education process.
While it is possible to develop superior skills without education, it is difficult to attain credibility without the credentials. For autistics, often the credentials are what speak for the person's skill set. If you have the chance, get the credentials. If you don't have the opportunity, make up for it with certificates of completion of seminars and the like.

If you can find someone to accept your skillset without education, that's fine, and may even be useful in careers where prior experience is more important than education.



Difference

The difficult part about employment and keeping a job is that you will be perceived to be different. If you recognize this, it is possible to take steps to avoid the "difference" in personality becoming a major issue. Simply being aware of the potential for differences is probably the most significant step.


Type of Work

While there are definitely fields of work which are well-suited for autistics, each individual is different. I know of one person on The Spectrum who works in inbound telemarketing and customer service.

Examples of fields of work where autistics do well include the "traditional" ones such as programming and engineering, but also include work with animals, medicine, air traffic control, rail operations, art. Oh yes, patent law (what I do). University professorship is a sheltered workshop for autistics. Avoid jobs which require skills that you may not have. If you intend to run a business, be sure you can run the business.


Interactions with People

Interaction with people is probably the most critical factor in employment as relates to autistics. In addition to direct interaction as part of work, interaction with people is important in solving problems in the workplace.

Being Social

It is not essential to be particularly social with people at work. It is important to have good social relationships within the work environment, however.

There are some things that can be done comfortably in a social sense:

  • Morning greetings
  • Brief discussions about current events (but be careful not to perseverate when talking to NTs.)
  • Lunch - Lunch is an easy time to be friendly. If there is a group, minimal interaction is required.
  • Group activities after work.

Morning Greetings

This depends on local custom but varies between such things as "hello", and brief discussions of topical events. Japan had traditionally formalized this with structured rituals such as calisthenics.
  1. Be careful not to appear to be a loafer (a lazy worker). Keep conversations brief. It's okay to look like you're in a rush.
  2. "How are you?" conversations can usually be answered with a simple hello. In general, workplace "How are you?" is a type of greeting -- more so than outside of the workplace.

How Are You?

This only requires a friendly acknowlegement.

If you're not in a foreign language class, "How are you?" does not need to be answered directly. "Hi." is sufficient because it acknowledges the greeting and implies that you are not verbal at the moment.

It is not necessary to respond by asking the other person the same question. "How are you?" is more of a generic opener, establishing, "I see you, I assume friendliness between us, and it's okay for you to talk to me."

Acceptable answers:

  1. Fine, thanks. How are you?
  2. Fine, thanks. Do you know where ___ is?
  3. Hi.
  4. Arf! Arf, arf, arf! Arf, arf! (followed by sniffing xyr butt)
i.e., any greeting, or greeting followed by communication is appropriate.

Politics

It is okay to discuss controversial subjects, so long as the "controversial" nature doesn't make people uncomfortable. For things such as polarizing political issues, you will have to use your judgement. There are some who find politics interesting as would be expected in a conversation between autistics, but there are NTs who don't treat it that way.

If the subject has polarized opinions, consider indicating, "I understand where the other side is coming from (why they have their opinion), but ..." That statement generally is true, and lets the other side know you consider their opinion worthy even if it is WRONG.


Religion

Make sure that the person with whom you are discussing this is willing to accept the discussion. There are people who consider beliefs of others interesting but would be offended by anything that could be mistaken for proselytization.

(Proselytization, besides implying that the other's belief system is wrong, is considered directly offensive to members of some religions for various reasons. Proselytization is also generally offensive to atheists.)


Office Customs

These vary and can include such things as the way that work is assigned to the way people spend lunch. Observe these things. At a new work environment, be aware that some people had worked there for long enough to have privileged status regarding some things.

Office Politics

A lot has been made of "office politics"; however, the key aspect of this is not to be seen as opposing someone. It is not necessary to structure alliances in a manner befitting the intrigue of a Chinese novel. It is only necessary to observe and not offend the hierarchy.

If someone isn't doing his/her job, or is doing it wrong, determine if this results in a breach of ethics by the company. If not, consider that the consequence of doing something about it is your offending the system. If the company didn't like what is happening, they'd do something about it.

Be careful not to "tell on" someone. Again, if the offense is not against the public, the costs to taking action make it nonproductive to complain.

