Monday, June 28, 2010

Being Employed With Asperger's Syndrome

Michael V. Drejer
twitter.com/maialideth

When I was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome in 2003 at the age of 25, I had already pretty much given up hope of ever finding and getting a job that was right for me. All I had to show for my job skills was a high school diploma with a lousy grade average, and a few exams which I barely passed when I tried studying to become a school teacher and when I tried getting a bachelor degree in English at the university, neither of which I finished.

Apparently it is difficult for people with Asperger’s syndrome to get a job or keeping a job, which was exactly what I had experienced as well. Fortunately, it does not have to be like that. In fact, hiring "aspies" for certain niche jobs can be of a great mutual advantage both for the aspie and for the company hiring.

I found such a job, through complete and unbelievable luck by reading an article in a local newspaper about a company that specializes in hiring people with a diagnosis on the autism spectrum. All my co-workers are diagnosed as being on the spectrum, mainly as having Asperger’s syndrome.

I started out in a 5-month trial period, where I was given assignments that were designed to expose my strengths and weaknesses regarding my work skills. Doing follow-ups on assignments was important and also discovering what sort of work environment was optimal for me. Personally I prefer to work in a room without any direct, bright light, and I don’t like to sit with my back towards a door or where people can look over my shoulder. These things make me really uncomfortable and distract me from my work.

After the trial period was over, the company offered me a job as an IT consultant on "flexi" time, which means I work 20 hours a week, 4 days a week, 5 hours a day, and get Wednesdays off. I get paid as if I had a normal full-time job: the company pays me for the 20 hours a week I actually work, and the local municipality pays the rest.

Our company's main niche area of expertise is software testing. We test programs and applications for use on the internet as well as software to be used in other industries, for example software for windmills and software for hospitals. Doing a methodical and structured test of a piece of software is something that fits right in with a lot of the strengths of most aspies. We are good at spotting even the most minor irregularity that could potentially be a fatal flaw in the software -- this is something I have experienced personally in my work, and that is when I know I have done a good job.

The downsides of hiring aspies: it requires a lot of patience on the employer’s behalf. But having been employed for over two years now, my experience tells me that it is worth the patience.

First thing is that aspies have a lower stress threshold, or we are worse at recognizing the warning signs of stress. This causes us to have a significantly higher number of sick days than most people, and usually this means the aspie gets fired. This is a big mistake for the employer. Let the aspie have a few days off to cool down again, then talk to him and find out what caused the meltdown. Chances are it has something to do with the work conditions not being optimal. In my experience, under optimal working conditions, an aspie will work harder, faster, and better than just about any "neurotypicals" or "NTs" out there, out of sheer loyalty and personal perfectionism.

Second thing is that potential clients tend to be rather skeptical when they hear that the employees are "disabled." It does not matter to them that the product they will be getting in return will generally be of a higher quality and usually will be finished quicker than if they got it somewhere else.

(However, our prices are on competitive market terms. This is not a charity company; our services are not cheap just because the employees are diagnosed with autism.)

But work can be scarce, and "quiet" periods can be extremely stressful for us, which leads back to the First thing.

At the company where I work, we have two main solutions for this situation. The first solution is a game room where the employees can go and play a game on a video game console (in our case a Nintendo Wii). The second solution is that the employer lets people go home early, no strings attached, no reduction in pay that day, just go home early, get some rest, and come back tomorrow. When this happens to me, I usually stay at the office until after lunch and then go home (because the lunch is pretty good at work compared to my miserably empty fridge at home).

I share an office with three other guys. I think it is important to be aware of who are put together in the same office. Obviously, if there is somebody in your office you have a bad problem with, that is not going to get very productive. On the other hand, if it is an aspie you get along with too well, you probably won’t get a lot of work done either. It is a delicate balance, but it can be done. The guy I get along with "too well" sits in the office next to mine. We talk during breaks, or if neither of us has anything better to do. The guys I share the office with and I talk more casually and maybe more often, but because we don't have as much in common, it is easier to focus on getting back to work.

The feeling I get when I go home from work, knowing that I have done a good job, made a difference, contributed to business life as a professional, and getting paid and recognized for my work, is incredible. I went from having no hope back in 2006, to recently starting to think about how to improve my career.

Having Asperger’s syndrome does not prevent us from getting jobs, in fact it can be an advantage and huge strength both to ourselves and to the employers. The future of aspie employment has never looked brighter than now, and I believe that this is still just the beginning.

A version of this essay was originally published at www.aspieteacher.com.