A Spectrum of Opportunity
Stephen Shore once said, “If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.” This statement clearly highlights the true nature of the autism spectrum as a diverse array of unique and talented individuals, each bearing specific weaknesses and strengths.
Many researchers have attempted to define autism within narrow parameters, to give it one broad definition that can be understood by the masses. The result is a large collection of diverse and often conflicting studies and findings. In isolation, each study is likely to contain some element of truth, so why are they often different in comparison? Is it possible that each study focusses on a different area of the autism spectrum?
Each individual on the autism spectrum presents an opportunity to society through his or her special and unique skills. When these skills are recognised and refined, such an individual can become an extremely valuable asset to any business.
The Power of Three
In simplified terms, three distinct categories are considered when undertaking a diagnosis of autism or Asperger Syndrome; social skills, communication, and repetitive behaviours. Deficiencies will usually be evident in the first two categories whereas the third element of repetitive behaviour will often be pronounced.
However, a diagnosis on the autism spectrum does not lock the individual into a stasis field of ability. To the contrary, social and communication skills can be learned and repetitive behaviour can be redirected toward productive and highly resourceful purposes. A diagnosis of autism or Asperger Syndrome adds value to an individual. Training makes that value invaluable.
The Strengths of an Autistic Employee
The following list is a generalisation and will not apply to every autistic individual in totality. However, it will apply to most people on the spectrum who are able and willing to work.
An autistic employee will often be the most loyal supporter of the organisation in which he or she works, but such loyalty may not be evident at the superficial level. Loyalty is a concept of the mind. Many people may socially act loyal or even voice their loyalty; but it is in the mental attitude where true loyalty lies.
Often the only person to memorise the corporate guidelines and procedures will be the autistic employee, who will often also remind other employees of the procedures when they are breached. While this can be irritating to some, it is a good demonstration of trustworthiness in following the guidelines as they are written.
However, if a rule is omitted but is otherwise intended to be followed, the autistic employee can be trusted to break that rule, often unintentionally. Such rules are referred to as ‘The Hidden Curriculum‘; rules which are never taught or spoken about because they are assumed to be universally understood. Autistic individuals need to be specifically taught such rules as most cannot pick them up by inference. Follow the Hidden Curriculum link in this paragraph for more information.
Autistic individuals think and observe differently to their neurotypical counterparts. Temple Grandin identifies three main thinking foci in autistics: visual, pattern and verbal.
The visual thinker has a keen eye for detail and can see issues and opportunities that most people cannot. They can also construct intricate visual concepts in their minds and rearrange them to be viewed from different perspectives and levels of detail.
The pattern thinker can easily identify sequences and trends in the world around them. They are excellent at identifying differences in a group of seemingly identical groups, people or events. Mathematics and music skills are very strong in these individuals. Such thinking is ideal for research or quality control positions.
The verbal thinker is facts oriented. They become a repository of knowledge about facts, dates, etc and can be the go-to person about such information.
Following from the previous section, autistic employees can and often do provide a different perspective to their co-workers and supervisors. Such a resource can provide a competitive advantage to an employer.
If you ask an autistic individual a question, be prepared for a direct, honest answer without social sugar-coating. The response may not always be correct, but it will always be honest. If you want a direct answer without BS or ego-pandering, go to your autistic employees.
Autistic individuals thrive on routine. Adding the routine takes time and patience. Once a task is taught, and that task follows a routine, the autistic employee will follow their assignment to the letter.
Often an autistic individual will have a specific special interest. This interest will be intense and may change from time to time. The individual’s social conversations will often deviate to their special interest, sometimes to the despair of their conversation partners.
However, match an autistic employee’s special interest with their job task and you will have a very engaged worker, one that will likely become your most valuable employee. It pays to know the special interests of your autistic employees.
This list is not definitive. Each individual will present with different character traits and therefore different strengths.