By Grace Austin
You pass a colleague in the hallway on Monday morning, and in response to your polite, but somewhat rhetorical question of “Hey, what’d you do this weekend?” she spends the next 20 minutes retelling the plot of the movie she saw without taking a breath. When done, she turns and walks away. During a team meeting, while your boss is outlining a new project for your group, the person next to you is rocking back and forth on the back legs of his chair. When your boss asks for comments, he noisily drops his chair to the floor and says “You have structured this all wrong, so this project isn’t worth doing.” The room is drowning in silence.
These examples may bring back memories of similar situations you’ve had to resolve. But, what are the origins of these behaviors? Are these individuals just rude, thoughtless, uninterested, insubordinate, or lazy bores? Maybe. But, they may have Asperger Syndrome—a developmental disorder within the autism spectrum that affects a person’s ability to socialize and communicate. Individuals with Asperger Syndrome oftentimes have an intense interest in a specific topic and above average IQs, but they may miss non-verbal cues, misinterpret sarcasm, and lack tact.
Today, one in 88 individuals is diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder and it is estimated that one in 250 people has Asperger Syndrome. So, whether you know it or not, if your company has 1,000 or more employees, it’s likely that you already work with people with Asperger’s. Nonetheless, individuals with Asperger Syndrome are an untapped talentpool for employers. Today, 35 percent of individuals with an autism spectrum disorder are attending college, but it is believed that people with Asperger’s have a 75-85 percent unemployment rate. For employers, this is an incredible hiring opportunity. But, how can you learn to successfully manage individuals with Asperger Syndrome?
The Asperger Syndrome Training & Employment Partnership’s (ASTEP) creates and supports programs that promote competitive long-term employment for adults with Asperger Syndrome. ASTEP’s approach is unique in that its target audience is employers, not the individuals with Asperger’s. ASTEP educates employers about the skills and talents of individuals with Asperger Syndrome, the benefits they bring to their employer, and the potential accommodations needed to create a successful workplace environment for these individuals, their managers, and their colleagues.
ASTEP is uniquely qualified to be the source for employers on how to successfully include individuals with Asperger’s in their workforce. ASTEP was founded by Marcia Scheiner, a former financial service executive and parent of a young adult son with Asperger’s. Joining her as ASTEP’s Executive Director is Michael John Carley, author of Asperger’s from the Inside Out, founder of the Global and Regional Asperger Syndrome Partnership—the country’s largest support and advocacy group for individuals on the spectrum—and himself an adult with Asperger Syndrome. Together, their business experience and knowledge of Asperger’s provides employers with business-focused training and strategies to manage and recruit individuals on the spectrum.
Beneficial for the Employer
Aside from the obvious social good, employing individuals with Asperger Syndrome is good for business—it can attract a significant market share, reduce employee turnover, and increase productivity. The one in 88 individuals diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder translates into 1.1 percent of the U.S. population. When immediate family members are included (parents, siblings, grandparents), the number of individuals affected by autism reaches approximately six percent. This is a significant market share for any company looking to attract issue-sensitive customers.
Additionally, SHRM, the Society for Human Resource Management, estimated that it costs $3,500 to replace one $8.00 per hour employee; for salaried employees, the costs jump significantly. Honesty and loyalty are trademarks of the employee with Asperger Syndrome, and individuals with Asperger’s are known to be wary of change. Provide them with a stable, predictable work environment and they will be long-term employees.
Lost productivity is another growing cost for employers. In a survey completed by Salary.com, they found that workers admitted to spending 2.09 hours per day, out of an eight hour day, not including lunch and break, on non-work related activities. Some of the top activities were surfing the internet, socializing with co-workers, conducting personal business, spacing out, running errands off-premises, making personal phone calls, applying for other jobs, and planning personal events. Individuals with Asperger’s exhibit intense focus and attention to detail and, due to their communication challenges, they are less likely to socialize on the job and more likely to stay focused on the tasks of the job.
The New Frontier of Diversity
As the government is discussing requirements for all federal contractors on the employment of people with disabilities (seven percent), employers need to take a hard look at disabilities as part of their diversity and inclusion strategies. Today’s workforce is filled with undisclosed employees with hidden disabilities, and Asperger Syndrome is one of them.
Creating an inclusive culture can encourage existing employees to disclose their hidden disabilities, giving employers a more accurate count of how many people with disabilities are employed by their company. It also makes that employer more attractive to people with disabilities looking for work.
The key to including individuals with a disability in your workplace is education. Learn about the strengths and challenges that accompany specific disabilities, understand the accommodations needed to support the employee with a disability, and work with partners that bring the expertise you need to establish a successful workplace environment for all.