There are times when accepting blame for someone else's mistake is beneficial. The people in charge will often know where the responsibility falls and respect you for taking the blame. They will also consider this to be a form of responsibility (in a good sense).

Sometimes it helps to ask someone if a particular suggestion is okay to make before making it.

Limits of Office Politics

While there are people who do well with office politics on an intricate level, for the most part, office politics are not a substitute for job performance.

Respect Fiefdoms and Hierarchies

If making a suggestion or reacting to something, be careful not to offend someone's idea of what they are in charge of. Don't criticise the efficiency of an individual or group with whom you work.

Avoid Conflict by Preparing for Conflict

The Power of Negative Thinking

If you expect things to go wrong and prepare for it, you won't be disappointed -- either
  • when things go wrong
  • when things work out
More importantly, by preparing for things to go wrong, the impact will be reduced.
an example:
I had a television remote stolen. This was to a TV/VCR combination, so universal remotes typically won't work, especially on the menu function which was driven by the remote. So I called Radio Shack to find out if they had a suitable one.
"Yes, we do."
Okay, no problem. Go there, and if by some 'remote' chance it doesn't work, I'll drive 5 miles to bring it back and repeat the exercise for each model until I find out none of them work.

Instead, I presumed that the recommended one wouldn't work, and brought the TV in the back seat to the store. Within 20 minutes I found that none of the remotes worked. That saved substantial frustration. (I ended up ordering a factory remote.)

Negative thinking. In the case of the workplace, anticipate that something will go wrong. That will reduce the chances of being "blindsided" by something that could have been anticipated.

Try to be aware of confrontational issues. If you anticipate a confrontation, it's easier to avoid, deflect, or otherwise be prepared for it. Even in the eventuality of the confrontation developing, you will have a more logical approach to it. (Presumably, in most cases the confrontation will either never develop or will be avoided.)

On Being Different

Try to be aware of differences that people will consider "weird" or which label you as a "complainer". That said, it's often okay to be a little weird, particularly if people consider you pleasant.

"Management by Wandering Around"

"Management by Wandering Around" (MBWA) is used to describe work involving moving about work areas to access work activity. As the name implies, this is more related to management functions, although "management" in this sense can be anything from IT functions to janitorial work.

This is relevant for several reasons:

  1. It is often necessary to take an effort to monitor work-related activities. This cannot always be accomplished by ordered analysis or routines. By wandering around one gets a situational sense of the work environment.
  2. It is often necessary to establish informal communication links with fellow workers to perform work functions. (Incidentally, it is not always necessary to engage in small-talk or chat, so long as one appears reasonably friendly. Make an excuse if necessary -- "I'm a terrible conversationalist, but I really do like people.")

    Both of the above are normal "MBWA" functions, useful to both NTs and autistics. Obviously they apply to different extents in different types of jobs, but the point is that there is a legitimate reason to wander in some work environments.

  3. It is advantageous to have wandering time be seen as productive by others.

If you are seen as wandering aimlessly, that is not good because it suggests you are not productive and distracting others. On the other hand if your wandering has a purpose, then that is naturally looked upon favourably. Ideally, one would find obvious reasons to wander, whether it is colleague association (discussion of issues concerning the profession) or actual work functions. If there are people you can talk to about a business function, that is also helpful.

There are some work environments where it is possible to perform some work functions in a different enviroment, such as a company library or a Starbucks, with a laptop. This became common at some US West Coast high technology firms. Even away from these high tech "sheltered workshops for autistics" it is acceptable to work away from one's desk. This is seen as an intellectual activity. Obviously it helps to have a job which allows for that, but even more physical jobs sometimes offer this opportunity.

Make Your Wandering "Fit In"

Develop strategies for making wandering in the workplace appear useful or otherwise unobtrusive. This can range from performing necessary workplace functions to escaping for a brief time (if that's acceptable). Look to smokers for examples of how to get away.

Be careful not to be perceived as being strange or weird by wandering around. Try to establish a pattern that either matches that of others in the workplace or is calculated to "fit in" with the office culture. If you visit co-workers, make sure that they appear to be welcoming or enjoying the visit.



Prosopagnosia

Prosopagnosia is a reduced ability to recognize faces. If you may not recognize someone outside of their expected environment, tell them so, in order that they will not be offended.
More on prosopagnosia is at the above link, www.prosopagnosia.com/main/stones/ or search for "prosopagnosia" on the web or on Wikipoedia


Workplace rules (Sins of the System, etc.)

