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 email@example.com
Lashay Taylor on Monday 06/03/2013 at 08:55 AM
Thank you so much for this wonderfully written and highly informative article! This is exactly the type of information for which I've been searching and anticipate will be increasing in demand. Thanks again and best wishes for a successful presentation at the conference!
Laura M. on Monday 06/03/2013 at 10:01 AM
This is very informative. I worked with a customer/client with Asperger's Syndrome and it really came full circle for me. As a Texas Certified teacher in public education, I had worked with students with Asperger's but had not met, worked with an adult. It is vital that these students receive the proper guidance so as to not be in the situation of my adult customer who simply wanted to be a night janitor to be away from people. Thanks for the article.
Windy Rider on Sunday 11/24/2013 at 09:55 PM
This is a wonderful breakdown of the basics of Aspergers Syndrome. My son, age 17 1/2 is currently looking for a part time job. I will have him read this, as I think it will help him understand some of the things he will encounter in a job interview that would otherwise be confusing. :)
J. Nap on Monday 12/02/2013 at 01:56 AM
Great information. Sorry I missed your July presentation. Will you be presenting again in the northeast? As a parent of a 20-year old college student with Asperger's Syndrome, I would like to know more about this topic, and direct others to your website and books as well.
Barbara Bissonnette on Tuesday 12/03/2013 at 11:02 AM
Thank you all for the comments. To J. Nap: yes, I speak at various organizations throughout the year, and also groups. You can find information about presentations on my Web site.
Lori Du on Wednesday 12/11/2013 at 06:20 AM
Thank you! And I need more help...my Aspie son has been working in fast food for the last six months. He has been handling it very well, to my amazement. He is in his first year of college and also doing well there. Tonight he called and told me he couldn't handle the stress and pressure anymore and he felt like exploding. His manager told him he is going to write him up for being slow at dishwashing. I want to go into his work and show highlighted portions of this article to the manager so he understands my son better, but I know that's not right. How can I help my son? He lives an hour away and I am going to see him tomorrow. I think he needs to quit and try to get a janitorial job at the college or something that would be more suited to him and much less social contact. He is worried that he must get another job first because thats what his dad has always told him. Its true, I know, but in this case, I don't think he can take the pressure even one more shift. Any ideas? Thank you.
Laura McBain on Thursday 12/12/2013 at 09:24 AM
Lori Du, have your son also check a security position in which he might be responsible for a building even at night when he would encounter less people and stress. This is what my adult client and I finally began to look at for him. Employers and co-workers simply do not understand people with Asperger's Syndrome. My client hadhanded out information cards but his co-workers could not understand when he did not respond to humor and such. We must increase awareness.
Barbara Bissonnette on Thursday 12/12/2013 at 09:56 AM
Laura you are so right -- we need more employer education! Your idea about security was a good one ... I had also suggested office work (e.g. data entry), usher in a theater. In general I think that restaurant environments are hard for people with AS because there is too much noise, and you have to work fast.
I'll mention to everyone that I have a guide for employers. It is available at no charge, in PDF format. Contact me through my Web site if you'd like a copy.
M. L. Barker on Saturday 03/29/2014 at 12:47 AM
How can we help some one find work who does not recognize that he/she has Aspergers?
Hesh Utup on Monday 05/05/2014 at 03:52 PM
Thank you Barbara. You have help me to think about many thing that I had not before.
Khendra Murdock on Wednesday 08/27/2014 at 01:56 PM
Thank you for this helpful, well-organized, well-presented, and highly specific information! I also have your PDF on Asperger's in the workplace, which I've found valuable in trying to understand my own struggles as someone who achieve highly in academics, yet continues to have trouble securing basic employment (I turn 30 in November). While not officially diagnosed, and while I'm still not sure how much of my behavior is due possibly to a degree of introversion (I'm either introverted, Asperger, or both), it is nice to know there are others out there who have similar struggles, or at least understand and try to help those with such struggles.
BJ Smith on Sunday 09/14/2014 at 09:38 PM
Thank you for this information! It was very helpful to run across in the vast expanse of the internet.
I always used to think I was just an extreme socially introverted person , however from reading this and other things on the web I have figured out that it is more than that! Unfortunately I recently lost a job opportunity due to too much information too fast, which is what prompted me to look into why I am the way I am, I just wanted to say thank you for posting this a lot of what you wrote applies to me especially right now. Now on to figuring out my ideal job so my family does not have to suffer.
Nancy J. Miller on Monday 12/15/2014 at 11:56 AM
Excellent information, Barbara, about how to assist Asperger's clients and students. This is also good information when watching for the different ways a client is not responding well to the workplace, assessments, and counselor prompts. Asperger's is a syndrome where a person may have many of the symptoms without a diagnosis or possibly not being quite within the Asperger's range. There are also personalities that demonstrate some of these traits. We need more discussions like this one on ways to work with clients who are not finding appropriate workplaces for their skills, traits, and personality.
Jeanne Myers on Thursday 07/30/2015 at 01:09 PM
Dear Ms./Mrs. Bissonnette,
Your article is a very 'timely' one, but I really wish to God there were more organizations, etc. out there to help these truly dedicated and 'special' folks like my nephew.
This young man has had to face a lot of life altering issues at 21 years of age (the death of my sister almost 10 years ago, his grandmother-my Mom-two years ago both from life altering illnesses, finally getting his Associates Degree one year later, other extremely pressing issues, and now trying earnestly to find any kind of work because he lives in transitional housing with his older brother, but when you can't even get a job as a "volunteer" you know things just aren't working out right now), but still keeps on fighting the "good fight" in spite of his circumstances.
