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Aspies in the Workplace

Recognizing their strengths, employers embrace workers with Asperger's Syndrome.

Saturday, October 2, 2010
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Like many young adults, Lucas Ricart possesses a healthy intellectual curiosity. Give him a hefty tome or an in-depth television documentary -- about some historical subject, for example -- and he will completely immerse himself in it.

In the days that follow, he will take it upon himself to explain the topic in painstaking detail to his co-workers at the Melbourne International Airport in Melbourne, Fla., where he has worked part-time as a maintenance worker for the past year.

Unfortunately, the majority of Ricart's co-workers could care less about Hitler's role in the creation of the Volkswagen Beetle or bandits' attempts to steal Abraham Lincoln's body. They would much rather get back to the job at hand and their own workplace small talk.

At times, Ricart's obsessive talking becomes troublesome -- not only because it makes him the target of his co-workers' ire, but also because it prevents them from getting their work done in a timely fashion.

"He will be reciting all the details about a historical event when we are hands-on, trying to fix a problem," says Cliff Graham, operations manager and Ricart's supervisor. "That can be distracting, and the other employees will start losing their patience with him."

Graham manages the situation by periodically giving Ricart an assignment that separates him from his co-workers; thus, giving both parties a break. He doesn't get angry with his young charge, however. Not only is Ricart a model employee, but Graham recognizes his compulsive desire to share knowledge is a typical characteristic of Asperger's syndrome, an Autism > spectrum disorder that Ricart has suffered from since early childhood.

Considered a high-functioning form of < autism >, Asperger's syndrome is classified as a developmental disorder, characterized by underdeveloped social and communication skills. Affectionately dubbed "Aspies," those with the condition exhibit varying symptoms depending on where they fall on the spectrum.

Sometimes, Aspies appear so unaffected by the condition that employers question whether the individual is disabled at all, says Gail Hawkins, executive director of the Toronto-based Hawkins Institute and author of How to Find Work that Works for People with Asperger Syndrome: The Ultimate Guide for Getting People with Asperger Syndrome into the Workplace (and Keeping Them There!).

Generally speaking, though, Aspies often have a hard time interacting. They may not recognize verbal or nonverbal cues or understand social norms. Eye contact may be absent, and they may have no concept of personal space.

As Ricart's story demonstrates, Aspies may go on at length about a subject they personally find interesting -- never realizing that others don't share their passion. Many Aspies also struggle with sensory issues, experiencing problems with loud noises, lights, or strong tastes or textures.

While the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that roughly one in 110 American children has an < Autism > spectrum disorder, no definitive statistics are available on how many people have Asperger's -- in large part, due to the fact that the disorder often goes undiagnosed.

Aspies are often simply branded odd, quirky or socially awkward. Oftentimes, their bluntness results in them being misinterpreted as rude or even "jerks." Ostracized by society, they frequently become loners.

"Most problems arise when co-workers don't understand Asperger's syndrome, so they just write the Aspie off as a jerk or as disrespectful," says Jeffrey Deutsch, an Aspie, life coach and presenter for A SPLINT (ASPies LInking with NeuroTypicals), a Silver Spring, Md.-based company dedicated to helping Aspies navigate the world of "Neuro Typicals," which Deutsch defines as anyone not afflicted with the disorder.

"If someone is perceived as unpleasant, people aren't going to want to sit down with them and tell them what's going on because they don't want to associate with them at all, much less work with them."

Despite their struggles, Aspies have been known to thrive in the workplace, when given a chance. Often highly intelligent, with average or above-average cognitive abilities, Aspies tend to possess a number of natural traits that make them highly desirable employees. Chief among them are an amazing attention to detail, intense loyalty, dedication to perfection and a laser-like focus.

"Our focus is legendary," says Rudy Simone, a San Francisco-based Aspie, consultant and author of Asperger's on the Job: Must-Have Advice for People with Asperger's or High-Functioning < Autism > and Their Employers, Educators and Advocates. "If we have something we're passionate about, if we have a task before us, once we get engaged in it, we can forget to take breaks. Many Aspies don't even like to take lunch breaks because it interrupts their flow of work. That's a pretty incredible trait in an employee."

Such commitment certainly makes for a desirable employee, yet companies must balance Aspires' strengths with their somewhat unique challenges.

