What Your Colleague With Autism Wants You to Know

People with autism have a different way of communicating than typicals, but their ideas and contributions are just as valuable. Learn how to network with people on the spectrum for an inclusive and productive work environment.

temple grandin 

(Photo Credit: jurvetson/Flickr)

“One in 68 people in the U.S. has ASD, or autism spectrum disorder,” write Brent Betit and Dorie Clark at MarketWatch. “Workers who have autism exhibit to varying degrees social and communication deficits, fixed interests, and repetitive behavior.”

Odds are, then, you’ll work with someone with a diagnosis of autism or asperger’s at some point in your career. To be a better teammate, you’ll need to understand how to work effectively with people with autism.

It’s in your best interests: people on the autism spectrum often think differently than neurotypical people, which means that they can offer a different perspective that could result in better problem-solving and more creative solutions.

As activist, professor, and inventor Temple Grandin said in her TED Talk, the world needs all kinds of minds:

“I mean, Einstein and Mozart and Tesla would all be probably diagnosed as autistic spectrum today. And one of the things that is really going to concern me is getting these kids to be the ones that are going to invent the next energy things, you know, that Bill Gates talked about this morning. …the thing is, the normal brain ignores the details. Well, if you’re building a bridge, details are pretty important because it will fall down if you ignore the details.”

What Is Autism?

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD,) or autism, is a general term for a group of complex disorders of brain development. These disorders are characterized, in varying degrees, by difficulties in social interaction and communication, as well as repetitive behaviors. Autism may be accompanied by problems with physical coordination. Some people with autism excel in the visual arts, music, and math.

We know little about what causes autism. It is diagnosed in both sexes, but more common in boys.

Forget About Eye Contact

Your colleague with autism is listening to you when you speak. He is not, however, looking at you. Having to make eye contact during the conversation may actually overstimulate your colleague; instead, it is easier for him to focus on your words if he does not have to look into your eyes.

Relax, and let him look off to the side while you speak. Recognize the value in his responses and comments.

Accept Monotone Speech

While your autistic colleague may sound monotone in his speech, listen to his words. We typically pay attention to tone and affect in voice; however, autistic people may express complex thoughts in a monotone voice. The lack of affect is not a lack of interest or involvement. Just accept this as a personality trait in your colleague.

Be Patient

Non-verbal social cues are often lost on autistic people. Your colleague may wax eloquent about his favorite sport’s stats and not notice that others are not enthused. He is not being rude; he really can not decipher social clues that so many of us take for granted. Be patient, be kind.

Minimize Distraction

Your autistic colleague may have difficulty concentrating with the sound of the copier or printer in the background, or the telephone may be jarring. Understand his need to not have lots of chatter or noise nearby when he is working.

Tell Us What You Think

Do you know somebody with autism? Leave a comment or join the discussion on Twitter.