Career Planning for Individuals with Asperger’s Syndrome
By Barbara Bissonnette
Understanding Asperger’s Syndrome:
Asperger’s Syndrome is a mild form of autism that affects a person’s ability to interact with others and to organize information. Many of the skills needed for effective social interaction are not learned intuitively by these individuals. They often have trouble quickly interpreting situational context, and thus knowing how to respond to events appropriately. Difficulty interpreting nonverbal communication, such as body language and tone of voice, can lead to can lead to serious, sometimes comical, misunderstandings. “How come you’re not using the new scheduling software?” asks Kevin’s manager, “I told you to take a look at it two weeks ago.” “I did look at it,” replies Kevin, “and didn’t think it was useful so I deleted it off my system.”
People with Asperger’s Syndrome are literal, concrete thinkers who focus on details rather than the big picture. Many find it challenging to plan projects, establish priorities and multitask. Some are unusually distracted by sights, sounds, odors and other sensory stimuli.
Individuals with Asperger’s Syndrome vary widely in their abilities, challenges, and need of support. Some appear awkward in their interactions with others, forgetting to make eye contact or to smile, or talking too loudly, softly or quickly. Others are charming and talkative, but may ask too many questions, or alienate others with quirky behavior or unintentional social gaffes.
Asperger’s Syndrome also confers specific strengths that can be valuable in the workplace. Although individuals are represented in all types of jobs and careers, the fields of computer technology, academic and scientific research, writing, engineering, technical documentation, and academia make particularly good use of their logic and analytical skills, attention to detail, and ability to focus for extended periods of time.
As a Career Counselor, how can I help?
Helping a person with Asperger’s Syndrome to find a manageable job or career requires a specialized approach. In addition to exploring interests and skills, career professionals must understand how Asperger’s impacts a specific individual, and determine the type of work environment that will be most conducive to that person’s success. Often, occupational assessments, and career information in books and on the Internet, are not specific enough for Aspergians.
For example, the tendency to fixate on one — or the wrong— detail, can lead to inaccurate assumptions about the nature of an occupation. Allan* wanted to be an airline pilot … so that he could wear a uniform. Jane assumed that because she had a degree in communications, she was qualified for jobs in broadcasting, multimedia, social media, marketing and editing. She read job titles, not job descriptions, and applied to many positions for which she lacked basic qualifications. Despite having a Master’s degree, Andy only applied to positions requiring an Associate’s, reasoning that the lower educational requirement “guaranteed” that he would be successful at the job.
Literal-mindedness can result in missed opportunities. Alex believed that he wasn’t qualified for a position that required two years of experience because he had been working for 19 months. Individuals may believe that any job requiring “good people skills,” or the ability to multitask, is off limits due to their inherent difficulty with communication and rapid attention shifting. The career professional must explain that these terms are relative, and put them into context. For example, working at The New York Public Library will be quite different than working in a library that serves a town with 8,000 residents.
Although it is not a career tool, an up-to-date neuropsychological evaluation can provide useful data for identifying occupations that emphasize an individual’s areas of strength. Performed by a neuropsychologist as a diagnostic tool, the evaluation measures cognitive abilities in areas such as attention, memory, and visual-spatial processing.
Additionally, the work environment can be as, or even more important than, job tasks for Asperger’s individuals. They tend to do best in jobs that allow concentration on one task at a time, emphasize accuracy and quality over speed, and provide structure and quantifiable performance expectations. The career professional can help the client access the type and amount of interpersonal interaction that a job requires. Generally, the more predictable the communication, the better; but don’t make assumptions. Cindy has a successful sales career promoting a specialized product to enthusiastic, informed buyers.
Too much information quickly becomes overwhelming. Bill left a job search seminar “paralyzed” by the volume of material he received. One document contained four pages of web site addresses. “Am I supposed to check all of these every day?” he asked. The differing opinions he read about what to include in a resume, and how to answer interview questions, caused considerable consternation as well.
Resources like O*Net and the Occupational Outlook Handbook are, from an Aspergian perspective, not explicit enough. Ask the individual to write down likes, dislikes and concerns about various occupations. Review the responses and correct any misunderstandings or unrealistic expectations.
Interviewing is an area where detailed preparation and lots of practice are critical. Many Aspergians equate marketing themselves with lying. At various times, when asked to describe his weaknesses, Tim told interviewers, “my self-confidence is low,” “I don’t like working in groups,” or “I can’t make small talk.” He didn’t realize that his candidness made the wrong impression. Tim agreed to change his response once he understood that he was expected to edit his answer to fit the context of the situation: showing an employer the value he would bring to the company.
It takes an extra degree of patience and creativity to work with Asperger’s clients. Yet in the right job, with the right support, they have much to offer employers in need of bright, skilled workers.
* Names and identifying details have been changed, and in some cases composites have been used, to protect people’s privacy.
Barbara Bissonnette is the Principal of Forward Motion Coaching and specializes in career development coaching for individuals with Asperger’s Syndrome. She also provides training and consultations to organizations. She is the author of The Complete Guide to Getting a Job for People with Asperger’s Syndrome, and the Asperger’s Syndrome Workplace Survival Guide: A Neurotypical’s Secrets for Success. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org