For HR, that entails a multifaceted approach that involved education managers and co-workers, carving out assignments that play to the individual's talents, and putting reasonable accommodations in place. In addition, they often find themselves working closely with organizations that help prepare Aspies for the workplace and provide ongoing support throughout the employment relationship.

Ken's Kids

Capitalizing on the Aspie's focus and follow-through has certainly been a strategy used at Atlanta-based The Home Depot, which has long been dedicated to hiring developmentally disabled individuals -- including those with Asperger's.

The home-repair giant works with Ken's Kids Inc., a New York-based nonprofit dedicated to providing vocational training and placement services to adults diagnosed with intellectual and learning disabilities. The organization itself was named after Home Depot co-founder Ken Langone, who played a pivotal role in launching the initiative -- to provide opportunities to learning-disabled job seekers -- in 1997.

Before they're placed into a Home Depot store, Ken's Kids candidates must undergo a five-step assessment that includes a paper application, observation and parent interview, followed by an in-store assessment and interview with a Home Depot manager.

"By taking them into the store, not only do we introduce them to some of the tasks they'll be asked to do, but they see the customers and hear the noises," says Rebecca Malinsky, executive director of Ken's Kids. "That allows us to observe how overwhelmed they might be and how comfortable they are in that setting."

Before they're allowed to don the orange smock, Ken's Kids must undergo orientation, which Home Depot has entrusted the Ken's Kids program to facilitate. According to Malinsky, it works out better to have a separate orientation.

"Rather than having that young adult sit in on the orientation with the other employees, we go through the videos together," she says. "Where there are areas that might require a little more attention or breaking down, we go over that."

Ken's Kids associates also engage in role-playing, designed to help them learn how to deal with some of the social situations they may find themselves in on the job. These include what to do if they're confronted with a difficult customer.

"The individuals we work with know a customer should come in and ask for something and say 'please' and 'thank you,' " says Malinksy. "It can be hard for them when something is out of the norm. So we work with them to let them know that, sometimes, there are sour apples out there and we just have to get over it and back to the job at hand."

Today, more than 100 of Ken's Kids work in 54 Home Depot stores throughout New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Pennsylvania and Maryland. For the most part, they work the lot, gathering carts, sweeping up and performing general-maintenance tasks. Those who are comfortable interacting with people have the opportunity to work inside the store, performing such duties as down-stocking, cutting keys and organizing products.

Nearly half have been on the job for five years or more, and many have moved into customer-facing sales positions, according to Tracey Davis, a district HR manager in the New York metro region. "We've had a number of people graduate from the Ken's Kids program," says Davis. "They've been some of our highest-performing associates in the sales capacity."

Harassment Problems

Unfortunately, Aspies' deficits often receive more attention than their strengths, sometimes leading co-workers and bosses to criticize and mock them.

In 2008, Aspie Thomas Mangano, former director of manufacturing for Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Verity Inc., sued the software firm and his manager, Steven Springsteel, alleging disability discrimination and "verbal harassment" after enduring several months of Springsteel calling him "Rain Man" in front of his co-workers.

He had also been passed over for a promotion. In both instances, Verity prevailed -- in part, because Mangano had not yet been diagnosed with Asperger's when Springsteel was taunting him or when he failed to get the promotion.

Such cases fall into a legal gray area, according to Vianei Lopez Robinson, partner in the Houston law firm of Buck Keenan, where she practices employment law.

Although Mangano had not yet learned of his disability himself, it could be argued that Springsteel could tell something was different about him. In that regard, his case could fall under what Robinson calls a "prong" in the Americans with Disabilities Act that protects employees who are "regarded as" being disabled, even if they have not disclosed that fact to their employer.

"If an employer thinks an employee is disabled and discriminates against [him or her] based on that perception, that is still a violation," Robinson says. "If someone has Asperger's, but has never disclosed it and gets terminated, that may be a termination in the normal course of business, or they may have a disabilities claim for having been regarded as disabled. That is going to depend on the circumstances of each case."

In Mangano's case, Verity's attorney successfully argued that the company had legitimate business reasons for hiring a vice president from outside the company.

Across the legal community, opinions vary with regard to whether Asperger's even qualifies as a disability under the ADA. Robinson says that's because it can be argued that Aspies are not substantially impaired in a major life activity.

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That said, she recommends that companies treat Aspies -- and anyone they might suspect of being an Aspie -- as if the condition is covered by the ADA. As with other mental handicaps, employers frequently need to make reasonable accommodations to help Aspies succeed in the workplace.