Be aware of some "Sins of the System" rules in the workplace.
Attendance and Tardiness
This is the "biggie". In some jobs, missing work is acceptable, but in most cases it is at least required that you call in when you can't make it. One alternative is to show up at work and go home sick if you have to.

If your employers determine that they must have someone at your station at all times, then it is necessary to accommodate this need in order to be absent. Being tired or feeling like warmed over organic fertilizer are generally not acceptable excuses. The first requirement of any job is to be there in one form or another.

Whistleblowing
"Whistleblowing" or reporting wrongdoing is commendable. Just be aware of the consequences, which can often include firing. One option is to bring the concern up with an immediate superior and possibly request a transfer.

NTs are very conscious of peer pressure and the risk of ostracism when whistleblowing. You may have to report wrongdoing to feel comfortable that you did the right thing. Be prepared for the consequences and do it.

Be reluctant to report wrongdoing where the harm from the wrongdoing is to the company itself. The structure of the organisation is often such that internal whistleblowing is discouraged. If the organisation will not protect you for protecting the organisation, then it probably is not worth reporting. This is a different standard from reporting potential harm to others.

Religious proselytization
mentioned above. If your workplace isn't listed in the phone book under "churches and synagogues", there's probably a reason.

Hygiene issues
Pay necessary attention to this. Some caveats:
  1. If you use a weak deodorant, keep a small container of a commercial deodorant at work in case you work up a sweat. (Some countries have different standards for this, such as "cologne with a complementary scent" in India. But the rules are the same.)
  2. Don't wear the same clothes on successive days, even if it's clean. Some people notice those things.
  3. Be sparing with makeup. Most people don't know how to use it anyway. (There are rules regarding professional level and makeup use, but I don't know what they are, other than that professionals wear little or no makeup.)
  4. Fashion is not as important as NTs pretend it to be. Style, however, is important in certain fields of work.

Social rules (Sins of the System, etc.)

Avoid offending others. Things like arguments, meltdown-related issues and the like are off-limits at the workplace.


Accommodation

The best workplace accommodation is that effected by oneself; however there are variations. More on workplace accommodation here.


Environmental Factors

Most of these are not at the level of "accommodation" under the ADA (depending of course on the individual) but are things that can be done to improve work performance and relieve stress.

Noise

Sometimes this is not avoidable. Use available noise reduction equipment. ANR headsets are now available for under $40., and are useful in places where Walkman-style headsets are commonplace. These devices seem to be the overpriced accessory du jour at airport shops, for good reason.

Lighting

Fluorescent lights can be troublesome. Fortunately, some of the newer ones have electronic ballasts which reduce flicker. In some cases it may be possible to obtain a halogen uplight or the equivalent, but this requires a work environment where personal items of this sort are accepted. In many offices, personal lights are quite common.

Other ways to compensate include opening shades and planned use of coffee.

CRT Monitor Flicker

This can cause fatigue. Fortunately it is easily adjustable as described my first AS-related web article. One description is at SCN's help webpages: www.scn.org/help/monitor.html The new flat monitors don't seem to have this problem.
If you make any environmental adaptations, try to make them "fit in with" something your NT co-workers would do. By way of example, a lamp can be a piece of decoration ("because you like the light") as opposed to, "a special adaptation because bla bla bla."


Work Performance

Ongoing superior performance will be significant in the evaluation of your performance. Know where your skills are and aren't.

Authority by Knowledge

Under management theory, one of the forms of authority is "authority by knowledge". Recognize this as where your value in the workplace is.

Recognize issues.

Focus on Skills, Advocate/Promote Skills

If you are not good at working with personalities, point this out to your superiors or colleagues, but do so in a way that the information is beneficial -- to both you and your colleagues. Tell them how to use your skills. If you are the "technician" or "problem solver", then they can fill in for the other parts. This can, in the right circumstances, be a potent business approach.

Hard Drugs (www.starbucks.com)

Coffee may have its positive and negative points, but it is one option if it helps you perform better. Coffee also has some ability to increase concentration for some people.


"It ain't gonna kill you."

