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How Do We Accommodate Autism in the Workplace?

As the mother of a teenager on the autistic spectrum, I was excited to watch the HBO movie about Temple Grandin last week. The movie was outstanding, and Clare Danes was phenomenal in the title role. Temple Grandin is probably the most famous autistic person today. She has a PhD and has written several books that have helped us understand so much more about how she and, by extension, other people with autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) experience the world.

In Temple Grandin's case, her autism makes her uniquely suited to her line of work. She has innate understanding of animals, along with uncanny visual thinking skills, and has used them to make cattle ranches more humane.

The movie was pretty realistic about how autism can make a person seem very unpleasant in the workplace. Temple shouted at others when they couldn't see the logic of her arguments. With no sense of diplomacy or persuasion, she (accurately) pointed out that they were too stupid to understand. Obviously, that behavior won't cut it in 99% of workplaces.

When Brazen Careerist blogger Penelope Trunk began talking about her own Asperger's Syndrome (a high-functioning form of autism), a lot of her outlandish, unfiltered, seemingly inappropriate posts suddenly made a lot more sense—and after all, she did warn us she'd be brazen.

Autism in the workplaceWhat many people don't realize, unless they're close to someone on the spectrum, is that people with ASDs play by different rules. It's not by choice; they just aren't wired to easily understand all the emotional, social, intangible things that most of us are able to pick up on automatically. And therefore a lot of people with ASDs aren't as successful in the working world as Temple Grandin or Penelope Trunk. 

Imagine yourself attempting to do your job if you couldn't recognize facial expressions, body language, subtle hints, or sarcasm. And maybe you can't process spoken language quickly, so by the time you decode the last string of sounds into words, you've missed some other important point. Then add to that a heightened sensitivity to background noise, sudden sounds, strange smells, flickering lights, physical irritants such as clothing labels… the list goes on and on.

With current statistics telling us as many as one in 100 children may have some form of ASD, we'd better come up with some innovative ideas for more autism-friendly work options, pronto. ASDs can be valuable assets in the right work setting, both in spite of and because of the person's unique traits. Many of the world's great thinkers—composers, engineers, scientists, inventors, mathematicians, and creative artists—have had autistic traits.

As Temple Grandin's mother put it, people with autism are "different, not less." When we find better ways to accommodate differences and tap unique strengths, we bring greater diversity and some amazing, out-of-the-box thinking into the mix. 

Are you, or do you work with someone, on the autistic spectrum? What is your workplace doing (or could they be doing) to help make the relationship successful?  Please share your thoughts or comments below.

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