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How To Help and Interact With Autistic Colleagues

By: Danika Weaver

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a developmental disorder that is characterized by a wide range of skills, symptoms, and levels of disability. People who have ASD tend to have trouble with communication, repetitive behavior, and social situations. While some people’s daily lives are not strongly affected by autism, others need a bit of a push to flourish–especially in an environment such as the workplace.

So picture this: A new guy starts working at your job. He seems a bit… Off. He talks too much (or maybe even not enough) and far too loudly. He chooses the strangest topics to converse about. He doesn’t look at you when he talks to you. Don’t worry, your co-worker isn’t a complete weirdo. All of these signs point to the fact that you are working with someone on the autistic spectrum.

Having a worker with ASD is far from an impairment to the workplace. In fact, some individuals who have different forms of autism, like Aspergers, are highly intelligent and have unique gifts. This makes them a valuable asset to the work team. For example, if you’re terrible with computers like I am, you may need help figuring out where that one lost document went. Your co-worker, who may be very good with computers, helps you (and you still have no idea how in the world he found that file.)

They’ll come across as a bit socially awkward, possibly even rude because of their inclination to be alone. They may be unusually focused on odd topics and talk for what seems like an eternity about them, not realizing when others have lost interest. They tend to say the “wrong thing” sometimes which leads to the perception that they are insensitive to others’ feelings.  Flexibility is not their forte; change may trigger anxiety, as they prefer their lives to be routine. This makes it difficult for them to move from one activity to another. Another thing that they struggle with is not understanding jokes. They think literally and have difficulty understanding idioms and sarcasm. Help them out by trying to speak in a way they can comprehend and stay away from sarcasm.

Because those on the autistic spectrum have such unique brains, they also possess a significantly different experience of the world. Sensory sensitivities, such as loud noises, are common.  They may become extremely uncomfortable with loud noises, the buzz or flicker of fluorescent lights, or be touched.  Difficulties with motor skills and coordination often cause trouble for them in athletics and handwriting. People with autism cannot understand non-verbal communication such as tone of voice, facial expression, and body language. This can significantly interfere with understanding others and developing relationships, so you may need to take the first few steps towards a friendship. Though they are capable of focusing on one thing, it is sometimes difficult for them to begin, prioritize, and complete tasks.

Then there are the gifts: The ability to focus for hours, weeks, or years on a personal interest, though that often causes them to miss out on other aspects of life such as social relationships and recreation. There’s the particular attention to details and the ability to memorize large amounts of information on a subject they love. Their different thinking style sometimes leads to creative, brilliant, discoveries and insights. These gifts undoubtedly outweigh the “setbacks” they have.

It’s easy to get frustrated with any co-worker. If you’re working with someone who has a personality you aren’t accustomed to, or who is a bit, erm, awkward, work can become even more difficult. It’s in your best interest to focus on the good. Your new colleague carries many more benefits along with them than drawbacks. Worrying about how to handle them will end up holding you back. Just be a friend. Become a team, make them feel welcome, and get ’em done together.

People on the autistic spectrum have difficulties with change. The new environment they experience at their job may be overwhelming to them at first. There are some steps you can take to make them feel more comfortable so they can work to their full potential, and the workplace will benefit the most.

Avoiding eye contact: You should only do this if you notice they have trouble making eye contact with you. People with autism struggle to make and maintain eye contact. They can become nervous when making proper eye contact. This isn’t because they are afraid of you, this is just one of the common sensory sensitivities that are associated with autism. The best way to make them feel comfortable is to mirror their actions. If you are working with a colleague who shows this sign, follow their sign. It will help them feel at ease when they first meet you.

Listen patiently: It may be difficult for somebody with autism to pick up on social cues. For the first few weeks (or even months,) they will be sorting out what is okay to say or do in the workplace and what is not. If they are struggling to learn the acceptable social rules in the new environment, be respectful in listening to them.

Embrace structure: People with autism do best with structure, and thrive when they have a set routine. Without a schedule, people on the autistic spectrum become uncomfortable and may have ‘outbursts’ because of that. If you have a colleague who interrupts others during a meeting, lay down a structure of the meeting. This will help them know what is expected.

Because of the people we meet and the people we work with, a job is a learning experience for everyone. Working with someone who is on the autistic spectrum is an opportunity to learn and grow. There is more than meets the eye to your new co-worker. They could be holding the most meaningful insights and have the best work ethic if you would give them the chance. Become their friend and help them as you would help any other co-worker. Embrace their quirks and see them as strengths.

www.bu.edu

autismspeaks.org

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