(I used that caption because I find it amusing, in part because it's generally ineffective at addressing a concern. In this case, I want to point out that there's very little to worry about, which is what I think that expression is supposed to mean.)

It's easy to read about work situations and find them intimidating. Consider that many of the stories you hear are exaggerations, especially if they're part of a form of entertainment. For example, the things that Dilbert deals with really do happen to cartoon characters in the workplace. (They even have talking dogs who work things out for them.) The reality is that the hardest part of the workplace is the work, and that's usually tolerable and has its points of amusement.

And even if you [mess]-up, it's a learning experience! And you will [mess]-up. (Don't worry about it. It ain't gonna kill you.)


"Don't let it bother you"

(... or more correctly "Don'  led id botter you" is an East Coast Italian-American expression.) If something seems upsetting, it's best to "step back" and assess the situation, and determine the effects of the situation. Then you can rationally address the situation:
The situation will resolve itself.
One of my co-workers had set her computer to sporadically play "Halloween" noises, which may have been amusing to her, were irritating to me. I determined the source of the noise and just "sat back" (temporarily ignored it). I figured that if it bothered me, it would bother someone else. Within an hour another co-worker sent an email to everyone in the area about his intent to smash whatever cellphone had its ringtone set to make that noise. Needless to say, the noises disappeared.

Often problems will be resolved on their own merits. In most work situations, people are aware of what other people are like. In the case of the noisy computer (the halloween noises), it is likely that the person writing the email had a pretty good idea of who was the source, even though he didn't know it was a computer.

Sometimes a response to an issue can be best resolved by carefully planning an approach. Use your intelligence.

If a workplace change is directed at you, try to tie it in with some benefit, even if the benefit is symbolic.
Sometimes this isn't practical, but there are instances where it is possible to ask for a beneficiary change or "more responsibility" in exchange for a change. Management is inclined to grant small favours when asking an employee to accept change.

Sometimes problems are best ignored. In the scheme of thing, they aren't important.
There is a book, "Who Moved My Cheese" which focuses on change. In essence, employees are asked to think of themselves as mice who finally figure out that if there is a change made, it is their fault; i.e., the change is not caused by the people who initiated the change. The book is denigrating to workers, and an insult to the intelligence of the reader, but the concept of adapting to change is well-taken.

The concept of adapting to change (perhaps the only meaningful part of the "Who Moved My Cheese" book) is that change will occur and the easiest way to address it is to let others (NTs) deal with it. (Or was it that NTs are afraid of mice? Something like that.)



Disclosing AS (or other Autism Condition)

"Pretending to be Normal"

"Pretending to be Normal" is part the title of an autobiographical book by Liane Holliday Willey describing her life with Asperger's syndrome.

Disclosure is Final. Disclosure should be metered.

In the context of the workplace, it is generally best to follow two guidelines as far as disclosing AS:
  1. Disclosure is final. One does not easily un-disclose something.
  2. Letting people know what to expect from you, if done carefully, can sometimes make it easier to "fit in".
  3. Anticipate the possibility that people will become knowledgeable about AS traits.

Under the US ADA requirements for "reasonable workplace accommodation", a disclosure should be made soon after employment. This presents a dilemma because often one is unsure whether to disclose. Fortunately disclosure is dependent on formal diagnosis. That means that one can truthfully state that one is aware of the condition, but was "unable" to disclose it because there was no medical confirmation of it.

"What is my obligation to disclose self-diagnosed conditions?" (obviously none in the case of autism)

Disclose what will be observed.

If, for example, you don't maintain good eye contact, tell people, "I don't have good eye contact." That way, employers and colleagues will observe something which they expect to see. If it's expected, it is less of an adverse thing to them.

Identifying others on The Spectrum

Be very circumspect about suggesting to others that they may be on The Spectrum. Instead, simply acknowledge aspects of their personality. If that person is interested, they will explore further.


No-Eye-Contact "Networking"

Information on using resources (Spectrum style) is at networking.html   ( www.scn.org/people/autistics/networking.html ) Basically, it's easy if you ignore the aberrant NT definitions of "networking"



Social Workers

Unless you intend to get a specialized disability job, KEEP SOCIAL WORKERS AWAY from direct contact with a potential employer. Use the social service contact as an advisor, as a coach, or whatever "fits", but not as a liaison.