While there is a small part of me that 'sorta' understands where the employer is coming from, I just keep asking myself is there NO one out there (NOT even McDonald's or Burger King) that thinks they're worth hiring? Really???
I try earnestly not to let my frustration show, but I kinda figured that at least with a degree, someone would be will to hire him, but eleven months later not so much. He can't even seem to get hired for "volunteer work", how crazy is that???
Any way, we just keep plugging along in the hope (and prayer) that someone will realize what an asset he is, and finally give him the chance to prove what he's capable of doing in the work force (this is New York City I really didn't think it would be like this here).
Thanks very much for letting me vent some and thanks once again for wonder and much needed article.
Barbara Bissonnette on Monday 08/03/2015 at 10:59 AM
Jeanne, I can appreciate your frustration! Unfortunately, I hear from many individuals and parents who thought that a college degree would guarantee employment.
It has been almost a decade now that I have worked with individuals on the autism spectrum. There is no one program or service that will answer the needs of every person. It is my experience that those who get education or training for a specific type of job, where there is demand for workers, have the best chance of employment.
Employer education is also critical. Companies like SAP, that specifically recruit employees on the spectrum, are sending an important message. But change comes slowly and we have so many capable people who are un- or underemployed.
Lucy Kovacs on Tuesday 05/03/2016 at 10:58 AM
Oh please I dont want to offend someone, nor sound in a crazy way, but I dont think that computer engineering is appropriate for any Asperger...though Im not a computer engineer, but from what I know, "people" working in this field are the worst companion for anyone deemed "different"...I saw extreme harassment, mobbing of "different" individuals in this field..by arrogant, narrow-minded neurotypicals..so..yes, every Aspie is MUCH BETTER at everything he/she chooses, than neurotypicals...but please understand that unfortunatelly, we still dont live in Aspie-friendly world...though I believe we will...but not yet..
G-mo Jaz on Wednesday 08/10/2016 at 08:10 PM
Beautiful. I have Asperger's Syndrome and this is pretty on point. I read things like this online on occasion and I know there are people out there that understand. I just wish I knew someone, personally who I could relate to.
welcome2 work on Saturday 08/27/2016 at 10:55 PM
I'm in San Francisco. I work as Engineer, Transportation Civil. I'm an unlicensed Engineer--makes a difference. I want a aspie friendly work environment---don't have one. Thanks.
Stephanie W. on Wednesday 11/30/2016 at 08:43 PM
Do you know of any job resources or career counselors in Kansas City, MO?
Maureen Cummings on Wednesday 04/19/2017 at 08:30 AM
My daughter is only 12 but I am looking forward to having to pick High School classes for her next year and wanted position her towards jobs that will compliment her Aspergers. Thank you so much for your thoughts on this subject and look forward to getting your books.
Lori P. on Saturday 06/10/2017 at 10:48 AM
Thank you SO much for this article! I just stumbled on it and it's a gold mine. You described my life better than I ever could and helped me better understand myself.
I am 55 and was only diagnosed with ASD level I (Asperger's syndrome) this year. Until last year, I had an excellent work history, although I did switch jobs and relocate quite often, and enjoyed many rewarding successes (employment wise).
Unfortunately, my undiagnosed ASD (misdiagnosed as depression, ADHD, etc) left me socially vulnerable to the wiles of pedophiles and narcissists, resulting in many traumatic events across my lifespan (half a dozen since 2013) and causing complex PTSD. The weight and cumulative effect of it all recently blew apart the house of cards that I thought was a "normal" life.
Most recently, I was psychologically tormented and discriminated against by my supervisor and then fired (from a rewarding, high income job) before I could report her to someone who would listen. This 5-month trauma left me emotionally 'broken,' unemployable, and in financial dire straights (still).
At the time, I was also going through divorce #2; experiencing relationship failures with my grown children, siblings, and long-time friends; and had dropped out of a PhD program after 2 years (I felt overwhelmed with the looming dissertation).
I've been feeling worthless and 'washed up' with little hope of obtaining rewarding work or supporting myself ever again - especially because many Aspie employment articles recommend menial jobs (for people of gifted intellect??) until 'someday' when employers wake up to reality and give us a fair chance.
I have been looking for an Aspie coach with good experience and insight who might be able to help me get back on my feet emotionally and psychologically. Your article was a huge blessing. I will look for your books and contact you to inquire about your availability. Thanks again. 6/10/17
Andy Kiser on Friday 09/14/2018 at 06:20 PM
great article. lots of practical suggestions and real life examples.
thank you for the helpful information.
Sylvia Hyman on Saturday 09/29/2018 at 11:33 AM
My grandson is smart but he could not finish high school.. he is twenty now.. he wants to work, .... his special skills are world war weaponry.. survival skills ... knowledge of history/geography of wars, politics ....
He wanted to join the military. As far as I know they would not accept him. He is falling through the cracks, angry and depressed, feeling hopeless... he can read and write (prints, no cursive) simple math is ok, plays chess well and he can figure things out in his own way... it looks like there are no jobs he can do, my heart breaks for him... needs some kind of one on one apprenticeship/(patient) mentor.
Is there a answer out there?
Edward A. Colozzi on Thursday 10/31/2019 at 04:00 PM
Dear Barbara, A superb article, to the point and lots of excellent examples that can assist many to understand more about Asperger's Syndrome. This field needs more people like yourself because so many youth and adults are able to better understand, with proper daignosis, if they do have similar challenges and how to more effectively deal with these challenges as they consider appropriate education, training, work and strategies to be successful across ALL their career-life roles throughout their life journey! Thanks for the enlightenment:) EdC