"They need to engage in an interactive process with the employee, see what their limitations are, and determine what accommodations make the most sense," says Robinson.

(For more detailed legal guidance on providing reasonable accommodation to workers with Asperger's Syndrome, Robinson recommends a guide published by the Department of Labor's Job Accommodation Network.)

Making Accommodations

Because most Aspies are high-functioning individuals who don't exhibit many physical impairments, the accommodations they require are relatively straightforward and inexpensive, as is the case for many mildly mentally handicapped employees.

In some instances, it could be something as simple as providing written, rather than spoken, directions, according to Dan Coulter, president of Coulter Video Inc. in Winston-Salem, N.C., and producer and narrator of the educational DVD Asperger Syndrome At Work: Success Strategies for Employees and Employers.

Coulter was just diagnosed with Asperger's last year, but for decades, he struggled with social situations, both in his personal life and while working in media-relations positions at such major corporations as Bell Laboratories, AT&T and Global Crossing. He also found he needed to write down what he was told to do, and he made liberal use of checklists.

At times, such practices caused him to butt heads with his supervisors, who wanted him to simply "listen and get the big picture," but Coulter says it was just the way his brain worked and allowing him to use lists made him more efficient. He recommends employers simply ask their Aspie employees what they need and then do whatever they can to provide it to them.

Like Home Depot, Woonsocket, R.I.-based CVS Caremark also partners with Ken's Kids, along with the Phoenix-based Southwest < Autism > Research & Resource Center, to give individuals with Asperger's opportunities to work inside about 25 of its 7,000 stores.

According to David Casey, vice president and diversity officer, CVS provides "visual accommodations" to some of its Aspie employees, when needed. These include written lists of tasks to be accomplished on a particular day and written reminders of how long each task should take.

At the Alpharetta, Ga., headquarters of software corporation Infor Global Solutions, Judy Carter, director of accounts payable, worked closely with Kevin, an Aspie who worked in her department for several years until just recently. (His last name is being withheld.)

Like Coulter, Kevin fared better when given assignments in writing or when he was allowed to take notes when receiving verbal assignments. As with many Aspies, he had difficulties prioritizing and would easily get overwhelmed if more than one person brought him assignments.

Thus, Carter made sure she was the only person directing him. She went so far as to make a daily priority list for Kevin and distribute it to the entire department, so co-workers knew what projects were supposed to be getting his utmost attention.

Like Ricart, Kevin would often start talking and not know when to stop. He and Carter hit upon the idea of a key word that would let him know he had gone on too long. As a result, Kevin suggested his co-workers use the term "Cliff Notes" to let him know it was time to cut it short and get back to work.

Likewise, when he would start getting visibly anxious or agitated, his co-workers were told to say, "Take five, Kevin." That was his cue to go to the break room, get a soda and calm down before returning to the task at hand.

Kevin also had the benefit of a job coach who helped him navigate the social issues that Aspies often find incredibly perplexing. Her work with Kevin was funded by a state agency at no cost to the employer.

Likewise, Ricart's first 30 days of on-the-job training at the Melbourne International Airport were paid for by a grant. According to Coulter, employers that are interested in finding out if such programs are available in their state should contact the Bethesda, Md.-based < Autism > Society of America (www.< autism-society.org).

Job coaches play a significant role in helping Aspies at a host of other companies besides CVS, Home Depot, Infor and the Melbourne International Airport. Not only do they work closely with Aspies to help them learn the job they are going to be performing, they also play a significant role in helping prepare the rest of the workforce for what it's going to be like to work with an Aspie.

Both Home Depot and CVS Caremark take advantage of sensitivity training provided by Ken's Kids job coaches. During such training, the coaches provide employees with information about the disability and provide tips on interacting with their new Aspie co-worker. Oftentimes, that simply entails facilitating a good working relationship by helping them understand not to take Aspies' blunt communication style personally.

Once you get past the challenges, Graham says, you have a top-notch employee on your hands. In his case, he's found that Ricart is not only a dependable worker who shows up early, follos directions and completes tasks as assigned; he is an asset to the airport in other ways, too.

"You just have a greater appreciation for people after working with someone like Lucas," says Graham. "It benefits your organization and brings morale up. I'm a better person for knowing and working with Lucas."

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