The people who need these people to obtain special disability jobs generally find that they interfere with their jobs. Social workers are almost guaranteed to [mess]-up your job if you let them.

That said, social service agencies can be very useful.



Travel and Interviews

Interviews

  1. Err on the side of over-conservative dress and behaviour during interviews. There are plenty of resources on this on the net. (If someone offers some piece of interview "advise" and you don't agree, search it on the net.)

  2. When discussing prior employers, always take a respectful attitude toward them. New employers don't want to hear you denigrate a prior employer. If there is an endemic problem, the new employer may already be aware of this. If necessary, think ahead of time of a description of reason for leaving that places you and the prior employer in a good light, yet suggests a problem which would not occur with the new employer.

  3. Expect "tough" questions in interview. Prepare for them (in part) by telling yourself it doesn't matter. Actually, it really "doesn't matter" since the resume or application form covers credentials; the interview only covers how you respond. Another approach to "tough" questions is to give a direct but "positive sounding" response.

  4. If you concentrate on things like eye contact, concentrate more during the "tough" questions. NTs consider the appearance of the response important.

  5. Basically avoid disclosing an autism condition. In disclosure of AS or any other condition, disclose only what will be observed or noticed. That way, the interviewer will notice something you told the interviewer to expect.
(This section will include descriptions of travel and hotel customs and general "coping" strategies.)


More Work Issues - Internet Use

The mantra of "Don't put anything on a computer you don't want someone to read" is especially relevant at work. Separate:
Work Items
Work-Associated Items (but not work items)
These are things that have a plausible association to work but are not your primary duty. These are typically items which are possibly helpful at work but not directly productive. Examples are projects not directly related to productivity, general workplace projects, stuff related to stupid office parties.

Acceptable Personal Items that are work related
(pretty much the same thing as Work-Associated Items)

These can also include business-related communication such as discussions of issues related to your field of work. This is generally acceptable, but if you like to bellyache about your job, move it to your personal email.

Non-Embarrassing Personal Items
If you have a defined lunch hour or the like, non-work use of the internet is accepted in some workplaces.

Items you don't want others to see; at least not at work
e.g., personal health issues; this website

Totally Stupid Things you don't want others to see
Half of the web is filled with that.

Items which are inappropriate at work
e.g., rude photos -- which seems to fill up the other half of the web

Web fads
Most of us aren't participants in that, but this consists of animations, smileys, and other enhancements. Many of these present a problem for network administrators and you don't want to  be around  when one of these blows up.

Personal Email on the Work Account
A surprising amount of this gets read, for various reasons (not necessarily for employee monitoring). If it is on a work account it should be either work related or something you'd invite your supervisor to see. It may be okay, for example, to send a personal message, "I will be leaving at 15:30, can meet at 16:15." Similar terse messages may be okay. Much of this depends on your workplace's policies, and there are some businesses that try to restrict those types of messages.

If in doubt, leave the personal stuff off of the work account.

Most Personal Email
This is a category in its own right. If you need to check on items, use a separate account for urgent non-chat messages so you needn't access the rest of the personal stuff at work.

Inappropriate Items
This sort of thing can show up unintentionally or by accident. For example if I wanted to look up what happened to the firm Burns, Doane, Swecker & Mathis, and typed in www.bdsm.com I may end up with the results you'd expect (if you look at the letters in that URL).

So learn how to clear your browser's cache.

Another source of inappropriate material includes (inappropriate) items received from acquaintances. If you delete these when received, that's probably all that's necessary. If questioned, "I received some things which I determined were definitely not work related. I deleted them when I realized what it was. Beyond that, I can't comment because I had no interest in it."

If you don't want to delete it immediately, place it in a folder named something like, "verify and delete".




index webpage

Workplace Accommodation
- Job Issues - Autism in the Workplace

Fluorescent Lighting Flicker
includes a section on workplace accommodation

"No-Eye-Contact" Networking

Making Employment Fit: Accommodations & Other Dirty Words (external website)
Joel Smith's Autreat '04 presentation on workplace issues. This is available in .pdf, MSWord, and Powerpoint formats.

"Life With the NTs" blog (external website)
commentary about "acting NT" in the workplace

back to index


Questions - see FAQs.      
First posted Jan 06. Last revised 21 Sep 09.

Comments about this site: email me
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